The eye is keen. The mind is thoroughly grounded. The goal is to maintain a sense of intellectual honesty while exploring the culture of criticism and evaluating creativity in all its glory.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

They Had the Power

Did you ever notice how some things simply change our culture to the nth degree? It seems the older I get the more I realize just how true that is. I was thinking the other day about what sort of things have come into our world since I can remember ... velcro, microwave ovens, home videos, cell phones, personal computers, internet, and a bloggosphere. The list goes on and on. That’s progress, I suppose. And, it’s okay.

Something really weird happened in the 1980s. There was a cultural shift that was the counter-part of everything the 60s and 70s had to offer... and then some. It went beyond the really big hair, fake everything, and supper tight jeans. So many things were changing fast and as a young mother I was on high alert to protect my kids. Of all the things I controlled for my children I have to say the television was most passionately limited. I allowed a half hour of tv entertainment five days a week and the programs offered were Looney Tunes, Muppets, Mr. Rogers, or Sesame Street. We had a few VCR tapes and PBS reception was fine enough for what limited amount was seen.

Atari - a popular game in the 80s
Those darn Mario Bros and Donkey Kong were introduced then, too. I found myself horrified with the many parents who were sitting their children in front of entertainment boxes, letting them play computer games and Atari for hours on end. I personally couldn’t find the benefit of using that sort of day-care for my kids so we instead found ways to use our imagination and simply play in the real world. It seemed everywhere I turned folks were telling me I was depriving my children of progress. Progress ... there’s that word again.

Marketers figured something out in the 80s ... they understood that Baby Boomers still controlled the dollars, and the children of Baby Boomers controlled their parents. It was obvious that whatever toys these kids wanted, they would get – just research the Cabbage Patch Doll, Coleco years, and you’ll see what I mean.

The Cabbage Patch Doll even hit the UK!
So, how does one better market to the children?  Mattel’s Product Development Department had worked up a line of action figures listed under the series called “Masters of the Universe”, and they sold remarkably well. However, sales could be boosted still further with some clever entertainment coordination so the Marketing Department took control. I do believe that Mattel got more than they parleyed for when they approached Filmation Studio and proposed a deal to produce a cartoon show based on the popular action-figures ... He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was born.

Filmation Studio was an impressive power-house at that time. Their seasoned animators produced an extraordinary amount of quality work when they created the first season of He-Man. By painstakingly rotoscoping live action footage, they created a library of stock character movements that were simply superb. The background artists produced dazzling and dream-like settings for the action to play out. Combine all that with haunting and melodious music and this new cartoon had a style and sensibility that was stunningly different from others ever seen.

He-Man’s storylines were not typical either. In the beginning they were  straightforward enough, but a few episodes in to it the scriptwriters took the simply typical characters and began to explore who they were as people. The personalities grew as they struggled with human issues like parental pride, personal usefulness, friendship, adoption, and learning to cope when things seemed frustratingly wrong.

During the first season of He-Man there was a lot of controversy over the series. Many people were more than unhappy once they understood that corporations were marketing directly to children.  Was He-Man nothing more than a salesman directing a half-hour Mattel commercial that was manipulating children for a profitable end? For me, I immediately saw the blurring of that imagined line that defined distinctions between art and commerce. I have never believed in that line. Picture making has always been used for commerce, even Michelangelo and de’ Vinci knew that truth. The question, really, was how inappropriate was it to market to children? As a young mother I set out to truly ponder this concept; to understand how this He-Man character could be thought of as anything different from Santa Clause, Easter Bunny, Smoky Bear, Charlie Brown and his Great Pumpkin, or what ever. Children have been marketed to for a very, very long time and the only unusual thing that happened in the 80s was over-seas cheap mass production of toys and new technological entertainment tools that virtually reached for potential fans (kids). The protest that got me was when Dr. Thomas Radecki, of the National Coalition for Television Violence, insisted that the He-Man series was "a blatant attempt to sell violence to children through the peddling of violent action toys... The brutal barbarian is still held up as a model."

What? I had to ask myself ... where were the parents? Must we depend on a national coalition to tell a business what they can or cannot try to sell because a parent can’t say no? Is that product development team so supreme that they are controlling children by preaching buy, buy, buy while parents are stunned helplessly on the side lines in disbelief? I had to see that power for myself, so I sent my kids to their room every afternoon for a week while I watched He-Man to learn how violent and barbaric this muscle-bound character was. What I learned was that reasoned discussion was ignored while polarizing rhetoric ruled the day. I didn’t just approve of He-Man, I thought it a marvelous and entertaining thing that I could comfortably show my children.  Since we were in Alaska and riding behind times in the lower-48, our first year for He-Man coincided with the first year of She-Ra, so both shows where played back to back each afternoon from 3:00 to 4:00.  My children’s entertainment time instantly doubled to one hour, five days a week.

For the record, standards during those years did not allow either He-Man or She-Ra to be violent characters. They could not use their swords as offensive weapons, nor could they directly punch or kick anyone. Only robotic enemies were allowed to be destroyed. When pushed, simple body throws where shown, though most often both He-Man and She-Ra cleverly outsmarted their adversaries. Moral lessons were shown at the end of each episode which promoted good civic behavior on many levels ... no littering, no lying, clean your room, think of the consequences, be respectful, courteous, kind, and forgiving.

Both of my children adored He-Man and She-Ra and for many years their play did reflect those cartoons. They also drew them and, at the end of it all, those heroes played a very big part in my girl’s young lives. I did the unthinkable and purchased He-Man and She-Ra cartoon bed linens for them, and play swords, masks, and shields (I never did buy the action figures though, I’m too practical for that). They never whacked each other with the toy weapons, they only held them high, touching tips as they’d bellow, “For the honour of Grayskull ... I ... HAVE ... THE ... POWER!!”

My children showing how they have the power.
Years passed and my children grew into wonderful young women. I owned and worked a Giclée print shop and one of the artists who used our services was a lady named Karen Grandpre. After a time we were comparing art stories and I was delighted to learn she was an animator for He-Man and She-Ra (specifically responsible for Swift Wind, She-Ra’s horse).

Animation sketch for Swift Wind by Karen (Haus) Grandpre

I was able to thank her for the good influence her work had on my children, and I eagerly questioned her about animation work and process. I learned her masterful hand also animated such notables as Uncle Sam McGoo, Robin Hood (Disney animated movie), The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Scooby Doo, Road Runner, Bugs Bunny, Yosemite Sam, Horton Hears a Who (original), Wonder Woman, Peanuts, Tarzan, Lone Ranger, Zorro, Tom & Jerry, Mighty Mouse, Fritz the Cat, The Archie’s, Fat Albert, and much more. She worked with three of the world’s top animation studios: Walt Disney, Hanna-Barbera, and Filmation. Karen’s credit name is Karen Haus and she is one of the finest draftsmen I know. She can draw a horse from any angle without reference or animal at hand. She knows design and form so well it’s no different than taking a breath. When my grown children heard that I had met that lady who brought She-Ra and He-Man to life they begged that I introduce them. The girls dug out their old pillow-cases and asked Karen to autograph the fading cotton images.  They were still in awe of the lady who made the magic they enjoyed as children.

Working out details of Swift Wind, a flying unicorn horse.
Studio sketch by Karen (Haus) Grandpre

This past week She-Ra turned 25 years old. I found myself thinking about progress ... those microwaves, cell phones, internet, and personal computers ... How they have changed our lives. I also thought a lot about art and creation, heroes and raising children, responsibility and good civic behavior. He-Man and She-Ra were attacked back in the day because they represented a shift in the state of commerce. They were accused of marketing to children simply because a toy came first and the parents couldn’t say no.

A story board for Skeletor.  All story lines were well worked through before the animators took to their tasks and created the cartoons so many children loved. 

I disagreed about the badness of the cartoon back then because I saw that it built it’s own personalities and situations, and those were centered on a good moral base that encouraged children to be the best people they could be. That aspect of this story was very good. The bad aspect was the parents who spoiled the child and paid a thousand dollars for a stupid Cabbage Patch doll ... the ones who let progress babysit while not teaching the wisdom of moderation and good sense. I called  Karen and asked if I could spend a little time with her, hoping to capture a sense of who she is for the tale I wanted to tell about animation. We spent a couple of afternoons talking and going through old sketches and drawings. I asked what she thought about modern animation and she quickly and pointedly stated they are “retarded cartoons with too much agenda” ... from her perspective, progress is destroying her craft ... Progress.

So many episodes ended with Skeletor feeling down in the dumps about the turn of events. 

The story of how He-Man ended sums up the fate of good animation better than I ever could.  He-Man was a victim of his own success because once corporate manufacturers understood his ascendency came about through the merchandising of toy-based cartoons, greed took over and everyone seized the opportunity to profit from an out of control parental base that could not satisfy their whiny children without giving the brats whatever they wanted. Within two years the syndicated cartoon market was saturated and programs began to hopelessly fail while newer and flashier things where constantly introduced. He-Man was one of those casualties.

Filmation sold it’s animation studio to a French cosmetic company, L'Oreal. This cosmetic firm wasn’t interested in actually doing any new animation, they simply wanted the European rights to past-productions. In one day L’Oreal cut off Filmation’s future by firing the entire production staff. On a Friday afternoon all of the artists were told to put down their pencils and leave. The doors were closed and production was silenced on February 3, 1989. Two hundred and thirty employees (mostly animators) were cast out without warning and the end of an era was at hand.

This animation sequence is for Bo's (She-Ra's friend) horse running.
Karen (Haus) Grandpre was the master horse animator for many years.

When I think of progress, I often think of greed. He-Man or She-Ra would have done a moral of the story about this, if they were only given the chance. Instead, films like Avitar neglect traditional production processes and let computers build a sterilized and perfect world where the agenda rules supreme. Ironically, this old gal thinks a big-budget CGI movie can't stand in comparison to the low-budget animated TV series which spawned it all.  Now that is something worth thinking about.


*The drawings included in this blog have never been shown public before. They are but a very few of the collection that Karen keeps at her home today. I had the great privilege of scanning nearly 100 of them, as well as enjoying seeing hundreds more when I recently spent a day with Karen. Not only He-Man and She-Ra sketches are there, but so were Fat Albert, Daffy Duck, Charlie the Tuna, The Archies, and more horse sketches than I thought possible for one artist ... the list goes on and on. Honestly, a good animator is truly a champion draftsman. Thank you Karen, for sharing your creations with me, and allowing me to post a few for my friends who enjoy this blog and good creativity. You are simply the best.

The Arabian horse was the breed for Swift Wind. Karen's knowledge of horse anatomy is very evident in her study works for full blown animation.
On the left, He-Man is running into the frame - his figure is  more refined than the  next entry animation (right), which is shown in an early stage of working out details.
I remember this episode!  Vines just about took He-Man out!
But he kept on struggling ....
and struggling.