Sunday, February 13, 2011

Influence, Maps, and The Usual Suspects

Influence Maps first came to my attention a few months ago, when sites like SHANE GLINES  began mentioning them. The concept of making a proportional collage of your top ten influences as an artist/animator/cartoonist has genuine merit, and although I did not make one of my own, a mental image of my Influence Map is not hard to imagine…

The depressing thing is that it would be virtually identical to at least hundreds of others. Influences are tricky things, they guide us but they can also suffocate us (what I call "Prisoners of Love Syndrome"). Cartooning is still a relatively young pursuit and also a commercial one, which both tend to suggest that is not a particularly deep one, in fact notoriously shallow. Sadly, a good deal of proof supports the shallow thesis, but I am not going to despair too much over that. The notion of the Influence Map may hold the keys, both to the problem and the solution...

Over the years I began making a mental list of what I call "The Usual Suspects" : iconic, watershed artists, films and artworks that have become universally canonical to animation & cartooning. I refrain from listing them here for two reasons:

1. If you're an animation artist or animation art enthusiast you already know who they are.

2. Someone is sure to misinterpret me as "bashing" these greats. Far from it, their status, quality and influence is perfectly understandable and I share the praise and elevation of  it along with everybody else. My concern is that the limited and consistent quantity of their influence runs the risk of homogenizing the general pool. 

About ten years ago I actually wrote up a short list of The Usual Suspects and it indeed was alarmingly short; shorter still were the actual wellsprings of these influences: Disney Studio, Warner's, H-B, MAD, PUNCH, New Yorker Magazine, a smattering of newsprint & comic book publishers rounding out the scant few others. A few contemporaries of my generation have been added since I was first starting out, but they'd largely be either from the same sources or influenced by the previous generation to a considerable enough extent to make them almost a sub-set of the original list.

As I said above, these artists and films are all understandable and I would not discourage anyone from them. For that matter, the contemporary studio HR departments seem to have learned how to recognize the best disciples of the cannon and to hire accordingly, so far be it from me to talk any students out of potential employment. But a restless spirit in me is always eager to switch things up a bit, to re-shuffle the deck in hope of staying fresh. For instance, up until about 5 years ago, my general influence pie-chart would have been at least 70% "Disney" whereas today I would put that percentage at less than a third of that size. Thanks to internet exposure, I have been particularly jazzed by the classic cartoonists of South America such as DiVito, Abel Ianiro, and Fantasio, along with many others from other places and times.  I have also made a point of coming back to examine artists I previously under-estimated to evaluate subtle merits I overlooked before. I would encourage anybody to do the same. Just as we should coldly scrutinize our favorites for their blunders, weaknesses, and routine tropes, we should also take a second look at some we may have dismissed to see what they were doing right, even if only occasionally and marginally. Also, if you notice that all or many of your influences are decades old (or older) make a point of scouring the contemporary landscape (bleak as is sometimes seems) for somebody or something current to take heart from. It you can't, then go in the opposite direction, deep into antiquity...  

For that matter, I would encourage map-makers to consider making more than one Influence Map: apart from the artists you are influenced by, try making a map of other influences: what music inspires you? Which actors? Photographers? Writers? Architects? What are your favorite type fonts? Animals? Patterns?

For an even more soul-searching map: who are the friends, family and real people in your own life who influence & inspire you? What are the places you love to be in? What landmarks in your daily experience mean the most to you? What's your favorite food? Chances are, these are going to be the influences that can be the most constructive in your artistic process and since they are unique to you, the most important. Don't be afraid to let them affect your work. In fact, make a point of it...

5 comments:

Brubaker said...

Interesting write-up. I'll admit that it can be a struggle sometimes. I agree with your point on "re-shuffling the deck". I know my influences were somewhat different three years ago. Admittingly, my cartooning goals were much different back then.

That last two paragraphs is important to consider. Can make any artists think...

Eric Noble said...

Very interesting commentary. That is absolutely wonderful advice. Also take a look at the fine artists who inspire you. Take time to think about how they all could influence each other to create a wholly rich, new experience. Thank you for writing this. You've given me a lot to think about.

Erik Robinson said...

Wow! This post is something to put on an influence map! Very inspirational words, and I couldn't agree more. A cartoonist isn't just influenced by cartoons, just like a musician isn't just influenced by music, etc. etc! Thanks for the words.

Mike said...

Somehow, when I leave DeviantArt, I tend to forget the profound influence many of its members would have on me if I'd go over their work beyond a comment and a download. While my conscious inspiration comes mostly from a handful of the Usual Suspects, I stand slack-jawed at how good some of my colleagues and closest friends are, instead of looking closer.

A sincere thanks, Will, for reminding me to broaden my map.

Stephen Worth said...

Thanks for writing this, Will.

At the ASIFA-Hollywood Animation Archive, I regularly hear the same sorts of questions over and over... "Why are there Playboy cartoons in an animation archive?" "What does golden age book illustration have to do with cartoons?" "I'm interested in Milt Kahl and Freddie Moore, not Zim and Sullivant."

Usually these sorts of comments come from non-artists who don't understand the link between the fundamental principles of animation and the fundamental principles of allied fields like cartooning and illustration. But sometimes young artists express these sorts of attitudes too.

The reason my focus at the archive is so broad is precisely the reason you so succinctly capsulized in the phrase "the usual suspects". My goal is to expand the horizons of what animation is capable of, and to provide artists with a solid foundation of information about the work that came before them... And perhaps even before Winsor McCay animated his first dinosaur.

Again, thanks very much for this post. I'm going to think about it and talk about it on the archive blog. It's an issue that I think applies to every artist working in the field.