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The Great UPA Debate

Madcap Magoo

It all started on John Kricfalusi’s blog in a series of posts where he analyzes UPA’s modern graphics, comparing them to traditional character animation as practiced by Warner Bros., Walter Lantz and Terrytoons.

Michael Sporn then responded on his blog, igniting a series of comments that are, in no particular order, thought-provoking, frustrating, insightful and maddening. Whatever your opinion, it’s a fun read.

  • John K. on Jackson Pollock:
    “It’s not painting!”

  • Don

    Personally, I think it’s great that John spends all this time trying to present intelligent, thought provoking discussions on his blog…..and still takes the time to put up pictures of 12 year old girls he want to “educate”. Rock on, John…

  • RR

    Man, it continues to amaze me how many cultists have drunk John K’s Kool-Aid. But it really troubles me how every piece of irrelevant BS that falls from “Jesus” K’s lips still manages to stir up this much hot air and antagonism!

    When are these kids gonna start thinking for themselves and forming their opinions about stuff? And when are the rest of us gonna stop caring about John K? I have nothing against the guy and yeah he used to be talented, but I sure don’t see no halo over his head.

  • It’s a tag-team battle-to-the-death between the animation world’s mightiest strawmen!


    I hope this is settled soon so I will know what to think!

  • This sort of ” discussion ” reminds me of the classic Little Rascals short where they are arguing who’s stronger:
    ” Tarzan ! ”
    ” Flash Gordon ! ”
    ” Tarzan ! ”

  • Yes! I need to know! Which cartoons must I consider art???!!! A Unicorn in the Garden or Roger Ramjet???

    Jesus, why won’t thine light show me the way?!

  • Chris Robinson

    Of course, you can come the OIAF this year, watch our massive UPA retrospective and decide for yourself if John has his head up his ass.

  • Though the blog comments were truly a fun read as promised, any argument on any subject can be boiled down to one phrase:

    “No, I look more like Aquaman!”

  • Haven’t we all learned by now that John truly believes in what he does believe, good or bad, and is unwavering? Why do things like this even have to exist?

    Personally, I couldn’t tolerate the UPA cartoons i’ve seen (the so-called “cream” of the crop). The Tell-Tale Heart nearly put me in a comatose state. The Unicorn in the Garden was slightly less entertaining than a round of Chinese Water Torture with a simultaneous root canal, and if that stuff’s “art”, then I’d much rather be a Philistine and Watch Billy and Mandy, Invader Zim, Foster’s home For Imaginary Friends, andall the cartoons that Animation blogs everywhere consider to be “inferior crap.”

    And another thing, If we’re going to have a hot-around-the-collar animation debate; why not do something a little more fun; Like Disney vs. Harman and Ising, or Terrytoons vs. Famous Studios? Or even Tim Burton vs. Aardman?

  • No, he looks more like Aquaman!

    The whole spat has been hilarious and served no real purpose other than to learn some of the prejudices of some people.

  • On my computer, the print on Michael Sporn’s blog is super tiny and therefore hard for me to read. I’ll have to merely assume that all arguments made there are valid and backed up with intelligence.

  • I can speak from personal childhood memories that kids violently hated UPA cartoons or any of the cheaper “made for TV toons” that were styled after them.

    When we were kids, my older brother would grab my hair and slam my head against a metal bed post if I attempted to change the channel to any of the cartoons that he thought “looked like cheap crappy advertising”. Only the classic WB, MGM, and Terry Toons were allowed to be seen under his brutal 8 year old terrorist regime. Mom intervened and made a rule that the channel wasn’t allowed to be switched until after the Saturday cartoons were over. She liked to punish both of us. It was easier.

    One Saturday morning my brother was away at a friend’s house, and I was finally allowed to watch Mr. Magoo, King Kong, and Roger Ramjet and the other “made for TV” toons he hated. I discovered I disliked most of the forbidden toons for the same reasons. The memories of the head slammings came back to me when John K. featured the Roger Ramjet episode with the growling bear. That was one of the cartoons I watched the day my older brother was gone.

    I did like Roger Ramjet, but it was more for his coloring book, than the actual cartoons.

  • Although I could do without the polarizing zealotry I like John K’s blog and have to say I tend to fall on his side of the UPA argument. Maybe it’s a generational thing; I’m only a few years younger than Mr. K and back then whenever you mentioned animation in high school art class, instructors would blanch if you mentioned Disney or Bugs Bunny and rush you to the library where it seemed like there was no shortage of film tomes singing the praises of UPA and Zagreb and going out of their way to denegrate or ignore Hollywood style animation. I was of course already aware of UPA but it wasn’t my preference either for style or content. I like “stupid” cartoons and believe that the art of making a good one is as worthy and difficult as making ‘classy’ ones. This only irritated elites and branded me as an artistic philistine.

    I also see Steve Worth’s point about Kool-Aid ads and such, where perfectly admirable work is overlooked because it wasn’t in the service or “Art witha a capital A”. Animators who want to evaluate work on a technique level should be able to appreciate that wherever they find it and not just where the intelligentsia have enshrined it with a golden frame.

    There was always something a little pretentious about the UPA camp and their sales job at making everybody believe that they were more sophisticated than they actually were seemed to work for quite a while. When I started working professionally, contemporaries who had either come by their fetish for 50’s style honestly or had been brainwashed by elders were not hard to come by. Even in the mid-80’s when I would talk with colleagues about coming up with a contemporary style everyone would start dashing out UPA-esque beatniks and commies and bearded phychologists.

    I’m glad that the field of study has grown much broader than it was when I was a kid and fine books and excellent sites like CARTOON MODERN remind us of the rich contributions of the UPA school while at the same time standing shoulder to shoulder with other points of view.

  • bobservo

    I was surprised to see Amid take his own stance despite once being a John K. disciple. And here I thought all of his followers speak the John K. company line!

    And Steve Worth really needs to stop being John K.’s personal interpreter. He also needs to stop ending every comment with “See Ya / – Steve.”

  • Oh dear, the animation ‘elite’ on the rampage again. I guess we could never consider talking about the likes of Saul Bass, Norman McLaren, Len Lye, Pablo Ferro, Oskar Fishinger, Maurice Binder or dare I say someone like today’s Matt Pyke…..etc, never mind the (superb) UPA work.

    What is animation Mr. Kricfalusi? And don’t give me a squash and stretch lesson !

  • Just to clarify for all: I love animation. I love cartoons. I do not hate any particular style and do not shun others for ignorant reasons. Even though I love UPA cartoons and the similar styles of the 50’s, etc., I equally love the WB cartoons as well as the Disney canon — although for different reasons. It’s not either/or with me, mind you. And I’m sure that others who were in my camp on Sporn’s post would probably feel the same.

    Just had ta say that.

  • Chris Sobieniak

    Having thought about it personally (and not having to read much from John K’s post since I hardly much venture there personally), I do think it’s a preference to what one might want to see or understand about animation in their eye.

    There would be those like John, Thad and such that would favor the greats of the Golden Age who worked for WB, Terrytoons, Lantz and such of the 1940’s, and what they brought to the public with limited budgets but found a way to amuse themselves as well as the theater ticket patrons. People like Tyer had some of the most unique animation imaginable for their time, despite what some might’ve thought of their efforts at the time, but later encouraged future animators to pursue the same goals.

    Then of course you do get the guys who are into UPA or the foreign/indie/non-objective animation often associated with high-brow or artsy-fartsy circles, and often limited no so much by effort, but by content that would drive the normal viewer nuts (Ernest Pintoff’s “The Critic” could be a good example of that). Of course I don’t want to knock the work of Fischinger, McLaren, and others who pursue that form of animation often on a class of it’s own outside the traditional/character animation we associate as the cartoons we would watch normally (if only by narrative and concept).

    Of course fans of animation have many tastes and interests that vary the map (like those for Japanese animation, often sighting it’s action-oriented plots and character/mecha designs that often want to put it up there with the best live-action can produce). There of course are those like Ralph Bakshi and otehrs in the 70’s and 80’s that tried to redefine animation as an adult form of entertainment despite having to resort to sex and violence in getting the point across, but often found a niche in the fandom who kept yearning for more of it. I tend to have a more general liking to many forms of animation myself.

    After reading one guy’s post about his 8 year old brother getting all mad if he sees a cheap cartoon show up on TV, it was so much the opposite in my family, where my older brother would be quoting lines from WB cartoons to annoy the heck out of me (being 5 or 6 at the time), and having to put up with his little games for the duration. I often turned to the non-domestic stuff for inspiration and found a lot of interesting varieties that was available on cable in it’s early days that children in Europe were being showered with (if not literally). You could say I was looking for ”new material. Somehow I remember watching UPA’s version of “Madeline”around that point and enjoyed it, not having heard or known of UPA until much later, when my mom had to go and rent a tape of Mr. Magoo cartoons from a store and I fell in love with the amusing antics and design in those films.

    I guess I’m more a mama’s boy for having a mom who said the best cartoons she ever liked were Magoo and Gerald McBoing-Boing, and I just sorta went with that. Again, UPA isn’t for everyone I would say. Of course they had their flaws, but they often make up for that through design that often dictates their output over store (an of course UPA wanted to stray away from what was already the norm at other Hollywood studios that relied on a set standard of design and structure, not to mention the typical slackstick/humor most often associated with cartoons up to that point).

    After someone brought up Roger Ramjet a while back, I had to think back to when I first saw it in the 80’s, and watched it again during it’s Cartoon Network airings and thinking “Why did I ever liked watching this?” I guess any cartoon where the narrator’s lines have to be written out word-for-word is just asking for it! (of course I had also seen the homage done for the amusing segments of the PBS series, “Square One Television”, which worked effectively well for that show, wished DVD’s were out of that! ) :-)

    I hate to admit, the first time I saw “The Unicorn in the Garden” some years ago, I nearly cried! Really, I can’t explain just why that was other than perhaps something about it just felt perfect to me personally. Of course they could’ve tried to go further on it, but they were trying to keep it close to Thurber’s style than to depart radically into something else (the colored backgrounds is one extreme). I guess I have a different mindset over how I tend to prefer things based on upbringing. Nowadays I can sorta look back to this film and often notice certain cues or points that would be weak or strong based on personal opinion.

    Oh yeah, I’ll leave you with this amusing overdub some guy did of his first time watching Unicorn in the Garden (not very creative mind you, but it was uploaded months before the other vid was)….

  • Billy Bob

    Im a student, and I read John K’s blog everyday. It’s love hate relationship there. I think MOST of the time he provides good information not just for the production of “cartoony” cartoons, but cartoons in general. He has pointed out some of the fallacies of disney and upa, and he actually did manage to back up his arguments against their visual workings. Quite well actually.

    That being said, I don’t take everything he says as gospel. He likes UPA styling if used right, but doesn’t like the cartoons partly because he thinks theyre boring. I don’t agree on that, I enjoy UPA shorts, just in a different way that I do the straight comedy shorts. Same thing with Disney work. He also doesn’t like anime (like a fair number of old school minded cartoonists don’t) but I do, and that’s ok.

    I believe part of the thing of reading his blog is that you should read all of it, and try to isolate his more useful information from his more opinionated information. Admittedly this isn’t easy, they sometimes overlap. Like in his attack on Unicorn in the Garden, his rants sometimes come off as overkill.

    I’m no John K. worshipper, nor do I hate him. I do admire his effort though. In fact, I think that the good outwieghs the bad on his blog by far. Just try to isolate the useful info you find there, and (if you disagree with them) take his opinions with a grain of salt. He’s very talented but he is still only one cartoonist with very distinct tastes/like/dislikes. There’s always a bunch of other blogs like Mayerson’s and Sporn’s (the other two I read everyday) to provide counterbalance and different opinions/viewpoints.

  • A couple of my favorite quotes…

    “Bad artists always admire each other’s work. They call it being large-minded and free from prejudice. But a truly great artist cannot conceive of life being shown, or beauty fashioned, under any conditions other than those he has selected.” Oscar Wilde

    “Good taste is the enemy of creativity.” Pablo Picasso

  • Micah

    Quotes. Oh. Well then. Case closed.

  • I like the fact that John K. gives his personal opinion. I even agree with him in a lot of the things he says. Another thing is the WAY he says them. If he doesn’t like something it’s worthless. He very rarely recognize some virtues in the stuff he doesn’t enjoy, and there seems to be very few things that are not his cup of tea buy he thinks they are decent or watchable. I don’t know if it’s just his personality or a strategy to make people talk about his arguments. Maybe a little bit of both. One thing is for sure, if he were making the same statements in a more polite manner he wouldn’t get so much response.

    Even considering that the strategy works, I think there are aspects that are usually ignored in his comments. He refuse to talk about the good qualities in cartoons he doesn’t like because of their drawing style. And I actually won’t despise illustrated radio. If Rocky and Bullwinkle are illustrated radio, then I love illustrated radio. If the best episodes of The Simpsons are illustrated radio, then the work of people like David Silverman or Brad Bird is worthless. And I think it’s not. One thing is to say that there are some scenes in those cartoons that could work without dialogue, another thing is saying they are not entertaining because they are “wordy” or the character design are “crude”. I find Family Guy boring. I think South Park is entertaining. To me SP is a better show than FG just for that reason, even though I don’t think one has more merits in his drawing style than the other.

    When John talks about story or dialogue-related elements he should give examples of both “classic” and modern things, just like he does when he talks about drawings. And concrete examples. And if he doesn’t have images or youtube videos to show it, then he can explain it by words.

  • Maybe I’m wrong but it seems that the general cartoon intelligencia flipflops on UPA quite a lot. Never quite deciding if UPA is or isn’t or wasn’t ever cool to begin with. Is my memory fuzzy or did this blog (or some other one) used to blast UPA cartoons some number of moons ago? I dunno. John K is still the most entertaining and intelligent blowhard I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. I remember not liking them very much when they still played classic cartoons on networks like nickelodeon or CN, but I loved Chuck Jones’ more experimental shorts which always struck me as UPA-ish.

  • Mark

    In criticizing UPA, a poster on Michael Sporn’s also derided Bebop as “sterile.” I can’t fathom how Bebop or UPA could be construed as sterile, but I like the analogy. Like Bebop, the experimental aesthetic of UPA toons–artist centric, vitoustic, avant garde–was never really intended to be appreciated by the masses. That said, like Bebop, UPA, in its time, touched a cultural nerve and found well deserved recognition beyond the shadows of elitism.

  • Here’s one of MY favourite quotes, from Steve Dubby Dubb:

    “I know John very well, and I can tell you that his personal taste has absolutely nothing to do with the opinions he’s presenting here. He can sit down with a cartoon that he doesn’t care for and can glean many useful things out of it. I’ve also heard him rip apart cartoons he loves.

    The thing non-artist cartoon fans don’t understand about John’s analysis of cartoons and their relative merits is that he is never talking about whether he *likes* something or not. He is talking about their relative strengths in context.

    Here’s an example… Harman-Ising MGM cartoons are about as removed from John’s personal taste as you can get, however on Bjork, he spent an hour with Charlie Gibson (the CG guy on the video) still framing through Milky Way analyzing and praising the effects animation.

    I’ve also seen him totally rip apart the Huck Hound and Yogi Bear cartoons he loves for their lousy stories and glacial pacing.”

  • I was browsing through Cartoon Modern today, and I found a post that Amid did last Summer that perfectly encapsulates my thoughts about the importance of animation even in stylized cartoons…

    The Importance of “Animation� in Animaton Design

    Here’s some great quotes from the article…

    “One of the hardest things to get across when discussing animation design is that it’s not just about character designers, layout artists and background painters. The animator is a critical member of the design team.”

    “The primary reason, in my opinion, that so much of today’s stylized animation rings hollow is because nobody ever follows through on the animation. Regardless of whether a show is animated traditionally overseas or if it’s done in Flash, most contemporary TV series creators think their job is done once they’ve created a pretty model sheet and slapped on a bit of color styling. These few stills illustrate however that model sheets are often the least important aspect of stylized animation—what the animator does with those designs is what truly counts.”

    Exactly! Great animators like Bill Littlejohn, Rod Scribner and Grim Natwick moved the designs in unique and stylized ways. That’s exactly the point I was trying to get across in my post, UPA Done Right.

  • Just to weigh in on this great controversy with a controversial opinion:

    Disney animation featured the Animator as the “star” of the picture – a highly skilled artist with the unique ability to combine draftsmanship, showmanship, and performance. The animator was encouraged to “push” the action and performance to create something unique. In the best of this kind of picture, you would see each animator showing off their skill, coming up with the best way to put over a piece of business. This style is in keeping with Disney’s entrepreneurial spirit of free enterprise. This was the style at most studios (in the US, anyway) up until the late ’40s

    Now with UPA, we see the ascendancy of the designer. All elements of the picture are subservient to the design. This kind of “top down” organizational system is in keeping with the socialist beliefs of many of the UPA staffers. The Production is planned and organized by the intelligentsia (in this case, the designer) Direction, animation, and even story is controlled by the design concept. (some artists are more equal than others!) It was this organization of production that made possible today’s “overseas production” system, with the “Home studio” as the “brains” of the production, and the Asian studio as the “brawn”. There is no room for “individuality” in the animation style – it has to fit the design. (Jim Tyer’s brilliant animation on “Sidney” or “Fleebus” would not be allowed at UPA!) T

    Now both of these approaches are valid. “Tell Tale Heart” is a pretty brilliant use of design and camera. “Rooty Toot Toot” and “Gerald McBoing Boing” are both great cartoons and very entertaining. What I’d like to see today would be a combination of the two approaches, but the “design concept” shows are the only ones we see today – the animation “execution” of the picture is relegated to a relatively low status, because it tends to be labor intensive and thus outsourced.

  • steve coats

    Somehow I think very few of the celebrated animators of the past would have intellectualised their work as some people have sought to in “the debate’ My understanding for example is that Termite Terrace was a spontaneous place where people threw their ideas into the melting pot and mixed it with their knowledge of what makes a cartoon work and if it was popular they used it as template for more cartoons and if it wasn’t they were told to never do it again.

    Any cartoons I like I watch again, any I don’t I never see again without thinking anyone who likes it just doesn’t understand cartoons. Some people are sure precious about their favourites. A few of the old animators if they read this debate would have found it pretty funny to find their works written up like a university study on Dostoyevsky.

    Keep punching guys!!

  • “I say your three cent titanium tax goes too far.”

    “And I say your three cent titanium tax doesn’t go too far enough.”

    I’m loving that thread. So many respectable figures throwing themselves gleefully off of intellectual cliff edges. Best fun i’ve had in a whole hour.

  • Keith Paynter

    Wow, I really have to slap around John K for his comment about one of his clips, “I don’t know what the hell this is…”

    That was a piece from one of the earliest Nelvana Animation television specials, The Devil & Daniel Mouse. which followed hot on the heels of their first major production, A Cosmic Christmas. I was impressed by many of the early Nelvana specials, this one in particular, thanks to the voicework of Chris Wiggins (who was frequently heard in the classic Spider-Man series), and the original music (and singing voice of) John Sebastian. For a Canuck like John K. to be ignorant of the work of Nelvana is inexcusable.

  • Jay

    John K has an interesting habit of critiquing all cartoons on the same level playing field without regard to the larger cultural context they were created in. He calls Fantasia’s cupids “gay kitch”, but doesn’t consider that Disney was using romantic greeting-card icons (ie, Currier & Ives) popular in the late 30s to make classical music ‘go down easy’ with a touch of art.

    The UPA cartoons were created in a time when experimental, stylized animation from all studios was becoming more popular. John K briefly mentions the “Space” cartoons that Ward Kimball directed, but ignores the brilliant stylized animation he pioneered. Yes, limited animation was abused to save money by Filmation and HB in the 60s and 70s, but ex-Disney artists wanting to play with new styles of moving images on screen aren’t to blame for Joe Barbara’s penny-pinching.

  • > For a Canuck like John K. to be ignorant of the work of Nelvana is inexcusable.

    That’s clearly more John K hyperbole; I mean, he did find it on youtube; it says what it is right there on the Youtube page!

  • captain murphy

    Its a bit like blaming UPA for limited animation, rather than blaming TV, or Felix the Cat.

    I like to think I understand what Kricfalusi is saying when he dislikes aspects of UPA, the problem is, many people do not… they have not been listening to him or reading him long enough, and John uses polarizing language, which reinforces a black and white world view that doesn’t necessarily get the energy going in the right direction. It is as a challenge as much as anything.

    The fifties is full of the design stuff, partially because people were TRYING to make a stylistic break from Disney (even Disney, with Ward Kimball and Eyvind Earle), and partially because TV needed something that would read and would be quick to do on early screens, and partially because, it was simply the style of the day, from Vip Partch to Studio Cards to Early Don Martin.

    I think at base what John really wants to point out is, “Hey! Something IMPORTANT is missing here!” rather than “It all sucks rather than what I like”. You might have to read him a while to realize that. Sometimes that something important can be difficult to turn in on time and on budget in a world where you ship everything overseas to get finished. And sometimes the dimensional realism that comes with construction isn’t going to show in a student project where one hand was doing most of the work, and the design and animation is simplified to get that project done.

    The new flatness of McCracken designed shows like Powerpuff and Dexter succeeded BECAUSE it broke from the poorly designed and stiffly animated horrible line weight ‘realism’ of the seventies Hanna Barbera and Filmation product, and the eighties toy commercials that immediately proceeded it. It was a breath of fresh air at the time.

    It reintroduced some style, where style was missing. And the style was easy to animate with stuff like flash (Sure there was not much illusion of 3d in a 2d plane, which I think is something John misses the most). And Geometrics that even kids can draw? Guess what, they are popular with KIDS, just like songs with three chords are popular with people that only know three chords.

    You might as well blame FLASH for bad animation. The trick is, it is actually being used professionally enough often enough that a lot of stuff created in Flash, doesn’t look like it.

    Meanwhile, the suits only like what shows up on time, and seems to justify some reason why they are drawing a check while the talent isn’t. Sometimes that creates meddling, but the point is, PRODUCE.

  • Carter

    Jay – I think John’s point, which it’s pretty excusable not to have found, is that it IS UPA’s fault that their imitators were pinching pennies, because in inventing their new style of animation, they threw out a lot of the techniques of animation, which (as he illustrates with other studios’ stylization) was not necessary or even stylistically desirable. In doing so UPA doomed the high craft of 1940s animation to become a lost art.

    It’s a shit ton of hot air, but it’s all ultimately about why the extreme craft of circa WWII animation was lost (and that’s inarguable fact, by the 70s there just weren’t guys left who could do that kind of work) and John somewhat convincingly says that UPA were the first to say you can get away without the hard work of real animation.

  • Soooooooooo. Let me get this straight. John’s point is that in developing styles and techniques which facilitate penny pinching and a drop in craftmanship, that it’s UPA’s fault thet their imitators made cheap, badly drawn crap?

    I hope that isn’t his argument, because it’s retarded.

    And if it IS his argument, it’s pretty RICH coming from a guy who claims to have ‘invented’ Flash animation…

  • Frank Zerox

    John K’s fascism spills over. He should stick to drawing girls with large breasts and just pine quietly for racial stereotypes in a corner.
    Oh, and am I the only one who thought Ren and Stimpy (beautifully designed and animated as it is) was actually an unfunny bore-fest?

  • vzk

    I think this is the first time I ever read John K. saying something nice towards Brad Bird’s work (Family Dog), considering his thoughts on The Iron Giant and The Incredibles.

  • Dan

    John K makes me not want to draw cartoons. After reading his blog for a year or so, I feel like I’m being told to trash my basic, design-heavy cartoons — which is naturally how I draw — and wait until I can draw at his level or his protege’s Katie’s level. That ain’t gonna happen!

    Life is short, the pace of the world moves very quickly, and I don’t have 4 years to study animation or art. If I have an idea, I draw it up, pick up a guitar or write about it, the moment I get the idea. Or it’s lost. I’ll learn along the way, and maybe 10, 20 years from now I’ll produce something worthy of other’s appreciation. But I’m not going to wait.

    And that Raketu girl is no more special than the eSurance spy girl. Sorry.

  • JosephMcKlay

    I’d just like to say that I’m an animation student, and I have had mixed feelings about John K’s blogs for some time. What bugs me the most is that over ninety percent of the people who respond to Mr. Kricfalusi’s posts are complete and utter toadies.

    I understand that it’s his weblog. He has the right to say whatever he wants–but what troubles me is the idea that there is going to be a whole generation of new animators who follow his blind vision. Am I making too big a deal over this?

  • John K’s name has been mentioned so many times, that his ego will outlive us all.