Mark Mayerson

Writer, Cartoonist, Sculptor

The Upside and Downside of Influences
(April 5, 2014)

When a baby goose hatches, it starts following the first moving thing it sees. As that is usually its mother, instinct serves it well.

People don't have an instinct that strong, but from around the ages of 5 to 20, humans are deeply influenced by what's around them. Sometimes these influences cause an ignition moment; a person sees someone or something and suddenly knows the path to take. I'm old enough to remember the first appearance of the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, and my classmates were utterly transformed by the event. I'd love to know how many guitars were sold in the weeks after that appearance.

Even when an influence isn't instantaneous, it still shapes shapes a person. The things you are exposed to during your impressionable years contribute to who you are. As they say, the child is father to the man.

There's a strong emotional component to being influenced at that age. The emotions generated by the things one likes cement their influence on you. While I have seen many good movies since my twenties, few have the emotional impact that films I discovered as a teenager had. When you reach maturity, something happens to how you respond; the impact is not as great.

Creative people are formed during that 15 year period. It's why you can look at the mass culture of any decade and find that it's distinctive. It's because the people creating during that period grew up with the same influences. While they don't reproduce those influences exactly, they shape the work in similar ways.

The emotional affection for something in its simplest form results in nostalgia. It's fun to share childhood memories with someone the same age. There's a pleasure to re-experiencing something you loved when younger. The original emotional is evoked. That's why there are oldies stations on the radio, even though the decade(s) they feature are constantly advancing with the age of the listening audience. Good luck finding an oldies station playing '50s rock and roll now.

The emotional attachment to the things that formed us have repercussions for creators. It's why animation studios and broadcasters hunt for young talent. That talent is closest in age to the audience, so it shares more of the same influences. Those people are often inexperienced in the ways of production, but studios think it's a worthwhile risk. Production smarts can be bought more easily than an emotional link to the audience.

It also means that everyone who is creative is in danger of losing the audience over time. As media content shifts, creators often can't shift with it. Because newer approaches rarely evoke the emotional response of the work they grew up on, staying current often produces a superficial result. It apes the surface but can't connect to the core; it lacks sincerity.

This has become very obvious to me recently. I mentioned to one of my classes that I haven't really watched TV animation in 20 years, though I've stayed reasonably up to date with animated features. Partly this is because I know first hand the limitations of TV budgets and schedules and when I watch TV animation all I see are the compromises and shortcuts. The bigger issue is that I'm past the age where I can emotionally connect with shows aimed at children or teens. The influences that formed the people making these shows are alien to me. While my students may love Gravity Falls or Steven Universe, I'm never going to love them in the way that I love Chuck Jones or even Bosko cartoons, something I admit have little absolute value. While I admire the work of Miyazaki, Takahata and Kon, I'm betting that younger people exposed to their work love it in a way that I can't.

(One of the oddities of growing up in the early TV era is that my generation was exposed to older work our parents grew up on: theatrical cartoons, the Marx Brothers, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Abbott and Costello, The Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy, and The Little Rascals. This proves that the work that influences you doesn't have to be contemporary, only that you experience it during your impressionable years.)

Twenty years from now my current students will discover that they're estranged from the younger people entering the field as they won't have the same influences. Agism in the media is very real, and this is the root of it. The gap between creators and the audience results from a difference of influences and the less common ground that creators share with the audience, the harder it is to connect. Steven Spielberg's latest films are no longer the events they once were, and Spielberg is as audience-wise as anybody. And I suspect that when we reach the point where young adults no longer grew up on The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King, I'm guessing that the desire to make drawn animated features will be a lot less widespread.

While we are less instinctual than goslings, we may also be less flexible. Goslings eventually move beyond their mothers, but do any of us escape our childhood influences?