When Betty Boop first appeared in 1930, the iconic cartoon character quickly began making her mark far beyond her celluloid world, eventually lending her influence to art, music, and fashion, as well as other animations.
The Jazz Age character also both parodied and reflected her times, a short-lived era in which it seemed nothing much could go wrong. "She can get into terrible things, but with a little flip of her hips, she gets out of it," says Karen Yasinsky, lecturer in the Program in Film and Media Studies at the Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences.
That observation was one of many dissected in Yasinsky's Animating Cartoons course last semester, in which a pantheon of characters including Felix the Cat, Bugs Bunny, the Flintstones, and the Jetsons became the subject of critical analysis. Yasinsky covered the formal conventions of animated cartooning, how and why those conventions developed and evolved, and the ways they reflected 20th century social, cultural, and political changes. And then the time-tested characters continued their influence on a new generation, as students created their own hand-drawn characters and animated a short scene from a storyboard they developed.
"The class gave me an opportunity to be creative in a way I hadn't had the time to be since high school. Through my animation, I was able to enter a surreal world that was separate from the stressful realities of school and the pandemic," says Sydney Sappenfield, a senior majoring in cognitive science.
In a pandemic twist to the course Yasinsky has taught for 11 years, the JHU-MICA Film Centre sent each student an iPad with a simple animation app and an Apple pen—timesavers compared to the course's usual paper, pencil, and lightbox tools, as they eliminated the need to redraw the non-moving parts in each frame. "From there, the students really took off," Yasinsky says. "I think it was a combination of inspiration from the old cartoons with more time and few distractions that allowed them to really put great creative energy and time into their work."
The resulting creations drew on examples from class viewings, like senior Anne Islam's adventuresome mouse who clutches a cloud to parachute from the sky and then shakes droplets from the cloud onto a pursuing cat—a nod to self-referential elements like characters of yore who use doors to walk into or out of their frames. Sophomore Shaina Gabala's film features a woman who dances and juggles to entertain a grumpy sun back into a happier mood, returning color to a black-and-white world. And a third film tells the tale of a woman whose broom springs to life and spirits her off to a world of dance.
"I knew I wanted my final project to be about dancing, and I wanted it to look colorful and fun," says Elana Rubin, a senior Writing Seminars major and the creator of the dancing broom. "Animating dance moves turned out to be much more difficult than I expected, but taking on this project taught me a lot about animation."
The projects required learning the process of storyboarding and how to create narrative tension—an element common to most works of art, Yasinsky points out. And they also provided an opportunity to explore firsthand an art form so direct and immediate that the artist almost becomes the character, and the character's imagination drives the film.
"It's like living in slow motion but thinking at normal speed, with the time and power to change actions and outcomes," Yasinsky says. "You start your animation, and then you come up with other ideas, and I encouraged the students to respond to those ideas. You're not working with a script and actors, so you can change things; that was really freeing for them."