The Ages of Animation


The Greeks believed that there were five Ages of Man – each measured by the quality of a particular metal – from the godly perfect Golden Age down to the current, tough Iron Age.

Some animation critics have also informally adopted this model of thought, labelling the Golden Age of animation as the big studio output of Warner Brothers MGM/Hanna Barbera and Disney between the creation of the art form in the 30s through the death of theatrical shorts to television in the late 60s.

Disney has been through more ‘ages’ than we can shake a stick at, and as one of the inventors of the modern art-form after Fleischer, one could argue endlessly about their output and what belongs where. Disney  was considered to have its best  studio years ending with the arrival and then departure of Don Bluth.

Some wags also posit a Silver Age (or Renaissance Age) of animation in the television shows that flourished between the mid-80s to late-90’s, including the rise of Warner Brothers TV animation like Batman: The Animated Series, Tiny Toon Adventures, Animaniacs, Freakazoid and Pinky and the Brain, and of course Fox’s The Simpsons.

But this is really too simple an analogy, because the Gold/Silver analogy is usually reserved for the ‘big studio’ and defined exclusively as WB, Hanna Barbera, and the survivors of the Golden Age theatrical production houses. It leaves out the explosive growth of cable television networks, imported content, and other routes by which animation reached the masses.

It is a fact that there was a significant gap in output across all of these studios between roughly 1969 and 1989 – during which productions were minimal or of very cheap framerate, the artform having diminished in the wake of television and a lack of interest in financing expensive hand-drawn productions. This allowed MGM spinoff studio Hanna Barbera (and their cheaper animation styles) to dominate the television animation world for almost two decades. Television radically transformed the medium.

Should we then properly call all of television animation from the 70’s on the Bronze Age?

The Simpsons Have a Heritage

Although it may seem as though modern television animation begins and ends with 1989’s The Simpsons, The Show That Destroyed TV, The Simpsons itself is a reworking of older formulas from the beloved family sitcom tropes of the 50s and 60s and is the natural successor to and evolution of Hanna Barbera’s The Flintstones, with more than a dash of All in the Family and several other tight 70’s sitcoms to boot. The Simpsons were written like they were live action, and as a result pushed the edge of what modern ‘cartoons’ could be considered to do. But The Simpsons couldn’t exist without decades of trope material to build on, comment against,and often subvert – and the Flintstones were the cornerstone of Hanna Barbera’s own little ‘golden age’ of the 60’s. The Flintstone family in turn heavily owned its existence to Jackie Gleason’s The Honeymooners.

Nickelodeon Blazes A Path

As the Simpsons were just beginning to reach their glory years, Nickelodeon began producing cartoon animation for cable. Their ‘golden age’ was in the early 90s with Ren and Stimpy, Doug, Hey Arnold, The Angry Beavers, and ending in Spongebob Squarepants. Spongebob Squarepants, of course, went on to influence an entire subgenre of its own including Adventure Time and Steven Universe. Perhaps Invader Zim and Fairly Oddparents marks the transition to Nick’ ‘silver age’ in 2001 – which eventually begat Avatar: The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra. As Nick receded CN rose.

Cartoon Network Raises A New Generation

It was another decade before Cartoon Network entered the fray, and it too has had its ‘golden’ and ‘silver ages’ – the golden era being roughly 2000-2008, spawning director/showrunners like Genndy Tartakovsky, Craig McCracken, Adam Reed, Brad Bird, Gregg Vanzo, and Lauren Faust. (Although The Venture Brothers began in 2003, the showrunners had already written for several adaptions of The Tick, previously, so they weren’t emergent here) You could say this ‘golden age’ for Cartoon Network ends in 2008, where Alex Hirsch and J.G. Quintel appear, and eventually break away to form their own monster hit shows.

One man’s golden age is another man’s silver – although it feels like most of these networks have some indefinable yet tangible shimmering line. There’s a generational aspect to it – the ‘golden age’ is whatever shows the viewer grew up watching, while ‘silver age’ shows are what they came to as young adults.

That line will forever be blurring and shifting. What’s important is that animation is once again alive and well, in a magnificent variety of myriad forms and shapes. While the ‘death’ of 2d animation may be considered a fait accompli by some, it is by no means a dead medium, and the techniques required to animate are the same regardless of the tools of production.