The Art of TV Animation: Ren & Stimpy

When I was five years old, Nickelodeon launched its first original series of animated shows: Ren & Stimpy, Rugrats, and Doug. These shows aired on Sunday morning (most likely to reduce competition against the more traditional Saturday morning cartoon format) in a 90 minute block. I remember this so vividly because I would wake up extra early on Sunday morning, hoping my family would choose to go to the 7:30AM mass so we would all be home in time to watch Ren & Stimpy. Sure, it was normally the 10AM program, with the less interesting Rugrats and Doug* taking up the entirety of the 9AM mass, but if we went to 9AM mass, we missed the opening sketch of the important show. We eventually set the VCR to record Ren & Stimpy for my brother and me, but it wasn't the same as rushing home to sit in front of the TV and watch it roll out live for the first time. Recently, Netflix obtained the rights to stream Ren & Stimpy. It was a joyous day. My brother and I both tried to contact each other at roughly the same time to let the other know the exciting news. We've both streamed our way through the entire series once at this point, though I moved a little slower than he did. Why? Because the show, against my fondest recollections, was actually quite beautiful.

Ren & Stimpy--the violent, crude, absurd, loud, and sometimes surrealist dog and cat cartoon--actually had some really beautiful moments of animation. Take, for instance, the second episode of the series. This featured the classic "Nurse Stimpy," where Stimpy takes it upon himself to cure Ren of his illness, and "Robin Hoek," the first in a running gag of Stimpy's made-up fairy tales.

You can't get five minutes into the episode before you're smacked upside the head with great composition and varied art techniques. Here's Ren beginning to dream about Stimpy's interpretation of Robin Hood.

Lighting and Framing and Detail, Oh My

Notice the use of lighting on the figure of Robin Hoek in a watercolor style. It's quite striking. I'm also rather fond of how this was framed out, with Ren almost being absorbed by his dream bubble (look how close it is to his eye), where his world is in neutral tones of brown and beige while Robin's world is alive in greens and blues.

This is a standard view of how Ren & Stimpy operated. You'll get a very detailed background with minimalistic characters (above), very expressive characters--exaggerated, really--with plan backgrounds featuring some representational details, or you'll get super close-ups of an exaggerated disgusting detail on a character.

Expressive Characters Neutral Background

Ew...beautiful?

As disgusting as a macro-styled close-up of a diseased eye is, you have to give credit to these animators for committing to the gag. That is a detailed, disturbing, and oddly endearing portrayal of a diseased eye. Same with the over the top characterizations. You laugh at the absurdity, but you get drawn in by the commitment and consistency in the use of varied styles.

Just being able to pause on these lovely full screen images have given me a new appreciation for what Ren & Stimpy was offering. It's an over the top children's cartoon, but the quality of writing, voice work, editing, and animation is astonishing. I mean, I can't be the only person who really wanted an ice cream sandwich after this image rolled across the screen.

Oh my beloved ice cream bar...

Do you have any favorite memories from Ren & Stimpy? What about weekend cartoons in general? Do you acknowledge some of the newer offerings like Chowder, or do you stick with the classics of the 80s like Gummi Bears and Gargoyles? Sound off below.

*Less interesting for me back then, as a five year old. I grew to enjoy Doug (even the remake a few years later) and tolerate Rugrats.