Amid Amidi speaks to TV Squad
Adam: First, some background. How did you become interested in animation and design?
Amid: I've liked animation as long as I can remember, but what initially drew me to more stylized cartoons was simply the look of the films. Cartoons from that period look so damn cool. It's that visceral appeal of really bold design elements that I think distinguishes Fifties cartoons from cartoons of any other period. I remember in high school playing a videotape of Tex Avery's SYMPHONY IN SLANG over and over and just looking at it and trying to copy all the great designs in it.
And then, publishing my magazine ANIMATION BLAST has given me the opportunity to meet a number of the artists from that period, like Gene Hazelton, Vic Haboush, Ward Kimball and Ed Benedict. Meeting these guys really crystallized my appreciation for the design of that period and helped give me a much better sense of what they had accomplished. It also made me realize that they deserve a lot more credit than they've received.
Adam: What is it about the 50s that draws you to that era?
Amid: One of the most exciting things about 1950s animation design is the diversity and richness of ideas. Animation artists were exploring all sorts of new avenues during that time and their work really signaled the breakaway from the rigid and formulaic design sensibilities that had dominated Hollywood animation up until that time. Today we think nothing of it when cartoons look as different as THE SIMPSONS, KING OF THE HILL, SOUTH PARK and TEEN TITANS, but it's important to acknowledge that this freedom in graphic styling has its roots in the pioneering work of Fifties animation designers.
I think a lot of people don't even realize how much diversity there was in 1950s design. You hear people today say, "Oh, that's a Fifties-style cartoon," as if there is one generic look that defines all 1950s animation and nothing could be further from the truth. For example, just to isolate one element of animation design, look at the 1950s background painters like Walt Peregoy, Eyvind Earle, Jules Engel, Maurice Noble, Paul Julian and Bob McIntosh: each of them had a highly personal approach to background design and a unique painting style. Where all these artists are similar is that they didn't paint things literally, and instead wanted to find and explore the abstract and stylized solutions.
Adam: How long did it take to put this book together? With Disney and Warner Brothers alone you had numerous designers and artists to choose from, and that's just scratching the surface. Did you have a way of approaching this so it wasn't too overwhelming?
Amid: I've been working on and off for the past three years on this book, but pretty much full time for the past year. The difficulty of writing this book wasn't choosing which designers to write about so much as actually identifying who those designers were. Animation in general is a very poorly documented art form, but design is even more poorly documented than other aspects of the field. It's impossible to Google any info about designers like Abe Liss and Cliff Roberts and Sterling Sturtevant and Lew Keller. So the biggest challenge was first identifying who the important designers of the 1950s were.
Adam: You wrote on Cartoon Brew: "It's exasperating that in 2005, after one hundred years of animated films, mainstream critics still can't wrap it around their thick skulls that just because something is animated doesn't automatically mean it's a product intended for children." Is it possible that part of the reason for this mindset is that when cartoons moved from movie theaters to television screens they became, by association with television alone, something just for kids?
Amid: You're right, the stigma that animation is a kids medium began in earnest during the 1960s with the emergence of Saturday morning TV cartoons and the ensuing era of kidvid programming. When critics and audiences instantly assume that cartoons are kids-only, they can hardly be blamed. That's the by-product of years and years of atrocious children's cartoons produced by so many awful TV animation studios. For almost as long as there's been TV animation, TV studios have churned out some of the vilest, most worthless junk you can imagine, and the industry today is still fighting to overcome the legacy of studios like Filmation, Hanna-Barbera and DiC. While there's no doubt a lot of bad animation still being produced today, enough of it is thoughtful and well-executed enough that the kids-only perception is fading away, slowly but surely.
When I look at the cartoons in my book, nearly all of them are either aimed at adults or at a general audience.
There's hardly a kids-only cartoon of the type that we saw in the 60s-80s. A lot of the TV commercials in the book are
products like cigarettes, beer, banks, etc. and the industrial films are all about adult subject matters like finances and health. I guess I was aware of this, but it really hit home when I was writing the book.
Adam: What did designers of that era such as Maurice Noble (who you mention quite often), Tom Oreb, and others do that makes that era stand out so much?
Amid: One thing that impresses me greatly about that period's designers and directors is how successfully they integrated form and content. You look at the best animated films of the 1950s, like GERALD MCBOING BOING (1951), TOOT WHISTLE PLUNK & BOOM (1953), FLEBUS (1957), TENDER GAME (1958), 101 DALMATIANS (released in 1961, but produced during the 1950s), or even a lot of TV commercials from that decade, and the design fits the rest of the film like a glove. What I mean is that the films don't just look stylized, but the storytelling is appropriate to the look of the film, and the animation moves in a way that takes advantage of the designs. In other words, they were thinking of design as part of the whole.
That's what is missing in a lot of today's design, the sense that the design is fluidly integrated with the other elements of the cartoon. Like DreamWorks' MADAGASCAR...why did that film have to look that way? It really didn't. They imposed a very stylized look onto the film as a gimmick rather than an organic extension where design comes out of the needs of the story. Or SAMURAI JACK...it looks INCREDIBLY beautiful in still form, but it's animated in a conventional TV fashion that rarely takes advantage of the great designs. There's so much stylized design in today's animation, but a lot of it falls flat because the design doesn't gel with the other elements of the cartoon.
Adam: What was it like working with John Kricfalusi (Ren and Stimpy), who at least seems to share your anger towards cartoons being seen as merely "kid stuff?"
In my opinion, what drives the Spumco ethic is not so much anger as it is passion. The best thing about the studio is that everybody who works there is passionate about animation, and wants to learn the mechanics of how great cartoons are made. I talk to artists who worked on the original REN AND STIMPY in the early-90s, and they say it was the same atmosphere when they were there too. I think that comes from John himself. He believes that animation and cartooning are things that you take seriously. Yeah, the finished cartoons may be goofy and crude, but the actual process of animation and cartooning is serious business. I doubt I would have done CARTOON MODERN if I hadn't had the experience of Spumco so I owe a lot to having worked there. Of course, John cringes at a lot of the cartoons that are in my book, like ROOTY TOOT TOOT and UNICORN IN THE GARDEN, but ironically, he played a role in enhancing my appreciation for these films.