Cartoons were never just for children. Cartoons in the Golden Age, such as Red Hot Riding Hood, contained topical and often suggestive humor, though they were seen primarily as "children's entertainment" by movie exhibitors. This point of view prevailed when the new medium of television began showing cartoons in the late 1940s.
One of the very first images to be broadcast over television was that of Felix the Cat. As TV became a phenomenon and began to draw audiences away from movie theaters, many children's TV shows included airings of theatrical cartoons in their schedules, and this introduced a new generation of children to the cartoons of the 1920s and 1930s. Cartoon producer Paul Terry sold the rights to the Terrytoons cartoon library to television and retired from the business in the early 1950s. This guaranteed a long life for the characters of Mighty Mouse and Heckle and Jeckle, whose cartoons were syndicated and rerun in children's television programming blocks for the next thirty to forty years.
Walt Disney also quickly capitalized on the medium of television with his own weekly TV series, Disneyland. This show, which was essentially a weekly half-hour commercial for Disney, popularized his new Disneyland theme park. It also began a decades-long series of TV broadcasts of Disney cartoons, which later expanded into the show Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color. However, Disney largely decided against creating original television animation, recognizing that the economics of the medium could not support his production standards. However, he ordered the creation of one character, Ludwig Von Drake for original animation that attempted to create seamless links to the various theatrical shorts presented as one complete show episode.
The first major animation studio to produce cartoons especially for television was Hanna-Barbera Productions. When MGM closed its cartoon studio in 1957, Hanna-Barbera began producing cartoons directly for television, finding an audience in the evening "family hour" time.
The Huckleberry Hound Show
The first prime-time animated series from Hanna-Barbera were The Ruff & Reddy Show (1957) and The Huckleberry Hound Show (1958), though the studio hit its stride in 1960s when it scored with The Flintstones. This was the first half-hour "sitcom" cartoon, and like many of its successors it was originally aired during prime time when the whole family would be watching television. The Flintstones was the first of several prime-time animated series from Hanna-Barbera, which included the acclaimed Jonny Quest, generally thought of as Hanna-Barbera's best television work; however, prime-time animation did not produce any other high-rated TV series, and Hanna-Barbera turned its efforts to the growing market for Saturday morning cartoons.
One of the problems with producing animation for television was the extremely labor intensive animation process. While theatrical short subjects were previously produced in six month cycles or longer, network television needed a season of 10-20 half hour episodes each year. This led to a number of shortcut techniques to speed up the production process, and the techniques of limited animation were applied to produce a great number of quickly-produced, low-budget TV cartoons. The mass production led to a rapid decrease in the quality of television animation in general.
The UPA studio was one of the first victims of the TV-animation market. The quality of the UPA theatrical shorts had decreased in quality since John Hubley left the studio, and UPA turned to television to sustain itself. This proved to be a death-knell for its animation studio. The two UPA TV series Mister Magoo and Dick Tracy were of excruciating quality, and while they retained some of the visual flair that had rocked the animation industry, the wretched quality of the stories turned viewers off and doomed the studio. UPA had abandoned animation production completely by the late 1960s.
The Jay Ward studio, producer of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, used limited animation in its series, but the lack of visual effects was compromised by giving more attention to the writing and witty humor.
The decline of animation
The 1960s saw a decline in the entire animation industry that affected the medium as a whole for over twenty years. The cartoon creations of all the Hollywood studios seemed to be affected by an apathy that led to a general decline in quality for the industry. Creativity and originality in animation moved largely underground, to the point where quality animated films were largely produced by small, independent producers, or in countries other than America.
In 1961, Walt Disney helped to establish the California Institute of the Arts. The founding of the institute was both a philanthropic gesture and a savvy investment by Disney, as the school provided plenty of creative talent for the company in the years to come. CalArts and other peer institutions would have an important role in the animation revival of the 1990s.
1966: Walt Disney's Death
Meanwhile, although Walt Disney's films of the 1960s (Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book) still generated hefty revenue for the studio, his empire was rocked to its core when Disney died from lung cancer in 1966. The Disney company had trouble finding a new direction to move in after Walt's death, and the production of live-action and animated feature films suffered as a result. While the studio tried to remain true to his vision (a common catchphrase of the time was "What would Walt do?"), many critics felt that the studio's best days were behind them. Additionally, many veteran animators either retired or passed away, so the studio had to find ways to replace them. In 1973, Eric Larson started a training program for new animators.
Films from this period included The Aristocats, Robin Hood, and The Rescuers, as well as the featurettes Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day, It's Tough to Be a Bird, Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too!, and The Small One, plus the live-action/animation hybrids Bedknobs and Broomsticks and Pete's Dragon. Eventually these films (except Pete's Dragon) turn out to be successful, much to the company's relief.
The arguable low point of the post-Walt era occurred in September 1979 when studio animator Don Bluth led a walkout of himself and a dozen of his supporters, including Gary Goldman and John Pomeroy. Fed up with the status quo at Disney, he and his acolytes left to start his own studio. Disney entered the 1980s facing an uncertain future.
The End of Termite Terrace
Warner Bros. shut down its animation studio completely in 1963, and the directors of Termite Terrace went their separate ways. Friz Freleng was a co-founder of DePatie-Freleng Enterprises, and the company entered the market of TV animation with a number of Saturday morning series that were largely lost in the vast wasteland of low-quality TV cartoons. Freleng did produce a number of The Pink Panther Show cartoons during the 1960s and 1970s, and produced Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies from 1964 to 1967. Warner Bros.-Seven Arts reopened the studio from 1967 to 1969, but the cartoons produced were not well-received.
Chuck Jones's version of Dr. Seuss's "Grinch"
Chuck Jones, on the other hand, refused to compromise the quality of his animation. His own company, Tower 12 Productions, worked with MGM on the Tom and Jerry series in the 1960s, but with only mediocre results. Jones then began producing a number of high-quality animated "TV specials" that avoided the necessity of producing vast numbers of episodes of a continuing TV series. His most famous TV episode was How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, an adaptation of the Dr. Seuss story that has become an unforgettable holiday classic. Jones also produced three animated adaptations of short stories from Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, as well as a full-length feature film entitled The Phantom Tollbooth.
The most successful animated feature of the late 1960s was Yellow Submarine, whose director, George Dunning, was an independent animator who did not come from the rigid Hollywood system of cartoon production and boasting a distinctive visual motif inspired by the art of Peter Max. But other than this film, high-quality animation for the movies was in danger of becoming a lost art.
Enter Ralph Bakshi
The industry had become stagnant and in need of change, and the most prominent attempt to bring change came from another up-and-coming young director, Ralph Bakshi.
Fritz the Cat
Moving into feature films after attempting to save the Famous Studios animation studio from being closed by Paramount, Bakshi shocked audiences by producing the first X-rated animated feature film, Fritz the Cat. The movie was a box-office hit, and it inspired Bakshi to produce a string of animated feature films (not necessarily X-rated) aimed at adult audiences rather than kids, with the most famous of these films being an ambitious animated adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. It also inspired the creation of several other "X rated and animated" films, few of which were as successful as Bakshi's films. Few other animators or studios dared to follow in Bakshi's footsteps.
A few attempts were made to produce independent feature-length animated films in the 1970s. Despite the efforts put into such films as Watership Down,Heavy Metal, and Disney'sThe Rescuers, the genre of animation descended into a doldrums that it seemed unable to escape from.
Commercialization and counterculture
Animation on television focused almost exclusively on children, to the point where Saturday morning TV broadcasts on the TV networks were aimed primarily at kids. The tradition of getting up early to watch Saturday morning cartoons became a weekly ritual for millions of American kids, and the networks were glad to oblige by providing hours-long blocks of cartoon shows, most of which were crudely written and poorly animated. But the children watched these shows anyway, and Hanna-Barbera Productions became the leader in the production of TV cartoons for children. A number of other studios produced TV cartoons, but the lion's share came from Hanna-Barbera. In spite of persistent attempts by rival animation studios Filmation (Fat Albert, The Archies) and DePatie-Freleng Enterprises (The Pink Panther) to capture audiences, Hanna-Barbera had developed a virtual monopoly on TV cartoons by the 1970s. This led to a considerable decline in quality on Saturday mornings; there was no incentive for Hanna-Barbera to produce high-quality animation because when a show was cancelled by the network, it was swiftly replaced by another Hanna-Barbera show of equally dismal quality. While some efforts at creativity were made by up-and-coming animators such as Mark Evanier, their efforts were lost amid a flood of cheaply-produced cartoons.
The only inspired animated efforts on television during the period of the 1960s through the 1980s came from prime-time animated TV specials. Because these one-shot cartoons were aired during prime-time hours (and thus had to appeal to adults as well as children), they had to obtain higher ratings than their Saturday and weekday counterparts. CBS in particular allowed a large number of animated TV specials to air on its network, and several of these have become cherished classics (now available on video). The Rankin-Bass studio produced a number of stop-motion specials geared towards popular holidays (including Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer); while Bill Melendez's long-running series of Peanuts specials won numerous awards.
But the real creativity in animation came from independent animators who produced independent animated short films that were rarely seen outside of "art house" movie theaters. As the Hollywood animation studios faded, a number of independent producers of animation continued to make experimental, artistic animated films that explored new artistic territory in the medium of animation. Short films such as The Critic,Bambi Meets Godzilla,Lupo the Butcher, and many others were almost unknown to mainstream audiences; however, these independent animated films continued to keep the yearly category of the Academy Award for Animated Short Film alive, as well as introducing a number of new names into the animation industry—names that would begin to bring much-needed change to the industry in the 1980s.
In 1981, Friz Freleng retired. The DePatie-Freleng Enterprises studio was sold to Marvel Comics, and it continued under his lead as Marvel Productions Ltd. This new studio focused almost exclusively on toy merchandising, and it found a new audience among young viewers. Despite their low quality, the Marvel Productions cartoons (especially G.I. Joe and Transformers) offered a change of pace from the formula writing offered by Hanna-Barbera's continuing series.
Governmental influences — Eighties trends
Toy Commercial Cartoons
During the 1980s, the Reagan administration repealed a number of regulations on television; among other things, it greatly loosened the standards a TV show had to meet to be considered "educational" (and thus worthy for viewing by children). Toy manufacturers and marketers took advantage of these new standards, and the first half of the decade saw the introduction of a wave of toy-based cartoons that were widely criticized for being little more than half-hour TV commercials for toys and video games. These cartoons, including Marvel Productions' G.I. Joe, Transformers, Care Bears, and Hanna-Barbera's Pac-Man and Saturday Supercade, and many others were often cited as examples of poor writing and animation; nevertheless, they were a big hit with young viewing audiences. They were also the first cartoons to seriously threaten the dominance of Hanna-Barbera for the kids viewing market.
The rise of Anime
Gatchaman which was translated and edited into Battle of the Planets in North America.
Throughout this period, Japanese anime production made a limited impact on the North American market. The most notable work were the television series like Astroboy and Speed Racer in the 1960s, Battle of The Planets and Star Blazers in the 1970s and Voltron and Robotech in the 1980s. As a rule, the imported series were heavily censored to fit the preconceived idea of children's fare with Star Blazers and Robotech being partial exceptions. Although, their impact on the art in North America was minimal for decades, the distinctive nature of the anime series created a cult following that grew gradually until the 1980s when Star Blazers and Robotech, with their complex storylines and frank depiction of violence, helped create the groundswell that would lead to the major influx of anime popularity starting in the 1990s.
The 1980s also saw the rise of the music video industry, spearheaded by MTV. Artistic experimentation in these short films often resulted in the production of lush, creative animated sequences that reminded viewers of the potential of animation as something other than poorly animated Saturday morning cartoons. A number of memorable animated videos were produced during the heyday of MTV, including "Take on Me" by a-Ha; "Sledgehammer" by Peter Gabriel; "Money for Nothing" by Dire Straits; and "The Harlem Shuffle" by The Rolling Stones (the animated sequences in this video were directed by Ralph Bakshi and John Kricfalusi).