The Wisdom of Aristotle, ‘80s Style

“The whole is more than the sum of its parts.” ~ Aristotle, Metaphysica 10f-1045a

Before the early 1980s, complex storytelling in animation was restricted to films, while television was dominated by kid-friendly fare. On TV, animated programs told a story in 25 minutes or less, and each episode was designed to be independent so it didn’t matter in what order episodes were shown. We had masterpieces like Scooby Doo, Where Are You!, but Scooby and the gang never progressed beyond phrases like “Jinkies!” and “You want a Scooby Snack?”

RobotechCharacter advancement and long format storytelling occurred on some live action programs (such as Dallas and Hill Street Blues) but never in animation broadcast on U.S. television. Then came 1985 and an animated program called Robotech. It aired on U.S. TV and changed the way we thought of storytelling in animation.

Robotech was created by combining three separate Japanese animation programs. In the early 1980s, TV shows needed to have at least 65 episodes for syndication. To get to this number, the creators of Robotech could have taken the easy approach by hacking up the source material into bits and creating a show that followed the conventional kid’s TV cartoon practices at the time: kid-friendly, no plot development, no character development, and loop after loop of recycled footage.

Instead of doing the “norm,” they used the opportunity to create something new. To have enough footage for the minimum number of episodes, the creators of Robotech merged together three stylistically-similar Japanese animated programs and created an overarching plot and story. Each episode progressed the story, and over time, we saw characters grow, evolve, and some even died. By interweaving the three separate programs, the creators were able to create a multi-generational story that had a definitive beginning, middle, and end. Thus creating a whole show that was more than just individual non-linking episodes.

 “Life is a series of collisions with the future; it is not the sum of what we have been, but what we yearn to be.” ~ José Ortega y Gasset

When we’re handed a problem, we have a choice in how we respond. We could take the easy path and find a safe solution that is low-risk, and meets the needs, but does not innovate or take a chance. Alternatively, we could embrace the problem as an opportunity to create an exciting solution that goes beyond the basic, minimal needs and forges a fresh new path ahead.  

I faced a Robotech-like problem many years ago. I was a teacher at a parochial school and was faced with teaching without the resources of a public school (back in those days, public schools had many more resources provided to them than they do now). I lacked paper for handouts, materials for the science labs, extra books for reading enrichment, and more. My problem was finding effective ways to teach while lacking some of the basic tools. I could have taken the easy path, which was to use what was available and possibly ask parents for some of the missing items. I found that the lack of resources inspired me and I pushed beyond the easy path to find creative solutions to the problem.

In the end, I combined resources with other teachers, worked with local business and parents to provide support, and found other organizations that were able to help provide the missing resources. I changed my teaching approach to more effectively use the resources I had, and went beyond the textbook, enhancing the lessons by combining disciplines, and coming up with creative teaching approaches using everyday objects (it’s amazing how versatile a cardboard box is when combined with an X-Acto knife, glue, and a set of markers). The end result was great education.

Perhaps you don’t have enough money, personnel, or tools to get the job done. Rather than let the obstacles slow you down, embrace the challenge and let the problems charge your creativity. The end results may not be as dramatic as Robotech, which showed an entire generation that animation can be dramatic and set the benchmark for many years to come — but you never know.

What will your Robotech challenge be?

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