Saturday, July 11, 2009

Bean Counters

"The conditions of financing and distribution that made the Warner shorts possible no longer exist, so we will probably never see their like again." - John Canemaker

When John Canemaker made this comment in the 1975 documentary "The Boys From Termite Terrace" he was, of course, referring to the Warner Brothers short cartoons that so many of us grew up with; Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Yosemite Sam, Tweety and Sylvester, Wile E. Coyote, the Road Runner and a host of others.

Let's think about that for a moment. What Canemaker was, in fact, saying is that, today, these cartoons, which millions around the world have come to know and love and which, arguably, have played a significant role in moulding our culture, could not exist. If it were up to us, they would never have been created.

Why? Because they would be deemed to be unprofitable. They take too much time and care to create; therefore they cost too much and offer too little a return on investment. Instead, we get pale imitations of these classics; Fairly Odd Parents, Prank Patrol, Spongebob Squarepants,the Simpsons and a host of anime shows in which what passes for animated speech involves flipping back and forth between just two mouth positions; open and closed.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that these modern animated shows are bad in and of themselves. I'm a big fan of the Simpsons. I own the first 11 seasons on DVD. But the quality of the artistry and animation simply cannot compare to that of the old Warner Brothers shorts.

To demonstrate my point, a friend of mine and I once watched one of the old Warner Brothers short cartoons in its entirety with the sound turned off. It was just as funny and entertaining as it was with sound. The subtlety of the characters' facial expressions, their gestures and their posture rendered the soundtrack almost unnecessary.

Today, the Simpsons aren't even hand drawn in America anymore but farmed out to Korea where the animation is computer rendered. Why? Because it's cheaper to do it that way. The difference in the finished product is noticeable. Watch an episode of the Simpsons without sound, and the experience becomes much degraded; almost pointless. That's the difference.

It seems to me that our society has evolved, or perhaps devolved, to the point where financial profit increasingly appears to be the only motivator for any enterprise. The "bean counters" run the show. I understand that everyone needs to make a living and that money-losing ventures are doomed to failure, but we seem to have forgotten that not everything is about the bottom line. Some things are worth doing for the sake of doing them. What about beautifying the world? What about broadening our horizons, thereby increasing our knowledge and wisdom? What about simple experimentation; trying things just to see what happens?

In George Minter's famous motion picture adaptation of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol", he added a scene that was never in the original novel, in which one Mr. Jorkin offers to buy Fezziwig's failing business.

"It's not just for money alone that one spends a lifetime building up a business, Mr. Jorkin" explains Fezziwig.

"Well if it isn't, I'd like you to tell him what you do spend a lifetime building up a business for," counters Jorkin, with an amused chuckle.

"It's to preserve a way of life that one knew and loved," explains Fezziwig. "No, I can't see my way to selling out to the new vested interest, Mr. Jorkin. I have to be loyal to the old ways, and die out with them if needs must."

And indeed he does. Scrooge, meanwhile, jumps ship and leaves Fezziwig for a position with Jorkin's company before Fezziwig's business fails. This ultimately proves a prudent career move and Scrooge becomes both successful and wealthy, but he loses his soul in the process.

I once read that many of today's corporate steering committees and boards of directors will not approve a research and development project unless the results are known in advance. How ridiculous! If we already knew what the results will be, why would we need to do any research? Conversely, if the "bean counters" never approved any project whose ultimate result was unknown at the start, no projects would ever be started.

Jame's Burke's excellent mini-series, "Connections", demonstrates several examples of inventions and discoveries that changed the world as we know it, which were discovered by accident, or by people researching something entirely different. Otto von Guericke rubbed a sulphur ball in an attempt to create a magnetic attraction. Instead, he caused a spark, which ultimately led to the understanding and harnessing of electricity. Archibald Cochrane, the 9th Earl of Dundonald, cooked coal in a kettle in order to create coal tar for coating the bottom of marine vessels. When the vapor caused by his experimentation ignited one day, causing an explosion, it alerted others to the existence of combustible gases, which could be harnessed for their heat and energy. Would today's "bean counters" have funded von Guericke or Cochrane?

It was largely an obsession with cost overruns that killed Canada's Avro Arrow program in the 1950's. The Arrow was the most advanced jet interceptor of its time. The program inspired advances in aerodynamics, metallurgy, computer processing and engine power which enabled achievements that had never before been accomplished and that many deemed impossible at the time. Of course such a program is going to be expensive!

When the program was canceled, Canada lost not only an aircraft and thousands of Avro employee jobs, but most of its best aeronautical and engineering minds, which all went to the United States to be scooped up by NASA, Rockwell, McDonnell-Douglas and other U.S. aerospace companies, and its status as an aeronautical and scientific innovator on the world stage. By canceling the Arrow program, Canada helped to entrench its own stereotypical image as America's poor cousin; a perception which continues even today.

Concern about costs is also the reason that the Apollo program was canceled after Apollo 17, and why mankind has since managed to venture no further into space than Earth orbit. As our population grows, warming the planet and making it harder and harder for the Earth to sustain us, mankind's only hope for long-term survival may ultimately be the colonization of other worlds, but it isn't happening because the "bean counters" don't think that long term. They're only concerned about next quarter's results.

Certainly both the Avro Arrow and the Apollo programs were hugely expensive and probably financially unprofitable, but the people involved didn't get into these projects solely to make money. There was a larger purpose which got lost among the clatter of adding machines.

If people had thought the way they do today in the past, Columbus would never have discovered the new world and the Wright brothers would never have created a heavier-than-air vehicle that flew. These were high-risk ventures with no guarantee of any sort of return. The motivation of those undertaking them was their boundless curiosity, their need to explore and discover, their desire to improve peoples' lives and their world as well as the hope of financial rewards.

For those who insist on making it all about dollars and cents, I point out that, sometimes, reluctance to risk investing in the unknown can result in the loss of huge potential revenues. The famous postor at left shows the staff of a very young Microsoft corporation, circa 1978 and asks "Would you have invested in this company?" Well, "bean counters", let's see a show of hands. How many of you would have said "Sure! They look like they know what they're doing. Give them some money."

Another disturbing trend is that more and more politicians are encouraging the study of mathematics and the sciences in schools, while downplaying the importance of art and literature. After all, nobody hires a lot of writers, painters and poets, right? Such skills are not considered useful or productive. And yet, our artisans teach us lateral thinking, imagination and conceptualization. This type of thinking is important. Facts aren't usually the catalyst for invention and discovery. Imagination and creative thinking is. It's been said that you can't win at poker just by applying the mathematics of probability.

Accountants and bookkeepers have their place but, in my opinion, they should not be the ones making the decisions that steer the course of enterprise and innovation. Let the "bean counters" balance the ledgers and let those with an entrepreneurial spirit, leadership and, above all, imagination, take the helm. Wouldn't it be wonderful if, in the not-too-distant future, our children could turn on the television to watch something brand new that's as creative and timeless as Bugs Bunny?

1 comment:

Martin said...

Because of the care that went into them, the quality of the writing, and the "artistry" that you've written about, those old Warner Bros cartoons continue to be appreciated by new generations. My own kids found them hilarious and simply did not believe me that they were produced so long ago. How many films from the 1940s and 50s have that kind of a following? It's very ironic, considering that the Warner Bros shorts often served as theatrical "filler" before the main feature started playing.