Here’s a bad day for an animation producer: You walk into a network, pitch your project, and the broadcaster says, ‘It’s good, but it’s not a cartoon.’ Immediately you ask, ‘What do you mean?’ The broadcaster says, ‘I can’t see any reason why this is a cartoon. Why is this a cartoon?’ You pause and then respond, ‘Because I only make cartoons.’ And the broadcaster says, ‘Be that as it may…this isn’t a cartoon.’ Finally, you allow yourself a moment of reflection…of quiet time…and you think, ‘Shit.’
As a producer, you should really know whether or not your show is a cartoon sometime before the pitch stage. But the embarrassing truth is that it isn’t as easy to figure out as one would think. Somewhere between Walt Disney’s Three Little Pigs and George Miller’s Babe, identifying the animation imperative–the quality that makes a cartoon a cartoon–has become much more complicated.
The line between cartoons and live action has blurred considerably over time. From Doug to Hey, Arnold! to As Told by Ginger, animated series have become more anchored in real-life experience and real-world situations. Meanwhile, live-action series like Malcolm in the Middle and Ally McBeal rely on takes and visuals that come right out of a cartoon storyboard.
Many artists take a hard line. There are still places in Glendale, California where, if a program was scripted before it was storyboarded, it’s not considered a cartoon. These artists say all kinds of derogatory things about ‘animated sitcoms’ and ‘radio with pictures.’ But their attitude cuts out some amazing animated projects, from The Simpsons to King of the Hill.
There are also good arguments for using the energy and anarchy of cartoons in live-action production. Think about Roberto Benigni climbing over the theater seats at the Oscars a couple of years ago. That was right up there with What’s Opera, Doc? as a great moment of inappropriate behavior in a classy place.
From a business perspective, there is a huge honking reason for redirecting an animated project to live action. Simply put, there are too many damned cartoons in the world. As the Canadian, Asian and European animation industries have matured, there are more shows being produced than broadcasters can possibly program.
So…when does a cartoon have to be a cartoon? At Sunbow, we dealt with this question when we optioned our project Skeleton Key, now in development at Nick. Skeleton Key is a fantasy adventure about a teenage girl who finds a key that unlocks doors between her real world and a fantasy world.
At the time we started working on Skeleton Key, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was hot; Sabrina was hot; The X Files was, you know, The X Files; and frankly, some amazing animated adventure series–like Invasion U.S.A. and even Spawn–were not setting the world on fire. For both commercial and creative reasons, we had to ask ourselves whether Skeleton Key would have a better chance of being produced if we pitched it as live action.
From a business perspective, it was a fair question. But creatively, live action was never an alternative. Artist Andi Watson originally created Skeleton Key as a series of comic books for Slave Labor Graphics. Sunbow optioned the books because we love Andi’s art. His characters are great, and his stories are really well-written, but his visuals are ultimately why we wanted to make this show. And I think in any discussion of the ‘animation imperative,’ that’s the whole deal. Any good executive could make a fine argument for producing The Simpsons or Hey, Arnold! as live-action ensemble comedies, but then you’d lose the vision of the Matt Groenings and Craig Bartletts of the world.
To a certain extent, the animation snobs are right. You can’t just dress up any concept with pictures and call it animation. But if you start with the pictures–if the pictures are the point–then you’re on solid ground for making your cartoon.
Ken Olshansky is senior VP of creative affairs at Sunbow Entertainment, a New York-based production company under the TV-Loonland umbrella that has churned out kid hits such as The Cramp Twins and Donner in its 20-year history.