How Cartoons Are Made (and Why It Takes So Long)

When my favorite animated shows undergo hiatuses—those bleak times when no new episodes are released—I am left alone in grief and misery to ponder the cruelty of the universe. Why must all good things end? Why must I dwell in a twilight existence of interruptions, cliffhangers, and mid-season breaks? Why? Why?!

The good folks at Disney have offered a brief but illuminating explanation. (They have also reminded me that I need to watch Wander Over Yonder sometime.) Apart from the animation itself, which takes a long time, every episode is bounced between teams of artists, writers, actors, musicians, and producers, with executives weighing in regularly. Many studios ship stuff to animators overseas to cut costs. Amid the chaos, I assume, scurry interns: answering phones, running errands, serving coffee in foam cups, and greasing the gears of the mighty machines known as animation studios.

Of course, I can’t discuss how cartoons are made without also sharing the following video, in which the creators of Disney’s Phineas and Ferb explain the process in a rap song. Yes.

Fun fact: This video convinced me to watch Phineas and Ferb a few years ago. That show revived my interest in cartoons and animation, thus guiding me toward a brighter existence… albeit one with hiatuses.

I Really Don’t Hate Christmas

I can be a bit of a grump when it comes to Christmas, but I can’t find it in the darkest corners of my cynical heart to resist the joys of the season for long. The hope and beauty of Christmas outweigh the frivolous nonsense of the holiday it has become. Not even Ebenezer Scrooge or the misanthropic Dr. Doofenshmirtz can really hate Christmas.

Yes, the good Doctor—well, the bad Doctor—from Disney’s Phineas and Ferb is back, this time lamenting the fact he can’t seem to work up a nice, healthy hatred for America’s favorite holiday. Doofenshmirtz is one my favorite television characters, and I applaud him for flinging about words like ambivalenceinvective, and animosity in a kid’s cartoon. A large vocabulary is most admirable… even if it’s mostly spent griping about the holidays.

298. TMTF’s Top Ten Cartoons You Should Watch

I spend more time watching cartoons than any grown man should. Needless to say, I regret nothing.

The fact is that cartoons can be innocent, bright, smart, and funny. While the media is often jaded or cynical, cartoons are pleasant, and unapologetic about it. I appreciate them.

That said, some cartoons are much better than others. Today we’re listing ten of the best, because making top ten lists is what we do.

This is a list for Western animation. Anime (Japanese animation) is in a category by itself and deserves a list of its own. Someday, perhaps!

Discerning readers may notice that nearly all of the shows on this list are pretty recent, airing within the past decade or so. This is because I avoided cartoons until a few years ago. Growing up in Ecuador, I watched only the few shows my family had on tape. I mostly rejected cartoons in middle and high school, dismissing them as “too childish,” and only rediscovered them as an adult. (The irony has not escaped me.) Most of the cartoons I’ve watched are recent ones, which is why this list lacks any really old classics.

Let’s take a look, ladies and gentlemen, as TMTF presents…

The TMTF List of Top Ten Cartoons You Should Watch!

10. The Powerpuff Girls

The Powerpuff Girls

When an absent-minded scientist blends “suger, spice, and everything nice” to create perfect little girls, he spills an untested chemical into the mixture and produces the Powerpuff Girls: a trio of young superheroines who protect the innocent, defend their city from all evil, and attend kindergarten every weekday.

The show pokes fun at superheroes, monster movies, campy science fiction, and pop culture in general. Its playful tone and subversive humor are a blast. The Powerpuff Girls is full of charming little touches, from its hilariously incompetent mayor to the fact its greatest villain is a chimpanzee with an exaggerated Japanese accent.

9. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Beneath New York City, in some dark, forgotten sewer tunnel, dwell four fearless fighters. They emerge at night to patrol the streets and protect the innocent. So what if these heroes happen to be turtles?

Nickelodeon’s recent take on the Turtles is refreshingly lighthearted and self-aware. It mixes the whiz-bang style of comic books with the stylish action of old kung fu films, holding it all together with some really good writing. The show never takes itself or its story very seriously… but then its protagonists are nerdy mutant turtles, so that may not be such a bad thing.

8. Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated

Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated

In Crystal Cove, a touristy town that proclaims itself the “Most Hauntedest Place on Earth,” four teenagers and their dog solve mysteries. These kids, who call themselves Mystery Incorporated, debunk the town’s “supernatural” phenomena as the tricks of frauds and criminals… much to the chagrin of Crystal Cove’s mayor, who wants the town to keep its spooky reputation. When Mystery Inc. is contacted by someone called Mr. E, they find themselves caught up in a bigger mystery than they can imagine.

I saw one or two older Scooby-Doo cartoons as a kid, and they were kind of terrible. Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated astonished me with its excellence. It has character development, a story arc that stretches across the entire series, and an entire episode spoofing the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Best of all, Fred Jones—who was a bland stereotype in every version of Scooby-Doo up to this point—is reimagined as someone cheerful, well-meaning, slightly neurotic, and endearingly inept. I honestly don’t think Scooby-Doo will ever manage to be any better than this show.

7. The Legend of Korra

The Legend of Korra

In a world divided among four nations, a messianic figure called the Avatar arises in each new generation to maintain peace and balance. Each nation represents a classical element—water, earth, fire, or air—and certain people can control or “bend” one of these elements. The Avatar is the only person who can bend all four. This time around, the Avatar is a short-tempered young woman named Korra. She must master her abilities and navigate the political complexities of her world to keep things from falling part.

I’m bending the rules with this one. (Pun intended. I’m so, so sorry.) The Legend of Korra is neither Western animation nor anime, but something in between. Its characters are nuanced and compelling. The action scenes are wonderful, and the animation is some of the best on television. Best of all, the world of The Legend of Korra is a magical mix of Asian culture, steampunk technology, and beautiful scenery. Korra would be much higher on this list, but it never quite achieves its full potential, and an even better show steals its lofty place… but more on that later!

6. Samurai Jack

Samurai Jack

When a young samurai from feudal Japan is flung by a demon into a post-apocalyptic future, he sets off on a surreal journey to return to his own time. The samurai’s travels take him from futuristic cities to lonely jungles, and he meets everything from aliens to crazy Scotsmen. Wherever he goes, the legend spreads of a brave, kind, noble warrior: the samurai known only as “Jack.”

This show is probably the most artsy on this list, and also the most cartoony. It brings together the zany humor of The Powerpuff Girls with elegant action scenes and measured pacing. Samurai Jack uses dialogue sparingly; sometimes whole minutes go by without anyone speaking. The visuals tell the story. The show is strange, stylish, and thoroughly enjoyable.

5. My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic

My Little Pony - Friendship Is Magic

In a fairy-tale world populated by candy-colored ponies, a bookish unicorn named Twilight is sent to a small town to “make some friends.” After settling in and meeting the town’s eccentric residents, Twilight begins to understand the importance of friendship. She and her friends live, learn, and occasionally save the world together.

This is a show for little girls, and it’s kind of awesome. (Its fans are also pretty neat.) It has all the sentimental, sappy, twee nonsense one would expect from a show about magical rainbow ponies. It also has some great writing, solid characterization, strong moral values, upbeat humor, and charming innocence. My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is a much, much better show than it has any right to be.

4. Phineas and Ferb

Phineas and Ferb

It’s a beautiful summer day, and stepbrothers Phineas and Ferb know exactly how to spend it: building some outlandish, impossible contraption in the backyard. Their older sister, refusing to allow such reckless behavior, tries vainly to get them in trouble with their mum. Meanwhile, in another part of town, an evil scientist tries to conquer the world—well, that might be overambitious. He’ll settle for the tri-state area. All that stands between him and its innocent residents is an elite secret agent… who happens to be Phineas and Ferb’s pet platypus.

Phineas and Ferb has been around for years, and it’s still finding ways to subvert its simple formula for each episode. It’s the most self-aware show I’ve ever seen, peppered with droll dialogue, clever gags, and catchy music. Among other things, the show’s evil scientist, the lonely and forgetful Dr. Doofenshmirtz, is probably the funniest character I’ve seen on television.

3. Dan Vs.

Dan Vs.

Dan is convinced that everything and everyone in the universe, from his neighbors to modern art, is out to get him. He won’t take it lying down! This jobless misanthrope will go to any lengths to get back at whatever or whoever he thinks has wronged him. Chris and his wife Elise, Dan’s only friends, are often dragged along on his madcap schemes for vengeance.

Dan Vs. manages to be sharp and satirical without ever resorting to vulgarity or profanity. Dan is hilariously unhinged. I wouldn’t want him as a friend, but from a safe distance his schemes are great fun to watch. One of the show’s creators compared him to Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes, saying “I think of the Dan character as Calvin as a grownup, if his life had gone horribly wrong somewhere.” Dan shares Calvin’s paranoia, intelligence, ill temper, and absolute lack of common sense. Dan Vs. is smart, biting, and a joy to watch.

2. Gravity Falls

Gravity Falls

Mabel and Dipper Pines, twelve-year-old twins, have been sent by their parents to spend the summer in Gravity Falls, Oregon. They stay with their Great Uncle (or “Grunkle”) Stan, who runs a shady tourist attraction called the Mystery Shack. Although Dipper is disappointed to be stuck in a small town, he soon finds a journal detailing the supernatural monsters and mysteries of Gravity Falls. As Mabel and Dipper begin unraveling the riddles of this sleepy little town, Grunkle Stan, a gruff skeptic and shameless shyster, does his best to swindle the tourists who visit the Mystery Shack.

Gravity Falls has been called “gently twisted,” and I think that’s a good description. The show is equal parts funny, intriguing, heartwarming, outrageous, and weird. I would call it just a good comedy, except that it’s also packed with riddles and ciphers for fans to solve, and held together by a really compelling mystery. I’m not sure what exactly is going on in Gravity Falls, but I can’t wait to find out.

1. Avatar: The Last Airbender

Avatar - The Last Airbender

Before The Legend of Korra, there was an Avatar named Aang. When one of the four nations, the Fire Nation, wars against the others, Aang and his friends must stop it and restore peace before the world burns.

It takes a few episodes to hit its stride, but once it does this show never falters. This not-quite-anime predecessor to The Legend of Korra creates a world as beautiful and fully realized as Tolkien’s Middle-earth, and populates that world with a ridiculous number of memorable characters. Avatar: The Last Airbender isn’t merely a kid’s cartoon. It transcends its medium to become as deep and gripping a story as any I’ve seen… while never losing the gleams of humor and silliness that made it fun in the first place.

O people of the Internet, what cartoons have you enjoyed? Let us know in the comments!

262. Am I a Man?

Not long ago, I grew a beard. It was horrible, an utter disgrace and an affront to anyone unfortunate enough to gaze upon it. To put it in biblical terms, it was an abomination that caused desolation.

It’s a pity, because I like beards. I wish I could manage a better one. This one made me look like a stoner. In fact, a coworker went so far as to remark, “If I’d never met you before, I’d have assumed you smoked marijuana.”

The Abomination That Causes Desolation

I’m sorry you have to see this. I’m so, so sorry.

In the end, a couple of weeks ago, I euthanized my stoner-beard and got a haircut, restoring my deceptive resemblance to a civilized human male.

I grew a beard for two reasons. First, it was a rebellion against shaving. Shaving is tedious and painful. My beard was the symbol of a revolution, and a remind that rebellion can be an ugly thing. My second reason was a little more serious. A beard—even a hideous stoner-beard—was a reminder that I was a man.

At least, I’m supposed to be a man.

There are certainly times I feel old. The jungles, mountains and beaches of my youth seem very, very far from the quiet town of Berne, Indiana. Much of the time, however, I feel pretty young. I occasionally feel like a kid playing at being a grownup.

I’ve spent nearly a quarter-century knocking about God’s green earth, but I sometimes don’t feel it—and I hardly ever look it. Heck, I was often mistaken for a high school kid during my student teaching. (I was even told by fellow teachers to leave the office or teachers’ lounge because students weren’t allowed!) Many people want to look younger. I want to look older. At the very least, I want a proper beard.

Many of my high school and college chums are getting married, having kids, building careers and watching Breaking Bad. As I play video games, watch cartoons and write silly blog posts about exploding tomatoes, it’s a little scary for me to see how effortlessly responsible and grown-up everyone else seems to be.

I tried watching Breaking Bad once. (It was recommended to me by the same coworker who told me I looked like a weed addict.) The show was brilliant, but also painful to watch. My life was dysfunctional enough without watching Walter White lie to his wife and scream at his boss.

Right about the time [spoiler alert?] Walter and his accomplice tried dissolving a corpse in acid, I realized I wasn’t enjoying the show. It was too grown-up—by which I mean, rife with grown-up problems like lies, unfaithfulness, greed, murder, drug use and nihilistic hedonism. I gave up watching Breaking Bad and went back to the Edenic innocence of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic.

Am I some sort of man child, refusing to grow up and take responsibility, chasing fading gleams of childhood simplicity?

Am I… dare I say it… a Peter Pantheist?

I think I am a man.

Admittedly, I am a man who enjoys the wit and silliness of Phineas and Ferb over the gore and drama of The Walking Dead, but still. I would like to think I’m childlike, not childish. There’s a difference. At least, I’m pretty sure there’s a difference.

“When I was a child,” wrote the Apostle Paul, “I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.”

I talk like a man, I think like a man, I reason like a man—most of the time, anyway. I would like to think I’ve followed Paul’s good example and left behind childish ways.

All the same, I want to hope like a child, to trust like a child, to dream like a child. After all, the Lord Jesus himself said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”

An Evil Scientist Explains Band Names

Starting this week, Geeky Wednesdays are officially a thing.

From Kicking Crickets to Closet Vikings, I’ve come up with a staggering number of awful band names. Dave Barry, a humorist and master of rock band nomenclature, is the one from whom I picked up the bad habit of turning odd phrases from everyday life into absurd names for rock bands.

Seriously, though, what’s with band names? A few make sense. Peter, Paul and Mary is refreshingly simple, and The Beatles is a clever pun on beat and beetle. But what about Pink Floyd and ZZ Top and other strange band names? Are such bizarre names the result of nonconformist intellect, warped humor or reckless drug use? And why do Doofenshmirtz’s explanations seem so reasonable?

149. Why I Watch Cartoons

As many of my readers have probably noticed, I like cartoons.

Well, I like some cartoons. Others I would watch only on pain of death, and perhaps not even then. (I’m looking at you, SpongeBob SquarePants.) Besides loving many animated films—for example, classic Disney movies and everything directed by Hayao Miyazaki—I enjoy television shows produced for kids.

I also like literature, especially the classics. Explosions? Car chases? Sultry romances? Bah! Humbug! To blazes with such nonsense! Give me meaningful themes, compelling characterization and well-crafted plots.

Thus I decided to take no fewer than three literature classes in one semester when I was in college. (Where was Admiral Ackbar when I needed him?) For months, I was hammered by grim novels like Silence, a bleak story about the silence of GodOne Hundred Years of Solitude, a fantastical history of a disturbing, sordid society; The Penelopiad, a cynical postmodern perspective on The Odyssey; and several more depressing books.

It was not a happy semester.

Some notable literature is lighthearted—I thank God for cheerful authors like P.G. Wodehouse—but the good stuff is mostly depressing. Even stories by humorists like Mark Twain and James Thurber have tragic undertones. Thurber once wrote, “To call such persons ‘humorists,’ a loose-fitting and ugly word, is to miss the nature of their dilemma and the dilemma of their nature. The little wheels of their invention are set in motion by the damp hand of melancholy.”

I like cartoons because they’re innocent, bright and funny, and they’re unapologetic about it.

Do cartoons give a balanced view of the world? Of course not—but then, neither does much of the best literature. Cartoons remind me that the world can be a pleasant, cheerful place, even as literature reminds me that it can be a dreadful, hopeless one.

For me, cartoons are a kind of escapism.

Is escapism wrong? When balanced with realism, I don’t believe it is. To quote J.R.R. Tolkien, who is awesome, “I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which ‘Escape’ is now so often used. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?”

A Farewell to Arms tells me there is suffering in the world. My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic tells me there is good in it. The Great Gatsby tells me happiness can’t be bought with money or popularity. Phineas and Ferb tells me happiness can be found by two kids sitting in the shade of a tree on a summer day. Animal Farm tells me the good guys sometimes lose. Avatar: The Last Airbender tells me the good guys sometimes win.

The other reason I watch cartoons is because, well, they’re fun to watch.

82. About Writing: Rhythm

Before I share my thoughts about rhythm, here are a few words from Phineas Flynn and Ferb Fletcher. (They’re mostly from Phineas. Ferb doesn’t talk much.)

All right, it’s important to have a sense of rhythm. But what does that mean for writers?

It’s a mistake to use the same kinds of sentences. A paragraph full of identical sentence structures is boring. Sentences should be varied. Sentences should not become monotonous. That kind of writing sounds boring and choppy. That kind of writing is worse if consecutive sentences begin or end with the same words because it sounds boring and choppy.

That last paragraph was, as one of my brothers would say, an abomination. It committed pretty much all the transgressions against which it warned. The structures of its sentences were similar, and it repeated certain phrases. It sounded—forgive the repetition—boring and choppy.

It’s easy to use the same sentence structures over and over. In fact, I do it all the time without realizing it. Writers need to vary the rhythm of their writing, and deliberately use different kinds of sentences.

I won’t go into the technical details of dependent and independent clauses, compound sentences, complex sentences or any of those other ghastly things.

Let us instead learn by doing. Here’s a lousy paragraph, one that ain’t got rhythm.

Uproariously, the typewriter monkeys chattered as Adam dictated a blog post to them. He told them to listen, but they wouldn’t. He shouted, but they only yanked the ribbons out of their typewriters. Clutching his head, Adam went into the kitchen to make tea. Unhappily, he returned and surveyed the devastation.

We have two basic sentence structures repeated in this paragraph: Adverb or adverbial phrase, blah blah blah and Blah blah blah, but blah blah blah.

(A real professional would use proper grammatical terms to describe these sentence structures, but I ain’t real professional.)

Let us rewrite the paragraph with a little more rhythm.

The typewriter monkeys chattered uproariously as Adam dictated a blog post to them. Although he told them to listen, they wouldn’t. He shouted, but they only yanked the ribbons out of their typewriters. Adam went into the kitchen to make some tea, clutching his head, and returned to survey the devastation unhappily.

Behold! With a few words changed and a few phrases shifted around, the paragraph has gone from being monotonous to readable.

Rhythm is important, and syntax—the order in which words are arranged—matters. (Syntax is not a tax extorted from sinners, to quote one of my high school teachers.) Writing that ain’t got rhythm isn’t nearly as powerful as writing that has it.