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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.
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.
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!)
An artist named Hudson elaborates on Hamner’s basic idea, adding a tail flip to the end.
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.
Underwater, the King uses a looking glass as a teeter totter.
The Giant blows on the water and a passing octopus offers him Listerine.
Ed Friedman suggests a gag where the Giant breaks a limb off a tree and uses it as a boomerang.
Another variant on the broken tree branch- The Giant uses it as a straw to drink the lake dry.
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.
The Giant runs from a swarm of bees and stumbles over some wagons.
Grim suggests a gag where the Giant takes a header into the dirt, plowing the ground in a furrow.
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.
(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.
(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.
(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…
If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably daydreamed about going back in time to be a "fly on the wall" at a golden age cartoon studio. Imagine getting the chance to witness how your favorite cartoons were written and see the twists and turns they took from initial idea to finished story. Unfortunately, that isn’t likely to happen. But we can find out an awful lot about the process used to write classic cartoons by looking at the scraps of paper left behind by the great artists who wrote them. I’m going to do just that in a series of posts over the next few weeks.
The specifics of the process of writing cartoons in the classic era varied a bit from studio to studio and from time period to time period. Like every other part of the production line, there was an evolution as experimentation led to the development of more effective techniques. But the general outline of the progress of a story from raw idea to boards ready to put into production didn’t vary all that much. I’m going to show you some specific examples that illustrate these general concepts in the hopes that you might come away with a better understanding of how cartoons were created.
THE GAG SESSION
The idea for a cartoon would start with a simple premise- a few sentences that described the general theme of the cartoon. For example… "Porky is a bullfighter." or "Mickey, Donald and Goofy are ghost exterminators." In the premise there would be no real attempt at describing details of the plot, just a simple statement of a situation or series of situations that might offer entertaining possibilities.
Premise for a 1930s Barney Google/Snuffy Smith cartoon.
Once the premise was chosen, a group of artists would be called together for an initial gag session to come up with ideas. At Warner Bros, this meeting was referred to as a "No No Session", which meant that no one was allowed to say "no" to any idea- all suggestions were fair game. At this stage, the gags were generally isolated variations on the basic theme of the premise, with no attempt to put them into any sort of continuity or plot. The goal was to come up with funny situations that could be expanded upon and reworked into something more specific further down the line.
The artists would sit with pads and pencils or lap boards, jotting down notes and doodling up thumbnail sketches of what the ideas might look like. The sketches might be pinned up on a cork board so the other artists could work gags off if it. One person would be responsible for taking notes for the group, so after the meeting was over, the story man could go back and refresh his memory of a specific gag. As the doodles and notes piled up, certain themes would form, gags would lead to follow up gags and build to "topper gags". A continuity would begin to take shape.
The notes taken at early story meetings were usually for the artists’ own reference, so the sketches were loose and the notes were scribbled down quickly. This makes them quite difficult for the layman to read. A certain amount of deciphering is required. At the bottom of each example, I summarize the contents of the notes. You might want to print them out. It’s easier to study them in a hard copy than on the computer screen.
Here are story notes from an unmade Fleischer Screen Song cartoon from the late 1920s. Based on the song, "Mysterious Mose", this premise was shelved and revived a couple of years later as a Betty Boop cartoon.
It appears that a little bit of development had occurred by the time this document was created, but not much. The lyrics are typed out with lots of space for drawing out the action between each line. The character of the piano player is to be in live action, while the moon and the cat are animated. The first page refers to the location of the beginning of the song on the bar sheet and indicates that a scene of the moon on the second page should be moved forward to this page, to allow the cat to be the focus of the shot the second time up.
The notes say that the second shot on this page should be focused on the cat, and he should jump from this scene cut to the next scene for the bouncing ball sequence.
Here we have all the lyrics of the song, and a quick outline of the sorts of gags the artists should come up with for the bouncing ball section of the film. By the end of the meeting, the director would have a stack of gag drawings to choose from. In the early days of animation, the story process was very informal, and the individual animator was often expected to flesh out the specifics of the action in his scenes on his own, co-ordinating with the animator of the preceding and following sequence on the hookup between sequences. Dave Fleischer was known to add gags all the way up to the animation stage.
There aren’t a lot of doodles on this next document, which dates back to the Charles Mintz Studio around 1934. Some gags are indicated by just a few terse words. This probably means that these notes were accompanied a pile of drawings, which the story man was trying to order into a basic continuity. The action has been divided into seven segments, each one representing approximately a minute of screen time.
The First Segment shows a circus parade arriving in town. A drum major disappears into his oversized hat; a french horn player pops out of a tuba to take a solo; a team of horses pans through pulling a street sweeper behind, a lion cage is propelled by the lion’s own legs- no wheels; and a polar bear drowns in an ice wagon full of melted ice.
In the Second Section the parade continues. A clown in a horse costume sticks his head out the tail and gives the crowd a razzberry; a clown jumps through a paper hoop- but it’s actually a Chinese gong; a parade of elephants- each one smaller than the one before- ends with an elephant so tiny, a clown has to use a magnifying glass to see it.
The Third Section includes a giraffe whose neck extends to eat the fake fruit off the hat of a lady in the crowd; a fat lady riding a hippopotamus wagon, and a gorilla who plays the harp on his cage bars, then escapes and kidnaps a girl. He snatches her up to the house tops.
Part Four: The circus performers attempt to rescue the girl. A tightrope walker walks on telegraph lines to reach the ape; a man is shot out of a cannon and the ape socks him in the nose; the ape perches on the top of a building and bees buzz around him like the airplanes buzzing King Kong.
In Part Five, an elephant shoots peanuts at the ape like a machine gun as an organ grinder’s monkey dances on the rooftops.
Part Six: The ape scares a flagpole sitter away from his perch and replaces him on the top of the pole. The organ grinder monkey cuts down the pole, gives the ape a big kick in the ass and marches him away.
Part Seven: The ape sees his reflection in a mirror and makes faces. The reflection swats him. The ape, who we expect to act like a he-man, acts like a pansy instead. The parade marches off into the distance as the ape rubs his sore ass from where the monkey kicked him.
In the next installment of this series on Cartoon Writing, I will show you a batch of sketches that document a story session at the Iwerks Studio in 1934.
Glenn Gould was one of the foremost pianists of the 20th century. Best known for his interpretations of Bach, Gould hosted a series of radio programs for the Canadian Broadcasting Company. This article comes from a program by Gould on Leopold Stokowski.
When I was a teenager back in the 40s, Leopold Stokowski shared for some years the podium of the New York Philharmonic. His co-director was the late Dimitri Mitropoulis and together they contributed to that memorable Sunday afternoon series on CBS radio, which was one of the few redeeming features of American broadcasting in the years after World War II. Running opposite the Stokowski/Metropoulis programs on CBS was NBC’s entry in the symphonic sweepstakes, a series featuring the orchestra which bore the network’s name, which was created for and conducted by Arturo Toscanini.
The attitude of the young people of my generation toward these weekend music specials was rather interesting. It was generally bandied about by my conservatory friends that you were either a Stokowski fan or a Toscanini devotee. There was apparently no middle ground, except perhaps that which was occasionally occupied by Bruno Walter. According to the academic banter of that time, Toscanini embodied most progressive musical virtues. His performances were direct, straightforward and emotionally objective. Whichever notes, dynamic marks or tempo indications appeared before him in the score were, to the best of his and the NBC Orchestra’s ability, what you heard. For Toscanini, the composer’s notational suggestions were gospel.
Not so with Stokowski. He was and is, for want of a better word, an ecstatic. Stokowski is involved with the notes, the tempo marks, the dynamic indications in the score to the same extent that a filmmaker is involved with the original book or source which supplies the impetus- the idea of his film. So, Stokowski’s performances either stand or fall depending on the degree he can infuse them with a sense of his own commitment to the project. And happily for those who became addicted to his way of making music, there’s rarely been a more committed, more imaginative, more resourceful artist than Leopold Stokowski.
There was however another reason for the disrepute into which Mr. Stokowski’s interperative techniques had fallen in those years, besides that penchant for a neo-literalist performing style which the young people of my generation espoused. He was not only a popularizer- a man who thought nothing of transforming the keyboard works of Bach into massive orchestral statements. But more than that, he was a film personality. In the mid-1930s, he’d relinquished his post as the conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, in which he single-handedly transformed the standards of orchestral playing in North America, in order to join Deanna Durbin and Donald Duck on the silver screen in Hollywood.
“I go to a higher calling.” he was reported to have said to the press conference which was called to announce his departure, and if one can filter out the inevitable quotient of defensiveness which one may assume to infiltrate a remark of that kind, it was a remarkably revealing comment.
Technology for Stokowski was a higher calling. He was indeed the first great musician to realize that the future of music would inexorably wound up with technological progress, and that communications media were in fact the best friend that music ever had. Many of his recordings… and all of which I know from personal experience where he maintains a firm hand in relation to the processes of production… were years ahead sonically.
But the real benefit of his interest in technology, I think, was that it enabled Stokowski to resist the inhibitions induced by those pre-technological attitudes toward music-making which created the stratified roles of performer, listener and composer; and which held that those roles would ever remain separate and distinct. For Stokowski, I think, those distinctions are themselves are the single greatest danger that the artist must face. And I suspect that the enormous appeal of his music-making over the last sixty years or so is precisely his realization of that fact, and his willingness to act upon the assumptions that follow from it.
Stokowski is 88 now, at least he was when I interviewed him for this program. Nothing in his manner, his outlook or the vitality of his music-making suggests the incipient nonagenarian, but it’s perhaps useful to recall that Stokowski was born while Wagner was still alive, and when Brahms died, Stokowski himself was already a teenager.
In theory, his outlook and his art should represent the aesthetic attitudes of a bygone era, or eras. But in fact, because of his extraordinary warmth and humility, his remarkable receptivity to new ideas, and above all because in his lifetime we’ve already seen nothing but triumph. But the essential humanity of those technological ideas which have informed all of his work as a musician, Leopold Stokowski is very much a man of the future.
So, what is the connection to animation, you might ask… Well the obvious link is the fact that Walt Disney and Leopold Stokowski collaborated on Fantasia.
But it goes deeper than that. Stokowski shared certain creative instincts with some prominent animators. For instance, In the space of a little more than a decade, Stokowski built the Philadelphia Orchestra up from scratch until it was the preeminent orchestra in the United States. He employed the latest technology to bring the highest possible production value to his recordings. After he had reached the peak of popularity, he turned his attention to bring his music-making to a whole new media. He embraced motion pictures, radio broadcasts and television programs as a means to present his music in an entirely new way to the broadest audience possible.
Walt Disney pressed his artistic staff to improve and develop new techniques for the art of animation, making huge strides between “Steamboat Willie” and “Snow White”. He employed Technicolor, the multiplane camera and live action/animation compositing to advance the tools available to his artists, which set his films apart from his competition on a technical level. After he had conquered the medium of the cartoon short with Mickey Mouse, he turned his attention to creating the first hand drawn animated feature. And when that was established, he turned to live action films, television and theme parks to take his ideas to new mediums. He succeeded in reaching the entire world with his creations.
In the article above, Glenn Gould touches on the differences between Arturo Toscanini and Stokowski. Toscanini was a disciplined conductor who demanded and got complete control. He unified a group of over 80 musicians into a single mind, expressing the will of Toscanini. This resulted in performances of incredible directness and power. Toscanini’s aesthetic choices were consistent and were handed down as the law through the regimented beat of his baton.
In contrast, Stokowski was more of a magician, evoking a unique performance out of each and every musician in his orchestra. Instead of deciding on a plan of attack in advance and executing it with precision, Stokowski allowed for the inspiration of the moment to guide him. He was constantly experimenting and evolving as an artist. His carefully modulated hand gestures directed the ebb and flow of the performance without rigidly controlling it. Even without a rigid hand controlling the proceedings, he could take an orchestra with which he had never worked before and quickly lead them to that distinctive “Stokowski Sound”.
Chuck Jones was a director of animated cartoons who planned out his films in great detail at the layout stage and required his animators to hew close to his drawings in their scenes. He precisely controlled every aspect of the timing of his films, and as he developed his characters, he created a canonical set of rules for the story structures and the way the characters acted within them. His Roadrunner and Pepe Le Pew cartoons were more like variations on a single theme than individual cartoons because they were constantly refining and focusing the specific ideas of Chuck Jones.
Bob Clampett approached the direction of his films quite differently. Instead of insisting that the artists draw precisely the way he did in the layouts, he encouraged them to go beyond his drawings and work within their own style to express themselves in the most creative way possible. Robert McKimson was encouraged to create scenes of great solidity and strength, while Rod Scribner was directed to explore the fourth dimensional aspects of cartoony exaggeration. This freedom didn’t result in a dilution of Clampett’s control over the film. On the contrary, he used his artists’ strengths and weaknesses to put across his own unique vision and sense of humor. There were no rules in Clampett cartoons. In one, Bugs Bunny would be the victor, in another, he would be foiled at every turn. Each film was developed as its own creative experiment, and the variety of moods, stories and atmosphere in his films is kaleidoscopic.
Both Toscanini and Stokowski were great conductors. In fact, they may have been the two greatest artists ever to work in their artform. But they were as different as they could possibly be. The same might be said of Chuck Jones and Bob Clampett.
Music shares an indescribable magic with animation. It’s hard to describe in words exactly why certain walk cycles or pantomime gags are so wonderful. Music is a source of non-verbal delight as well. The rhythms and pacing of cartoons often mirror the construction of popular music with a statement of theme followed by variations, culminating in a restatement of the theme and a big finish. If you think about it, the best cartoons are inseparable from music. Adventures in Music explores the wide world of music with an eye to revealing the relationships between music and creativity.
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Animation Resources is a 501(c)(3) California non-profit corporation. We are providing self-study resources and training material to animation professionals, cartoonists, designers, Illustrators, students and researchers. Animation Resource's Director, Stephen Worth can be reached at... firstname.lastname@example.org.
I would like to thank the membership of The International Animated Film Society: ASIFA-Hollywood for sponsoring my efforts to get this project off the ground during its first few years. In particular, I owe a debt of gratitude to ASIFA-Hollywood's president, Antran Manoogian. Without his unwavering support and valuable guidance this project would not exist. -Stephen Worth