4. The Animation Renaissance, Japanese Anime and Digital Beginnings (1990-2005)

By the time the 1990s had rolled in, the Dark Age of the animation industry had ended and studios such as Warner Brothers and Disney, which were now corporate rivals, had fully recovered from this animation dark age, and had pushed the world of animation into a new Renaissance age filled with creative talent as well as new and exciting innovations to the practice of animating, which would last at least until the late 2000s. The 1990s is still fondly remembered as an age of high quality and quantity of animations across a large variety of styles, as well as renewed interest in older shows and the return of appeal of animated cartoons to audiences that were a bit more mature. This era held no prisoners with the sheer explosiveness of the creativity that was displayed on the part of the animation directors and the studios. It would largely begin with 1990’s introduction and success of Tiny Toons Adventures, which would mark the return of Warner Bros. as main competitor in the world of animation. For nearly 15 more years, the WB would mainly dominate TV animation through Cartoon Network, while Disney would dominate the theaters with hit after successive hit. Everything from Pocahontas to the Lion King were produced during this explosive time for animation (which I was thankfully a witness to). During this era, many major animation companies had finally successfully restructured after the fall of the studio system, and were shelling out large quantities of high production quality animation successes left and right. This era also saw the successes of many other smaller and less known animation studios thanks to networks having syndication hours dedicated to kids-teen animated programming.

The 1990s for television animation was considered by many to be a second golden era, as many newer cartoons for television gave more creative control of the content to the artist themselves, instead of the studio. Thanks to the efforts of animators such as Raoul Bahkshi, the same director of the rated-X Fritz the Cat animated film, the 1990s allowed for greater creative control and freedom concerning what suggestive content got “past the radar”, and animations were able to be enjoyed by a greater number of people due to them being daring and thought provoking in nature, while pushing the limits of what could be shown on television. Bahkshi saw the “Disneyfication” of animation as cheesey and cliche, and this drove him to produce and support grittier and more experimental styles of animation. The early 1990s would see animators push social commentary through satire to its limits, and also saw the stigma of animation being “just for kids” diminish even further, with cartoonists such as John Kricfalusi, who was one of Raoul Bahkshi’s greatest fans and students releasing the highly praised and controversial Ren & Stimpy Show. The show consisted of many controversial scenes and jokes with some sexual themes that apparently dodged a reviewing board.

An episode of R&S

Despite having this controversial material being aired on the supposedly “kids friendly” network Nickelodeon, Ren & Stimpy garnered rave reviews, as well as spawned a couple of Disney imitators trying to imitate the success of the surrealist animation that Nickelodeon was going with. Meanwhile, the relationship between the creator and Nickelodeon became greatly soured. This prompted the studio to tone down the series, and force Kricfalusi into a less significant production role. Ren & Stimpy along with the debut of DC/Warner Bros.’ DC Animated Universe in the form of the critically acclaimed Batman: The Animated Series headlined the animation renaissance of the 1990’s and proved that audiences were more than capable of dealing with some more mature themes on television, and appreciated the fewer restrictions placed upon the animator’s content. Animated action shows aimed at young boys found large success on networks such as Fox Kids and perhaps the king of television animation networks, Cartoon Network, which was founded in 1992.

With the successes of unique and edgier cartoons, Hanna-Barbera formed the Cartoon Network, which was the biggest producer of unique cartoons throughout this era. Founded in 1992, Cartoon Network would go on to produce some of my personal favorite critically acclaimed classic cartoons in the mid-1990s such as Dexter’s Laboratory, Samurai Jack, and Johnny Bravo. The WB would use Cartoon network as a platform for many of its popular shows such Animaniacs and the sequel shows of its DC comics Animated Universe, which due to the success of Batman: The Animated Series would go on to spawn at least five other connected shows, which would end in 2006 with Justice League: Unlimited.Cartoon Network would later become known for this diversity of content, with everything from their own unique Cartoon Cartoons, which were featured animated shorts created by a variety of animating upstarts, DCAU cartoons, and imported Japanese anime through the teen afternoon action block Toonami.

Cartoon Network as well as Fox Kids would also serve the viewer by introducing them to shows of a completely different style that the average American at the time had little to no access to at the time, and importing them from Japan and later on Canada. Shows during the mid to later portion of the 1990’s cartoons started to become more involved in digital animation and more cartoons were being done in complete CGI than ever before. Most of these shows were the products of CGI studio Mainframe Entertainment (now known as Rainmaker Studios), and consisted of some of my favorite animated series, all of which were done completely in CGI, like Beast Wars: Transformers, it’s sequel show Beast Machines: Transformers, Reboot, and Max Steel . When I was growing up during this era I specifically remember these CGI cartoons for the unique and high quality production value for the time, as well as its ability to fully entrance the viewer through the hyperrealistic CGI effects.

Example of how CGI was implemented on the set of Beast Machines: Transformers.

Cartoon Network shows having a huge impact upon my personality and I felt like I attained an emotional connection with the characters in the cartoons I watched as I saw some of the more complex cartoon characters go about their stories. I also fondly remember impatiently going over my cousin’s house to watch brand new imported episodes of our favorite Japanese anime shows such as Gundam Wing, Ronin Warriors, the original Tenchi Muyo, and the show which Toonami basically crafted into a worldwide anime phenomenon: Dragon Ball Z. The Japanese anime style evolved its own style with characteristics and genres unique to itself and reflective of a distinctively Japanese culture. These shows often based themselves off of Japanese cultural and historical myth, such as Akira Toriyama taking inspiration from the ancient Asian myth Journey to the West through the main character Son Goku. The Japanese anime shows during this era typically evolved as adaptations from Japanese manga (comic books), and already thus conveniently had most of their storyboards on hand as guidelines. Shows as Bleach and Naruto for example have their anime episode adaptations of their manga produced and aired at times a month or two late after the book/manga version. Thanks in large part to the initiative shown by Toonami and Cartoon Network, the demand for Japanese animated cartoons skyrocketed, and exploded into the large fandoms that are typical of today.

Toonami stood out as unique amongst shows on the air for its creativity, the fact that it basically popularized anime in America and throughout the world as well as the fact that despite its position as merely an action block, it contained its own flagship character as a host. Toonami was, as well as the host of Toonami, the mysterious visor-faced robot TOM, completely rendered in CGI, and featured the adventures of TOM and his computer life form assistant SARA in their adventures as they drift throughout space on their ship dubbed The Absolution. During these Toonami blocks, TOM would always stop in the middle to give words of encouragement to viewers, then go back to beaming shows and TV programming down to Earth from the farthest corners of the galaxy.

Toonami was also unique in that it was the first block program I’d ever seen get a saga dedicated to its host. The host block essentially became the focus and a show in itself, with Toonami even having entire story events every few years, in which the host of the Toonami cartoon action block, TOM, would have a Total Immersion Event aboard their large spaceship the Absolution. These special events would feature TOM and SARA running into some form of menace on their travels through hyperspace and across the galaxy. Most of these events would result in TOM dying only to have his robotic body and perhaps the Absolution replaced with a newer upgraded version. It is due to this that viewers were given the impression that the characters hosting the block were more than just generic animated hosts stuck there just for fun or aesthetic appeal, and that they were in fact evolving with the person watching it. I personally remember watching these events with anticipation and actually feeling sad when I saw TOM die, because TOM had been a host cartoon character that had personality and wisdom, despite being a robot, yet I was greatly relieved when he was resurrected in a much cooler looking body.

Part 5 of the Toonami action block special event called “The Intruder”. Feautures the Rebirth of the host character TOM as TOM 2.0 in his hunt for the creature that seeks to stop him from broadcasting his shows.

As major animation shows starts to become more involved with 3D CGI, video games as well as movies from the mid-1990s until now have sought to create 3-D animations as “real”, outlandish as possible to take the spotlight away from 3D animated film. Gaming systems from this era all hopped upon the three-dimensional bandwagon, with Super Mario 64 being arguably the first video game to successfully do so while simultaneously setting the bar for expectations from future video-games. Some would argue that the advent of 3D animation was responsible for the. This renaissance era also saw the first usages of video games which started to heavily utilize 3-diminsionality in characters and environments, and CGI was increasingly seen in movies and in conjunction with regular 2-dimensional work the late 90s to now-the 21st century- and would continue to pioneer and make strides making use of 3-D CGI software, with 1995’s Disney- Pixar film Toy Story being the very first feature length CGI animated film. During the onset off the late 2000s, and even now, CGI and Computer Generated 3D modeling as well as 2-dimensional animation software becomes easier to use than ever before.


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