November 21st, 2014


Story: Writing Cartoons Part Four- The Rough Board

Cartoon Story The Rough Board

Woolie Reitherman, Bill Peet, Ken Andersen and
Ham Luske tussle during a story meeting for
"101 Dalmatians" (via Michael Sporn’s Splog.)

When we left off last time in our series on cartoon writing, the gag sessions had led to the establishment of an overall structure and continuity. The random threads of ideas had meshed into the framework of a story with a beginning, middle and end. Today, we are going to look at how that bare skeleton outline was fleshed out for the first time in rough storyboard form. But first, a little bit about the relationship between the story men and the rest of the animation staff…

In the photo above, you see story man Bill Peet rough-housing with designer Ken Anderson and directors Woolie Reitherman and Ham Luske. Unlike today, when a cartoon scriptwriter rarely if ever ventures into the artists’ domain, golden age cartoon writers interfaced with a large chunk of the animation staff on a daily basis. As we discussed in the first couple of articles in this series, animators were on hand at all story meetings to suggest sequences of action that would lend themselves to funny animation. But at Disney, the influence of the animation staff on the story went even further than that…

INSPIRATIONAL ART

Cartoon Story The Rough Board

Disney employed a special crew of artists whose sole duty was to visualize the ideas being tossed out for consideration during the story meetings. They established the key setups in the film. The drawing above is a very early inspiration sketch from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It was drawn by one of Disney’s greatest concept artists, Albert Hurter. At the time this sketch was created, the character designs hadn’t yet been finalized, however Hurter was called upon to determine the best way to stage the scene. If you compare this sketch to the scene as it appears in the film, you’ll see how closely Hurter’s background details were followed by the layout department.

Hurter’s drawings acted as “setups” for many of the scenes in Snow White. They established the space the characters inhabited clearly, so the storyboard artists didn’t create the space randomly one scene at a time. For example, compare the Dwarfs’ cottage or Roger and Anita’s living room in 101 Dalmatians to the house in Tom & Jerry cartoons. The individual shots in the Disney cartoons all fit within a specific space, while in many of the Tom & Jerry cartoons, the house is just a random assemblage of baseboards, potted plants and pictures hanging on the walls. Nailing down the setups before the storyboard is done helps the artist envision the space from different angles.

Cartoon Story The Rough Board

Concept artists would also experiment with the overall design approach. In the "Dance of the Hours" sequence from Fantasia, it was decided to contrast different design motifs for each of the various times of day… the morning section consisted of static horizontal and vertical lines, the afternoon was made up of ellipses, the evening was represented by S curves, and in the example above by James Bodrero from the night sequence, zig zags predominated.

Cartoon Story The Rough Board

As the story progressed, the cast of characters would come into focus. Artists would be assigned to establish and refine the way each of the characters looked. This example is a design by Grim Natwick for an unmade Silly Symphony based on the Aesop’s Fable, "The Three Musicians of Bremen". Joe Grant was charged with the task of creating a character design department at Disney. His crew would establish the design of the characters and provide the artists with model sheets of the characters in various attitudes and from various angles.

All of the designs from the conceptual artists would filter back to the story department, where they were pinned up on the boards and incorporated into the story sketches as the project progressed. I’ll have more on that in the next article in this series.

THE ROUGH STORYBOARD

The technique of drawing out stories in sketches goes back to the earliest days of animation. It probably evolved out of newspaper comics. Here we have a thumbnail storyboard from around 1927 by Grim Natwick from Bill Nolan’s Krazy Kat studio. Unlike most storyboards, this one reads top to bottom instead of left to right.

Cartoon Story The Rough BoardCartoon Story The Rough Board
Cartoon Story The Rough BoardCartoon Story The Rough Board
Cartoon Story The Rough BoardCartoon Story The Rough Board

The basic story of this board is as follows…

Krazy Kat is spending a quiet evening at home with his wife, who is listening to the radio. Krazy sneaks away to call his girlfriend and crawls into the phone and through the wires to meet her at the "Flaming Youth" nightclub. They dance to the music of the hot jazz band, and as the tempo speeds up, the whole room joins in a wild dancing frenzy. Krazy begins swinging his girlfriend around the dance floor. It is revealed that the music is being broadcast on the radio and Krazy’s wife is listening in. The station announcer mentions that Krazy Kat is on the dance floor, and the wife stomps down to the nightclub to confront him. Just as the song reaches its climax, the wife enters and bops Krazy over the head with a bass fiddle.

Grim told me that the earliest form of storyboard he ever saw was at Hearst’s International Film Service studio. The director, Gregory LaCava would doodle out the story in rough thumbnail form straight ahead as a comic strip. Then he would mark the scene cuts, assign an approximate length to each scene, and take a pair of scissors and cut the panels up into sequences to hand out to the animators. This technique probably had its origins even earlier at the Raoul Barre studio, where LaCava trained to animate. The interesting thing about the Krazy Kat storyboard pictured above is that by 1927, the technique was well enough established that stock storyboard paper was printed up with the boxes ready to be filled in.

Writing Cartoons

In the early 30s at Disney, the technique was perfected by Webb Smith, who suggested drawing the panels on individual sheets of paper and pinning them up on cork boards. This made it simple to insert or delete panels, and allowed the storyboard artist to see the visual flow of an entire sequence at once.

At Disney, the boards evolved as the sequences developed, but at Warner Bros, there were two iterations of storyboards for each cartoon- the first draft thumbnail board and the final director’s board. The thumbnail board was the storyboard artist’s first pass at the story. He was free to work out the basic gags, staging and cutting, without having to deal with drawing the poses “on model” or putting a lot of detail into the backgrounds. At this stage, dialogue was just a general suggestion- it wasn’t locked down until the director had input on the board. That way the dialogue would be a natural outgrowth of the action, instead of the action being driven by the dialogue.

Here is an example of a thumbnail board by John Dunn from the Bugs Bunny Show (1960)…

Cartoon Story The Rough Board
Cartoon Story The Rough Board
Cartoon Story The Rough Board
Cartoon Story The Rough Board

There are a couple of interesting things we can deduce from this board. It appears that the panels with the glue stains were boarded first. They probably represent Dunn’s first thoughts on gags for the story. He then went back and expanded the introductions to the sequences and the transitions in and out of the commercials. Dialogue for some sections is indicated by placeholders. (ie: "Foghorn introduces commercial.", "Foghorn cons hawk.") These lines would be written once the action of the cartoon was all approved. At this stage, only the dialogue needed to sell the gag was necessary, and even that could change as the board developed. The end of this board is quite choppy. It’s likely that more development was done on the final gags before the board was ready to go into production. At this early stage, the scene numbering for production tracking had not yet been established. Scene cuts might still be moved or eliminated as the board evolved. So the numbering on the panels is simply a page number to keep the drawings in order.

Here is an example of a thumbnail board from Format Films’ The Alvin Show…

Bob Kurtz was a story man at Format, and he tells me that this board was most likely drawn by one of the directors as a quick reference to help him organize the scenes. Notice how he juggles different sorts of shots to create a visual rhythm. The animation on this show was extremely limited, so contrasts in design were needed to make up for it…

Cartoon Story The Rough Board
Cartoon Story The Rough Board
Cartoon Story The Rough Board
Cartoon Story The Rough Board
Cartoon Story The Rough Board
Cartoon Story The Rough Board
Cartoon Story The Rough Board
Cartoon Story The Rough Board
Cartoon Story The Rough Board

It appears that page five required some revision, but the pre-printed paper made it difficult to juggle the order and number of panels. The artist was forced to completely redraw every panel on the page, wasting time and losing some of the spark of life in his thumbnails in the process. Also note the pasteover at the bottom of page seven and the numerous erasures throughout the board.

Cartoon Story The Rough Board

This particular board has an interesting last page. The Director planned out the shots very carefully to allow background paintings to be reused in multiple shots. This saved money and allowed the background painters more time to paint the establishing shots. Very clever!

Sometime in the early 1960s, the technique of storyboarding took a huge step backwards. Instead of using Webb Smith’s more flexible cork board and push pin system, story artists went back to drawing out the action on stock printed paper with three to six boxes printed on it. This made it difficult to insert or delete panels. Why did they abandon a system that worked well for one that didn’t?

The next article in this series will deal with the pitch…

Stephen Worth
Director
Animation Resources

INSTRUCTIONINSTRUCTION

This posting is part of an online series of articles dealing with Instruction.

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November 20th, 2014


Story: Writing Cartoons Pt 3- Structure

Cartoon Story Structure

Individual gags, created at the initial story meeting
are gathered together. The story man creates an outline
to begin to work these unrelated gags into a continuity.

When we left off in our series of posts on cartoon writing last time, the initial "No No Session" had generated a pile of unrelated thumbnail gags on a basic premise which were starting to lead to the beginnings of a rudimentary plotline. Today, we’ll explore how the cartoon writers brought structure to the story and began to flesh out the continuity in preparation for the storyboard artist to begin work.

In the mid-1930s, Disney story sessions were transcribed by secretaries and widely distributed among the staff. All of the employees, from the directors all the way down to the janitors, were invited to submit gags to the cartoon being developed. The only stipulation was that the gags had to be drawn- not written down. Walt and the story men sifted through the doodles and stick figure drawings to find inspiration for little bits of business that they might not have thought of themselves. If the gag was usable, the employee was given a dollar bonus. If the gag led to a sequence of gags, they were paid five dollars. Here’s a typical "dollar gag" from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs…

Cartoon Story Structure

In an interview many years later, Ward Kimball recalled that he would supplement his income by generating "dollar gags" in his spare time… His ideas were almost always used, but he soon discovered that he could get five times as much by simply attaching a "butt joke" to the end as a payoff. Inevitably, the "fanny gag" would appeal to Walt’s unique sense of humor, and he would choose Kimball’s gag as one that might lead to a sequence of gags- Bam! Five bucks!

Kimball wasn’t the only artist who knew Walt’s preferences when it came to gag ideas… Here is a short sequence of story doodles by Les Clark. This "butt joke" was created for a sequence that was eventually cut from Mickey’s Grand Opera (1936)…

Cartoon Story Structure

Clark is beginning to see an individual gag as a series of actions that relate to each other. His thumbnail sketches suggest enough for a storyboard artist to begin to tighten up his poses, focus the action and define the staging.

THE OUTLINE

As soon as the gags started to come into focus as a basic plotline, the story supervisor would begin arranging them into a logical progression, formatting the embryonic scenario as a written document in outline form. The outline was the equivalent of the "first draft script" for an animated film. But it didn’t include dialogue and descriptions of actions the way live action scripts do. Instead, it defined the structure, continuity and intent of the action.

STRUCTURE

In preparing the notes for the storyboard artist to work from, the story supervisor began by establishing a structure to the gags. It was important to clearly define how the story broke down into sequences and how each sequence broke down into individual gags, because the storyboard artist most likely would not be boarding it in chronological order. The artist often drew up the payoffs to the storyline first- it was easier to create a strong setup when he knew where he was going to end up. The outline helped determine the breaks in the story, so the artist could work in an order that made sense for him.

Here we have an outline from Altruists prepared by Ren & Stimpy story man, Richard Pursel. John Kricfalusi’s director’s notes and doodles for the main setups appear in the margins…

Cartoon Story Structure

Notice that the document begins with the statement of the premise, and is broken into sections defining the beginning, middle and end, as well as the sequences which fall within those sections. The structural detail goes all the way down to individual gags.

Cartoon Story Structure

The line breaks make it easy for the storyboard artist to cut up the outline with scissors and pin the individual story beats up on his cork board as a placeholder for action he hadn’t boarded yet.

John K recently shared this outline for Stimpy’s Invention on his blog, All Kinds Of Stuff

Cartoon Story Structure
Cartoon Story StructureCartoon Story Structure
Cartoon Story StructureCartoon Story Structure

Read John K’s detailed explanation of this outline.



CONTINUITY

The second element that the outline defined was the continuity- the basic flow and logical order of the action. The storyboard artist would receive the doodles from the "No No Session" to work from, so there was no need for detailed descriptions of action. As the old saying goes… "A picture is worth a thousand words" and nowhere was that adage any truer than in cartoon writing. Story artists were accustomed to working from thumbnail sketches, and they could extrapolate the essense of a gag better from a quick sketch than a whole script full of fancy prose.

Here we have an outline for The Return Of Duck Dodgers In The 24 1/2 Century by Mike Maltese, one of the greatest cartoon writers who ever lived. Although this document is from very late in Maltese’s career, it clearly shows his creative process. This particular draft is a transitional document. Maltese had already begun boarding when this document was drafted. The first eight sequences and sequences 18, 19 and 20 appear to include dialogue transcribed from the finished storyboard. The middle section, however is in raw outline form, with very basic descriptions only intended to remind him of which thumbnail gag drawing went where in the continuity. As the storyboard developed, these notes would be updated with dialogue, transforming the outline from being a structural document to being a dialogue script, ready for the voice actors to perform.

Cartoon Story Structure
Cartoon Story Structure
Cartoon Story Structure
Cartoon Story Structure

If one looked at notes like these out of context, without the knowledge of the visual devolopment that preceded it and the purpose this document serves to the steps that follow, one might mistakenly assume that the story is being written in words. But nothing could be further from the truth. The words merely serve to organize the drawings. The storytelling is all being devised visually.

INTENT

The third, and perhaps most important thing that a storyboard artist required from the notes prepared by the story supervisor was the intent of the action. The cartoon had a purpose, which was stated in the premise. The beginning, middle and end of the story all had purposes as well. If an event in the beginning set up a payoff later in the story, the storyboard artist would need to be made aware of that.

The stories for cartoon short subjects generally broke down into a beginning, (which first established the characters and then the situation they found themselves in) variations on the theme of the premise in the middle of the cartoon, (referred to at Warner Bros as "blackouts") and the "topper gag" and resolution to the situation which formed the end. Every individual gag had to serve the purposes of the sequence it was a part of- all of the parts worked together to tell the story.

In our next installment on cartoon writing, the stage has been set for the storyboard artist to begin blocking out the action and establishing the cinematics…

Cartoon Story Structure

You won’t want to miss the amazing examples of thumbnail boards that I’ve unearthed!

A SIDE NOTE: I’ve recommended it before, but if you haven’t seen the DVD of The Unknown Chaplin, you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy. The process of writing for animated cartoons grew out of the way slapstick comedy shorts were written. In fact, several animators and cartoonists served as gag writers for famous comedians in their younger days. This DVD breaks down Chaplin’s creative process and shows you exactly how his films were written. The program that deals with Chaplin’s masterpiece, City Lights should be required viewing for storyboard students at every animation school.

Stephen Worth
Director
Animation Resources

INSTRUCTIONINSTRUCTION

This posting is part of an online series of articles dealing with Instruction.

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November 19th, 2014


Instruction: Writing Cartoons Pt 2- A Continuity Emerges

Valiant Tailor

When I was beginning to draft this series of articles, I remembered a folder of thumbnails that Grim Natwick’s family gave me. The folder was labelled "Valiant Tailor Gags". I thumbed through the drawings several times over the years, but I only looked at the drawings individually- I didn’t look at them as a group. I pulled the folder out this week and upon closer examination, I discovered that the drawings formed a clear record of a gag session from 1934. This set of sketches is particularly important because it shows how the gags were created, how they evolved and grew as the artists discussed them at the story meeting, and how they found their way into the continuity of a finished cartoon.

Iwerks Staff 1935

The basic premise of this sequence is… The King is being chased by bees. He dives into a lake to escape them. The Giant arrives and harasses the King. The Tailor defeats the Giant and saves the King. Grim Natwick directed this cartoon, and his notes appear on the drawings in red. A check mark indicates that the gag is approved for the film. A question mark indicates that he isn’t sure where to use it yet.

Here are some of the gags that the staff of the Iwerks Studio came up with for this premise. At the end is a Quicktime movie of the complete cartoon, so you can see how these plans were realized in the finished film.

Writing Cartoons

William Hamner suggests a gag where the King is swallowed by a whale and is shot out his blow hole. (Since the character design hadn’t been established yet, Hamner draws the character as Otto Soglow’s Little King!)

Writing Cartoons

An artist named Hudson elaborates on Hamner’s basic idea, adding a tail flip to the end.

Writing Cartoons

This gag suggests that the King be underwater, hiding from the Giant. The Giant tries to catch him like a fish with a gold watch as bait.

Writing Cartoons

Underwater, the King uses a looking glass as a teeter totter.

Writing Cartoons

The Giant blows on the water and a passing octopus offers him Listerine.

Writing Cartoons

Ed Friedman suggests a gag where the Giant breaks a limb off a tree and uses it as a boomerang.

Writing Cartoons

Another variant on the broken tree branch- The Giant uses it as a straw to drink the lake dry.

Writing Cartoons

Several unrelated gags: The King runs out of the lake with streams of water from his crown. / The King is poked in the butt by a sword fish. / The Giant gets honey poured on his head. / The King is stung by bees on the patch on his butt.

Writing Cartoons

The Giant runs from a swarm of bees and stumbles over some wagons.

Writing Cartoons

Grim suggests a gag where the Giant takes a header into the dirt, plowing the ground in a furrow.

Writing Cartoons

He attempts a topper gag with a farmer using the Giant to plow his field.

Now comes the really interesting part! Here are Grim Natwick’s thumbnails showing how he takes the random gags and works them into a rough continuity. The drawings are very rough. You might want to print them out so you can compare them to the finished film.

Writing Cartoons

  • (32) The King enters scene and does a trout dive into the lake to escape the bees. We pan with the soldiers as the pursue the Tailor and chase him up a tree.
  • (33) The King bobs up and down in the water as the bees circle in a repeating cycle above him.
  • (34) A thunderous laugh is heard in the distance. The Giant steps over the crest of the hill and takes a few steps over them.
  • (35) The Giant scares the soldiers away. He looks at the King and laughs. The King ducks.
  • (36) The Giant blows on the water and throws a stone at the King.
  • (37) The King reaches up into the tree and grabs a branch. The Tailor jumps to another branch.

Writing Cartoons

  • (39) The Giant uses the branch like a gaffing hook, reaching to catch the King with it.
  • (40) The hook at the end of the branch catches in the patch on the King’s butt.
  • (41) The Tailor sees what is happening and ducks into a hole in the tree. The camera pans down the outside of the tree to its base, where the Tailor crawls out of another hole.
  • (42) The Tailor sneaks past the Giant and runs off screen
  • (43) Dissolve to: Interior tailor shop. The Tailor grabs a jar of honey.

Writing Cartoons

(44) Exterior Tailor Shop: The Tailor runs down the street with the jar.

  • (45) Dissolve to: The Tailor diving back into the hole in the tree trunk.
  • (46) The Tailor, standing on a high limb of the tree, drops the honey jar.
  • (47) The pot of honey dumps all over the Giant’s head.
  • (48) The King comes to the surface of the water as the bees go after the Giant.
  • (49) The Giant runs from the bees. He shoves his head in the dirt to escape them. He runs through a barn and a church over the hill and into the distance.
  • The sequence went from here to the storyboard stage, where the action was defined better and the gags were plussed. Watch the film and see how it came out…

    Writing Cartoons

    The Valiant Tailor (Iwerks/1934)<
    (Quicktime 7 / 7 minutes / 18.5 megs)

    The next article in this series will show how the structure of cartoons became more sophisticated in the mid-1930s, and the development of organizational tools that made that possible.

    Stephen Worth
    Director
    Animation Resources

    INSTRUCTIONINSTRUCTION

    This posting is part of an online series of articles dealing with Instruction.

    Posted by admin @ 11:53 am

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