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A 60-Year-Old Article is More Relevant Than Ever

Ted Parmelee

Ted Parmelee (pictured above, right) is perhaps best remembered today as the director of UPA’s The Tell-Tale Heart, but his career in animation stretched from Pinocchio through Rocky & Bullwinkle and included lots of fine work in TV commercials and industrial films inbetween.

While browsing through some files related to my book Cartoon Modern, I stumbled onto scans of an article that Parmelee had written in the mid-1950s. The piece, which I’ve reprinted below, smartly sums up many of the issues that progressive animation artists faced in the 1950s. For example, Parmelee argued that Disney’s heavy reliance on live-action was an artistic dead-end and countered every other development in art at the time:

All efforts were directed toward better drawing to produce a kind of reality from what had originally been a very simple and direct medium. They were so delighted to see it move, and pleased with a medium more plastic in the use of “time” that they became involved in trying to make it round, real and spacious as they could. This was exactly the same standard of “good” that made Aunt Matilda’s “real-genuine-oil painting” good. “The apples looked so sure-enough for real you coulda’ picked ’em right out of the painting.” For this the artists to the Italian Renaissance for aid and borrowed the know-how of several centuries of draughtmanship. It was only natural and practical thinking. If you have a new gadget, don’t you take it out and try it on anything handy? Finally you have it doing the things it was designed for so well that it just gets monotonous, so you have it attempting things it never was built for.

There is a strong correlation between Parmelee’s critique of Disney in the 1930s and ’40s, and today’s art form — only the technique has changed. Contemporary big budget CG features exhibit increasing sophistication in lighting, textures, character animation and effects, but to what effect? Realism has again been cast as an end, when it is only a means for expressing a personal artistic vision.

Parmelee credits World War II as the impetus for animators experimenting with new filmmaking techniques, storytelling approaches and graphic styles. He also hails the arrival of the TV commercial, in which the form’s brevity allowed artists to explore different approaches for communicating with audiences.

Thankfully today’s animation medium is diverse enough that there is tons of experimentation happening, even moreso than in the 1950s. Parmelee, of course, anticipated this when he wrote that the single biggest improvement awaiting the industry “would be a decisive change in the actual physical means for making animated pictures, a more fluid kind of thing. . . a thing that provided quicker results.” Indeed, digital animation software and techniques have proven to be the savior, and offer an improvement over old production methods, especially when used by artists for the purpose of expressing themselves.

Read Parmelee’s article by clicking on the image below:

Ted Parmelee article
  • Good thoughts from Ted Parmelee. I loved his film, “Tell Tale Heart,” and I used to visit the old UPA studio next to the Smokehouse back in the old days.

    The loss of UPA probably set animation back about fifty years. No surprise, they were even influencing Disney in the fifties.

  • I certainly agree.

    Art is not in adding more and more, but in taking away, to reveal the important and meaningful. Directors and producers can be blinded by all the wonderful detail they are given by concept artists, shader writers, and technical directors. It takes great judgement to see through it all and start cutting and removing.

  • The Gee

    “Art is not in adding more and more, but in taking away, to reveal the important and meaningful”

    Reduction, keeping it simple. That’s good and I realize the point made in the article is totally valid and is still applicable today. However, there should just be a diverse amount of stuff made. That seems to be why he was spot lighting TV commercial work.

    Personally, I believe that the approach should best fit the project, the production. If the story and purpose call for certain touches then don’t try to shoehorn on the wrong techniques or looks/styles. That said, I’d be a fool to say that there isn’t room for something hyperrealistic in animation. I just don’t think there is a point in making something hyperrealistic, unless it is just SFX stuff for live action. And, even then…too big of a toolkit can make you lose sight…that vision thing.

    Obviously, that trend of making CG look like real world objects is cool but it is not always needed. In fact, I wonder if some of the unsuccessful productions (feature or other kinds) might have worked better as hand drawn, or stop motion, or as some other technique. That said, I don’t wonder too much.

    Diversity, innovation, being able to experiment, to take risks more often than not. It can be stymied by those who think There’s Only One Way and that is the Best Practice these days.

    And, the article only reminds us that phenomena is nothing new.

  • The Gee

    To clarify a bit:

    To make an animated cartoon hyper-realistic because that is the Best Practice of the day isn’t sensible. Like, with 3D it doesn’t always work well. It may not serve the purpose of enhancing the story or just allowing the story to be told well (see that older thread on the Disney CTO who said Story isn’t King.)

    Glitz and Gloss unfortunately seem to lead the story certain ways and sometimes seem to limit the stories which are told instead of offering more options. Which, unless i’m just dog tired, might be a bit ironic because that means More is sometimes Less.

    So, the opposite of an ideal situation, like having someone of the caliber of Spielberg and Peter Jackson and company sweat it a bit and have to deal with limited options in an extremely creative fashion. A low budget animated work might usually come across as crap, sure. But if it had top notch talent working on it from the top to bottom, with little interference, it could be genius. because of ingenuity and all that.

    Of course, like the essay says about good TV commercials not always certainly selling the product, there is no iron clad rule that Good equals Mind boggling Money.

    One of the biggest problems with features is a signal to noise problem. Too much hype, too much attempt at spectacle and too much reliance on establishing a franchise, from original screenplays or adaptations, especially from comic books. Not only do the source materials seem to be less about being good comic books and more about being destined to become movies, but, too much of the same approaches doesn’t yield fantastic stuff which people feel compelled to witness. Niches only get so big and only then are they mainstream. Yet, the franchises always cater to niche groups. Not everyone likes wrestling or polo, “Hoodwinked 2” or that CG pigeon movie from some years back.

    Nowadays with content, animated or not, it is like lining up things to throw off a rooftop. Unless they all fly, most of them are gonna fall and crash and maybe even burn. So, why not make sure it can just fly and fly like a champ and not worry about how far or where it goes?

  • Wise words except studios are run by bean counters not visionaries. As long as studios continue to chase the next franchise I don’t see much hope.

  • The Gee

    Oh, yes.

    Thank you for adding that.
    It isn’t just in the animation industry that that is true. Too many businesses which shouldn’t entire be about financials seem to be led by bean counting instead of the other parts that have always made strong, growing business work.

    I think it is a problem with fundamentals having changed with too many businesses trying to be too big too quickly or becoming too big and not seeming to have a smart way to make things work. I’d hope that a private animation studio which doesn’t rely on investment capital outside of normal loans has a chance to be more creative than one that is a public company or relying on Venture Capitialists or Angel investors.

    But that is a whole ‘nother can of worms. Not worth diving into that, even if we were birds. ha ha.

    On an oddly related note, Jobs retired as CEO. If ever there was a modern textbook case on how creativity can be embraced and endorse by management and help a company thrive, it is Jobs in relation to Apple, Pixar and too many other companies he is and was a part of. Though, his influence on the Disney board is not and probably can not be as great when it comes down to how the corporation is run (Disney being so huge and composed of diverse companies). He probably plays a huge role, true, and is the largest individual shareholder, yeah, but he’s just a big fish in a big pond there. He didn’t put most of the writing on Disney’s walls.