Like most people out there within the ages of 18 to 35, I grew up watching cartoons. I loved them, and I still do, much like many of you out there, I’ll bet. Maybe like me, you were into the action-adventure comics, like G.I. Joe, The Transformers, and Thundercats. Or maybe you got your kicks watching the classic Merry Melodies and The Bullwinkle Show. My wife is a lifelong fan of all things Disney.
Allan Neuwirth shares our love of cartoons, and his new book, Makin’ Toons is a peek behind the scenes of the “toon boom” of the late ‘80s and ‘90s. Neuwirth is a fairly credible source, having a great deal of experience in and around the industry. He’s the co-creator of the comic strip Chelsea Boys, has written and illustrated for DC Comics, has scripted episodes of Courage The Cowardly Dog, Gadget And The Gadgetinis, and Toonsylvania among others, and was co-developer of the acclaimed children’s show Big Bag.
The book begins with the story of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, the movie that launched the cartoon explosion that is still going on today. Like all of the stories in the book, he provides an entertaining, humorous, and enlightening look at just how the movie went from concept to film, without getting too bogged down in details. While Neuwirth’s writing style is light, it isn’t insubstantial, and he gives the reader a good look at the basic nuts and bolts of the animation industry without overloading the text with jargon. The book is most certainly geared towards animation lovers rather than animation professionals, but an aspiring cartoon creator would still find the book valuable for its insights.
Neuwirth has divided his book up into 11 chapters, each one focused on a different aspect of creating a cartoon, including among other things animating, directing, producing, voice-acting, writing, and composing. Each chapter features a number of sections on different cartoons, from both TV and film, and the creators involved with that aspect of the cartoon. What was probably most interesting to learn was the sheer amount of time and effort that goes into making even a 30 minute television show, and the huge amount of people needed for that effort. The cover, depicting a mad scientist assembling a creature from numerous cartoon character parts is appropriate. A cartoon isn’t just one person’s vision, but a hodge-podge of many, many people, all with unique talents and styles.
Neuwirth provides access to a huge number of cartoon professionals. It gives a really wonderful feeling of having learned some of the secrets of the industry. The creators’ comments are all fascinating and wonderfully insightful, although at times perhaps a bit obscure. Many talk in somewhat abstract terms about different art styles, and without a visual example of what is meant, it can be hard to picture it in your mind. And while the book is generally very reader friendly, there were a few sections, most notably the chapter on producing, that weren’t as enlightening on others. Perhaps it is because “producing” is a fairly vague title with all sorts of connotations, but after reading Chapter Eight, “Big-Shot Toon Producer”, I still didn’t really know just what a producer did.
Neuwirth has a great deal of respect for the people he profiles, although he walks a fine line of excessive praise. There are points where everyone seems too friendly, and the work is dangerously close to becoming just a mutual admiration society. Many will have a hard time believing that the people behind the scenes work together as smoothly as Makin’ Toons would seem to suggest, and might think that some of the stories have been a bit sanitized. Neuwirth never loses his credibility though, and the positive bent of his book comes from both his truly infectious love of cartoons and his close professional ties to many of the people he profiles.
But the area where people are most likely to be left a little unsatisfied is the scope of the cartoons and films that Neuwirth covers. Makin’ Toons is strictly about the American cartoon industry, so anime fanatics will have to look elsewhere. Also, if you’re suffering from 80s nostalgia, you won’t find your fix here. Roger Rabbit is about as old as it gets. While the book is a bit Disney heavy, at least for my tastes, it still covers some great shows and creators, including Matt Groening and The Simpsons, Mike Judge, the man behind King of the Hill and Beavis and Butt-Head, South Park, Genndy Tartokovsky’s Dexter’s Lab and Samurai Jack, and much more. If anything, Neuwirth was faced with the task of having too much to cover, and not enough space to do it. Most of the big names of the last 15 years of animation are covered, but there are some cult favorites like The Critic and Duckman which are left out, in favor of perhaps excessive material on The Lion King and other Disney projects. But when Disney is responsible for such a huge portion of the cartoon industry, it’s hard to argue with his choices.
Although the title is a bit misleading, this isn’t a book about how to make a cartoon. If you want to get into the industry, you won’t get any technical pointers on how to improve your craft. You won’t learn how to break into the industry. But the tales of creators, which range from people making it out of pure dumb luck to people who’ve spent years dedicating their lives to their craft, may inspire you. If you get nothing else out of the book, you’ll have a much stronger appreciation of the art of animation, and an urge to run out and buy the latest DVD of your favorite toon.