Writing about the uncanny valley really got me thinking about animation, and the art styles that tend to stand out amongst animated movies and tv, and thus, I felt compelled to write a post about weird and unique art styles in animation (and to a lesser extent comic and video games): when it works, when it doesn’t work, and how to make it work.
Unique art styles for animation have been around since the beginning. One of the very first animated features, The Adventures of Prince Achmed, was done in a strange “shadow puppet” style
Since then, there has been all sorts of advancement and innovation in the art of animation. Some of it has worked, and some of it hasn’t. Quite often that which doesn’t work is down to corner cutting and a lack of budget, such as the weird use of putting live action mouths on animated characters that cropped up in 70s animation.
However, sometimes, even with a proper budget and allocated time and freedom, an artist can still fail to make decent art out of their animation. In fact ugly artwork can sometimes be a result of giving the artist too much freedom.
How exactly can these problems be overcome? (Definitely not by making an obvious joke on one of the ugliest cartoons ever made that we’ll be getting to in a moment)
For starters, you have to ask yourself why you’re doing something new with the art. Are you trying to gain your own unique, recognisable style? Do you feel your product, be it a comic, an animation, a video game etc. needs this unique look? Are you literally just doing this as a gimmick and nothing more?
Whatever the reason, it helps to follow these little guidelines.
1. Do not make your art so ugly that no one wants to watch it. Ever.
Okay, now let me start off by saying that not all ugly artwork or animation is bad. In the cases of cartoons like Ren and Stimpy, the ugliness of the animation was actually what made the cartoon stand out by a long way; this being partially because it was pretty well animated in spite of ugliness, and usually no two facial expressions of the characters were ever the same. Plus, that kind of animation worked for a gross-out show withut feeling cheap or forced, unlike its many cheap imitators.
Similarly, sometimes an ugly style can be endearing. I’ve always found that the animation of Klasky Csupo (Rugrats, As Told By Ginger, The Wild Thornberries, Aah! Real Monsters etc.) to be fairly ugly, but damn if it isn’t recognisable simply on the character designs alone.
But then you have art that is so ugly, that it’s actually difficult to watch. Shows like The Brothers Grunt, the aforementioned Ren and Stimpy knock offs, and quite possibly the worst I have ever seen in my life: The Problem Solverz
Where do I even fucking begin with this one
Okay, so ignoring the fact that this show featured some of the most hideous character designs I’ve ever seen, take a good look at the colour scheme of this thing. Virtually every episode was jam packed with bright neon colours that constantly clashed with each other. This made the cartoon quite literally painful to watch due to how bright and obnoxious it was. The Problem Solverz only lasted one season on Cartoon Network, and I would not be surprised if the eye straining animation contributed to its cancellation.
The Problem Solverz definitely had its own unique design, and a very recognisable art style. But that did not excuse just how ugly and unpleasant it was to watch. Whenever someone brings up the excuse of “well its just the art style” to excuse bad aesthetics, I fee the need to point out that this show had “its own art style” too, and that art style was fucking hideous to look at.
2. Sometimes you don’t need to go over the top to have your own unique art style
So just a few paragraphs ago I mentioned a certain show called The Brothers Grunt. It was a short show created for MTV by Danny Antonucci. And this is what the animation looked like.
Please do not look up the full scene of this.
Like The Problem Solverz, The Brothers Grunt did not last especially long. While it wasn’t painful to watch like the Problem Solverz, it was very hard to love a show where the titular characters are lumpy, misshapen humanoids with pulsating veins, constantly squirming like they’re in agony.
If you’re an animation fan, you may have recognised the name of the guy who created this though. That’s because he went on to create a far more successful show on Cartoon Network, that show being Ed Edd n Eddy.
The character designs of Ed Edd n Eddy still looked lumpy and misshapen, with a strange squiggly line effect that meant the animation was constantly in motion. Nevertheless it was far less stylised than The Brothers Grunt. And it worked much better.
A lack of overdesign meant that the character designs were far more endearing, but the squiggly line effect gave it a unique look, and went well with the feel of the show, given it still had a good deal of cartoon physics despite being a slice of life show.
In other words, these two shows proved that sometimes less is more. I recognise the Brothers Grunt by its animation alone, but that’s it. I know nothing else about the show because its hideous art style is the most memorable thing, and for the wrong reasons. With Ed Edd n Eddy, I fondly remember the show as well as its style.
3. Just what is the purpose behind your art style?
In my uncanny valley post, I mentioned Frankenweenie, and how Tim Burton’s style very much worked for the movie, since not only was it his signature style, but the intentionally creepy character designs added to the fact that it was a love letter to old Hollywood Horror.
If your art style is very noticeable and different, then usually there should be some reasoning behind it. But, sometimes there doesn’t seem to be, such as in the case of shows like 12 oz Mouse
12 oz Mouse was a surrealist show that looked like it was drawn by a five year old. While I understand the show had more fans than the others I’ve ragged on so far, I still have to bring up the terrible animation and why it doesn’t work.
As I said, the show was clearly aiming for surrealism. And surrealist shows often work better with surreal animation. As in weird, unusual, imaginative animation, not something this lifeless and lazy. 12 oz Mouse had no reason to look this bad. It wasn’t parodying bad animation, since no other show has ever put forward animation this bad. Budget issues feel moot, given that shows like South Park (which was crudely animated due to getting episodes out so quickly, but had its own, very recognisable style that kept it from looking a mess) exist. The only message I’m getting from the animation was that the creators for whatever reason had a tough time animating, and so just took the lazy route and chose “bad animation” as their art gimmick.
If 12 oz Mouse wanted to be satirical about bad animation, then given it was made in the 2000s, in the era of digital animation, it would have worked better if it had been deliberately bad Flash animation that repeatedly glitched up, with layers going missing in shots every now and again. That might have actually worked, especially in surrealist storylines. The animation in the real product however is so bad that it couldn’t be considered a parody of anything, because it’s literally the only show that looks like this. And while that might give it some uniqueness, that’s not necessarily a good thing.
4. What works for one art style won’t necessarily work for another.
Just for a moment, I’d like you to take a look at two characters from the cartoon series Adventure Time.
You may notice these two characters more or less have the exact same face. Now take a look at some characters from Disney’s Frozen.
Notice how these three also more or less have the exact same face.
This works in Adventure Time. It does not work for Frozen.
Now, I’m not going to deny that Frozen has beautiful animation, but the character design leaves something to be desired here. So why is it that same-face-syndrome works for Adventure Time but not Frozen?
Adventure Time has a very minimalist style, that is charming and fitting to the series. Not only is it easier to cause same face syndrome, but the same-faces are less of an issue due to the lack of detail. See, because Adventure Time is far less detailed than Frozen, certain features stand out more. Marceline’s hair being black and more tousled than Princess Bubblegum’s pink gummy hair is a much bigger difference than Elsa having whiter hair than Anna, because Adventure Time’s characters are so underdetailed that a small change makes a big difference. Well rendered and detailed CGI requires more than a few tweaks and alterations to truly make a difference. And yes, I know the characters in frozen are related, but it’s possible to visually convey two characters are siblings without making them flat out look like clones, as shown here by How to Train Your Dragon:
Furthermore, while Frozen carries the Disney style, it’s still not that stylised, at least not in comparison to Adventure Time, which is heavily following its own unique style. When your style is more detailed and less unique, then getting away with certain things like same-face-syndrome, or cartoonish movements and proportions, is a lot harder.
But then again, most things are hard when it comes to making real art, which brings me to my last point
5. Artwork and skill can always improve and change over time
Perfecting art styles is a tough challenge. Heck, finding what your style should really look like is tough enough.If you are a budding artist or animator, the important thing to note is constant practice and occasional experimentation is the key to getting the style you want, even if it takes years, which is perfectly normal.
And yes, the term experimentation is key.
To be honest, I’m happy that both Adventure Time AND The Problem Solverz exist. Both went for minimalist styles that used bright colours and slightly odd looking character designs, and saw hat could be done with it. Adventure Time showed how to do it right, and The Problem Solverz showed how to do it wrong.
If you haven’t noticed, I actually have a lot of appreciation for things that try something and fail. An example of how not to do something is often just as, if not more useful than an example of how to do something.
Trial and Error is often the best way to determine how to properly do something. The fact that Danny Antonucci made something as good as Ed Edd n Eddy after something as bad as The Brothers Grunt is proof of this.
If you are an artist, all I can say is that failures are an important part of learning how to perfect something. Do not be discouraged if it doesn’t work at first. Because art can always evolve.