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Review of Serious Business: The Art and Commerce of Animation in America
Review by Shannon Muir

Book: Serious Business: The Art and Commerce of Animation in America
Author: Stefan Kanfer
Year: 1997
Foreword: Chuck Jones
dFX Review Rating: 8.5 out of 10
More Info from Amazon.com

Chapters:
1. It's All in Dreamland, You Know
2. What We Call 'Personality
3. Fighting The Mouse
4. The Wilder Shores of Comedy
5. More Hells then Swedenborg
6. Laughing at the Enemy
7. Who's Directing This Picture?
8. We Could Get Away With Less
9. Akin to Statutory Rape
10. The Animated Mirror


To understand where we are headed in the animation industry, it seems best to know where we've been. Stefan Kanfer offers a wonderful, engaging primer in the pages of Serious Business, a book that covers the evolution of animation from it's early vaudevillian stage influences to an industry that covers the planet. At only 235 pages (not counting the index), SERIOUS BUSINESS can't begin to cover it all, but for anyone unfamiliar with the history of animation it's a place to build a good foundation, or remind you about some of the major points of history you may have forgotten.

In the book's foreword by the late Chuck Jones, he praises Kanfer as he "clearly establishes the obscure and often neglected truth that no facet of human failure or human accomplishment can exist in a vacuum." Chuck Jones details one of his own early meetings with Stefan Kanfer and the strong impression he made on the famed director. What he mainly praises, and I agree the book does well at, is capturing the culture and history around animation and how it influenced it, for good or ill.

Stefan Kanfer's known for his writing career that spans over many years. Twenty of those years he spent writing and editing for Time magazine, and Stefan Kanfer's had articles and reviews in many major magazines. Six books previously were to his credit before the publication of Serious Business in 1997, and his critical and historical view is well respected, as evidenced by Chuck Jones' praise.

Progression of the book is completely chronological, skipping around from studio or creator based on their place in history. The first chapter, "It's All In Dreamland, You Know," covers from early Roman attempts of photos in motion (such as on urns) through the emergence of Winsor McKay and creations like Little Nemo. "What We Call Personality," the next chapter, focuses on those individuals first inspired by McKay such as Otto Messmer, to the Fleischers, to Walter Lantz, to early Walt Disney. Next, in "Fighting the Mouse," follow how Felix the Cat and Car-Tunes are on top as Walt Disney moves from Oswald the Rabbit to creating Mickey Mouse; the advent of sound dethrones Felix and brings Mickey notice, and contributes to the evolution of Betty Boop. "The Wilder Shores of Comedy" talks about Walt Disney's distributor doctoring the books, then later luring away Ub Iwerks and Carl Stalling to set up a new studio after the success of early Silly Symphonies, as well as an overview of other Silly Symphonies and how they led to Snow White; also, how Lantz carries on Oswald, how Bosko the Talk-Ink Kid shaped the future of what's still known today as Looney Tunes, and the Fleischers work on Popeye. Follow the making of Snow White (with smaller glimpses at Pinocchio and Fantasia) while the Fleischers work on adapting Gulliver's Travels, and Lantz's failed attempt at a film leads to Woody Woodpecker's creation in "More Hells than Swedenborg."

The history of animation changed with the strike of Disney workers in 1940 (which affected the production of Dumbo), but what would really affect the industry was World War II; read how cartoons kept us "Laughing at the Enemy," and what went on behind the scenes. Find out how Red Hot gave way to Droopy, the Fleischer studio began a downturn, the rise of Chuck Jones at Warner Bros. and more in the next chapter, "Who's Directing this Picture?" Chapter Eight, "We Could Get Away With Less," tells why MGM Animation closed, the struggles of UPA, how Walt Disney's eroding critical acclaim led to branching into live-action, and the emergence of Rocky and Bullwinkle. Next, animation enters its 'Great Depression' after Walt Disney's death, though it's also the same year all networks had Saturday-morning cartoons; the rise of Action for Childrens Television, cartoon spinoffs of popular live-action franchises and toys, limited animation movies of the 1970s, and the appearance of Ralph Bakshi's Fritz the Cat are part of in Chapter Nine, "Akin to Statutory Rape." The last chapter, "The Animated Mirror," looks at the 1980s and 1990s and the revitalization brought through animation through the success of Disney's animated film resurgence and the dawn of 3-D animated film popularity with Pixar's Toy Story.

Black-and-white animation stills and photographs are placed throughout the book, with a few color inserts in the center. The ones I found most informative were those on Gertie, Felix the Cat, photos of the Disney riots -- basically those images that are not as readily seen. Most of these pictures though, are of characters or shorts that are often-seen images, even on a historical level. If you're relatively knew to the genre, they're definitely needed but nothing much new for the average reader, I think.

Personally, I didn't know a lot of the early history of animation before I sat down and read this book (the first time was several years prior to writing this review, I've revisited it several times since). I felt that I walked away with knowledge to appreciate animation in a way I never had before. Now I love watching older Disney cartoons, Tom & Jerry, and even some of the older obscure shorts as aired on Cartoon Network-packaged programs such as Acme Hour and Toon Heads. Understanding the cultural and historical context of many of those cartoons deepened my appreciation immensely and whetted my appetite for more.

Pros
- Content-rich, covering major points in animation history.
- Black-and-white animation stills and photographs, helpful aids for those unfamiliar with these historic characters.
- Good overview of the history of animation.

Cons
- photographs and stills aren't shown off at the best size for detail.
- many of the pictures are of well known characters and/or shows.
- some areas could be far more in depth, such as more background on individual cartoons.

Ultimately, Kanfer's book serves as picking up an adequate quick-glance road map to the industry's historical highway. While it doesn't go through everything in great detail (the history of MGM and Hanna-Barbera seem to be sketchier in relation to Disney, Warner Bros, and the early studios, for example), it will get you to speed to appreciate the best that animation offers -- past, present, and future.



You can order Serious Business: The Art and Commerce of Animation by clicking here.


Shannon Muir is known in the animation industry for her work as a production coordinator for Nickelodeon's Invader Zim. She also served as a Production Coordinator for Extreme Ghostbusters and a Production Assistant for Jumanji: The Animated Series. Muir is an accomplished writer and often participates on panels or as a guest speaker at conventions like Comic Con International.

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