Monday, March 31, 2008

Print vs Web / Foot vs Mouth

I've posted this at my site but it isn't getting a lot of traffic and I want to make sure it gets a little exposure.

There has been a very interesting dialogue going on at Alan Gardner’s site, Daily Cartoonist, that has webcartoonists and syndicated cartoonists debating webcomics. It has been fairly civil, informative and, for me, inspiring.

At some point Scott Kurtz of PVP fame entered the conversation with an offer to host a teleconference via Talkshoe so that the differences of the two sides could be aired out and hopefully a new understanding could emerge. I participated in the call which, with everyone’s permission, was recorded and became a podcast (check it out at Webcomics Weekly).

Talkshoe’s teleconference was an interesting experience. Imagine being on a cell phone party line: everyone trying to talk at once, noticing that someone else was talking, stopping, hearing the pause, then in unison trying to start again. That, combined with the sounds of Manhattan courtesy of Ted Rall’s cell phone, created quite a setting for the call. But despite that, what I feel took place was a very honest discussion.

I did, however, do what I seem to do best when I’m talking about things that I probably have no business talking about. I open my mouth wide and swallow up to my knee. I have a habit of thinking out loud sometimes and it is usually not the smartest sounding thing.

This is how it played: toward the end of the call, when most of the participants had dropped out, Scott asked me what I thought. My response was, “There seems to be a bit of a fear of this. Like it’s something they just don’t understand. Obviously we hear that in the things they say and the things they post. But I think they are very afraid the webcomics will overtake them in some way.”

As soon as that last sentence popped out of my mouth, I new that wasn’t right. It wasn’t what I had been thinking up until that point, but for some reason it just popped out. So, for the record, let me elaborate on what I really do think about this relationship between webcartoonists and syndicated print cartoonists.

From all that I have heard and read from the syndicated artists, they aren’t afraid of the webcomics movement; they just don’t take it seriously. To many of them, webcomics are just not comics. Not real comics, anyway; they are nothing more than a novelty. Now, I know the vast numbers of webcomics are amateur works having more in common with fan art than pro art. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But there are some very serious webcartoonists whose work is either better than many of the print comics, just as good, or quickly catching up to them. Those are the ones I’m talking about.

The syndicated cartooning business has always been one of the pinnacles of the cartooning world. It is also one of the hardest to break into and, as a result, the nation’s syndicated cartoonists are a very close-knit group. If they have any fear of webcomics, I would say it’s the fear of opening the door of acceptance to webcartoonists.

There is an interesting parallel from the animation industry. In 1984, the computer division of LucasFilm hired a former Disney animator who had been let go from Disney. Now at this time in the history of animation, computer animation was a step above Pac-Man. At best, in the eyes of many traditionally trained animators, it was a novelty. Now, the reason this animator had been let go was most likely because he kept pushing the idea that traditional animation could incorporate computer graphics and step into a new exciting era of animation. Well, I don’t really know if he thought that, and, if I ever meet him again, I’ll ask him; but he must have known that it was groundbreaking stuff. And I’m sure he couldn’t ignore the fact that Walt Disney was a person who loved the challenge of adapting new technologies.

So here is this fired Disney guy working as the sole animator for a small computer group. The group gets sold, changes its name, and eventually has the resources to hire a second animator. This guy--–the second animator, a graduate of Cal Arts— didn’t spend any time at Disney like some of his classmates. And I’m sure many of them thought he was crazy taking a gig that would most likely be a dead end. Still, he went and made Listerine commercials as his classmates made The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, etcetera, etcetera.

Well, despite those who said the computer could never produce animation that an audience would warm up to (very similar to the words Walt heard while producing “Disney’s Folly”), John Lasseter is the leader of the computer animation zeitgeist; and, ironically, he and fellow Pixarian, Ed Catmul, now run Disney animation. The second Pixar animator, Andrew Stanton, is an Academy Award winning director with a new film opening this summer. And what was left in the wake of this technological and artistic paradigm shift? Traditional, hand drawn animation.

While I was at the Disney studio in Florida, most of the artists and animators thought it would never end. They were in shock when the doors closed in January 2004. And, although the hand drawn animation is making a return at Disney, it is at the expense of those artists. Supervising animators who made salaries well into six digits are now working for union scale. Some of them don’t even have offices, just cubicles in a common room. Now, I’m sure they are all happy that they can animate again at any rate; but I can tell you from personal experience, it took a long time for many of those artists to understand that they were no longer worth what they had once been paid in the animation boom of the 1990’s. It is a simple law of economics.

The world changes. My experience has taught me that it can change in an instant, and it’s often the people who were once disparaged who find a way to survive and thrive. I was talking to my friend Broose Johnson, who was an animator at the Disney studios when the Pixar revolution took shape. “We all knew (having loved TRON) that it was coming,” he said. “ But none of us expected it to start developing so quickly. Of course, now we're used to that kind of speed.”

But what do I know—I’m just a cartoonist.

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Blogger just.me said...

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