6 Cartoon Industry Misconceptions (that you’re still getting wrong)
“Oh, you make cartoons? Do you work for Disney? Is life working in the studios one big party 24/7? Are the voice actors as cool in real life as they seem in interviews?”
There are many misconceptions and preconceived ideas surrounding the animation industry. Ever since the South Park crew revealed (both in interviews and the more recent documentary 6 Days to Air) that they can get an episode on TV in as little as well…six days, there seems to be a disconnect between how long it takes to make a show. Ever since actor/creators like Mike Judge (Beavis and Butthead), John Kricfalusi (Ren and Stimpy) Seth MacFarlane (Family Guy) Trey Parker/Matt Stone (South Park) and Justin Roiland (Rick and Morty) both run the show and supply voices for the main characters, there’s a disconnect between the writer/artist contribution and the voice actor’s role.
After talking to our sources (two directors and a creator/executive producer of three number-one-hit cartoons on their respective networks) it was easy to see that very few people had any idea how a cartoon actually makes it onto the screen. “They typically think I make the entire cartoon myself,” two of our sources said. “Or they can’t wrap their head around how I’m a director on an animated show. They have questions about what that involves, since I’m not sitting on a set/stage barking orders at actors.”
6) The disconnect between how people think cartoons are made versus the reality
Starting with the work environment, people have a very incorrect view of what a cartoon studio looks like. “People beg me for studio tours, like it’s the Double Dare obstacle course,” one of our sources said. “They think it’s a cartoon calamity. Some kind of zoo filled with goofballs hitting each other with Nerf guns. Like Chuck E Cheese for adults or the outside of Nickelodeon Studios in the 90s with the slime and fire poles and all that shit. But in reality, it’s a job, and fairly quiet. People are trying to get work done.”
There are apparently animation houses that are wild, fun, and artistic, such as Titmouse Animation in Hollywood. “But they underpay their artists, aren’t part of the Animation Union, and take advantage of you. So yeah, have fun with that.” A director source states.
But when it comes to the way cartoons are actually constructed, the public’s/fan’s misunderstandings only fall deeper. All of our sources agreed that the biggest misconception about cartoon making is that one single person (or the show creator themselves) make the entire show.
“It’s like they think Seth MacFarlane makes a whole episode of Family Guy by himself. Or one person draws as fast as he can until a whole show is made.”
Worse, it seems that people out there aren’t even convinced that humans are running the show behind cartoons anymore.
“They’re convinced you stick a script into a computer and out comes a cartoon. People don’t seem to understand the multi-tiered collaborative process that goes into making a cartoon.”
In reality, it’s a very long process. The faster it is, the more people it takes or the simpler is has to be. Any cartoon with “high production value” takes a lot of planning. Schedules need to be made, it starts slow and ramps up. If it’s script driven, the writers pitch an idea. If approved, the script gets written. It’s then recorded by the voice actors. The script is given to the board artists, they plan out the way the shots looks. Meanwhile, the background artists are doing their part, the design team are doing their part. Once the animatic is done, it’s sent overseas and they do the actual animating. After it comes back the sound guys and editors piece it together. If fixes need to be made, that happens. It’s all really involved and complicated.
“It’s highly collaborative but more than that, it’s very procedural, we all have to know how to play our cog in the machine so that it functions well.”
5) The amount of time it takes to make a show
Discounting South Park, most animated television shows once in production can take eight months to a year from Script to Airing for a single episode. And since production teams/artists are working on multiple episodes simultaneously over time, the process to completing a season of a show, usually takes about fifteen to twenty months of time for a full season order. Shorter season orders (Anything under ten episodes of twenty-two minutes) can cut that time in half. But regardless of the time, episodes are being written, while another is being storyboarded, to having the show designed, before being sent to the animators, and then coloring and editing is happening before the final composite. Also, within that time, the voice actors get squeezed in there, depending if the show is script driven or storyboard driven.
Our executive producer source elaborates, “You also tend to do two seasons at once, so you are always writing and boarding one season and doing post on another season at the same time. It’s pretty insane. If you are running a show you are basically involved in every episode at every stage. So in one day you will probably be looking at pieces of 6 different episodes all in different stages. To put in perspective, an average animated movie (that’s about 1 and a half hours of content) takes 3-5 years. A season of a TV show (that’s about eleven hours of content) takes a year. Everything is rushed. So for those fans that find little inconsistencies and pick everything a part, YOU are probably spending more time analyzing the episode than the people making it.”
People in animation encourage viewers to really look at the credits and understand that each and every person listed has a role in successfully getting a single episode of a TV show on the air.
4) Addressing that Voice Actor Disconnect
The first time it came to my attention that people have absolutely no idea what the voice actors’ role is was a balmy autumn day in 2012. I had the evening free and decided to attend a live recording of Rob Paulsen’s Talking Toons where he (Rob Paulsen, voice of Raphael) reunited with the other three gentlemen who played the roles of Leonardo, Donatello, and Michelangelo in the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon. They reminisced, relayed charming anecdotes, and did their best to do the voices that fans cling onto so fondly.
But then, there was a Q&A session.
And that’s when things got really nerdy.
Many of the questions were not-so-subtle pushes for the actors to say a specific line, or talk about what it was like recording, etc. But there, out of nowhere, one horrifying question emerged. It was a fan looking for detailed breakdown of the lore, what the characters would do in a certain situation, how the character would react, and went on to ask about world building. It got to the point where one of the guys, either the voice of Donatello or Leonardo had to (very politely, the man is a professional) tell the enthusiastic fan that these questions aren’t for the voice actors. There are writers and board artists who painstakingly develop the world and have all the say in these things.
Because ultimately, the actors are actors. And no matter how much they like a role, or how attached they are (or aren’t) to it, it’s a job. They do the voice, they collect the paycheck, they go home. But because people are invested in the character, and then a person shows up sounding like the character, people get excited. They feel as though their cartoon has come to life and that matters to some people.
One of our sources states: “I think fans think Voice Actors contribute everything up until the actual putting it on air, and sometimes even they get credit for that too. Voice Actors do sometimes give a lot to the adlibbing of their character, especially when they’ve played them for a while. But almost always a script is written out for them and they crank out the lines very quickly because they have so many other projects that they aren’t super involved in the creating of any single animation. Unless you have creators doing voices in their own series, in which they are VERY involved with the writing and visual language and maybe even performing of the characters. This is less common than people think, and most times these people are not visual artist that are drawing the cartoon.”
Another source agrees: “I think people always think the actors do the writing. That’s a big problem in live action as well. Some actors do great ad-lib, but 99.9 percent of everything in animation is written by writers and board artists. A sticking point to a lot of people working in animation is the actors’ residuals. For some reason in animation show creators and writers do not get residuals, voice actors do. That means every time an episode airs they get paid. No one else on the animation crew gets that, and the actors have the least time commitment.”
3) Why people are so mad at the “terrible” cartoons these days
Nostalgia is a hell of a drug. Watch any old cartoon you grew up with and see how many still hold up. True, there are a lot of things in cartoons we can’t do or get away with anymore. Some of it is sign of the times, and stricter broadcast guidelines… the other part of it is simply a changing audience that needs more sophisticated simulation. Also, art always informs more art. Hopefully we are doing better art that communicate with the people who are alive in this time than people who proceeded us. I would imagine if we went back in time and showed artist from the 1910s cartoons now, they wouldn’t get it because it wouldn’t be an effective way to communicate that idea for them. And the same can be done if you go too far into the future, which is evident when most people watch a Shakespearean play for example. Doesn’t mean we don’t learn lessons from past works, of course they have to inform how we communicate today, same thing with language or anyway that human beings are supposed to convey ideas to one another. If a cartoon isn’t communicating to you, chances are, it wasn’t made for you. And yes… some things do suck.
One of our sources said, “Joke’s on you- a lot of people who made cartoons in the 80s/90s are still in the industry, kicking around making new cartoons. And if something was made 20 years ago or less, those people are making the same show you hate today. I know a guy who worked on Dexter’s Lab and PowerPuff Girls and all that Cartoon Network stuff people used to jack off over. But now he’s working on Teen Titans Go, one of those shows people “hate”. Go on IMDB and find a show you love. Click on the director’s name. Bet he’s working on something you hate. It’s a small industry with lots of cross over.”
But the fan-rage doesn’t stop with the quality of certain shows. The same anger emerges when a favorite show is cancelled, seemingly out of nowhere. To this day Why was Young Justice Cancelled? is a topic that still comes up amongst cartoon fans/the animation community alike. Some fans finally understand that it was due to low toy sales, point blank. Others continue to think it’s because it was “replaced” by another show.
A source states, “No successful show is cancelled! But success is measured by the arbitrary decision by the network airing it. If your show is on FOX, it’ll forever be gauged by the success of Simpsons and Family Guy. At Nickelodeon, it’s Spongebob Sqaurepants. Everything is measured next to the success of their biggest hit show. There’s a lot of expectations to be met. Sometimes shows are too expensive, or they can’t sell merchandise, the ratings are low, etc. Executives don’t make cartoons for the art. Executives make them to make a hit and get their financial returns. That said, my personal belief is that some networks don’t give shows enough time to flourish (Spongebob was cancelled a whole mess of times, same with Family Guy). Hell, they’re even bringing back Young Justice, so everyone can stop complaining for fifteen years about that.”
One of our director sources states: “What makes a show disappear? Merchandising, merchandising, merchandising. It’s a long history of this, but modern cartoons are made to sell toys or products. If those products don’t sell, or if they can sell the idea to manufacturers, then studios have a hard time justifying putting money into a show. It has to have value on the back end of the production, and advertising revenue isn’t enough to cover an entire production. Yes, receiving rewards can help to generate interest for a show, and having an audience will help gain a show a notoriety, but most shows live or die if they can’t move product. And that is unfortunately a sad reality of animation production around the work, the U.S. and Japan being chief among them.”
2) The Female Experience in Animation
One of our director sources states, “Animation is VERY male heavy, especially in specific roles as supervisors and specific art jobs that involve handling the story. Part of this is due to old sexist thinking in the old days that women were only good enough to color (which didn’t even start that way) where they were largely regulated in the old “Ink and Paint” departments. The other thing that seems to happen is that males get regulated to action shows and comedies, while women often get regulated to pre-school and kids shows. There are women working in the industry, but most of them still are within the Production/Coordinating roles, assistants, design and colorist roles. The track to most supervising positions are found thru the Animator, Storyboard Artist, Director career track, which has been history seen as a male’s prerogative. And we haven’t quite yet shaken off all that horrible baggage yet for greater gender equity. I think a huge part of that is going to be more women creators, more studios and artist recognizing their innate biases in hiring and looking at artists work and resumes, and creating environments were women aren’t intimidated to speak their piece and their contributions will be shared and respected. Cliques are real and damn hard to break up, but in a professional atmosphere, these things can be forced and pressed upon.”
Another one of our sources continues, “It’s gotten a lot better, but it was a problem for a long time. There’s a long history of weird stuff with Disney Feature in the 1960s separating women from the men. Women could only ink and paint cels, except for the few who were just too good to be locked down (like Mary Blair). But on the flip side, having a female show runner or creator is a trophy, something they’re dangling to give them clout. At the same time, show creators are more visible than ever anyway. With that visibility, studios want to appeal to a bigger crowd and play in on diversity. Unfortunately, they risk pandering. But representation is always good. But now, I do think women have equal rights and opportunities. But there’s some strange pressures that just come with being a woman. Maternity leave, etc.”
1) Analog Drawing in a Digital World
One of our Director sources shared a thought, “Sometimes people think all we do is draw. Other times, they think that just because we have a preexisting character rig built into a computer, it means we aren’t actually drawing. It all changes according to the fan’s mental agenda. But those accusations seem more pointed at 3D animation. It seems like people think that when you have 3D animation you’re not actually drawing. But storyboards aren’t in 3D. Some people choose to draw that shit on paper. Hell, I work on an all-digital show but I use Post-It notes to thumb out my thoughts on paper. When I draw a board, I take my stylus and put it to my tablet monitor screen and I draw.”
Another source elaborates, “Some people more in the know are confused by the role of an artist who draws in modern animation production. People seem to have always just thought we pluck cartoons out of thin air, and just animate the things straight ahead onto a screen.”
But at the same time, the digital world and social media has completely turned around how people build their careers in creative mediums. Whether you’re making web comics, flash cartoons, or hand drawing, the internet creates a simple way for unknowns and people in states/countries not surrounded by the industry to become known, or if nothing else, build a portfolio.
According to one of our sources, “Young people have an advantage of connecting with artists they like on live streams and stuff. You can ask artists those questions. And you can make friends with them on social media. Those connections matter. But make stuff, start cranking out material. There’s access to fairly affordable software, some free even. Hell, bootleg shit if you want, who cares. Start putting things out there. See what people say, learn from it, and make more stuff. Work towards getting in there. Expose your art, try to pick up some freelance, and then make your way into one of the cities where the industry is happening. Right now, those are Vancouver, Los Angeles, Kyoto, Atlanta, New York, London, Quebec. If you can find yourself to one of the few animation cities, get there.”