Drawing a legacy

Updated: Apr 25, 2020, 09:56 IST | Shunashir Sen | Mumbai

Tom and Jerry animator Gene Deitch passed away this week. Fans and animators discuss the impact his work left on them.

Yesterday, the Maharashtra chief minister's office posted an image on its Twitter handle with the tagline "Life indoor is life secure" in order to send a pertinent message during the lockdown. The illustration features a cat holding a hammer above its head standing outside a hole in a wall, waiting in vain for the mouse that lives inside it to exit its home. You'd recognise the duo instantly since it's Tom and Jerry, characters who have had a tight grip on the Indian imagination ever since the MGM series started airing on Doordarshan before the cable TV boom. Back in those days, kids in the country had a rough ride when it came to visual entertainment. Their options were limited to precious little apart from Disney cartoons, Spiderman, The Jungle Book and the cat-and-mouse duo. No wonder then that the cartoon remains so relevant in the 21st century that CM Uddhav Thackeray used the afore-mentioned image to drive his point home. And no wonder that when Gene Deitch passed away earlier this week, a number of Indians put up grieving social media posts, crediting him as "the Tom and Jerry director" in their condolences.

Abhijeet Kini with vintageTom & Jerry and Popeye comics
Abhijeet Kini with vintageTom & Jerry and Popeye comics

But here's the thing. Deitch directed only 13 of the 161 episodes in the series. The American animator was settled in Prague in 1961 when the job fell on his lap. MGM was in a bit of a crisis and they gave him the responsibility of picking up the mantle that William Hanna and Joseph Barbara had left behind. So Deitch assembled a team in the Czech capital who, ironically, had never seen a single Tom and Jerry episode before. Nonetheless — working under severe financial constraints in an environment far removed from the "crash-bang American cartoon culture" — he tried revamping the series, giving it his own aesthetic spin. Notable alterations included showing the face of the human characters for the first time. But the idea didn't work. Critics savaged this interpretation. And the MGM suits dropped Deitch and turned their interests towards former Warner Bros animator Chuck Jones (who made even starker changes to the original cartoon).

The CMO’s post on Twitter.  Artwork/Mudit KhuranaThe CMO's post on Twitter. Artwork/Mudit Khurana

So the question is, is it doing Deitch a disservice to paint his legacy with one brush, considering his animation contributions even include directing episodes of Popeye, another Indian favourite in the Cartoon Network era?

Sameer Kulavoor
Sameer Kulavoor

Abhijeet Kini doesn't think so. As far as the city-based animator is concerned, "Tom and Jerry is Tom and Jerry", and anyone involved with the series — even if briefly — deserves for that contribution to be recognised in posterity. He admits that he is a bigger fan of the initial cartoons. Kini says, "Something was amiss somewhere [in Deitch's interpretation]. The sense of mystery was lost after the human faces were shown." But he adds that as an animator, the idea that here was a Soviet team hand-painting cartoons in a 2D era is still fascinating in a 21st century world full of digital shortcuts. "It's amazing when you look at what went behind the image of a wide landscape. For instance, a camera was placed on a trolley that panned across a long set of panels. The smoother the image, the more hand-painted panels you needed. But nowadays, content has taken precedence over technique. Something like South Park is all about the cut-outs — people are less interested in how well it's animated than in what it talks about."

Gene Deitch
Gene Deitch

Illustrator Sameer Kulavoor agrees. "You can create a modern version of The Lion King with high-level computer graphics, but that's not the point. The fact that Deitch was making hand-drawn 2D cartoons is what stands out," he tells us. So, what both he and Kini are emphasising here is that Deitch's legacy should be measured in terms of the old-school precedence the 95-year-old left behind. Kini says that he draws inspiration even today from archaic techniques like turning a character's feet into motorised wheels before he or she races off in pursuit of a subject. So, yes, let's celebrate the departed animator's contribution to a series that state governments continue to employ to elucidate a message. But more than that, let's doff our hats to him for laying the framework on which modern animation rests, in an age when children aren't restricted to limited Doordarshan staples for entertainment anymore, but are literally spoilt for choice.

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