Theory: Heroes and Imitation


Today on Facebook, I got into a discussion about “fan videos”. Someone pointed me to this film…

Superman Classic

At first glance, this film appears well animated, professional, polished… everything someone might expect of a good animated film… except one thing. Take a look at this film now and see if you can figure out what that is…

Superman in The Mechanical Monsters

Separated by 70 years, these two films are very similar on the surface. But underneath, they are completely different. The Fleischers were breaking new ground with their film, adapting a comic book that reflected the mood and style of the time. They were experimenting with new techniques and expanding what their medium was capable of doing. Superman Classic imitates without really adding anything new.


It’s bad because the film maker who made the fan film obviously has considerable skill and talent. He should be making his own films that reflect his own point of view and time and place. Instead, he spent months and months of his life *recreating something that already existed*. We might be impressed with the sheer amount of work involved, but when it comes down to it, it’s as pointless as singing “100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall”.

“Hard work and long hours aren’t what make for great cartoons. Ideas are.” -John Kricfalusi

When you imitate, the absolute best that you can achieve is to be “almost as good” as the thing you are imitating. How can a copy ever be better? But if you go back to the fundamentals and create your own thing, you have the chance to perhaps surpass what has been done before. Best of all, instead of rehashing something that was relevant half a century ago, you are creating something relevant to the here and now.


It’s good to have heroes, it’s good to study great drawings by copying them to figure out what makes them tick, and it’s good to admire films from the past. Inspiration is important. But there is a proper application of inspiration.

“It’s only natural to pattern yourself after someone. If I wanted to be a painter, I might think about trying to be like Van Gogh, or if I was an actor, act like Laurence Olivier. If I was an architect, there’s Frank Gehry. But you can’t just copy somebody. If you like someone’s work, the important thing is to be exposed to everything that person has been exposed to. Some people say they want to be like Bob Dylan. But they shouldn’t do that by copying me. Anyone who wants to be a songwriter like me should listen to as much folk music as they can, study the form and structure of stuff that has been around for 100 years. I go back to Stephen Foster.” -Bob Dylan

Every day on the internet, I see people drawing endless imitations of Sonic the Hedgehog or anime or Tex Avery cartoons. In fact, there’s a whole website devoted to that called DeviantArt. It upsets me to see otherwise fine artists squander their talent on mindless imitation of a tiny, inbred handful of things. If they focused their energy in gaining a diverse and wide range of influences, and analyzing the thought process behind the creation of their favorite cartoons, they would stand a chance of surpassing their heroes. But instead, they are trapped in an endless loop of copying the thing they admire, wasting their energy tracing the outlines of its shadow.

6 Responses to “Theory: Heroes and Imitation”

  1. Tzod Eatf says:

    Your conclusion, nostalgia is the tracing of a shadowy past, is strong and hard to refute. To respond, I’m forced to cobble old arguments, old sentiments, and new instruction which retraces these same shadows.
    There’s the adage, “If you want to find a new idea, look for an old one,” which comes to mind. There’s resistance to shut the door on the shadow of greatness the past masters cast into the future. There’s the $100K course which also retraces those old outlines.
    So we’re brought back to the gauntlet of nostalgia and innvation, forced to make creative decisions which may lead to greatness or obscurity.
    The more things change, the more they stay the same.

  2. Beth Drummond says:

    Well said – creativity is very much about having an understanding of what came before and then combining those things in ways that are new.

    The broader your knowledge base – the more ideas you “own” and the more connections you can make.

    Just a quick note on DeviantArt – the website itself has become a big umbrella which does have a LOT of “fanart” (I will never understand how there could be so many drawings of Little Ponies) but it also has a number of groups that are doing original art – and in a wide number of fields (photography, cartoon, tattoo just to name a few). I think one of the attractions is the ability to get feedback on your work and the site also has a number of tutorials.

    A visit to the site is sort of like a trip to Venice Beach – a lot of unusual folks – all in one place!

  3. Roberto Severino says:

    There’s so much truth to the last paragraph you wrote. I’ve always hated DeviantArt for that very reason and to this day, I refuse to make one myself. It’s a breeding ground for everything that you illustrated here.

    That’s one of the reasons why animation has been stuck in the rut that’s been in. I was saying something very similar to what you wrote here on Twitter to some animation minded fellows. Some people are too trapped in their nostalgic tendencies that they just end up blindly copying the things that they admire most without properly applying what they learned to create something new and different and to make a statement about the world that they inhabit today in order to progress the medium while maintaining some standards. They also don’t seem to realize that it’s 2013 and not 1963 or 1973 or 1943.

  4. Roberto Severino says:

    Bottom line, too much nostalgia can reduce the motivation to create anything new and to rely on cliches and pale imitation rather than originality and applied skill.

  5. RR says:

    The problem I had with the Superman Classic is not that it’s derivative but that it’s shallow; particularly the acting. Why does Clark Kent have Princess Ariel’s mannerisms? That’s ignorant.

    In any case, like you guys I’m of the mindset that imitation is a step to understanding, and in the end, the understanding has to be there so you can articulate something and then…

    >>…make a statement about the world that they inhabit today<<

    And that's a big one. What statement are you allowed to make right now? What can you say that won't make people even more divided than they already are? What message can you bring up that someone with money isn't afraid to finance?

    We (well America) have been through a few eras that had essentially universal themes. The "Win The War" era, the "Screw The War" era, the "Future Is Awesome" era, the "We Were Lied To" era, the "Haha Rich People are Idiots" era…

    Cynicism, telling each other to chill out and have a good time, geeky superworlds to escape to, yelling that humanity has gone too far – these are all worn out. Shall we debate controversial subjects, or shall we sell things with light entertainment?

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