What do you do when you’re stuck in a rut? Is doing the same, old same-old really good enough? The answer can be found in entertainment, at least if you’re willing to go along with the flow and accept something very different. In a world that seems like it’s full of very similar knock-off movies and teevee shows based on proven formulas, there is one place where creative people found themselves uninterested in just doing the same things over and over, and that’s in animation. There may be a lesson there for everyone who finds that what they’ve been doing for a long time may not be good enough anymore.
When I was a kid, cartoons were more or less terrible. We had our Saturday diet of Warner Brothers cartoons, but they were 20-40 years old by then. The quality of cartoons being produced in the 1970s was extremely low, and we knew it. The best we had going for us was “Speed Racer”, which had a different feel to it but absolutely terrible production quality. The industry was simply dying.
Just when animation seemed dead, a lot of forces started to converge on it. The most important came from Japanese anime, where the art of storytelling in cartoon form lived on with great style. The stories were not particularly accessible to American audiences, being full of spirits and sword-wielding heroes in the samurai tradition – but they were captivating. The gradual import these to a small but eager audience was the first sign that cartoons might be more than we had come to expect. Eventually, the delightful works of Miyazaki made their way over and a larger audience was hooked. Cartoons were hitting the big time.
The other infusion of hope came from no less than Disney, who brought Broadway tunes and a loving hand to “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Little Mermaid”. These were made for a mass audience from the start, and they proved their worth immediately. They were still seen as kid stuff by most people, but the love that was put into the stories was obvious.
Last, there was the development of CGI or computer-made graphics. “Toy Story” was the first major picture to use this, baring making the grade of “major” by clocking in at a laboriously crafted 70 minutes. But it was captivating, and it was a hit. It was such a big hit that John Lasseter of Pixar was able to cash in big when Disney bought him out – and he used part of his gain to bring even more of his beloved Miyazaki movies to the US. Once we had “My Neighbor Totoro”, there was no turning back.
That’s not to say that each of these genres hasn’t found its own rut in its own time. Many of the anime shows that make it to Cartoon Network are still full of the Technicolor Shinto and Samurai of the traditional anime world in ways that seem a bit derivative. But somewhere along the line, wonderful things started to happen.
I had the great pleasure of showing my kids the delightful “Cowboy BeBop” this weekend. This is an anime that crosses all lines in ways that are as captivating as life itself. It’s a sci-fi epic set around 2070, where humans have colonized the whole solar system and created a lawless western society. At its heart it’s a noir epic, a world that Bogart would recognize easily, but in the end it’s actually a romance that turns on an existential examination of the meaning of life itself. My third trip through it still blows my mind.
The influence of BeBop can be seen in Nickelodeon’s “Avatar: The Last Airbender”. It also crosses genre lines without a care as easily as it crosses cultural boundaries. The fact that a generation of kids is being raised on this stuff, rather than old Bugs Bunny retreads, gives me great hope. They aren’t going to take the same old answers to anything if it really sinks in.
Why is this important? It’s an illustration of the great power of simple connections stirring innovation. When things are starting to become stale, innovation can come from an amazing variety of places that you don’t expect it to as people start to make connections that refresh their world. Traditions from other nations, new technologies, and a recommitment to the fundamentals were all part of the development of what we know as animation today. The result is a new product, unimaginable just a few decades ago, that has a large and engaged audience. Animations have become a staple of most movie studios, with several marking each summer’s big hits.
It’s not as though one person sat down and said, “I’m going to completely re-innovate animation.” The process was a bit slow at times, and influences came from very different sources. In a way, most of the pieces were lying around waiting for someone to start putting them together in new ways. What matters is that they were put together, starting whole new industries in an area that 30 years ago seemed absolutely dead.
I think that animation is a great lesson in what happens when the same, old same-old becomes tired and inadequate. Innovation is often as simple as looking around at what you have and daring to do something different with it. It’s all about making connections between things that seem strange and inaccessible, or even totally unrelated. That seems to be a good roadmap for how a lot of industries and professions might re-invigorate themselves in a changing world.