Animation – A Never Ending Story Pt 4 – The Death of Animation

The 80s was a time of rebellion. It was a time of great consumerism. It was a time of true Capitalism. It was all Reagan’s era. For the last 60 years Animation had gone through many changes, yet the market had always been dominated by certain companies. These companies, in many ways felt that they were indestructible. Disney and Warner Bros controlled the theatrical Animated market, while Hanna-Barbera had always been in control of the Animated television spectrum. However many of these studios were being lead by much older animators. Many of these people were vastly out of touch with what children would be interested in watching. Their era was that of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. As a result many top Animators of the Golden Age of Animation were no longer working as Animators. Those who stayed in the industry, were usually given executive positions in their respective studios. Disney’s Nine Angry Men are an example of this, as these men used to be Disney’s best Animators. By the the start of the 80s, they had either died or were given executive positions in Disney. The state that Animation was in was about to change drastically. A newer generation was coming which was about to destroy the old guard. However there would be no true victor, instead the 90s would have to come and create a whole new world of Animation, in order to repair the damage done in the 1980s. At the heart of this, Capitalism can be blamed, as Animation on TV had been deregulated by Ronald Reagan’s administration. Whereas Animation in film was not necessarily dominated by Disney. In fact Disney made various blunders during this time, which ultimately forced them to change how they approached theatrical Animation.

In 1980 Warner Bros decides to restart their Animation studio and create Warner Bros. Animation. The man who greatly helped with the creation of the Looney Tunes, Tex Avery, dies. In his heyday Tex created many famous characters such as Daffy Duck and Porky Pig as well as various others. His ideas helped make Warner Bros a force to be reckoned with in Theatrical Animation, and even surpass Disney’s style of Animated creations in terms of popularity. Pacific Data Images (PDI) is founded. They pioneer a somewhat easy computer Animation program, which ultimately will lead to the first CGI movies by Pixar. The last Peanuts feature film, which is part of the original Peanuts series, is released, Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (And Don’t Come Back!!). Thundarr the Barbarian by Ruby-Spear Productions premieres on ABC. Thundarr and his friends battle evil wizards in a post apocalyptic future. The Fly, by Pannonia Studios, wins the Academy Awards for Animated Short Film. It revolves around seeing the world through a fly’s eyes, and ends with its ironic death.

1981 brought a new era in America. Specifically in politics, as Ronald Reagan began his presidential term in January 1981. Reagan was notoriously pro big business, as he allowed the deregulation of many markets within America. Wall Street took advantage of the deregulated markets, lots of money was made and lost. In 1981 Ronald decides to appoint Mark S. Fowler the chairman of the FCC. He would serve from 1981 to 1987. Like Reagan he was a big believer in deregulation. He applied this to the Television based Animation industry, as he believed in a free market system. There were no more rules, the FCC no longer had a barrier between big business and children. It was typical for companies that targeted children, such as Mattel, to pay for advertisements during a cartoon show. The money from the advertisement would then go to the TV stations. If the show was popular, and the Animation was fairly cheap to produce, then the show might be renewed. The effects of Fowler’s actions would be felt soon. The Smurfs by Hanna-Barbera Productions is released. It is arguably the studios’ last great original cartoon, before going bankrupt. Marvel Productions releases their first project: Spider-Man, a cartoon based on the comics. The studio was birthed from the defunct DePatie-Freleng Enterprises. Disney releases their first film of the 80s The Fox and the Hound. People will count the 80s as a decline for Disney Animation, as their films during this era were very hit and miss. Some were either acclaimed or panned, some were financial successes while others did poorly. Warner Bros Animation’s first theatrical release is The Looney Looney Looney Bugs Bunny Movie, the feature is a compilation of classic Looney Tunes shorts. While there is very little new Animation in the film, it does show that the studio will have a future. Heavy Metal by Gerald Potterton is released, it was produced by Ivan Reitman and Leonard Moge. It was based on stories from the adult magazine of the same name. It was interesting because of the quality of the Animation, the very adult oriented stories, and use of some rotoscooping. While it did not make much money it has become a cult hit. Crac by Société Radio-Canada wins an emmy. The short focuses on the life of a rocking chair from the pre to post industrialized Canada.

The Last Unicorn by Rankin/Bass Productions is released in 1982 to critical acclaim. Its style is very unique, making it very discernible from the likes of Disney and its imitators. Don Bluth Productions emerges as a potential rival to Disney with their film The Secret of NIMH. Don Bluth originally worked for Disney, but felt that their stories lack depth and creativity. He left to try and prove that Disney’s take on Animation was flawed. This same year Disney’s Tron, a major live action movie, is the first movie to use computer Animation for extended periods. All the animated parts add up to about 15 minutes of CGI. One of the first cartoons to come out of the deregulated TV Animation market would be The Shirt Tales by Hannah Barbera and Hallmark cards, they were originally created by Hallmark as greeting cards. Under the new FCC system, this was ok. Before a show such as The Shirt Tales would have likely been shut down by Action for Children’s Television aka ACT. Likely through protesting at the studios which aired the show, or by sending a petition to the FCC. However Fowler was no longer listening to ACT, nor did he care that businesses would possibly be enticing children to buy their products through the use of cartoons basically designed as commercials. The Shirt Tales are a perfect example of businesses targeting children, as the product was already in existence and so Hallmark figured they could make more money by spinning their product off as a Saturday morning cartoon. The plot was very convoluted, basically a bunch of park animals would fight crime in the city as well as using their vehicle the STSST to explore the world. This upped the importance of the Saturday morning cartoon. Beforehand many toy, doll, and other children’s companies would pay for advertising during the Saturday morning cartoon block. Every major network had a Saturday morning cartoon lineup, such as ABC, CBS, and NBC. Pac-Man The Animated Series soon premiered the next week. Another partnership between an Animation studio and a company whose principle market was children. This duo being Namco and Hannah Barbera. Partnerships like this would be very common throughout the 80s. Pendleton Ward and J.G. Quintel are born this year. Tango by Film Polski nabs the emmy this year. More of an art film, an empty room is slowly filled by people who are repeat their own unique movements until everyone slowly leaves.

1983 finally introduces cartoons to syndication. Syndication basically allows one particular show, that is owned by whatever studio, to be aired on multiple networks. This is a pretty lucrative business. Through before the 80s, cartoons had not been seen as a viable market, mostly due to ACT’s actions in limiting the number of advertisements that could be used to target children. For example, in the past Hannah Barbera might create Scooby-Doo and try to sell it to the three major networks. However only one network would have wanted to air said cartoon. This is where He-Man and the Masters of the Universe comes into play. Mattel created He-Man in 1981 as an action figure. Later Mattel partnered with Filmation, who were able to come up with a somewhat understandable plot for the He-Man series. Basically the series chronicles Prince Adam as he protects his home of Eternia from the forces of darkness. Episodes were shown on different networks/stations and were shown on the weekdays. Creating a potential market for weekday cartoons, instead of the usually Saturday morning cartoon formula. This same year G.I. Joe a Real American Hero is released by Hasbro, while Toei Animation produced the episodes. This series is again based on a toyline, though from the 1960s, however is was very controversial. Caused due to the characters being rendered as anatomically correct humans, they carried real guns, death and violence was seemingly in every episode. Both He-Man and GI Joe cartoons proved to be big financial successes in terms of toy sales. So much so that other, less conventional toys spawned their own cartoons. Namely the Rubik’s Cube. Rubik, The Amazing Cube is released in September of this year. Every episode deals with a magic Rubik’s Cube named Rubik who is sentient and has powers when his blocks are lined up properly, but his blocks always get jumbled so his two kid friends always unjumble his cubes and awaken Rubik to save the day. Needless to say this was an example of a company trying to capitalize on their product by exploiting Animation, reducing its creative elements to that of a mere extended commercial. Of course this show was not successful and was soon canned. However various companies would continue to try and capitalize on their products through the use of TV Animation. Ralph Bakshi’s Fire and Ice is released, it is a commercial failure and marks Ralph Bakshi’s end as a commercial Theatrical Animator. The film follows Larn, a man from a lowly village, as he escorts a princess back to her kingdom and saves the world from an evil Queen. Sundae in New York by Motionpicker Productions wins an Academy Award. The claymation short is in essence a celebration of New York through the singing of New York, New York by Frank Sinatra.

The Adventures of André and Wally B. by The Graphics Group is released in 1984. John Lasseter Animated the film. This technically marks Pixar’s first movie. Even though it was only 2 minutes long, it was highly acclaimed as the short was very creative at the time. Everyone who worked on the project had some Art or Animation background, before this the only people who had access to CGI animation software were typically scientists who made very uninspired CGI sequences. At this time The Graphics Group was part of Lucasfilm. Bob Clampett dies. He worked on many Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes projects. As well as directing other films for other studios, such as Private Snafu and Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs. Hasbro decides to launch another toyline along with a tie in animated series. Transformers was birthed, though its creation was a bit complex. Its toyline was based off of a Japanese toyline by Takara. Toei Animated the original mini series, as well as most of the original series. AKOM Animated some episodes for seasons 1-3 and all of season 4. What makes this series so interesting is that most of Transformers’ creation is of Japanese origin. Furthermore it was mostly Animated in Japan, then later in Korea making it a wholly foreign cartoon, regardless Transformers still managed to be a massive hit. The series follows the war between the Autobots and Decepticons, a classic tale of good vs evil. Except they all happen to be robots who can turn into cars. As with many shows that become financially successful, some companies would rip off their ideas. Challenge of the GoBots is a cartoon, which many feel copied much of the formula that made Transformers successful. The series was based on a toyline by Tonka, while Hanna Barbera developed the series. Like Transformers two factions of robots, the good Guardians, and the evil Renegades battle on Earth in a millenniums old conflict. During this time Disney was in danger of losing its entire Animation archive and studio. A corporate raider named Saul Steinberg had envisioned this crazy idea. In the name of capitalism and greed Saul figured he could buy enough Disney stock to have a majority stake in the company. He then wanted to sell off the Animation arm of Disney, as he felt he could make tons of profit from selling the archive off in pieces instead as a whole division. Fortunately Disney’s CEO and COB, Ron Miller and Ray Watson, were able to stop him. Though Saul did not give up easily. He eventually massed together enough cash to fulfill his plan. Seeing no way out, Disney decided to cave and payoff Saul, giving him $325 million. He actually made a nice profit, and the shareholders were pissed. This disaster led to Roy E Disney’s return to Disney, while he was still on the board he had resigned earlier this year. He sought to protect Disney, so he kicked out the CEO and COB. He then installed Michael Eisner and Frank Wells as CEO and COO/President. Roy was then given his chair back and made the vice chairman of the Disney board of directors, as well as head of the Animation department. The Canadian film Charade by Michael Mills Productions wins the emmy for this year. The plot revolves around two different men playing charade, with one being better than the other.

1985 sees Disney trying to go in a different direction in terms of their animated feature films, to this end they release The Black Cauldron. A dark movie, with depth, and an enticing plot. However the film was a flop. On the other side of the Animation spectrum, the first toy based Animated feature film is released by Filmation, He-Man and She-Ra: The Secret of the Sword. The movie acts as a staging point to introduce She-Ra. Later the She-Ra: Princess of Power show begins airing on different channels. This takes production promotion to another level, as other feature films based on kids toys are released. Such as The Care Bear Movie and Rainbow Brite and the Star Stealer. Both shows already had TV shows, though this disturbing trend of toy based cartoon franchises continued to grow as money was still being made. By this point there were many shows like this, such as Jem and M.A.S.K. whose main goals were selling toys instead of trying to introduce original and creative cartoons. The idea for franchising a cartoon typically started with the release of a toy, then maybe a comic, and then finally the cartoon itself. With movies being the high points of the series, followed by its end. However this was going to lead to a disastrous end to the American Animation industry of this era. The ThunderCats is released by Rankin/Bass Productions. Unlike other shows of this time, there was no preexisting toyline that inspired the series. Instead the series was created by Ted Wolf, interestingly the show was Animated by Japanese studio Pacific Animation Corporation. The show involves the heroic ThunderCats battling the evil Mumm-Ra. Disney throws their hat back into the TV Animation ring with Disney’s Adventures of the Gummi Bears and The Wuzzles. This is Disney’s dawning of their TV based Animation division. A game changing “cartoon” is released by Harmony Gold USA, titled Robotech. In actuality the series was an Anime, made up of three different Anime, known as the Macross series in Japan. Tatsunoko Production Co helped with adapting the three series into one cohesive plot. Though they were the original creators of all three Anime. Needless to say the show was a hit in America. It brought high quality Animation and singular plots. Whereas most American Animated series up to this point did not have strong plots to follow, and characters lacked strong development. This also was a small stepping stone for Anime to come to America. Anna & Bella by Børge Ring wins the 1985 emmy. The story follows two sisters in their afterlife reminiscing about their pasts.

Steven Spielberg throws his hat into the Animation ring with An American Tail. Although it was directed by Don Bluth and Animated by Amblin Entertainment, Spielberg helped with production. The movie had an effect on both Spielberg and Disney. Earlier Disney had released their own feature The Great Mouse Detective. However An American Tail grossed more revenue, leaving some critics to believe that Disney Animation was becoming irrelevant. Spielberg took the success of An American Tail as a sign that Animation could be a viable medium to make money and tell intriguing stories though. He would later involve himself in more Animation productions as a result. Pixar Animation Studios is finally formed. This same year they release their first official short, Luxor Jr. which centered on two desktop lamps playing with a ball. By this point another formula becomes commonplace for cartoons, the 65 episode minimum for syndication. The idea was to have enough episodes to air for the weekday. Being that a weekday is made up of five days, a series could run for thirteen weeks. Which is about a quarter of a year, this was done purely for ad revenue purposes. As stations wanted their slots filled with cartoons, to attract both children and potential advertisers. This was brought about as many of the most successful cartoon franchises were made up of at least 65 episodes. Although shows that did not meet the 65 episode requirement were still picked up and usually sent to the Saturday morning blocs. Even if a series did make 65 episodes, most cartoons were never commissioned for more seasons or episodes. This all had to do with production costs, as most companies that commissioned a cartoon series were looking to make quick profits. A longer running series would only drive up production costs and potentially hinder profits. Filmation and Columbia release their own Ghostbuster series’. Filmation had created a Ghost Busters tv show back in the 70s. Though Columbia had released a Ghostbusters movie in the early 80s, and while the concepts were similar, both were related in no way. So when Columbia decided to created a cartoon show based on their movie, Filmation actually offered to produce the show. However Columbia was still mad at Filmation, due to a settlement Columbia had to make with Filmation over the Ghostbusters name. As a result Filmation released Filmation’s Ghostbusters, whereas Columbia was forced to name their cartoon The Real Ghostbusters. Both shows had very similar plots. Hanna Barbera releases their last Scooby-Doo series that follows the original series’ style and exists within the Scooby-Doo continuity. Titled The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo, it focuses  on the gang having to recapture some ghosts they freed by accident. It ends an era, as Scooby-Doo had been running in one series after another since 1969. It had arguably been Hanna Barbera’s last great show with long lasting appeal. Rambo: The Force of Freedom by Ruby-Spears Enterprises is released. Unlike some cartoons, that were based on movies or other live action TV programs, this series was the first to be based on an R-rated film trilogy. It was actually marketed for kids, despite the fact that Rambo had suffered from PTSD from his time in the Vietnam war. Although strange as it may be, Rambo: The Force of Freedom actually managed to make the 65 episode cut. The cartoon even got its own toyline, which of course was again marketed to kids. Dragon Ball, an Anime based on a manga by Weekly Shōnen Jump and Animated by Toei Studios, begins airing in Japan. While it would be years before the series would come to America, the series ultimately would act as a gateway for future Anime to come to America. A Greek Tragedy by CinéTé  takes home the Academy Award. Three Greek sisters try to save an ancient Greek temple.

1987 is a very important year in American Animation, as it marks the end of Fowler’s reign as the FCC commissioner. This would have deep ramifications, which ultimately contributed to the death of American Animation in the 80s. Though the FCC would begin to start regulating children’s programming the following year, this year the typical system of TV Animation is followed. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is released by Murakami-Wolf-Swenson. Though IDDH, a french company, also helped with production. The series, was actually based on a dark toned comic, and usually followed the very goofy adventures of the turtles. The toyline came after the series had its first few episodes, as Playmate Toys were unsure if the cartoon would be a success with children. Beyond the successes of the TMNT and Disney’s DuckTales, it was obvious that the TV arm of the Animation industry was burning out. As many shows were very bland, or were constrained creatively by the toy companies that Animation studios had relied on for much of their business. If a show like The Adventures of Teddy Ruxpin can’t convince you how random and unstimulating cartoons had become by this point, you may be in denial that American Animation has had its low points. The plot followed a teddybear-looking bear, as he followed a map in search of treasure, along the way he battles an evil organization. Thats pretty stale writing. Furthermore it did indeed make the 65 episode minimum for weekday syndication. However not all was lost. The Simpsons shorts by Matt Groening begin airing on The Tracey Ullman Show. While the shorts were only a few minutes long, they began to increase in popularity. So much so, that it would eventually surpass The Tracey Ullman Show in notoriety and financial success. In Japan Anime production skyrockets, with many Anime series and feature films being released. Animation as a medium had become a highly respected art in Japan. It would only be a few more years before any major Anime franchise made it to the states. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation take home the Emmy for their short The Man Who Planted Trees, the short is based on the story of the same name.

1988 basically ends Wall Street’s era of Animation. The number of new cartoon shows commissioned drops drastically. This in turns creates instability within the Animation industry, following Fowler’s time as the FCC Commissioner, cartoon shows were being commissioned left and right. Year after year, in an almost unseen number. Turning studios into Hanna-Barbera like companies, such as Rankin/Bass, Filmation Studios, and even Marvel Productions. However with the FCC starting to regulate children’s programming again, many toy companies and Wall Street investors began to lose interest in TV Animation. As it would be harder to make money now. So while many studios had been making a profit, though Hanna Barbera still had a greater lead, the lack of a need for new cartoons would begin to drain the Animation TV based market. Furthermore Hanna Barbera was nearing its deathbed, as many of their newer shows were considered failures. Such as a Pup Named Scooby-Doo, which was basically Scooby-Doo dumbed down for kids. They had of course done this periodically throughout the 80s, old shows were rehashed. Removing elements of the original shows and replacing them with elements that were “popular” with successful cartoons in the 80s. However this was true for many Animation studios, they all went with the flow, few would survive in the 90s. Many studios were either bought out or merged into other larger studios. Garfield and Friends is released by Roman Films. The cartoon series is based on the comic strip by Jim Davis. Oliver and Company is released by Disney Animation, marking the studios’ first real financial success of the 80s. This prompted great confidence and a shift within Disney Animation, as Disney sought to  release animated features yearly. Although The Land Before Time released that same day by Sullivan Bluth Studios, and beat out Disney at the box office. The movie was great collaboration with Don Bluth, Steven Spielberg, and George Lucas. Who Framed Roger Rabbit is released by Touchstone Pictures to critical acclaim. The film imagines a world that is inhabited by both people and cartoon characters. It made lots of money and proved that live action/Animated combo films could be good. Pixar wins an Academy Award for their Short Tin Toy. Their first big achievement in Hollywood. Tinny, a tin toy, interacts with a baby which brings hilarious results. Their achievements with CGI would eventually led to their partnership Disney.

1989 is truly the end of the 1980s era of Animation for many reasons. Not for the fact that it was last year of the 80s, but things were brewing politically. Ronald Reagan was gone, and instead we now had George H,W. Bush as president. People had become very angry over Wall Streets actions with buying out stations and peddling what many felt was an inferior quality of TV. Compared of course to the 50s-70s era of TV, as quality programming and servicing the public conscious were primary goals. TV in the 80s had degraded, its primary goal was to create shows that could be popular, which in turn could be used to gain lucrative ad revenue. So it boiled down to what are the most popular shows, and how can we make them cheaply? Just because a show is popular, doesn’t mean its well written or made. However more to the point, this of course affected parent’s opinions on cartoons. Parents grew to feel that cartoons had basically exploited kids, all in the name of selling toys, comics, and other dumb pieces of merchandise. Even if you were ok with this fact, which indeed led to increased sales of merchandise by toy and comic companies, there was also the fact that these shows had no redeeming qualities. Most shows had no continuity or real plot, so every episode was an isolated incident. There was also the fact that sometimes these shows were inappropriate for kids. Such as GI Joe, Robotech, Rambo: The Force of Freedom, Jem, etc. As many of these “kids” shows had lots violence, concepts on love that were too mature for children to grasp, as well as other element usually thought to be too mature for children to understand. This also led to a brewing political debate. With Fowler gone, ACT was back in full force. TV had usually been a self regulating industry, though there was still debate that TV needed to have set guidelines. Before the 80s, TV had regulated itself enough, that there was no basis for regulations. Parents might voice concerns to stations or the FCC, and these concerns were then addressed. As the FCC did not fulfill their duties in the 1980s, there was finally a reason to create more concrete standards for TV programming. ACT was campaigning more in order to regulate children’s programming, holding rallies, as well as talking to both State and Federal government officials. The hammer was coming down on unregulated TV Animation programs. This also marks Disney finding itself again creatively and commercially with their release of The Little Mermaid. A movie in which Ariel, a mermaid, falls in love with a human. Their movie was again, up against a Don Bluth production, All Dogs go to Heaven. His film focused on a tale of life, death, revenge, and friendship between two dogs. However unlike the last two times, Disney crushed Don Bluth’s movie at the box office. This victory helped usher in Disney’s second golden age. A vision in which Roy Disney sought to make Disney Animation the top Cinematic Animation studio, as well as creating an impressive TV Animation lineup. Balance by Wolfgang and Christoph Lauenstein, takes home the Emmy. The German film is about a group of men who live on a small floating platform and must all move together in order to balance the platform and keep themselves from falling. Production on The Ren & Stimpy Show pilot begins, it would later be sold to Nickelodeon in 1990. The voice behind Porky Pig and 1000s of other voices, Mel Blanc finally dies, with his passing the Golden Age of Animation is essentially gone. Osamu Tezuka dies. Many saw him as the Godfather of Anime, and an equal to Walt Disney. He is widely considered to have laid down the foundations for the Anime style of Animation. The Simpsons is finally given its own primetime show, and as such it is finally divorced from the Tracey Ullman Show. The show follows the Simpsons family and their ridiculous adventures in Springfield. Their first episode, Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire, aired on December 17, closing out this terrible decade of Animation with a bang. Thus the Modern Age or perhaps Second Golden Age of American Animation begins.

What characterized this era of American Animation was the fact that Wall Street had a vested interest in Animation. There was also the advent of CGI technology greatly advancing, and the passing of many great Animators. Leaving room for a newer generation of Animators. Disney Animation was seemingly falling apart, while other Animation studios were flourishing. The absence of Disney’s Nine Angry Men greatly affected the direction Disney was going. Deregulation of TV based Animation led to a degradation of quality. Many Animation studios became dependent on toy based partnerships. So while they succeed in the Animation market, they were left in bad financial shape once they were bought out by bigger companies who sought to decrease production costs. Likewise once TV Animation began to be regulated again, many of the toy based partnerships were no longer viable. This all led to many studios going bankrupt, defunct, or merged into larger studios. Even Hanna Barbera was in ruin, due to their parent company Taft, going belly up. By the end of the decade every major movie studio such as MGM and Universal were already bought out by big conglomerate companies. This would go on to affect how the movie industry does business. This also meant that every Golden Age Animated short was now owned by a select few companies. Through all of this only Disney, Warner Bros, Pixar, and Nickelodeon were in good financial shape. Disney Animation was already under better management. While the other studios had not gambled on partnerships or get rich quick schemes. This also poised Turner broadcasting to create Cartoon Network in the 1990s. All this corporatization of Animation nearly killed the spirit of Animation. In particular the creative nature, as well as the ability to create Animation that was geared towards adults. Heavyweights Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon would soon build their empires. The 90s would see a rebirth of Animation, creativity would flow back, and some of the greatest series’ would be Animated to life by Ainmators frame by frame.

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