Animation’s perpetual crossroads and confounding Wisconsin history

Examining animation’s evolution and the importance of its preservation.
A simple block-letter illustration on a sheet of paper that reads "Animation is not nothing." The letters are outlined in blue and there are straight pink lines extending out from the words like sun rays.
Illustration by Steven Spoerl. Image description: A simple block-letter illustration on a sheet of paper that reads “Animation is not nothing.” The letters are outlined in blue and there are straight pink lines extending out from the words like sun rays.

Examining animation’s evolution and the importance of its preservation.

This is our newsletter-first column, Microtones. It runs on the site on Fridays, but you can get it in your inbox on Thursdays by signing up for our email newsletter.

In a 2006 interview with The Daily Illini, a Wisconsin home builder named Tom Hignite gave the following quote: “If I could do something in a small way to keep this art alive… it just struck me as a good time to do it.” Hignite wasn’t talking about the art of building homes. He was talking about saving 2D animation. Miracle Homes, Hignite’s home building and renovation company, took a back seat as Hignite launched Miracle Studios in in 2004.

When Hignite gave that interview, the media world was navigating a time period where it seemed as if 2D animation was headed, in totality, to a landfill. 3D animation had become the more alluring prospect for studios who wanted to present a product that looked as slick as possible. Not uncoincidentally, a pivot to computer-based animation also meant studios could cut down on the hours that hand-drawn animation requires. 3D was performing at the box office, while 2D was in danger of being relegated to an archaic novelty. Obviously, the 2D medium never fully disappeared, occasionally finding thrilling ways to intermingle with its animative successor.

Miracle Studios makes up a wildly fascinating chapter of Wisconsin’s animation history, in which good ideas and questionable execution are bountiful. Big swings taken with good intention don’t always ensure successful results, which is a brutal lesson to learn. Sometimes modes of organizational stability and normalcy will emerge within an industry, and specific patterns take hold. Presently, the hierarchical structure that has become the industry standard for animation is being thrown into question. Again.


In 2022, HBO Max’s abrupt removal of a swath of its most beloved animated content turned a lot of heads. Two of the most high-profile removals were those of a pair of animated series that had been formerly distributed by Cartoon Network: Owen Dennis’ Infinity Train and Julia Pott’s Summer Camp Island. Neither of those shows had a streaming platform after their removal, reducing both series’ availability to episodic or seasonal online purchases from virtual retailers like Amazon and Apple. Neither show is presently available in full on a physical format. And that scarcity poses a legitimate risk to their preservation. As streamers continue to prove, nothing is ever guaranteed.

While Infinity Train had been in and out of various states of purgatory and received some amount of narrative finality before its removal, Summer Camp Island‘s betrayal was a brutal and perplexing blindside hit. Infinity Train had a chance to attain a semblance of closure, but the removal of Summer Camp Island directly jeopardized a finalized 20-episode run that was set to serve as the show’s farewell. (Cartoon Network, to its credit, swooped in to rescue the show’s final season, essentially ensuring its forthcoming release.)

Both shows featured references to Wisconsin. A video game design camp in Oshkosh was integral to Infinity Train‘s entire plot, and an exceedingly brief foray involving a Milwaukee softball club provided some additional flavor to Summer Camp Island‘s wholesome whimsicality. Wisconsin has never been a true hotspot for film and television animation (video game animation is a different story), which is why references to the state tend to jump out. Those working to expand Wisconsin’s animation are undertaking a noble effort and deserve notice. As Wisconsinites, when it comes to the prestige animation we can access, we’re largely beholden to the sea changes coming from major markets like Los Angeles and New York City.

This is where Kipo And The Age of Wonderbeasts creator Rad Sechrist and his Project City collaborators come in. Project City—which is based in LA—aims to dismantle some of the barriers facing not just the animation industry, but the stories animators are allowed to tell. If they succeed in their efforts, not only will the animation landscape be more accessible to industry outsiders and more creator-friendly, it’ll also be more inclusive in content and have a shot at greater sustainability. Project City aims to expand a crowdfunding approach that would give funders partial ownership of what they’re funding. It’s raising those funds, in part, via focused instructional animation lessons (storyboarding, animatics, voice acting, etc). It’s a concept that’s driven by concerns over major studios’ accelerated control over creative content and the reality of contemporary media, which is increasingly niche-based.

Even Project City’s forward-thinking approach can’t resolve the uncertainty around how much of contemporary animators’ work will be preserved. Creators still contend with the looming threat of their projects being lost to the dredges of time. Dennis is fully aware of this, going on record to discuss what could constitute “ethical piracy,” premising the concept on preservation’s inherent value. Pott—who in addition to being an extraordinary animator is an incredible essayist whose work has become essential reading—expanded on the dichotomy of significance vs. insignificance that is central to the importance of preservation in a Substack post titled “The Ghost Of Christmas Past“:

I remember when Summer Camp wrapped, our head writer Sarah Lloyd said: remember we’re all still artists – which I needed to hear. TV networks may be able to say whether or not the art we make with them gets seen, but the art we make alone, the art we make with friends, the art that has a direct line to our communities, that is untouchable. And maybe a good thing that will come out of all this is us collectively figuring out how to make that a more sustainable way of living, so we don’t have to rely on business men to tell us whether or not we’re worthy of being seen.

Fewer things have had a more profound, comforting, and stirring impact on my life than animation. Seeing its impact both from and on Wisconsin, and following its various tenuous footholds, has been both exciting and concerning. But as even Hignite knows, its power is genuinely invaluable. Whether it’s coming from Wisconsin or to Wisconsin, good animation is worth fighting for. To quote Pott once more: “Animation is not nothing.

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