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Diversity fuels the animation evolution

It was 10 years ago that Nickelodeon introduced Nicktoons, the first original cartoon block for cable. I remember asking then-development manager Linda Simensky (now VP of original animation at Cartoon Network) if kids could really tell the difference between the upcoming...
May 1, 2001

It was 10 years ago that Nickelodeon introduced Nicktoons, the first original cartoon block for cable. I remember asking then-development manager Linda Simensky (now VP of original animation at Cartoon Network) if kids could really tell the difference between the upcoming Nick originals and the channel’s established off-net reruns of Inspector Gadget and Heathcliff. The answer came loud and clear in the form of humongous ratings for Rugrats, Doug and The Ren & Stimpy Show. But the original Nicktoons were something more than a trio of new shows. Geraldine Laybourne (once president of Nickelodeon/Nick at Nite and instrumental in the launch of Nick in 1980; now chairman and CEO of Oxygen Media) knew there was more to animation than the factory-produced Saturday morning clones that ruled the day. Animation is an art form that can delight and entertain. At its best, it has the power to excite an audience and touch its heart.

The first three Nick originals not only ushered in an era of new markets for animation (domestic and international cable outlets and the Internet), but established a ‘creator-driven’ look and feel to contemporary kids cartoons (see ‘New artist-driven CGI refreshes kids programming,’ on page 81). The variety of styles in modern animation make series created less than 20 years ago (like He-Man, Pound Puppies and even Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) seem very cold, primitive and way out of touch.

This month, the annual International Animated Film Festival in Annecy and its accompanying MIFA film market celebrate this diversity of content and art form. International kids programmers can find a world of new animated series there that reflect today’s tastes and international styles.

Diversity is more than a buzzword in animation these days. What used to be American and boy-driven is now multicultural and equal. Programming aimed at girls (Disney’s Pepper Ann, As Told By Ginger), boys (What’s With Andy?, The Lost Continent) and both sexes (The Powerpuff Girls, Teacher’s Pet) are available in even numbers. Localization becomes globalization with crossover hits like Dora The Explorer, Noddy and the continuing success of anime.

Lately animation producers are finding real success with such diverse subjects as orthodontics and handicapped heroes (Nelvana’s Braceface and Pelswick).

Another big change has been in how animation series are produced. International co-production has flourished, syndication has shrunk, U.S. broadcasters produce their own product, and Euro cable nets have exploded.

At about the same time Nicktoons launched, animated features reached a new level of maturation with Disney’s Beauty And The Beast (1991). The feature-length cartoon movie was reborn, and the past decade has produced such classics as Toy Story (1 & 2), The Lion King, Chicken Run and one of my favorites, The Iron Giant. More animated features were produced during the last 10 years than in the previous 20.

As animation evolves, as the markets expand and the opportunities increase, producers must continue to grow the art form. CGI, clay, model and cel animation must keep surprising its audience. Animation is the most exciting genre of film, because it can go anywhere our imaginations takes us.

It’s been an amazing 10-year ride. The original Nicktoon trilogy said it all. It proved that kids want new looks, diverse ideas and endearing characters. If you are a producer, programmer or network exec, ask yourself if your new series has these qualities. Does your show play it safe and feel like something else already popular, or is it new, refreshing and original?

The next 10 years start today-and the future of animation is up to you.

Jerry Beck,

West Coast Bureau Chief

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