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How Adventure Time changed animation forever

A college student and his pen doodles made waves in one of the biggest cartoon shows of all time.

Adventure Time is a masterpiece of television animation. Aired on Cartoon Network from 2007 to 2018, and currently streaming new limited series episodes on HBO Max, its presence doesn’t just linger but has spread into every crack of entertainment. It shape-shifts into many forms, some are cute toys or references, but others are so huge that one must look from space to see it’s integration. It’s no doubt a powerhouse of a show that boosted CN from playing catch-up with its competitor to innovating a new animation movement. 

In March, HBO MAX released their 3rd episode of “Adventure Time Distant Lands,” a special miniseries with each character-centric episode running about an hour. The cult fanbase is hopping back on the emotional hype train to revisit these beloved characters. Adventure Time’s roaring fandom doesn’t seem to be stopping, even if the original series ended three years ago.

Adventure Time: Distant Lands — Together Again review: an emotional reunion  - Polygon
Adventure Time Distant Lands Official Art

Pendelton Ward, the creator of Adventure Time, grew up in San Antonio Texas and was always surrounded by animation as a kid, he told the Los Angeles Times. He made little sticky note animations and was fascinated by how it moved as if “magic is real!” His overflowing creativity meant that he did many tiny doodles on everything he could get his hands on.

Pen went to the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). Instead of partying like the other art students he would rather want to shut himself in his office to work on animation. While at CalArts he also befriended two future animation superstars: Alex Hirsche and J.G Quintel.

His doodles had finally come alive in the Adventure Time animated short that Nickelodeon would air from CalArts. Nickelodeon did not accept it however.

Animators get the boot constantly, it’s just the way the wacky industry works. This man had the audacity to pitch the same (but improved) short to Nick again, this time via Frederator: a branch production studio for Nickelodeon. Around the same time (the late 2000s) Pen released two shorts: “Bravest Warriors” (which became its own series much later) and “Adventure Time.” Pendelton posted his Adventure Time short on YouTube and from there, it blew up.

That short was one of the first viral videos of animation to actually become a full T.V. show. This marked the beginning of a new era in which animation could make the leap from social media to a major television contract. This created a path for other Internet animators becoming famous. The series Bee and PuppyCat also followed this route of viral video to full fledged show is.

At the time Adventure Time was released in 2010, it was in competition with Regular Show (created by his Calarts buddy J.G Quintel) for being the most popular show on CN. Booths show’s art styles alone stood out like a sore thumb along with its angular, flash animated shows. The lines were thin and pressureless with solid but rounded geometric designs.

Cartoon Network

While the two shows shared similar characteristics in Style. Regular Show (pictured top), expressed a more realistic mood. Designs can come off as “ugly” with bulbous eyes paired with more lifelike features. The color palette is very muted to fit with the everyday setting. Adventure Time was very colourful and cutesy. The characters are so simplistic that some are missing a nose or a few appendages, allowing them to stylistically go off model.

A character is solid enough to hold together it’s proportions, but loose enough to move abnormally and exaggerate. Pen often emphasized the importance of Finn’s “ Face Hole”, yet played around with it for emotional scenes. Credit from the artbook “Adventure Time: The Art of Ooo”.

Adventure Time’s backgrounds were, however, a league of its own. Dan Bandit (aka Ghostshrimp) knew exactly what was needed to set the show apart. The scenery was solid and slopey like the characters, but subtle with coloured lineart and softer shading.

The true weirdness of twisting protrusions and edible vegetation added a psychedelic overlay to a much darker hidden theme.

“He would draw an illustration of a forest and then in the background,” Pen explains, “he’d put a half-buried skeleton reading a book. That’s awesome, because you’re watching the story play on the cartoon in the foreground, but in the background there’s a whole other story you can read into it.”

An abandoned building sits on top, what happened?

Such an iconic art style and characters made a behemoth of a profitable impact. Minimalistically cute designs could be easily adapted into various forms without losing their recognisability. The whole pastel fantasy aesthetic of Adventure Time is simply pleasing to anyone, even non-fans.

Adventure Time started out with an episodic format, having its charming goofiness carry the show. It really started picking up pace however once it started introducing an overarching plot and lore. 

The show was one of the first animated series to have a strong online community, connecting all kinds of fans of different ages with theories and videos, as Pen didn’t target a specific audience in mind.

Cartoon Network

Adventure Time doesn’t just dabble in heavy subjects, it dives deep into making something meaningful and mature. The show can even come off as too harsh with characters actually dying, leading to some major tear jerkers. As characters go through mental turmoil, it handles serious subjects with care, giving an emotional connection with the viewer. “A son and father came up to me at a convention,” Olivia Olson, the voice of Marceline, told the L.A times. “The kid tells me his dad has Alzheimer’s and the story arc between Marceline and the Ice King and the song “I Remember You” specifically helped him understand what his dad was going through. By the end, we’re all crying and hugging and talking about how this crazy show about wizard quests and fart jokes is helping this family stay together.”

Animation impact

You can feel Adventure Time’s presence in many shows during and after that era.The show proved that originality can thrive in the corporate entertainment environment It’s style and storytelling shaped the ideal look of new cartoons. Adventure Time and its successors transformed CN into a talent factory that stood out from any other network. The show has left a mark on animation from 2010 onward, changing the landscape ever since.

The team was a goldmine of talented creators, producers, voice actors and staff. Its knack of pushing the boundaries of the cartoon climate at the time taught and inspired unique individuals to make shows to express their own creative freedom.

These creators were urged to make their own shows after being fatigued by working on Adventure Time, and wanting to express their own creative freedom

Rebecca Sugar, a revisionist and later a writer to Adventure Time, went to create Steven Universe, another powerhouse of a series to put a name on CN. Working on the series gave Rebecca the courage to push LGBTQ themes to the max, which was extremely risky at the time. The storytelling is engaging, but takes its pace for the right moments “Writing smaller and writing about feelings — it might be a little surprising, but that was not something I did at all,” she said. “‘Adventure Time’ taught me to do that. Pen taught me to do that.” 

Steven Universe Cartoon Network

Ian Jones-Quartey is a freelance animator who got a position at Adventure Time by being introduced to the project by wife Rebecca Sugar. He worked on Steven Universe as well at the time until deciding to create his own series: OK K.O! Let’s Be Heroes!, a short but charming CN series of heartwarming superheroes running a convenience store while dealing with supervillains. The aspiring K.O learns valuable life lessons while keeping it in context of experiencing the hero business. OK K.O!’s childlike wonder mixed with the struggles of growing up is a theme that Ian learned from Adventure Time

OK K.O! Let’s Be Heroes Cartoon Network

Patrick Mchale, the creative director on the show, made Over The Garden Wall, a 10-episode story of two brothers wandering the mysterious forest in search of going home. The scenery looks like a cozy, fairytale forest perfect for fall. The tranquil ambiance of “The Unknown”  is deeply shrouded in folk-horror reminiscent of Adventure Time’s post-apocalyptic, magical land.

Over The Garden Wall Cartoon Network

Adventure Time did not just impact its employees, but everyone working in the industry. Voice actors were given a huge, long lasting spotlight by the characters associated with them. Lesser known and amateur voice actors like Jeremy Shada, who voiced Finn, was put into the spotlight at the age of twelve, being the biggest highlight of his career now.    

People working on the creative side of the show carried on its art in the form of the simplistic shapes, rounded forms, thin lines, and even a softer palette. 

Gravity Falls, We Bear Bears, The Amazing World of Gumball and many others are massive hits and are loosely following Adventure Time’s form while making an art style of their own. The simple models allow smooth, full-of-life animation unlike complex, bulky models. Its cute, bouncy aura is enticing to children but can just as easily be used for intense scenes.  Animation comes in waves of trends throughout time, the 80’s era of animation was absolutely ripped men with the same mold, this generation of cartoons is the Adventure Time era.

Owl House, a recent non CN  series that started in 2020, Captures the best of dynamic angles by using simpler designs to focus on the movement.

Adventure Time showed us that a cartoon could have emotional impact and complexity while being suitable for all ages. A new series called Infinity Train has episodes focused on the main character’s experience with her parents divorce. It’s real, it gets to the point, and it knows the weight. The fun, goofy aspects are still there, but it goes beyond that. The lore is articulately placed to expand a world one can invest in.  It’s no question why fandoms are so strong in this age. 

After eight years and ten seasons, Adventure Time ended its run. It was almost a decade of journeys through the whimsical land of Ooo, picking up at least one Emmy a year and winning a Peabody award. But the series lives on in the continuing work of those who made it and the shows that follow in its footsteps.

 Cover Image: Sara Burgio.

3 comments on “How Adventure Time changed animation forever

  1. Pingback: The capabilities I have demonstrated through my work in New Media Lab – Writing war

  2. Pingback: Research Assignment – Arianne's Blog

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