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100 Greatest Animated Shorts / Quasi at the Quackadero / Sally Cruikshank

100 Greatest Animated Shorts, Featured

USA / 1975

In animation, as in many other art forms, the seventies were a period of many extremes and contrasts. Mammoths from previous decades sunk slowly into their tar pit of complacency, self indulgence and creative stagnation. To fill this relevance vacuum, smaller and wilder amoebas bubbled to the surface infused with new found life force and sixties born freedom of expression, sending fireworks into the brown nylon skies and neon orchids bursting through the concrete.

In the music business the dinosaur rock bands disappeared up their own saggy, leathery rears and punk exploded into the creative void. In Hollywood, as box office returns fell away for the tired old genres of the studio system, a generation of hip young directors took over in the wake of the counter culture smash Easy Rider.

And in mainstream animation, Disney flailed around without Walt, while Hanna Barbara reduced their already stripped-down TV product to repetitive cycles badly drawn in Asian factories, as the executives took over to cut budgets and artistry and to lead a cynical cycle of diminishing returns that would continue until the late 80s.

Into this atmosphere of disrespect for the art form and audience, where accountants ruled over animators, a infusion of independent animation started to penetrate. In the wake of Yellow Submarine (animation’s own Easy Rider), which had emerged from a small studio in swinging London to become a global hit, an underground counter culture of short film makers emerged, gaining ‘turned on’ audiences at festivals, late night screenings, alternative TV channels and later, bootleg video cassette distribution.

American independent animator Sally Cruikshank is a true original. Her fourth film Quasi at the Quackadero was a popular and critical success and has become a cult favorite. Along with Make Me Psychic (1978) and Quasi’s Cabaret Trailer (1980) it is part of her “Art Deco” trilogy, a style of design that enjoyed a fashion revival in the mid-1970s. This is, however, a pretty wild take on Art Deco, by way of naïve outsider art and colourful George Dunning-style trippy surrealism.

A great example of a 1970s film where creativity was allowed to flow unrestrained, the loose narrative of Quasi at the Quackadero features regular Cruikshank characters Quasi and Anita, two stylized ducks, who visit a very strange funfair with their robot. In 1994 it was voted into Jerry Beck’s book The 50 Greatest Cartoons, and in 2009 it was selected for preservation as “culturally significant” in the US National Film Registry.

In the late 1960s Cruikshank moved from Massachusetts to San Francisco to pursue her animation dream. While hiring equipment to edit a previous film Chow Fun (1973) she met the studio owner Gregg Snazelle, who hired her to make some animated commercials for the studio and the rest of the time to do ‘experiments’ in animation. This basically meant, in the wonderful free spirit of the day, that she was allowed to freely make her films at the studio without any deals or ownership rights or editorial control.

Quasi at the Quackadero was what she came up with. Inspired by vintage animators like The Fleischer Brothers and Winsor McCay, underground comic artists like Robert Crumb, Carl Barks’ Duck Comics and cartoonist Kim Deitch (son of animator Gene Deitch, author of the award-winning graphic novel Boulevard of Broken Dreams and Cruickshank’s cohabitee at the time). Cruickshank drafted in friends from the independent comics community to help out and paint the cells at 50 cents each, and the film took two years to make.

Sally followed up the success of the film with Make Me Psychic which was another hit and got a major release supporting the Jane Fonda film The China Syndrome (1978). Renowned movie composer Danny Elfman provided music for Cruikshank’s 1987 film Face Like a Frog and, like fellow independent animator Marv Newland (most famous for 1969’s Bambi Meets Godzilla), she later spent time working on the animated sequences for cult children’s TV show Sesame Street, contributed to Newland’s film Anijam (1984) and designed and directed the animated sequence for Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983). In 2008 a clip of Quasi at the Quackadero was seen in Futurama: Bender’s Game demonstrating the influence that the film had on future generations of animators.

Cruikshank had only just left her studies at San Francisco Art Institute at the time and her lack of experience does show in the crudeness of the animation and voice recordings, which were mainly played by herself (Anita) and Deitch (Quasi) but this is compensated by sheer crazy exuberance, lack of fear and the advantage that if no one has told you what you’re supposed to do, you just do what comes naturally. As in all great outsider art, the rawness and anarchy become qualities and as the characters wander round the fun fair and observe the time travel based attractions, the viewer himself feels somehow transported back to the vibe of San Francisco in 1975.

Like any truly original work, and unlike many films produced just a few years ago that fitted into some prevailing idea of graphical ‘coolness’, Quasi at the Quackadero somehow doesn’t seem dated, because it exists in its own universe. Instead, like many of the films on this list, it feels like someone’s genuinely eccentric personal vision, imagination, joie de vivre and excitement at the limitless possibilities of animation are being lovingly and painstakingly fed directly from the creator’s brain into yours. As Sally herself put it; “Animation is this sort of open door to fantasy-land, you’re only limited by what you can draw”.

Note: The 100 greatest animated shorts is an list of opinions and not an order of value from best to worst. Click here to see all of the picks of the list so far. All suggestions, comments and outrage are welcome!

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