Gene Deitch: Quo Vadis Animation?

Veteran animation director Gene Deitch and his wife Zdenka were invited to the Xiamen International Animation Festival (Oct. 30th-Nov. 3rd) in China — Gene as the main foreign guest and keynote speaker, and Zdenka as a jury member. However, Communist government authorities took one look at their passports, and made the irrational assumption that because they were both in their eighties, they were unfit to travel, and decided not to issue them visas.

The festival organizers wrote that they were bereft and begged Gene to at least film his keynote speech for projection at the opening ceremonies. So a crew came to Deitch’s private studio, and he “performed” a five-minute version of his talk. And Gene has graciously allowed Cartoon Brew to share it with the world. Says Deitch:

“The core of my speech is a pitch for the survival and eventual return to primary favor of “drawn animation.” (Don’t provoke me by mentioning the term “2D” in my presence!)

Below is the 7-minute video Gene prepared for the festival, AND below that is the full text of the actual speech he would have given.


Gene Deitch: Quo Vadis Animation? Animation has come a long way since I was a boy. I was raised in Hollywood and fell in love with movie cartoons at a very early age. In those days – the early 1930s – going to the movies was a giant experience. For one admission ticket -25 to 35 cents for an adult – just ten cents for me – we could see two complete feature films, which in those days were not more than an hour-and-a-half long, a newsreel, a travelogue, an adventure serial, perhaps a comedy “Short Subject,” and a cartoon – sometimes two cartoons.

For me, the cartoon was the best part, but for the movie theater owners it was just another time filler that limited the number of shows he could schedule per day. To earn their place on the program the cartoons had to be wildly funny, and they quickly became formula productions. In Europe they were called “grotesques,” and there was no attempt to imitate reality.

The arrival of television changed all that. With nightly news for the growing mass TV audience, there was no further need for newsreels. Then came all sorts of soap operas, dramas, documentaries, comedy shows, travel features, sports, and of course cartoons galore. Why go to the movies when you had all that at home?

And why should theater owners pay for short subjects when all the people wanted to see was the feature? So soon enough, all we got for the higher price we paid for a movie ticket was one feature film, some advertising and lots of previews of more movies.

It was the visionary Walt Disney, who all the way back to the 1930s saw that cartoon shorts were doomed. He had the impossible dream of making the cartoon become the main feature attraction. To do that he believed that he had to somehow make drawn animation look more realistic. As a 13-year-old kid, I attended the premiere run of Snow White & The Seven Dwarfs at the Hollywood Pantages Theater, I witnessed the first example of a historic change-of-course for film animation. Disney felt that cartoon simplicity could not sustain a feature-length movie. So Snow White contained the dramatic lighting effects, the shadowing, the rounded shading of characters, and the amazing MultiPlane camera depth effects – the first steps toward making animated movies become more and more realistic.

Once began, this became the dominating goal of animation: to become as close to a live action movie as possible. By today, with the development of computers and amazing digital procedures, computer generated animation, motion capture, and stereoscopic 3D. We’re almost there; the perfect imitation of reality with animation. Is this a success? Or is it the end of a blind alley? What next?

As it happened, I began my career in animation at a studio that pioneered the opposite course. “Why should animation, potentially the greatest of all existing art forms, incorporating and blending all of them, limit itself by trying to imitate what a camera does? It was UPA, United Productions of America.

A glorious name for a tiny studio founded on a simple but revolutionary idea: that the whole world of graphic art was open to animation – animation bringing magic and storytelling in every visual style, with no attempt to imitate what the camera will always do better.

I am here to raise a cheer for what I prefer to call Drawn Animation. We who have been raised on the tradition of animated drawings, attempting create what Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston called, “The Illusion of Life,” have been more and more pushed aside and given the demeaning title of “2D” animators. I am quick to remind you that anything projected onto a flat movie screen is essentially 2D. It’s a meaningless term. I repeat that the entire world of graphic art, every drawn or painted style can be animated in any fanciful way, which in turn would lead to the widest range of storytelling and endless visual variety.

Whereas so-called 3D animation, with its amazing refinement, technical dazzle, and natural-looking realism, is becoming more and more alike. Drawing and painting goes back to the beginnings of humanity, and is still a limitless means of expression. It certainly should not be pushed aside in the world of cinema animation!

Of course, I know that there is another branch of animation; Special Effects for essentially live-action movies. That kind of animation – recreation of dinosaurs or entire cities being blown up, and stunt performers saved from injury with the substitution of animated dummies….is hyper reality that I greatly admire and respect. It MUST be extremely realistic and visually convincing! Amazing special effects animation is now so seamlessly blended into live action movies, that we accept it as real. Such movies do not claim or pretend to be animation features.

As a 48 year member of the Hollywood Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, I am one of the people who vote each year for the awards known as Oscars. In my own category of Animation, it becomes harder and harder to distinguish whether a film is in fact basically an animation or live-action movie. Today, every film contains at least some elements of both. Historically and technically, cinema animation involves the creating and manipulating still images that when projected onto the screen in very rapid sequence – faster than the human retention of vision – gives the illusion of motion. So human acting in front of a camera is by that definition not animation. Yet the technology of digital motion capture can be used to convert human acting – pantomime – into designed creatures, which does look very much like animation. So to many people – most people in a cinema audience, if it looks like animation it must be animation!

I’ve given up trying to argue the point, but still have difficulty in voting for a movie in the Animation category which I know to be actually a digitalized manipulation of human acting. and not the illusion of motion created in series of still images. So what? It must soon come down to eliminating a separate Animation category, and allow us to vote for any movie on the basis of the story it tells and how skillfully and artfully it tells it, regardless of the mix of technologies used in its production.

It is in fact getting harder and harder to find a clear definition of what is an animated film, and what is a live action. film! What was The Lord of The Rings, which so deftly combined animation into an essentially live action film? What are the Harry Potter films, including so many animation effects? And now we have the technology called “Motion Capture.” Which does claim to be form of animation. How do we classify Motion Capture -”Mo-Cap?” Many movies today combine all of these elements. How do we classify them? Today, nearly every film is a combination of live-action, special effects and some form of animation. When we see drawings, we’re pretty sure we are seeing animation!

There must be room for the art of drawing and painting to hold onto it’s role in storytelling and the stimulation of imagination. Graphic art and design has a great influence on all of our lives, and we really cannot live a full life without it!

In my on-line book, How To Succeed in Animation I make the claim that animation is potentially the greatest of all art forms, as it combines nearly all of the others. Drawing, painting, music, story telling, literature, acting, theater, singing, dancing.. you name it; all can be incorporated into this miraculous art form do cinema animation! The word animation itself means, “The breath of life.” Why should this potentially powerful medium be limited to literal realism, when the endless possibilities of magic realism are open to it?

I feel this is an important topic for discussion, and I would like to hear your thoughts about it. I welcome your questions and ideas.


  • http://jodimationindustries.blogspot.com Jodie Hudson

    Hmmm….looks like Gene Deitch, I’ll give you that, but he can walk around and such. Are you sure this video isn’t motion capture? I mean he is in his eighties and unfit to travel, right?

  • Tim Hodge

    Great speech!
    While greatly impassioned, it doesn’t come off as a rant. He presents a circumspect overview of the industry; lamenting the loss of the classic, while still embracing the best parts of the new.

    (By the way, for non-Latin speakers, “Quo Vadis?” translates as “Where are you going?”. It’s a reference to an apocryphal story that St. Peter had vision of Christ carrying the cross along the Appian Way many years after the crucifixion. He asked, “Quo vadis, Domine?” (Whither goest Thou, Lord?).

  • http://sir-talen.deviantart.com/ Royce

    Having heard stories from my wife when she visited Beijing on her way to pick up our adopted daughter in 2008, I can feel mild (emphasis on *mild*) understanding for the Chinese government’s refusal to issue them both a visa. Words don’t quite convey how terrible the pollution is in the urban areas of the country, which affected her and her mother signifigantly, even though they were both perfectly healthy. If either of the Deitch’s had the slightest tendency towards breathing problems or lung disease, they would have had severe difficulties even after the pre-Olympics cleanup.

  • http://www.jjsedelmaier.com J.J. Sedelmaier

    IN the film industry or not, everyone outta see this -

  • http://cartoonlandanimation.com Kevin C.

    A brilliant man. Gene, if I’m not mistaken, did a series of pen and ink jazz cartoons that were reprinted in R. Crumb’s Weirdo magazine. I gave Gene a copy-he hadn’t seen his work since they were originally printed in the 50′s– and he created a beautiful Tom Terrific sketch for me.

  • Jay Sabicer

    Amazing! I can only hope I’m that energetic and passionate into my 80′s.

    Back when I was a young boy, I recall watching on TV, the Gene Deitch directed Tom & Jerry and King Features Popeye shorts he directed in the 1960′s and absolutely hated them. As I delved deeper and deeper into watching animation in general, I came across more and more of his work (Tom Terrific, Munro and the phase 2 Terrytoons) and it changed my attitude about him. I’m thankful I put those early prejudices aside, otherwise I would’ve denied myself a large portion of film history that was equal parts artistic and entertaining.

    A regret of mine was when my travels led me to Prague 2 years ago and I didn’t take the opportunity to visit his studio. I hope I have the chance to return to that beautiful city and see the man in person and chat.

  • http://www.gavinscartoons.com Gavin Freitas

    Amen brother! I love this guy…

  • jordan reichek

    That was fun…every minute we can spend with this fellas is gold.

    Thanks for posting.

    And BTW, China, if that’s a frail looking man whom in your bureaucratic mind is not fit to travel across your border, what in God’s name are you doing to the elderly on your side of the fence…sheesh!

    Prague must have some serious youth elixirs in its tap water….

  • Dave G

    Denying a couple of fit octogenarians visas because they are old is the ultimate act of ageism. What does China think it is, capitalist?

  • http://www.animationarchive.org Stephen Worth

    Great speech. When I was little Tom Terrific and Manfred were my best TV friends.

  • Scott

    The communist government also fully took over the festival this year, censoring all of the films, and re-arranging the winners. No surprise there.

  • http://deleted OtherDan

    I wrote to him once after reading some of his writing. I love his sentiment.

  • http://mattanimates.blogspot.com Matt

    This was very insightful, but I feel there’s too much hatred towards the CG animator that is undeserved. Sure, I don’t have any intention of seeing Christmas Carol or anything like it, but I do marvel at it’s technology. It is certainly creepy and unappealing visually, but I don’t think it (and others like it) should condemn the motion capture art form. This video inspired me to write a very long response on my blog. I imagine no one is interested, but for those few: mattanimates.blogspot.com

  • http://www.tomsito.com Tom Sito

    I thought they stopped him because they thought Gene was a Commie.

  • http://www.sitasingstheblues.com/ Nina Paley

    “Why should we do what the camera can do better?” Exactly!

  • Anthony C.

    Exactly what I tell fellow peers who feel alike. Fantastic speech!

    I love hand drawn animation so much. It disappoints me that a lot of art schools (including the one I’m at) treat it like a rudimentary introduction into 3-d.

    The return to the Avery, Fleischer, Jones days of animation are returning-I’m just trying my hardest to make sure I’m a part of it.

  • http://hand-drawn-animation.blogspot.com David Nethery

    Good commentary. I agree with Mr. Deitch.

    Thanks for printing this and the YouTube link to the video.

    We all need to just stop obsessing over the supposed “death” of hand-drawn and get on with it . There are worlds to be seen yet.

    Draw , darn ya, draw !

  • Ad

    This is a really good statement by Mr Deitch,why isnt there at least one third of all new animated movies hand drawn stuff? Instead its all cgi.

  • http://www.zackmark.com/ Zack Mark

    “Why should we do what the camera can do better?” I totally agree with this sentiment, especially as it applies to the attempts to create photorealistic human characters. Zemeckis’s recent “performance-capture” films are (in my mind, at least) perfect examples of films that would have benefited from using human actors rather than CG stand-ins. Why bother animating when the desired result can be achieved faster and with less effort with live actors?

    However, it seems to me that he shouldn’t be dismissing the medium simply because it’s well suited to pull off a style he obviously dislikes. CG animation is no more exclusive to super-realistic animation than drawn or stop-motion or any other animation medium is. Each of these can pull off many different styles, and each has its own strengths and weaknesses. If he wants animators to explore different styles he should encourage that explicitly, rather than framing it as CG vs. drawn animation.

  • Allen Swift

    Couldn’t have been said better but I’m glad the master and his wife did not have to take in that China air.

  • James McPants

    I have so much respect for Gene, he does some great work (my favorite Tom and Jerry episodes are the Gene Deitch ones) and I really enjoyed this speech.

  • http://www.dondixon.com Don Dixon

    I totally understand wher Gene is coming from in this speech, but at the same time, there is no death of hand drawn animation, there is an evolution of animation, we are all part of a growing industry that uses technology to advance belivability and entertainment, when the caveman/women drew on walls they were using the technology they had at the time to create visual stories to the best of there abilities, in time the essence and foundation of those drawings became drawings with volume and weight and space, We should embrace change, and not forget our past but use it to our advantage. At the end of the day the root of animation is to create the illusion of life, to entertain with appealing characters/design, and just to give people and hour and a half or two hours to escape to a world where they are transported to a place where they care about the medium, the characters and the world that we create for them. I think the trick is to not see it as a 2d vs 3d,..these seperation does nothing but create a wedge in what is in my belief the same thing. If things did not evolve and change, Gene would not have been able to send us his passionate message. I could not voice my opinion to the thousands of cartoon brew visitors. We would still be drawing on cave walls, art is my passion, and what I have dedicated my life toward.(even though im unemployed at the momment. :)) And what I have learned is that art is and will always be a form of expression. If sombody took cigarette ash and created a frame by frame love story, and I cared about the characters I would sit my booty down and eat my popcorn and watch in awe because the story as well as the medium was done so well that it touched me. Thats just my two cents. I am a firm believer of the common phrase “You can’t move forward without knowing where you have been” This pharse holds so much importance to me, being a black animator, because there use to be a time that I could’nt even think of working as an animator, I might of made it as a janitor at disney though, lol who knows. SO I say lets embrace change, and honestly I don’t think anyone really knows where animation is going to go in the future. Thats why its soooooo freakingggg awesome!

    Don.

  • Stephen Treadwell

    The Gene Deitch T & J’s may be James McPants’ favorite T & J’s but they’re my least favorite; mostly because Jerry defeats Tom in every episode & they’re shouldn’t be any version of T&J where that’s always the case. That’s enough to ruin T&J & make it too much like Road Runner or Tweety and Sylvester!

  • Stephen Rhodes Treadwell

    I can’t believe there are people who think the Gene Deitch T&J’s are better than the version where they’re friends! It’s ridiculous enough they don’t like the friends version but I can’t believe they think they’re not even as good as the boring Gene Deitch ones.

  • Stephen Rhodes Treadwell

    I found a message on google saying the G.D. ones have better looking graphics than the originals &, boy, do I disagree! The originals have much better graphics. The G.D. ones’ graphics aren’t even as good as the Chuck Jones ones!