Why are cartoons in CalArts style now (and why the hate)?

Originally written for Minds.com on June 6th, 2018.

For this post I intend to take a break from political commentary, and hopefully this will be the first in a long line of posts and hopefully videos that focus on art and cultural criticism instead of politics, and what better way to start than to talk about contemporary animation, especially now that CalArts has become a meme.

As a lifelong animation buff, I've been following the changes in animation quite closely. I first noticed what we now call the CalArts style in Steven Universe, which I was introduced to by an arts classmate back in late 2015. As the years went by I noticed the CalArts style become more frequent (this was me assuming it wasn't common enough already) as more artists began drawing in the style, or a similar style. Personally I don't think the CalArts style is bad as a lot of people say, but I will say that it belongs on newer original shows, and not on remakes of older shows (so yes, I agree with people who think the Thundercats remake was a bad idea, even though I don't consider it a big deal).

What exactly is the CalArts style? It's basically the colloquial name the Internet has given to the art style practiced by the creators of shows such as Steven Universe and Gravity Falls (both of them good shows by the way), who graduated from the California Institute of the Arts. It's worth noting that many creators graduated from CalArts, many before the widely mocked art style was practiced. You may remember Stephen Hillenburg, the creator of Spongebob Squarepants. He was a CalArts alumnus, as was Pete Docter (the director of Monsters, Inc. and head animator of Toy Story), Butch Hartmann (the creator of The Fairly OddParents), Rob Minkoff (the director of The Lion King and also a character animator for The Little Mermaid), and Lauren Faust (an animator for the original Powerpuff Girls). Isn't it rather strange that only after the emergence of shows such as Steven UniverseGravity Falls and The Amazing Adventures of Gumball did "CalArts" become a derogatory label for an art style that certain people on the Internet don't like?

You may be wondering where I'm going with this, and I'll make it plain. I think the backlash against CalArts is ridiculous, and that's not because I don't think the CalArts style is as bad as people say (the art styles of Teen Titans Go! and Big Mouth are objectively much worse). I say the backlash is ridiculous for three reasons.

1) The mere fact that grown men are getting outraged over a cartoon, which is a pretty sad and telling sight to be honest.

2) The idea that all "CalArts style" shows have exactly the same art style can easily disproven by actually taking a closer look at the cartoons in question.

One wonders if the people bashing CalArts shows have actually watched the shows they're bashing and paid any attention to the slight, yet obvious differences in the art style.

One wonders if the people bashing CalArts shows have actually watched the shows they're bashing and paid any attention to the slight, yet obvious differences in the art style.

and 3) The people getting outraged are ignoring the actual reason why the art style they despise is becoming so common.

One of the most common, if not the most common reactionary criticism levelled towards contemporary animation is that cartoons today are basically copying each others art style. If you ask me, this could easily be a criticism of capitalism. Think about it. What is the main reason the so-called "CalArts" style is so common? Because it's simpler for animators to do compared with more traditional forms of animation. Coupled with the prevalence of digital animation software, this method of working tends to be more cost effective than the older forms of animation, and since a lot of people like the shows that use this style, it's also more profitable to animation studios in the long run.

Put simply, the profit motive, a key feature in capitalism, is the reason for why modern cartoons tend to look similar to one another. Just as capitalistic interests have corrupted music and turned it into pop music, those same forces affect the aesthetics of animation, as animation studios will do pretty much anything to save costs, as they always have. Remember when Hanna-Barbera used to loop the same backdrops repeatedly? That was an old cost-cutting technique during the days when all animation was hand-drawn.

To be completely honest, the backlash against the "CalArts style" didn't use to be so fierce until Thundercats Roar was announced and honestly the art style in general isn't bad, but it doesn't work for something like Thundercats, and really the problem shouldn't be that it's using the "CalArts style", but rather that it's yet another cheap rehashing of a long dead cartoon, made for no reason other than to cash in on the ghosts of the 1980s.

Speaking of which, I'm fairly confident that most of the older critics of Thundercats Roar and "CalArts style" turning their precious childhood cartoon into a generic show probably didn't mind the fact that a clear majority of Saturday morning cartoons from their childhood had not only broadly similar art styles, but were outright conceived for the sole purpose of promoting a toy line, or a video game, or some other kind of commercial product. In fact, from my analysis it seems to me that we have seen a steady increase in the diversity of animation art styles since the 1990s. There's even a few more 3D animated shows than there used to be, and I remember that used to be a small handful of those back in the late 2000s.

It's not as though I don't have any criticism of "CalArts style" though. I do find that it has gotten rather generic nowadays, and I miss the old hand-drawn animation style, particularly from movies such as The Secret of NIMHHeavy Traffic, and The Valley of Nausicaa. However I can see the rage against "CalArts style" for what it is - the kind of pure, undistilled reactionary nonsense that comes about when people direct their frustration at the wrong targets.