Off the Air and the History of Musical Cartoon Animation
by Wolfgang Boehm — Georgia State University
March 06, 2017 – 11:51
Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies ran from 1929 to 1939 and are mostly remembered for their experimental value: the lack of narrative, lack of recurring characters, and the emphasis placed on animating movement in sync with music gave the animator a platform to explore the medium. Giannalberto Bendazzi notes that the series originates from a compromise between Disney and his obstinate music composer, Carl Stalling, who felt the Mickey Mouse shorts often conflicted with the rules of musical composition. Warner Brothers imitated the series with Merrie Melodies, shorts that likewise foregrounded music over plot and character. MGM joined not long after. Following World War II the animated short lost its platform, as television gained primacy over the theater as the medium for cartoon spectatorship. And while Pixar still creates animated shorts for the cinema, viewing brief cartoons before main features is archaic. With this disappearance of cinematic cartoons, the notion of creating an animated series that emphasizes music over punchlines, characters, dialogue, and narrative, seemed to disappear as well. However, I’d like to suggest that Adult Swim’s Off the Air reintroduces and contributes to this tradition.
The series at first glance may appear to be a simple music video show, but it is in fact quite different and far more bizarre. Each episode is about ten minutes long and loosely structured around a singular theme, often just a word like “Words,” “Work,” “Animals,” or “Shapes.” Like Adult Swim’s other odd creations, Off the Air was given a 4:00 am time-slot without much fanfare, however it has since gained a popular following of viewers mainly accessing the shorts via the Internet. Like the Silly Symphonies, Off the Air seems to be primarily an exercise in animated experimentation, without much thought given to representation or presenting a consistent message. Because of this, I find the series to be situated within a broader historical tradition, one that is perhaps gaining a renewed popularity with the introduction of Internet spectatorship.
The Dan Deacon video perfectly captures Off the Air’s aesthetic. The video is memorable mainly for the way it foregrounds the incredible effects various contemporary animation techniques can achieve in regards to movement and sound. The images on display construct an aesthetic of cartoon motion and its relationship to music by centering around the psychedelic potential of the medium, a potential obviously not explored by Disney (not explored explicitly, I might add). Dan Deacon is the perfect musical collaborator, as his work has been described as sounding like acid-influenced nursery rhymes, a description one might compare to Off the Air’s treatment of cartoons.