There are certain details of animation history that have always bothered me. For example, how did Tex Avery, arguably the greatest animation director of all-time, end his illustrious career? The answer is that he created a character called Kwicky Koala, who appeared in a 1981 Hanna-Barbera TV series of the crudest variety. Recently a bunch of Kwicky Koala shorts have found their way online and as expected, they are dreadful, though perhaps no more so than any other piece of Hanna-Barbera flotsam pulled from their vast sea of mediocrity. What makes these particular cartoons so painful to watch is the knowledge of who was making them. In what other art form could the creator of genius such as this, this, and this also have his name attached as the creator of these? Only in animation.
What’s troublesome is how the animation world has never bothered to make a distinction between its true auteurs and its workaday hacks, forcing each and every one to work on product of the most degrading sort. In live-action, by contrast, a Robert Altman or Eric Rohmer or Woody Allen can continue expressing themselves artistically right until the very end because there are enough people on the business end who recognize the value (financial though it may be) of supporting these artists.
While I was researching the life of writer and board artist John Dunn, I was granted access to his diaries and gained a good understanding of his feelings about working on the cheap animation of the Seventies and Eighties. Dunn, in fact, worked briefly with Avery at Hanna-Barbera on the “Dino and the Cavemouse” shorts, and he notes in his diary having conversations with Avery about the pitiful state of their industry. The studio veterans of that era certainly weren’t naive; they were aware of the hopelessly Sisyphean task of creating anything of quality or value. And yet artists like Avery and Dunn continued working up until the very end because they loved the art form so dearly. Avery, who passed away while working on Kwicky, was well past the age of retirement at the timeÃ¢â‚¬”72-years-old.
It makes one wonder: If the animation world can so casually discard one of its most distinguished practitioners and relegate him to working in the trash heap of television, what hope is there for everybody else? It’s a blight on the collective art form and industry that it has never been able to provide decent creative outlets to its artists who truly deserve them. It happened then, and I see it happening with alarming frequency today. Granted, an artist always has the option of charting their own course as an independent, but the fact of the matter is that an industry which consistently fails to recognize the value of the people working within it is an unhealthy industry that cannot be expected to advance or prosper.
There is nothing more depressing than watching the credits of oldschool Hanna-Barbera, DePatie-Freleng and Filmation shows and seeing the names of Golden Age artists scroll by, one after the other, a rollcall of beat down artists who had no option but to submit to the thankless art they had chosen as their life’s calling. Is it any wonder that so many of them, Dunn and Avery included, drowned their sorrows in drink? (Occasionally, a sympathetic younger artist like Richard Williams would throw them a lifeline, such as when he recruited animators like Ken Harris, Grim Natwick and Art Babbitt to work on his feature The Thief and the Cobbler, and boy, did they shine when given the chance, but such opportunities were few and far between.)
So has animation learned from its past? Is our industry diverse enough today to support and utilize the wide range of talents working within it? Twenty years from now, will we be looking at the credits of Bee Movie, Open Season, and Chicken Little with a similarly sad lament? And more importantly, does anybody even know who Tex Avery is in 2008? Questions worth considering as we move forward.