I was watching the pilot episode of the new live-action drama The L.A. Complex. In one scene, a struggling (white) Canadian actress Raquel, tries to bluff her way into an L.A. audition for the “best friend part.” But the producer (also white) says she’s decided “to go another way…we’re going black.” Cut to a wide shot: the waiting room is full of black actresses. The producer says, “I really don’t want an all-white show. You know, it doesn’t really reflect reality.” Frustrated, Raquel inappropriately blurts out, “So you’re making the best friend black. It’s just kind of a cliché, don’t you think? I mean, who has a black best friend?…It’s a TV-only thing.”
It got me to wondering…is the “black friend” a cliché in Canadian animated series or does having a black character in a show’s cast “reflect reality?”
So in honour of Black History Month, I thought I’d touch on the touchy issue of ethnic diversity in Canadian cartoons, specifically black characters. I’ll use the term “black” even though it makes some of us Canadians uncomfortable. We usually use the politer-sounding “African-Canadian” or sometimes the more ethnographically-correct term “Caribbean-Canadian” (as most black Canadians are of Caribbean origin.)
YOU’VE GOT A FRIEND IN ME
Over the past decade, I’ve written for a few series where the black character is pretty much in the “friend-zone.” One was the title character’s best friend.
One was a member of a group of friends of the title character.
And one was a member of a team of heroes – but the leader was a white guy.
So in my experience, when you see a black character on a Canadian animation series, yes, he or she is usually either a friend of the lead or, more likely these days, part of an ensemble of characters.
Until a show creator manages to sell a production company and a broadcaster on a series featuring, say, the daring adventures of a black superhero from Halifax and his “white friend” sidekick, or the hilarious antics of Caribbean-Canadian family in Toronto, for now most black characters are “one of the gang.”
Some might see that as tokenism. But I see it as an attempt to reflect the multi-ethnic reality of North American society.
And I do say North American rather than Canadian society.
According to the 2006 census, the Canadian population was 2.5% African-Canadian, mostly living in urban areas of Ontario and Quebec. On the other hand, Asian and South Asians make up about 11% of the Canadian population. Yet you don’t see them represented as often in Canadian-made animation.
So what’s up with that?
Well, consider that the US is an important market for Canadian animation. Their population is ten times ours with African-Americans making up about 12%. Having a US broadcaster aboard can make the difference between a series going into production, or dying at the development stage.
So from a sales standpoint, it’s good for business if your show reflects America’s ethnic diversity.
It’s interesting to note that in even in preschool animation – which often dodges the issue of ethnicity altogether and broadens their international marketability by having a cast of animals characters or brightly-coloured creatures – sometimes care is taken to give a non-human character a black vibe, for example Custard from The Save-Ums (voiced by African-Canadian actor Jordan Francis) or Tyrone and Uniqua in the US series The Backyardigans. Those producers feel it’s important for young children to have their “reality” reflected vocally.
MORE IS MORE
Of course, I’m not saying we have too many black characters in Canadian animation. What I’m hoping for is that in future, show creators will include even more characters of all ethnicities in their series. I’ve also written for Asian-Canadian and Latino-Canadian and First Nations characters in the past and it would be great to write for them more often. Canadian animation viewers from a non-European background ought to be able to see themselves represented onscreen, especially when TV programming is supported by Canadian tax dollars!
So to all the writers, show creators, production companies and broadcasters out there: Canada welcomes people of all cultures and ethnicities to make this country their home. Let’s help our animation industry reflect our reality.
As if his recent appearance on TV Writer Podcast (linked in the post below) weren’t enough to inspire and inform, here’s a link to the transcript of his August 14 twitter chat session!
Need some inspirational and helpful hints on working in the animation industry? Check out this fun and informative podcast.
Canadian animation writer/creative producer/story editor David Dias speaks with TV Writer Podcast host Gray Jones in a one–hour interview jammed-packed with tasty tidbits. “All the ins and outs of writing animation for all ages, including many great tips on breaking in, pitching, and getting your idea off the ground. ”
Once again, animated television – the beloved medium which puts roofs over our heads, coffee in our cups, and digital cable programming into our PVRs – has come under attack.
Some researchers from the University of Virginia showed 20 4-year-old kids an episode of Spongebob Squarepants then had them do some tests to measure their “executive function.”
Executive function. Sounds like a cocktail party for a bunch of CEOs, but apparently it’s something happens in your frontal lobes. It comes in handy when you want to learn stuff, keep organized, control your impulses and learn from your mistakes. (If my lobes had better executive function, I probably would not have gone to see Green Lantern this summer.)
Anyway, the Spongbob kids reportedly performed more poorly than the 20 kids who watched an episode of Caillou or the 20 kids who drew pictures instead. This led to the researchers to conclude that fast-cutting quick-paced shows like Spongebob could impede the learning process.
Okay, lots of folks, including a spokesdude from Nickelodeon, have already pointed out the flaws in this study…including the small sample size and the fact that Caillou is a preschool show and Spongebob is aimed at older kids. Or that the study didn’t try leaving a gap between the watching of the programs and taking of the tests.
But what if the results aren’t bogus? What if a study with a larger sample of kids comes up with the same results? What if we, the animation writers, are contributing to the stupidity of children?
The solution to this particular problem seems pretty simple to me. PARENTS OF PRESCHOOLERS: DON’T LET YOUR KIDS WATCH SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS BEFORE THEY TAKE AN EXECUTIVE FUNCTION TEST!
Let’s say some kids shouldn’t watch TV before trying to learn something. (And let’s say I shouldn’t have watched two of episodes of Kick Buttowski on YouTube before writing this post. Think of how more coherent it could’ve been!)
Then let’s say parents should control what shows their kids watch and when they watch them and for how long. After all, raising and educating their children is their job.
Our job is to provide a product. Some might say a seductive, addictive product…
ARE WE BIG ANIMATION?
TV has often been blamed for producing a generation of obese, socially-misfit couch potatoes with attention deficit disorder and an inability to relate to real people…but enough about animation writers.
This is about the children and the money we make writing for them.
Is animation the Big Tobacco of television programming? The more eyes on screens and the more brand loyalty generated for spin-off merchandise, the higher the profits for networks and production companies. Which leads to more work for us, the animation writers and story editors.
By making our scripts as entertaining as we possibly can, are we part of a system designed to hook viewers at an early age, leading to a lifelong dependence on the medium? After all, they do call it viewing habits.
Well, whether the general public realizes it or not, writers, story editors, producers and network execs all work towards keeping their kids’ shows age-appropriate, with positive messages about friendship and cooperation, self-confidence and persistence, consequences for one’s actions and all that good stuff. And animation has had a long association with educational programming, teaching kids about the world around them and helping them with literacy and numeracy and problem-solving skills.
Lots of things in life are bad for you if consumed in large amounts…booze, Facebook, Chocolate Cheerios…and TV is no different. It’s up to parents, caregivers and teachers to help kids learn to moderate their consumption of, well, everything.
But I’m willing to do my part. So hey kids, turn off that TV and go run around outside for a while. Just not when my episode is on.
A 24-year-old reporter recently quit his job as a bureau chief for a Canadian TV network. In his blog, he wrote a lengthy post to tell his friends, family, and followers exactly why he was fed up with the broadcast news industry.
His beefs included (a) his network owned the copyright on his work product (b) as a reporter, he wasn’t allowed to state his personal opinion on issues (c) the networks think if their news reporters don’t look like Ken or Barbie, they’ll lose viewers (d) the Prince William and Kate tour of Canada got way too much media coverage.
My first thought was…he’s 24, and he was a already a bureau chief? Impressive! I’ve got Super-VHS tapes older than this guy!
My next thought was…maybe he should’ve researched the current climate of his chosen field before he got into it. If you can’t take the cold, get off the rink!
My final thought was…won’t every potential employer be able to read his Jerry Maguire-like manifesto online for years to come…and judge him for better or for worse on his public declaration of how much his job sucked?
Another disgruntled employee, this time of an upscale grocery chain, emailed his letter of resignation to everyone in his company. In it, he slagged over his supervisors and co-workers in a vitriolic and possibly libelous way. The email got posted online and went viral.
People seem to get a vicarious thrill out of these “I quit and f*** you” stories – maybe because a lot of people wish they could afford to quit their own soul-sucking job and would love to expose their horrible bosses to the derision of the whole wide world web.
But thanks to the archival power of the internet, the flames from the bridges someone e-burns today may be blazing brightly for the rest of their career. People might want to think twice before they click on that incendiary “send” or “post” button.
As a professional animation writer, you need to be especially careful about what words you put out into the public forum. As tempting as it may be to gripe openly about a hellish gig that’s driving you nuts, writing negative things about a client can actually violate the terms of your contract.
Re-read that non-disclosure clause. It limits you to brief “non-derogatory” comments about the show you’re working on – the kind of newsy tidbits you’d slip into a bio or post on your blog. Signing a contract means you agree not to publicize anything else about the production: what’s in the series bible, the story lines, your drafts, the terms of your contract, any of those annoying notes you’re being given…
And it’s not just the comments you deliberately post to the public that you have to watch. These days, you need to be discreet in your private communications as well. When every email, text message, tweet, blog or social media posting can be copied and forwarded by accident or on purpose, no form of digital communication is 100% private.
So limit any work-related rants to the verbal kind, and deliver them only to your partner, your agent, your therapist, your bartender, or your friends – where the hearsay rule applies. Anything else could be professional spewicide.
Bugs and animation have long enjoyed an insectuous relationship. And why not? Bugs come in a variety of shapes, sizes and colours; they can walk, crawl, wriggle, hop and fly. That gives animators a lot to, er, draw on.
Bugs come with a built-in hero/villain dynamic that we can tap into for character and story. Bugs instinctively arouse our sympathies or fears; they can be cute and vulnerable or scary and dangerous. They pollinate our plants and make us honey; or they can suck our blood or kill us with a venomous sting.
That’s not what bugs me.
What does bug me? Inaccurate bug anatomy. Specifically: number of legs.
Take a look at Jiminy Cricket, one of the first animated insects to hop onto the big screen. The first thing you notice about him, other than that he’s quite a snappy dresser, is that he has two arms and two legs. Total number of appendages: four. That’s TWO less than his real-life cricket counterpart.
This bugs me.
I don’t know why exactly. Intellectually, I get that it’s easier to animate four limbs than six. Similarly, hands are often simplified in animation: four digits (three fingers and a thumb) rather than five. When it comes to digits or legs, four of anything in a design is enough to give the impression of “lots.”
I had hoped that computer-assisted animation would usher in a glorious anatomically-correct era of insect animation. In 1998, two rival movies with CGI insect characters were released: Antz (Dreamworks) and A Bug’s Life (Pixar/Disney). To my amazement, the ants in Antz actually had six legs! To my disappointment, the ants in A Bug’s Life had four. To their credit, their grasshopper villains had six. The caterpillar had even more.
Canadian productions have gone either way when it comes to insect limb count in bug-based animated series.
In Roboroach (Portfolio Entertainment/Helix Animation) Rube the cockroach has six legs but his brother Reg has four.
In Erky Perky (CCI Entertainment/Ambience Entertainment) both bugs have four limbs.
In Maya the Bee (developed by Thunderbird Films and Studio 100) the bees have four limbs, but Flip the Grasshopper has six.
Six-leggedness seems to be used when animators want to give emphasize the “bugginess” of a character for comic or scary effect. When characters have four limbs, they more closely mimic the human behaviour the animators are sending up by anthropomorphizing bugs.
Let’s face it. When a character sings, dances, moralizes, and wears a three-piece suit, gloves and a top hat, and carries an umbrella, he’s not really an insect. He’s just a little person who just happens to have a green exoskeleton!
And that’s the important thing to keep in mind when it comes to writing for non-human characters. Talking insects (or animals or robots for that matter) stand in for humans. Their characters need to be just as consistent, their actions as well-motivated, their reactions as believable as if they were actual people.
What does set insect characters apart is any non-human capabilities they might have: flight, strength, flexibility, multitasking, the ability to cling to the sides and undersides of objects, or to bounce back from being squashed or swatted with no lasting physical damage. A canny animation writer will exploit the visual possibilities to the fullest.
And one last thing that bugs me about bugs in animation…inaccurate portrayal of gender roles in insect communities! In nature, it’s the females who do all the work in beehives and ant colonies. The male drones just hang out and mate with the queen. Of course, if you’re writing for a children’s series, that’s a scenario that’s not going to, er, fly.