Archive for the ‘theory’ Category

Wednesday, August 10th, 2016

Theory: Guts Vs Polish


I was talking about something with a friend this morning that I thought I might mention here…

There are two ways to approach a scene. The most direct way is to go straight for the guts of the idea- to think in the most direct and vital way possible to put the emotion and action of the scene across. The audience sees it, recognizes it and instinctually identifies with it. The ultimate proponents of this kind of animation are Rod Scribner and Irv Spence. (If you don’t know who they are, look them up!) Everything is super clear and grabs you by the collar so you can’t look away. It’s a straight line from the animator’s intent to the audience’s experience of it… like an idea wrapped in a laser beam.

The other way to approach a scene is to “finesse” it. You start with a solid basic framework of blocking and you start adding little details. Small hand gestures, secondary action like a hat sliding down over one eye as the character talks, overlapping action on clothing and hair like dingle balls swinging back and forth against the main accent. You stack up layer after layer. As the scene progresses, it becomes more fluid and smoother… glossy. The action seems more “real” because so much is going on at once and it is all so controlled and smooth and beautiful. Disney was the best at doing this sort of approach. Each scene Marc Davis and Frank Thomas animated was carefully wrapped up and tied with ribbons like a birthday present by a team of specialized craftsmen.

If you’re an independent animator, then working in “finesse mode” is a recipe for failure. The way Disney was able to pull that off required very low weekly footage counts for the animators and lots and lots of assistants tracking and following through on the layers and layers of overlap… incredibly time consuming and labor intensive. An individual animator making films by himself would never be able to compete with that. Getting directly to the guts is something that requires a great deal of experience and skill and judgement, but if you are really good, you can spit it out like a lightning bolt with no one helping you. The Disney animators were certainly able to do that if they wanted to, but the every department in the studio, from animation to ink & paint, was geared towards conforming each scene to the “Disney way of doing things”. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It produced a lot of very high quality animation. But for today’s animators building pyramids stone by stone isn’t a very good model to follow.

A lot of people look at animation and judge quality by how smooth it turns, or how polished the overlaps are. But audiences don’t care how much time it took you to animate a scene. They are looking at the performance of the character. They want to see something they recognize in the personality- something real. It’s easy in the frame by frame trenches to focus on details, but if you want to connect in the most efficient way, you should always be looking at your animation from a wider view… and trying to get the guts of the idea you are putting across. Anything else is just gilding the lilly.

If you become a *really* good direct animator, you will be so successful with audiences that you can afford to hire assistants to polish up your stuff for you. There’s no reason to focus on that while you are still growing and learning. Go for the guts.

Stephen Worth
Animation Resources

Thursday, July 28th, 2016

Theory: Olaf Gulbransson And The Magic of Drawing

Magic Poster

The average person who looks at a drawing doesn’t see the thought process that goes into creating it. He just sees the image. If you don’t understand the principles that go into organizing a piece of art, the act of drawing appears to be magic. That’s why moronic displays like this continue to amaze non-artists…

Any artist knows what’s going on here. The performer has simply memorized a formula that he’s playing back along with plenty of empty flourishes and simulated drama. No thought process is going on. It’s just spitting out a predetermined image in a way that impresses people who have no clue about how real paintings are created. It’s just a simple magic trick, and it’s only amazing if you don’t know how the trick is done.

Stage magic is an art form, not unlike drawing and painting in some ways. The difference between mediocre magicians and great ones isn’t the cleverness of their “tricks”… it’s the quality of their application of the fundamental techniques of magic. These principles are organized to create a convincing illusion. Here is a wonderful example of that concept in action, by the brilliant magician, Teller…

Teller’s partner, Penn Jilette narrates the fundamental principles of magic that Teller is employing to create a magical illusion of normalcy. The average person viewing these actions on the street might not see anything out of the ordinary; but when we know what’s going on, it becomes amazing. Knowing how the trick works makes the magic more amazing, not less. That’s REAL magic.

The audience is as much responsible for the effectiveness of the illusion as the performer. A skilled magician leads the viewer through a series of actions which set up a certain expectation. When something completely different happens, it seems like magic. But without the expectation, the magic would dissolve into simple random occurrences. In this next clip, Penn & Teller reveal all their secrets and still manage to create a mystifying illusion. We can see how it’s being done with our own eyes, but Penn & Teller’s compelling direction of the action and our own expectations are so strong, we’re still surprised.

It isn’t the trick… it’s the skill with which the fundamental principles are applied to create an illusion. Truly great drawing is like that.

Olaf Gulbransson

I’m going to introduce you to one of the most magical cartoonists who ever lived. Odds are, you’ve never heard of him. His name was Olaf Gulbransson, and he was a cartoonist for the German satirical magazine Simplicissimus between the early years of the 20th century and the second World War. I’ll have more biographical information on him in a later post. But today, I want to get straight to showing you his amazing drawings.

Gulbransson’s sketches are simple line drawings… but they are deceptively simple. The images have been refined down to a few quick lines, but their simplicity and directness masks a depth of thought and planning that is almost superhuman. Here are a few sketches from Gulbransson’s Spruche und Wahrheiten (Sayings and Truisms) from 1939.

Olaf Gulbransson

Olaf Gulbransson

In art, he who is not the best is nothing.

In the cartoon above, notice how a single line defines the right cuff, elbow, arm, shoulderblade and fabric tension. It is very difficult to depict a strong pose from the rear- especially when draped in a long heavy coat. But Gulbransson pulls it off dramatically in a few sweeping lines.

Olaf Gulbransson

The full belly does not recognize the empty belly.

He is a master of exaggeration and caricature.

Olaf Gulbransson

More die in the bottle than the war.

Notice how he depicts the weight of the bodies lying on the ground, along with the pull and drape of the clothing covering them. The characters are grouped into a visual hierarchy, directing the eye from the foreground up to the drunks inside the stein at the top. Even though the shapes are open and plain, the volumetric structure is clearly defined. Some artists would render an image like this out with hatching, shading and lots of detail, but Gulbransson pulls it off with a remarkable economy of line.

Olaf Gulbransson

There’s no fool like an old fool.

A single line defines a silhouette, frames a character and leads the eye through the composition. The specific attitude of the characters and the stark contrast between their sizes enhances the irony of the caption.

Olaf Gulbransson

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Look at all those appealing organic shapes! Again, the contrast in scale puts across the humor in the caption.

Olaf Gulbransson

In the home, usually the chicken crows and the rooster clucks.

Complementary lines of action, solid drawing, specific attitudes, strong poses, beautiful negative spaces, clear silhouettes…

Olaf Gulbransson

The lazy and the idle are like brothers.

…rhythmic line, texture, personality…

Olaf Gulbransson

A man is judged by his actions.

…clear staging, line of action, flowing shapes…

Olaf Gulbransson

When we bathe, we’re all equal.

…keen observation of real life, contrasts…

Olaf Gulbransson

The bloom must fade in time, but in the mind, the fruit never withers.

…and sophisticated interaction defining the relationship between characters. Gulbransson could do it all- sometimes he did it all in a single brilliant drawing like this one!

Olaf Gulbransson

Man thinks. God leads.

His compositions are powerful and unique…

Olaf Gulbransson

All’s well that ends well.

…and he has a clear point of view. Who else would depict life’s end with an angel lifting a baby off a chamber pot?!

mess of characters

The average person loves detail and complexity. It makes them feel like they’re getting their “money’s worth” from a drawing. But to me, putting everything across with simplicity is even more amazing. The artist can’t hide behind details piled upon details, shading and cross hatching. His idea is presented naked and clear for the world to see. It’s like Penn & Teller doing the cups and balls with transparent cups. Real magic.

Stephen Worth
Animation Resources


This posting is part of a series of articles comprising an online exhibit entitled Theory.
Magazine CartoonsMagazine Cartoons

This posting is part of the online Encyclopedia of Cartooning under the subject heading, Magazine Cartoons.

Wednesday, July 13th, 2016

Theory: Chuck Jones- Animation Is A Gift Word

Chuck Jones

Assistant Archivist, JoJo Baptista brought in some magazines for the archive donated by his teacher, and long-time archive supporter, Dave Brain. Among them was an AFI publication with this great article by Chuck Jones…

By Chuck Jones

A young man was once sent fresh from Columbia University with a mutual friend’s introduction to Robert Frost. Frost scanned the young man’s writings, then looking quizzically up through his craggy white brows he asked, “What do you do, son?” The young man drew himself up proudly; he was, after all, one with the great Frost. “I am a poet,” he said. Frost gently answered, “The term ‘poet’ is a gift word, son; you cannot give it to yourself.”

The term “artist” or “animator” are gift words too, and yet they are employed as self-description by an astonishing number of our colleagues.

Chuck Jones Layout

The Marx Brothers, Laurel & Hardy, Harold Lloyd, W.C. Fields, as well as Chaplin, are now considered to be artists, but I grew up in Hollywood when they were in the height of their power and I know that the term would have staggered and surprised them. They were honestly and simply trying to make funny pictures and were about as aware of dramatic and comedic theory as a bunch of otters. They were a joyous, funny, often drunken, usually wild and impetuous group and all I wanted in the whole world when I grew up was to be one of them. This horrified my mother, who felt that the mayhem and violence of the Keystone Cops, Larry Semon and even Chaplin when, for instance, he gassed or blew people up, was hideous fare for my budding libido.

Chuck Jones Lion

She was right. When I did kind of grow up my hideously budded libido found that the one-reel comedy was no longer around, but I managed to stumble into another company of comedians who would have been just as unaware as their great live-action predecessors to find themselves characterized as “artists”: the animators. Tex Avery, Friz Freleng, Ham Hamilton, Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising, Hanna and Barbera (when they directed the marvellous Tom & Jerrys), Grim Natwick, Bob Cannon, Ted Sears, the Fleischers, Walt Lantz, Paul Terry, Shamus Culhane, Bill Littlejohn, Ken Harris, Pete Burness, Emery Hawkins- to mention only a few who were doing animated short subjects- were all working in a field which was a logical extension not only of the motion picture itself, but of the old one-reel live action comedy.

If as a child you drew stick figures on the edge of a tablet or a school book, then flipped the pages to get a spastic and funny little dance, you were animating. Anything beyond that is only sophistication and embellishment. For even today those dancing sticks are absolute in the art of animation, just as the unique essence of the art of painting is the application of pigment to a reasonably flat surface, and the essential isolating quality of sculpturing is a three dimensional representation in some solid material. These are the disciplines that isolate these methods of creativity. Therefore, animation can be created without any embellishment whatsoever, for an audience of one and without a camera. Anything that squiggles, wiggles, waggles, will likely excite in us a feeling of stimulation, an emotional reaction, even a revulsion. We all know that such reactions cannot, or should not be aroused by inanimate things. We should not be angered by a rake when stepped on in the dark since it has no quality of life. Breaking a golf club or throwing a tennis racquet is a natural reaction against seemingly human qualities in an inanimate object. Inanimate objects are diabolically funny indeed in animation. Remember Disney’s piano in Moving Day or the clock in Clock Cleaners or Norman McLaren’s A Chairy Tale?

Chuck Jones Layout

McLaren’s delightful laughing squiggles and strokes brought universal and deserved praise. Each of us drew our own conclusions as to what the films meant, but very near the surface was an area of response that had very little to do with rationality, and depending upon our area of interest all of us react to other forms of life in quite different ways: a tumor may be beautiful to a pathologist; herpetologists have small, sinewy, evil snakes where other people carry watches; an entymologist may stroke a tarantula with more thoughtfulness and understanding than a parent spends on his own child.

Animation’s potential and scope is literally boundless. In many parts of the world today great experiments in the field are taking pace- new thoughts, ideas, wild flights of fancy, much of it in surface techniques. Color; graphic breakthrough; startling, sometimes shocking in cruel subject matter; animation is being used as political commentary, abstract expressionism, pop and op art experiments, stop live action, painted stones, self-cannibalism, the black experience, textural adventures and sex. Many of these animated films are shown only in garages. But in many countries, notably the United States, most studios have been captured by an avalanche of network demands for low cost Saturday morning television.

Chuck Jones Layout

One team in Hollywood which once turned out eight to ten seven minute shorts a year now turns out four half-hours a week during the production year, an increase from one hour a year to at least 130 hours, or a 13,000 per cent increase.

A few animators are getting wealthy- which is a happy novelty indeed.

Some of the best work being done in animation, both in the United States and throughout the world, is in the field of animated commercials. Some are brilliant, nearly all are exquisitely timed and cut. This field may be the best training ground available for animators, directors, writers and designers. The disciplines are implicit in the United States: the film is one minute or less, it must tell a story, display a product, make a sales point, have a beginning, middle and an end, be unique yet comprehensible and bear constant repetition.

It is a pity that the experimentalists and the commercial animators could not exchange personnel occasionally, because the disciplines of commercial production would serve the laboratory animator well. Art and experimental and even student films usually run three times too long. The commercial animator would benefit from a little soul-waching and freedom from the very disciplines his opposite needs. The average commercial director would feel grossly sinful if he had an extra 14 seconds to play with.

Chuck Jones Layout

I believe that every studio that makes a substantial income off this market, or the so-called "kid-vid" market, owes a serious obligation to the future to pour part of it back- five to ten per cent- into training programs, internships, but above all to pure research. The trade unions support the idea; it is just common sense, not altruism.

There is a tendency in the history of any art form when a preoccupation with new instruments or unusual techniques preoccupies the time of the practitioners of that art form, and we get quaint and cacaphonous sounds and sights in our galleries and halls. This is a natural occurance, to be expected and enjoyed, but the tools of the artist have remained very much the same for hundreds of years and I cannot remember when the last valid musical instrument was introduced into an orchestra, perhaps because my father could not remember either.

It is well, I think, to learn from an Edward Steichen, I believe it was, who undertook a photographic assignment from Life magazine limiting him to a 30-year-old Brownie box camera. The result should have surprised no one: a series of exquisite, striking Steichen pictures, because Steichen does not confuse a convenience with a necessity. Steichen and Lincoln’s Matthew Brady are the same cut of man, and each would have flourished in the other’s time.

Chuck Jones Layout

Occasionally, an artist should look at his tools and ask himself what he cannot do without -the essentials- what he must have to pursue his form of expression in animation. In animation as different from other art forms, he must have only three things: a pencil, a number of sheets of paper and a light source. With these things he can animate, without them he cannot.

All other additions are conveniences and embellishments which shade his art form toward others. He does not even need a motion picture camera. The first valid animation, indeed the first motion pictures, were without such cameras. Do you remember the photographic flipping machines at penny arcades?

One of the odd misunderstandings about animation even by those who work in the field is the supposition that an individual drawing in animation has the same importance as doing an illustration.

In animation, drawing is indeed important and great draftsmen as well as great animators are required for such episodes as Bill Tytla’s Night on Bald Mountain or Art Babbitt’s Mushroom Dance. But a single drawing to an animator represents a time interval of 1/24th of a second.

Animation is a chorus of drawings working in tandem, each contributing a part to the whole of a time/space idea. If a single drawing, as a drawing, dominates the action, it is probably bad animation, even though it may be good drawing.

Chuck Jones Layout

So many of the greatest animators were and are men who became masters of their craft without once having to resort to cleaning up a single drawing. They simply didn’t think that way. Norm Ferguson, the great "Fergie" of Pluto fame who worked in a kind of fluid shorthand, catching the elements of motion in dazzling simplicity, was probably the outstanding example of the animator in his purest form. But Ham Hamilton, Ben Clopton, Ken Harris and many, many others could not draw and found no need to draw, in the conventional sense, which in no way diminishes their artistry; it simply identifies the form.

Different kinds of animation are suitable and correct for the needs of different products. John Halas has been quoted as saying that animation can now get along with four drawings a foot where it once required 24. Actually, animation can get along with no drawings a foot if the subject requirements are such- but it should not be denied 100 drawings per foot if they are needed. The Four Poster required only two actors, but staging Julius Caesar with such restrictions might prove difficult. The point is, if you can only afford two actors, don’t do Julius Caesar.

Chuck Jones Layout


The simple question we must ask ourselves about limited animation is this: would we use better animation if we could do so? I contend that the average director on Saturday morning television or in his experimental or laboratory film would rather- far rather- employ the finest animators available and have them deliver not 200 feet but 20 feet a week. And everywhere I have gone in Europe and the Orient the hunger has been for animators, animators in the grand tradition, because a great animator can do anything from a dancing dot to a dinosaur- and every director dreams of working only with great actors, or great animators, as well as great graphics, set designs, lighting and cameramen.

All of us must eventually do what the matador does: go out and face not only the bull, but the crowd. It does the matador little good, provides him little satisfaction to make beautiful passes alone in a moonlit pasture.

If in animation we are to advance our craft we must each eventually face the terror of creativity and each of us must some day do it before the great crowd, for animation is not only an art form, it is also a method of entertainment and a method of communication.

Chuck Jones Layout

MODERN Animation

We are fortunate, all of us, that animation is so appealing in its verstility. All over the world the most extraordinary things are happening. From Yugoslavia to Japan, South America to, I suppose, Lapland, young men and women are trying new ideas of the most imaginative sort. The medium is springing into life on a thousand fronts with a million facets.

But if we ignore our heritage, if we forget or allow to lapse one of the most important factors, the art of pure animation- a drop of water, a dinosaur, a paramecium, a McLaren dancing line, a blob a silver wind, a silver flute, a beautifully animated, delightfully floating mass of our own introspection- if we forget that these wonders cannot be accomplished by simple means, if we use limited animation only because we can get away with it, then we are overlooking the very essence of our craft and callously destroying history itself.

Chuck Jones
AFI Report (Vol 5, No 2)
Summer 1974

Since Jones wrote this, things have gotten worse, not better. If anyone had the right to complain about the sorry state of modern animation, it was Jones. When you work in the animation industry, and read words like this from a master of the medium, it’s hard not to feel a sense of shame when you see what we put on television today.

Many thanks to Dave Brain for this great article, and thanks to the Van Eaton Galleries for allowing us to digitize these wonderful Chuck Jones drawings for our database.

Stephen Worth
Animation Resources


This posting is part of a series of articles comprising an online exhibit entitled Theory.