Now the World Has Gone to Bed
People have often remarked to me that I'll never know what I have, until I lose it. Living in Maine as I do, and with the summer solstice fast approaching, that's certainly true of the nocturnal hours, which, through their excruciating absence of late, I've recently discovered are essential to my own mental well-being. This is because during the summertime at this unreasonable latitude, there are only about six hours of darkness every night, from 10:00 PM to 4:00 AM, and the corresponding stretches of sunlight are driving me batty. Not only does the sunlight itself afflict my sanity--though hell, I've got enough blankets draped across my bedroom window that this shouldn't be such a great onus--but I also find distressing the very notion of being surrounded by large-scale activity. I'm talking about the chirping of birds, the rumble of engines, the laughter of children, and all the other noises most people consider indicative of a healthy human society. Shut up, shut up, shut up! Give me back the world on my own terms, and I promise you'll never spy my name atop the headlines.
After all, I've got important things to do during the wee hours, such as watching cartoons. On this matter, I shall brook no disruption.
Walt Disney Treasures: Behind the Scenes at the Walt Disney Studio is a limited-edition DVD set that addresses the history and development of the Disney animation studio from the 1930s to the 1950s, as well as the broader history of animation up to that point. I happened to find it heavily discounted in a used-DVD bin while suffering the effects of delusional narcotics, which explains why I own a copy, but if you're at all interested in art, animation, or 20th-century pop culture, this set might constitute ample reason to visit the Amazon Marketplace near you.
The second disc of this set includes three episodes of the 1950s-era Disneyland TV show. This is the series that made Walt Disney's name and likeness familiar in households across the world, and it is every bit as emblematic of that bold period as the most horrifying of tuna-noodle casseroles and fruit-filled Jello-molds. These episodes are concerned primarily with the technical methods, creative concerns, and iterative development of animation, and consist mainly of Walt Disney himself sitting at a desk, speaking directly to the viewer, and explaining just why it is he thinks animated cartoons are pretty swell.
And so it was that a few nights ago I steeped some tea (non-psychotropic, I assure you), popped in this disc, and remarked time and again over the consequent hours just how many similarities exist between the animation industry of the 1950s and the gaming industry of today. There are certain obvious surface resemblances, such as that they are both creative (but simultaneously commercial) enterprises that aim to entertain, and are dependent for their success upon impressive coordination between large teams of artists, writers, managers, and technical staff. But I think there are a couple of other concerns which the gaming industry of today, specifically, shares with the animation industry of some five or six decades ago. Consider the following observation, from the episode "The Story of the Animated Drawing," by Disney himself:
Most of us are inclined to think of the animated cartoon as a modern invention, like the airplane or the automobile. But actually the idea of imparting life and motion to still pictures is as ancient as man himself. But in our time we've seen this dream come true. The animated drawing has matured, and has taken its rightful place among the fine arts.
There then follows a lengthy and insightful segment in which Disney presents works of art from throughout history, and even prehistory, beginning with cave paintings from Lascaux and Altamira, before moving on to Egyptian tomb paintings, and the anatomical diagrams of Leonardo da Vinci. All throughout, Disney makes a convincing case that artists have always been concerned with depictions of motion, even though they worked in static media. After this, he describes in considerable detail some of the 19th-century scientific and technical advancements (including thaumatropes, phenakistoscopes, zoetropes, and the like) that finally allowed for actual, moving animation, of the kind Disney himself was principally interested in selling to consumers.
What strikes me about this segment is just how concerned Disney was with establishing animation as a legitimate form of art in the minds of the public. At one point, he turns to a still painting from the Disney film Fantasia, and says, "Art galleries all over the country exhibited many such setups from that production. People bought them as they would any other kind of painting."
It's fair to say that very few people today would discount animation as art. The question of whether or not games should count as art possesses a complexity well in excess of the scope of this article; I would only point out that this precise issue has lately been at the forefront of much games-related discussion.
These Disneyland episodes also highlight other areas of intersection between games and animation, including the various techniques employed to make abstract characters seem lifelike and true to their own natures (think of Half-Life 2's Alyx); the often-necessary balancing act between realism on the one hand, and fantasy for the sake of fun on the other (a balance Disney refers to as The Plausible Impossible); and prudent study of prior art and fiction, as well as close empirical attention paid to physics, anatomy, and various other disciplines, all in the hopes of inspiring future creative breakthroughs. And just as the newborn animation studios of the 1930s and '40s had to confront these issues in a way that had never been done before, so too must today's game developers blaze new paths, frequently without much guidance from past work.
But there are important differences we should note, as well. The most outstanding of these is one of general climate--by which I mean that, whereas in the 1950's Walt Disney gained renown for his serious and enthusiastic advocacy of animation toward the masses, there exists no such counterpart for gamers today. Instead, we suffer such hideous affronts to good reason as the Spike TV Video Game Awards, the G4 network, and thinly veiled, never-ending hype-fests operating as online gaming "portals." Anyone unlucky enough not yet to have stumbled upon one of the very few disciplined, intelligent gaming communities that exist today, must feel their way through the hobby blindly, without the slightest beacon of insight to guide them. Whereas the Walt Disney company once thought it important to cultivate an interest in animation through an explanation of science, art, and technique, most of the largest games-related companies of today would rather that I eat Pizza Hut, buy the latest insipid album to hit the shelves, and dress like a buffoon. I'm quite capable enough of buffoonery on my own, thank you very much; no encouragement from the purveyors of games required.
I leave you with these final words from Walt's mouth:
We in the industry have seen animation principles that now seem perfectly obvious hailed as astounding discoveries. Before our eyes, we have seen an entire industry grow from the ground up. And this growth was no accident. It was painstakingly built, step by step, by men with pioneering spirit who loved this puzzling new art form and believed in its future.
Walt Disney was a master of romanticizing his business; on this matter, I entertain no illusions. (I am, after all, a budding crotchety bastard, acclimated to darkness, afraid of the light, and perpetually furious at the shortcomings of the world.) However, I can't help but feel that gamers could stand a drop of romance in their collective cup.