Are you a big fan of 80s cartoons? Yup, I am and so it seems is everyone in their late-30s who grew up on a diet of half-hour adverts based on toy lines. I can’t help it, I love 80s action cartoons but each one on closer inspection had the same tropes and themes. Behold! The very best of animated action-adventure shows of the 80s chock full of cliché and fun.
The Clever Scene Blend
Want to show your hero doing heroic deeds, punching bad guys and saving the world then the best way to do this was with a montage that blended together one set piece to another. From a camera track of your hero flying through space via their superbly designed 80s space-ship to a pass across to the front of the ship (with obligatory lens flare) that lead to a wipe transplanting your hero (or heroine) laying the smack down planet-side to another wipe via say a laser blast or explosion to once again having our hero flying in space again but this time with a close-up on your hero in their 80s spaceship cockpit giving the thumbs up. This blend and fade technique is used dozens of times.
For a fantasy take on this (with the obligatory flying cape wipe) check out this intro from Conan and Mandrake.
The Character Introduction
Don’t know your Jayce from your Galaxy Rangers or your Silverhawk from your Thundercat – then don’t worry each and every 1980s action cartoon made life very simple for you by showing you each and every character both good guys and bad guys with their “powers” in use – usually these are individual special moves (say an energy blast… lifting something bit or playing with numbers in abstract space…or something) then move onto a full a team pose and or face to face with their opposite number for a showdown.
For those (like me) who might be a little slower, some cartoons even told you the names of the characters when they appeared – for a good example of this see X-Men.
Roaring 80s Guitars And Synths
The heavy bass, then a roaring riff then a synth solo followed by a jobbing rock singer is the epitome of the soundtrack to many a 80s cartoon. Whether its Stan Bush whose Touch for Transformers the movie is still regarded by many as the gold standard 80s cartoon rock cliché to the many nameless vocalists who lent their talents to many an intro the musicians of 80s cartoon yesteryear should be saluted for their invaluable warbling and really true effort and feeling of making us actually believe that “If your wheels get you there, things will turn out right”.
Animation That Is Far Better Than The Actual Show
There are hundreds of hours of these cartoons and for those hundreds of hours, there has, of course, got to be hundreds for cells of animation to get these characters to move. Before the time of CG most of these cells were hand drawn on an average of 24 per second and thankless task that required armies of low paid Asian animators (I’m tempted to say slaves) to key and paint each and every movement and scene change. This titanic task, of course, took hours of time and legions of manpower to produce so it’s inevitable that the quality on some of these cartoons is shall we say less than up to standard. However, 14 minutes into a cartoon nobody really cared that Pete Venkman from Real Ghostbusters jumped a cell or two of animation or wore a pink costume rather than grey you are in, hooked and waiting for the ghost based climax. But to get you this far through the dodgy animation they had to hook you in first and the best way to do this was to have a perfectly shaded piece of animated perfection in your introduction that was far superior to that of the actual show. For a good example of this check out the superb animation for Real Ghostbusters and Visionaries.
Chrome – Lots Of Chrome, Oh And Rudimentary Lens Flair
It’s really hard to get metallic or reflective effects with 2D animation – there is of course no reflective surfaces on a flat plain and nothing to reflect so the animators always did their very best with what they had which was essentially a palette of off-white and grey paints and frankly at times this limitation was completely bypassed by some superb animation that gave a superb pseudo-metallic look or a mirrored glass effect.
To add to the illusion of chrome or glass of course you can add varied colours of lens flair shooting off your character’s gun, badge or spacesuit that would give the illusion of lasers and energy signatures bouncing off the rippling torsos of your heroes.
The best use of this, of course, is Silverhawks – the Thundercats-like team of bird-themed superheroes who rocked the T-1000 look way before Robert Patrick and also the Knight Rider-on-steroids clone, Pole Position.
Lightning And Sparkle Effect
Again another trick that looks pretty effective provided by somebody with an elaborate paint set and no access to computer graphics – and was all done by hand, layered and possibly roto-scoped on. Whether it’s Venger trying to burn the faces off the Dungeons and Dragons kids, Stampede lair or Mum-Ras Pyramid all these evil fortresses of evil seemed to be full of lightning which is probably quite dangerous. But let’s not forget the heroes they had their own light show too – just check out this glitter effect from He-Man or Dungeons & Dragons
There is nothing that says the future of the 1980s that glowing space girds heading off into the infinite horizon. Whether it’s the beginning of the Transformers to Thunderbirds 2086 the future always looks better if you take a nod from Tron and add a pretend virtual landscape and blue or green toned neon grid to your introduction. It doesn’t even matter that this said grid has actually no reason to be there or detrimental to the story is just looks cool to have “virtual” elements to your intro.
Check out the Mask intro for this – really it’s not needed at all – it just looks great
Curling liquid Fire
Want to show off a nice liquid like animation effect that has taken the animators have spent years perfecting (I guess in a strict animation school in Asia full of schoolgirls and tentacled monsters) then there is no better place than the begging intro of an 80s cartoon. Whether it’s the proton pack warming up in real Ghostbusters or this superb effort in Thundercats the rolling circle to liquid/laser or light energy signature can be seen again and again.
Ulysses 31 (any excuse to show this off!)
An Interlude Where The Comedy Character Appears
You’re mid guitar riff, well into the montage of your hero doing incredible deeds then the whole things comes to a blinding halt when the comic relief rears its irritating ugly head. Whether it’s the magical incompetency of Orko or the hideous part robot-part Ewok Robear-Berbils or the living nightmare of Godzuki each and every cartoon spoilt its 80s awesome with what is essentially known as the “Scrappy Doo factor”. To emphasise this check out these burrowing monstrosities from BraveStarr or the forced 7-Zark-7 from Battle of the Planets when you are just getting down with the pompous brass funk and baritone voice-overs of the theme tune.
The Final Salute
Whether it’s a quick nod, wink, just a wry smile or the ultimate “thumbs up” every 80s action cartoon character at some point will ruin it for themselves with a self with a self-congratulatory “win” There could course be a high five between characters or a bromantic look but for the final cliché it has to be the knowing fact that says “Hey I’m the hero and I’m just Awesome” It’s the 80s equivalent to Instagram or photographing yourself posing or pouting for your profile picture on Facebook. Sometimes they even take it further and have a guitar and or catchphrase said to the camera. There’s a fair amount of cheeky eyebrow raising and badge-flashing in COPS and the entire Gi-Joe lineup do a fist-pump.
When the show gets popular and they change animation studios to someone far cheaper!