Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Cartoon Modern

When writing the other day about the illustration work of Miroslav Sasek, I referred to it as a "classic, mid-century style." I was struck by the fact that I didn't have a name for it, and that I wasn't better able to describe its appearance.

Writer Amid Amidi calls the animated versions of this style "cartoon modern" in his beautiful book, Cartoon Modern: Style and Design in Fifties Animation. (Cartoon Modern blog here.)

Yellow cover of the book Cartoon Modern
According to Amidi, it was a "bold visual style that was derived from the modern arts, assimilating and adapting the principles of Cubism, Surrealism, and Expressionism into the realm of animation..." (page 7). Artists like Picasso, Matisse, Calder, Shahn, Noguchi and Miro, or illustrators like Saul Steinberg, R.O. Blechman and Ronald Searle were influential.

Fantastic pinks and fanciful figures, circus-like setting
[Background painting from "Petroushka," directed by John Wilson for Fine Art Films, 1956. Reproduced from Cartoon Modern.]

Realism was abandoned in favor of visual interest. Backgrounds didn't need to be three-dimensional, and painting techniques didn't have to recede but could instead call attention to themselves.

News reader at a desk in a TV studio, odd perspective
[Background painting, artist unknown, from "Woodpecker from Mars," directed by Paul J. Smith for Walter Lantz Productions. Reproduced from Cartoon Modern.]

One really fine example of this type of work is the classic "Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol," released in December 1962 by UPA studio. I first saw it some time in the mid-1960s, and watched it with my family every year on TV until it disappeared from syndication.

Boomer nostalgia does have its benefits sometimes, because fans of the show have caused it to resurface. I remember watching it with a bunch of other college students around 1980 when our college film club showed it. It finally made its way to DVD, and now there's a new book out giving all the details on how it was made: Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol: The Making of the First Animated Christmas Special by Darrell Van Citters (here's the website for the book).

Cover of Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol book
For me, the visually arresting part of the show is not so much the characters as the backgrounds and objects. (I'm also a big fan of the music, by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill of Funny Girl fame, but that's a subject for another blog post.)

Pencil rendering of Scrooge's chair in his sitting room
This layout, by Shirley Silvey, transforms Scrooge's sitting room with a modernist vibe.

Stairway landing looking up and down the stairs
These vertiginous stairs (painting by Bob Inman, layout by Shirley Silvey) combine flat color and skewed perspective with decorative details.

As I remember them, the backgrounds from the theater and neighboring buildings where Mister Magoo appears as Scrooge would fit right in with Sasek's street scenes of New York.

I guess I'll be using cartoon modern from now on to label that classic, mid-century style.

A current animator/illustrator whose work references cartoon modern is Ward Jenkins, who maintains an inspiring blog full of images from the past and present.

1 comment:

Ward Jenkins said...

Thanks for the mention! I'm very influenced by that look & style from the mid-40's to the mid-60's. Sometimes, when describing that look to others within the animation industry, it was always referred to as "you know, that UPA style". Amid went forward with the notion that yes, it deserves its place in pop culture, and was able to create an incredible book devoted to that look. Sometimes it's also referred to as "more stylized" or "flat" - and if asked for more description, the term "mid-century" usually does the trick. So, you were on the right track when describing Sasek's work in your other post.

Speaking of Sasek, I started up a whole Flickr group devoted to this look & style when it came to anything produced or published for children during the 40's to the 60's called The Retro Kid. Books, games, ads, etc. All vintage and all amazing to look at. I think you'll dig it.

Again, thanks for the mention!