Oh, For a Time Machine…

As this 1943 ad shows, if I had lived in San Francisco back then, and had been interested in animation, and had been well-heeled enough to have a few hundred dollars to spare, I could have probably put together a truly amazing collection of Disney cels. (One wonders which examples were impressive enough to rate a top-of-the-line $35 pricetag.)

Wonder if any of the ones that San Franciscans picked up back then are still proudly displayed anywhere in this city?


The Act


I’m in Boston for the holidays, and today I did one of the few things you can do in New England that you just can’t do in California–I went candlepin bowling. While I waited for my friend Deb to arrive at the alley, I checked out its video games–and found that one of them was The Act, an “interactive romantic comedy” which I’d read about on Cartoon Brew earlier this year.

The Act is tough to describe, but virtually every reference I’ve seen to it brings up Don Bluth’s Dragon’s Lair, and that’s as good a frame of reference as any, although this new game is vastly more interesting than the Bluth one. It’s an arcade game done in full character animation–amazingly, maybe the first since those Bluth laserdisc games of the 1980s, even though the technology is far more practical these days. But while the Bluth games’ themes were pretty much exactly the same as other early arcade games, The Act is indeed a romantic comedy, involving a klutzy window washer, a sexy nurse, an unpleasant boss, and other characters. I’m not sure if the parallels are intentional, but it reminds me a lot of a Harold Lloyd film. (In part because there’s no dialog–or at least I didn’t hear any during the section of the game I was able to get through before losing.)

Dragon’s Lair was a game with a simple input device (a joystick) and game play that was almost beside the point (you thrashed the joystick around, but it didn’t seem to have that much impact on what happened). The Act has an even simpler input device (a rotating knob, not unlike the one from Pong), but the game play is surprisingly subtle. Basically, you rotate the knob to control the hero’s behavior, and the idea is to keep him active without forcing him to go over the top. So in the first bit of game play, in which he’s flirting with the nurse in a Casablanca parody, you’ve got to turn the knob with a lot of finesse–rather slowly, precisely, and sporadically–to avoid scaring her off.

Between the nicely-done animation, unusual premise, and unique game play, I found the game pretty absorbing, and was playing when Deb arrived. She was intrigued, but when I asked her if she wanted to have a go, she said “No!” I should have asked her why, but didn’t.

Back at my folks’ house, I looked into the story behind The Act, and found that I’d lucked into being one of the first people to play it. It’s the product of a Boston-area company called Cecropia, and is in a test rollout at seven Massachusetts and New Hampshire locations through January, including the bowling alley we’d gone to. The animation, directed by Broose Johnson, was done by laid-off veterans of Disney’s Orlando studio, and it’s good, funny stuff; even the backgrounds are well done.

(The Cecropia site has more background on the game.)

The Act has almost nothing to do with the barely-alive industry that arcade gaming has become–it’s low-key, free of violence other than the slapstick kind, and rewards restraint on the part of the game player. Most players of arcade games–who seem to be a pretty lonely bunch of pre-teen boys these days–probably wouldn’t like it; most people who might like it probably haven’t played an arcade game in years.

I have no idea whether it stands a chance as a business enterprise, but I hope so–it’s a new idea, and one which makes excellent use of hand-drawn animation. If you find yourself near any of the test locations in the next few weeks, check it out. And if you don’t find yourself near them, stay tuned: Apparently, Cecropia has plans to release a home version at some point.

I hope it’s a success, one way or another–I’d like to see its makers get a shot at continuing this experiment with further games…

Joe Barbera, 1911 (?)-2006

When a major animation figure who was involved with a lot of wonderful cartoons dies, is it inappropriate to dwell on the dark side of his career? If anyone’s reading this, I may find out.

At MGM in the 1940s, Joe Barbera and Bill Hanna made some of the funniest, most expressive, most alive short films–of any sort–ever produced anywhere. If they’d left the business when the studio’s cartoon arm closed in 1957, I’m convinced, their reputation today would be pretty simple to summarize: Everyone would know that they were grand masters of the American animated short, period.

But Bill and Joe went on to found their own studio, one whose yearly output dwarfed their entire MGM career. And it produced…well, mostly cynical crud. (For years, my attitude towards the early Huck Hound and Yogi Bear shorts was almost entirely dispassionate, perhaps because we got them on Portland TV only when I was about nine and had already been soured on HB from watching too much of its later output; recently, I’ve come to appreciate them for their voicework, design, and, in some cases, writing. But I’d still rather watch almost any Jay Ward cartoon from the same era.)

From the start, the HB studio’s work was derivative–Ruff and Reddy being clones of Crusader Rabbit and Rags–and by the mid-1960s, most of it was derivative junk without the saving graces of the early stuff. HB has been called the studio that saved the animation business, but to borrow a phrase from a war of that era, it had to destroy the artform in order to save it. I still wonder if TV animation would have gotten so bad so quickly if Hanna-Barbera hadn’t defined schlockiness down a little more each season for so long.

And it was all doubly depressing because Hanna and Barbera had proved themselves capable of making wonderful cartoons. For all we know, Lou Scheimer and Norm Prescott were capable only of swill; Bill and Joe didn’t have that excuse. I remain convinced that they could have done better. Even with the budgets they had. Even in an era in which the networks made it almost impossible to produce a good TV cartoon.

(Question: Is it pure coincidence that when HB utterly dominated the industry, nearly all television animation was abysmal–and when the company’s fortunes took a turn for the worse, in the late 1980s or so, the quality of the average TV cartoon improved sharply? Discuss…)

(Another question: If Daws Butler had never lived, would anyone remember the earliest HB cartoons with even a small fraction of the fondness they generate today?)

Pardon me–I think I’ll go off now and watch The Zoot Cat