Mark Mayerson

Writer, Cartoonist, Sculptor

Should Animation Only Do What Live Action Can't?
(March, 1985)

There is a belief among many animation artists and fans that animation should only do stories that live action can't. I disagree with this and I'll explain why.

There isn't a single medium that doesn't adapt work from other media. Movies have been made from novels, plays, comics, and even pop songs ("You Light Up My Life," "The Gambler," etc.). Certain works are endlessly adapted. Take Oliver Twist by Dickens. It started as a novel, became a silent film, a talkie, a musical play and then a film of the musical. Each medium the story appeared in had different strengths and weaknesses, and yet each medium was able to adapt the story to its own needs.

Sometimes you get adaptations that don't seem like they should work, but they do. Can you imagine Ben Hur on stage? Well, it was done, complete with horses on a treadmill to stage the chariot race. How about World War I on stage? It was done as What price Glory?

Now the stage is not the best medium for physical realism. I'm sure that nobody in the audience watching Ben Hur though they were looking at an accurate image of ancient Rome. But the stage knows its limitations and doesn't confuse physical realism with emotional realism. While a stage can't hold a set of ancient Rome the way a movie can, the stage can impart the emotions of the characters every bit as effectively as the movies. Similarly, What Price Glory? on stage can show you what it feels like to be involved in World War I even if you can't see miles and miles of trenches and no man's land.

There are real differences between books, movies, the stage and music, but there are similarities. One is that the artists who make them only have to find a subject worthwhile before tackling it. The other is that all are concerned with communicating to their audience something about what it's like to be alive. I don't think animation has any less right to the same aspirations or less obligation to the audience.

We would not think too much of a medium if it didn't have the ability to express the complete range of human endeavor and emotion, but that's how animation treats itself. It doesn't start off trying to find or develop the strongest possible material and then figure out how animation could best express it. It starts out by limiting itself to material that doesn't lend itself to a live treatment. What this tends to leave us with is talking animals, fairy tales and cartoon slapstick.

Now there is nothing intrinsically wrong with these subjects, but you have to admit that they are greatly responsible for animation being thought of as a children's medium.

I don't think that animation should start doing remakes of The Sound of Music or Casablanca, but these things could be done in the same way that the makers of Oliver turned Dicken's novel into a stage musical.

The key to the approach would be similar to the theatre. Don't confuse physical reality with emotional reality. A good example is Ralph Bakshi's Heavy Traffic. Michael's parents in that film are unquestionably cartoon characters, but their concerns are those of real people. The father is concerned with the trappings of power: the car, the blonde, the ability to boss people around. He is worried about staying on the good side of the godfather. The mother is stuck with a bad marriage to a man she has come to hate. Both of them are worried about the direction their son's life is taking. These things were on Bakshi's mind and he expressed them through animation with characters who look cartoony. Certainly they could have been done in live action. They could have been done in any medium. Does that make them less animatable?