Curse of the Blue Duck

Last month I met an animation director from a well-known company, who let me in on a little trick of the trade. He had grown tired of endless meetings with licensors and advertisers, wherein stuffed shirts would look up from their Blackberries for just long enough to say something, anything, that made it look like they were paying attention.

There are politics at such companies. People want the boss to remember that they were in a meeting and that they made a contribution, and that invariably means pointing at something in the rushes or the storyboards, and saying that they don’t like it. Job done!

Except if someone is picking holes in your cartoon just to impress the boss, you don’t want to get it absolutely right first try. Instead, you want to come up with something that really, obviously, needs fixing, so the drones can point it out, and you can get on with your job without having to change the scenery, replace your lead, or anything similarly pointless.

And so, in new work for corporate clients, the animation company now includes an incongruous blue duck in every piece of work. Doesn’t matter if it’s an advert for funeral homes or a party political broadcast by the Independence Party, they’ll shove a blue duck in it. It’ll be there, waving nerdily at the camera, or tripping on a banana skin in the background. And it’ll look calculatedly stupid.

“I love the storyboards,” the suits will say. “But can we lose the blue duck?”

That, at least is the plan.

But looking at certain anime works, one wonders if the joke hasn’t backfired awfully. How many anime mascot characters started out as a blue duck gambit, only to unexpectedly meet with management approval. Did anyone seriously ask for Ulysses 31 to have an irritating robot in it? Does Tekken: Blood Vengeance really need a comic-relief panda?

But maybe a few films could be improved by a blue duck. A little quack levity in Legend of the Overfiend, perhaps. Or a bit of comedy business in Grave of the Fireflies? It might work…

Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. This article first appeared in NEO 93, 2011.