Archive for the ‘theory’ Category

Thursday, April 9th, 2015

Theory: CGI Animators Should Think Like ARTISTS

W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village

You probably have never heard of William Lee Hankey, but he was a pioneer in the field of illustrated books at the turn of the century. Hankey was one of the first illustrators to paint to suit the newly invented four color offset printing process. He would paint loose and wet, and would press fabrics into the washes to create textures. This book, "The Deserted Village" was one of the first big successes using these techniques. It led to a boom in illustrated books during the teens and twenties, which we have documented in our posts on Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac and Gustaf Tenggren. (See the link to the Illustration Exhibit at the bottom of this post for examples of their work.) Hankey was an expert in printing technology. But that wasn’t all. He was first and foremost, an artist.

As I was scanning this book, something came up that I need to address. I hope you’ll bear with me as I take a little time out to rattle your cage and remind you of something very important.

LISTEN UP!

W. Lee Hankey Deserted VillageW. Lee Hankey Deserted VillageThe other day, I happened across a thread in an internet forum for CGI animators. The thread was titled, "Why aren’t animators artists?" The title made me do a double take. I was surprised to find people debating a question that to me seems patently ridiculous. I take it for granted that people realize that animation is an artform with close ties to the traditional arts of drawing, painting and sculpture. It’s always a shock to find that there are people working in the field who don’t see the link.

I started to wonder whether the readers of this blog understand the intent behind the material that we post here. We’re not just presenting "pretty pictures" to inspire in some sort of vague manner. We intend for this material to be used and applied to everyday work. We don’t get a lot of feedback from this website. Other animation blogs get hundreds of comments on each post, but we rarely get any comments at all. I don’t know why that is. But I certainly hope it isn’t because people are taking a passive attitude to the resources all of us at Animation Resources are working so hard to provide.

Normally, I let the artwork create its own context, but today, I specifically want to address CGI animators to remind them that this site is NOT strictly for 2D animators. CGI animators can learn as much from this stuff as the guys with the pencils. I’m going to pick a few examples and show you what I mean. It’s time to start thinking like an artist!

WHAT CAN AN ILLUSTRATED BOOK THAT IS OVER A CENTURY OLD TEACH SOMEONE WORKING IN COMPUTER ANIMATION?

W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village

In 1909, this book was a technological marvel. It used brand new printing processes to bring color and life to the text blocks that had dominated book design for centuries. It can show us how to do the same today using modern storytelling technology if we look closely. For instance…

AVOID EXCESSIVE DETAIL

Too often, artists and animators mistake detail for quality. Rendering out every leaf on every tree, every pore on every inch of skin, every single blade of grass or shock of fur may be an entertaining exercise for retentive types, but all that detail is nothing more than gilding the lilly- distracting from the main point of the design.

Notice how Hankey focuses your attention on the important parts of the composition by rendering those out, while leaving unimportant background information very loose. The choice of colors clearly defines light and shadow, and the carefully balanced values hold the background together as a frame for the subject of the image. Click on these to see them larger and you’ll be surprised to see just how loose the rendering is on the girl’s dress and the background foliage.

W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village

COMPOSE SHOTS ON A HUMAN SCALE

Too many CGI features are set in environments that are completely out of scale to the characters. Rooms are the size of convention halls and gardens are as big as football fields. Everything is wide open, with very little variety to the depth or contrasting perspectives of the structures. Camera angles on wide shots are staged from 20 feet in the air, much higher than a real human perspective. This makes everything look like model railroad sets instead of like real environments.

The way to lay out a background is through skillful composition and a range of different sizes of forms. Look at how Hankey creates a zig-zag perspective on the first image, layers of contrasting shapes and textures on the second, and divides the last example to frame three separate simultaneous actions beautifully.

W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village

COMPOSE GROUPS OF PEOPLE CAREFULLY

Check out these amazingly expressive tableaux by Hankey. Each one defines the personality and situation of each individual character in relation to all the other characters, while directing the eye cleverly through the image from one main focal point to the next. Notice how the characters are grouped to reflect their relationships to each other.

Just try to find a grouping like this in current animation! Characters are almost always staged obliquely, lined up like a chorus line or in perfect half circles in front of the camera- sitcom style. If you search through the films of great directors like Chaplin, Hitchcock or Welles, you’ll never find flat setups. The dynamics of group relationships are never revealed in what the characters say- it’s always in how they are arranged visually.

W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village

CREATE MOOD THROUGH UNIQUE COMBINATIONS OF COLORS

John Kricfalusi recently discussed how important unique color harmonies are to animation in his blog, All Kinds Of Stuff. He makes the point that colors "straight out of the tube"- lime green, purple, orange, etc.- are not nearly effective as hues with non-mathematical mixes of colors… colors that don’t have names.

For instance, what color would you call the street in this first example? Pure colors are best used in small areas to create interest and direct the eye, like with the sea green door on the house in the second one. Sometimes the best color harmonies involve muted colors to create a mood, as in the third example here. The colors tell you exactly what is going on in the scene. In fact, each of the three characters is surrounded by an unique set of colors that reflects his or her attitude.

W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village

USE THE CHANGING LIGHTING OF THE TIME OF DAY FOR EMOTIONAL IMPACT

Life doesn’t always happen at high noon on a Summer day. Neither should the action of an animated film. Disney knew this. Check out "Lady and the Tramp". The dramatic scenes with the rat approaching the baby’s crib are heightened by the deep shadows of night. The "Bella Note" sequence depicts an entirely different kind of night. The climactic action at the end takes place on a stormy night. Think about how the changing light of the times of day can add impact to your scenes, just like the light depicted in these illustrations by Hankey.

W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village

CREATE CHARACTERS BY OBSERVING LIFE

The most obvious power of animation to entertain is its ability to caricature life, yet amazingly, observation is exactly what is lacking in character design in current CGI movies. Every day, a million great personalities are all around you who have never been seen in animation- just go to your local coffee shop or shopping mall with your sketchbook. You won’t be able to get all the great characters down on paper fast enough.

So why do we get the same old stereotypical cool dude, smartass sidekick, long-suffering parents, goofy fat kid, and "independent minded pretty girl who doesn’t know how pretty she really is" in every doggone movie? I keep hearing people say that story is the most important thing in animation. Well, that’s a lie. Personality is at the core of all great animation. Don’t plug and play with iconic characters and architypes. OPEN YOUR EYES AND OBSERVE! SHOW THE AUDIENCE SOMETHING REAL!

W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village

POSE CHARACTERS EXPRESSIVELY

This is CGI animation’s cardinal sin. Gestures and body positions NEVER reflect a character’s unique personality. Every character scrunches their mouth to one side and looks upwards when they think- they all lower their eyebrows and narrow their eyes the exact same way when they’re angry- they all throw their hip to one side and lean their head when they’re petulant…

This is "formula acting". If we were talking about the performance of a human actor instead of a grizzly bear or raccoon, it would be called "BAD acting". Formulas don’t tell you anything about the character, yet entire movies are performed by rote. Don’t believe me? Take any of the recent CGI movies, whether they involve animals invading backyards or escaping zoos, rodents in European restaurants, superhero terrapins or prehistoric sloths- and count the number of times the characters deliver dialogue with that meaningless, stock- hands out to the side, palms up, up and down movement on every accent- sort of gesture. What the heck does that gesture mean? It’s just water treading because the animator is too lazy to think of a gesture that actually expresses something.

Now look at the last image in this group- the one with the fella sitting next to the girl. Even his feet tell you what he’s thinking! Every pose in an animated film should be that expressive. There’s no excuse for stock poses or actions.

W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village

An animator isn’t just moving a complex polygon through space- an animator creates a performance from a succession of still poses. That’s the job of an artist and anyone doing that sort of work needs to THINK like an artist. As you browse through this the rest of the images in this post, if you just "look at the pretty pictures" without thinking about what makes them work, you might as well be off shopping or playing video games. This website is a tremendous resource, but it won’t help you if you expect it to work passively by osmosis.

Print the stuff in this blog out. Put it in binders. Analyze it. Categorize the concepts. Make notes. Talk about your ideas with your fellow artists. Apply these ideas to your work.

Here are a few more illustrations from this great book. Can you see the principles we discussed above in these images? What other ideas do they give you?

W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village
W. Lee Hankey Deserted Village

Stephen Worth
Director
Animation Resources

TheoryTheory

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

IllustrationIllustration

This posting is part of a series of articles comprising an online exhibit spotlighting Illustration.

Monday, April 6th, 2015

Theory: WWI and WWII Propaganda

Propaganda Posters

Back when I was in college, I was wandering through a junk shop and found a file folder that was stamped "Return To Louis Van Den Ecker, Technical Director". I peeked inside and found a pile of interesting clippings. It was a reference file dealing with propaganda posters from the First and Second World Wars. I bought the folder and brought it home and did some research on Louis Van Den Ecker. He turned out to have been an expert employed by the studios to insure that their depiction of particular times and places were accurate. He worked on the 1939 version of Hunchback of Notre Dame, Beau Geste, Adventures of Robin Hood, The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo among many other films. I assembled his clippings into a logical order and mounted them into a scrapbook. Today, we scanned this book for our archive database.

Propaganda Posters

The concept of propaganda is widely misunderstood. Many people automatically assume that it’s a negative thing. But propaganda is just a tool that can be used for either good or bad. Propaganda involves bypassing the intellect and appealing directly to emotion to motivate a group of people to action. During the World Wars, time was of the essence and masses of people needed to work together for the common goal of defending the nation. It would have been too slow to talk each and every move out with the whole population, so governments used powerful imagery to bring everyone together in the war effort.

Propaganda Posters

I’m not sure if it’s just the bias of this particular collection, or if it was actually the case during WWI, but looking at these examples, one can see how inept the Germans were at using propaganda. The German posters in this collection seem to appeal to abstract concepts like national pride, flags and mythology; while the Allied propaganda goes straight for the heart with concepts like motherhood, security, and moral outrage. Look at the example above. The figure in the foreground represents the outrage of the nation at the sight of a sinking ocean liner and a sailor’s hand rising from the surf begging for help. Even after nearly a century, the powerful imagery still makes its point.

Propaganda Posters

Contrast that impact with the poster above… Abstract concepts are stacked up on top of each other… It’s not a baby… it’s a statue of a baby. And it isn’t even a statue of a baby, it’s a statue of a cherub. There is no eye contact, just empty eye sockets. The emotional impact of the bullet hole in the helmet is totally negated by its similarity to the baby’s belly button! It’s hard to imagine this image motivating anyone to give money to the cause.

Propaganda Posters

Early examples, like the one above, were created by renowned artists, and the subjects required close inspection, reflection and thought to grasp.

As time went by, the images became more graphic and direct…

Propaganda Posters

Sketches of children orphaned by the war were potent images…

Propaganda Posters
Propaganda Posters

National and religious symbols seem to be much less effective, even when they are more interesting from an artistic standpoint…

Propaganda Posters
Propaganda Posters
Propaganda Posters

These next two are interesting because they show how the two sides saw themselves. The German soldier is idealized in a kitsch way, while the French soldier seems more real and down to earth…

Propaganda Posters
Propaganda Posters

Which side would you rather be on?

Propaganda Posters
Propaganda Posters
Propaganda Posters
Propaganda Posters

When the nations of the world entered into World War I, the methods and techniques of propaganda were naiive and innocent. But by the end of the First World War, the techniques of waging war in the hearts and minds of the public had entered the modern era. Propaganda had become much more sophisticated and powerful.

Propaganda Posters

The rapid growth in the sophistication and effectiveness of propaganda during WWI was largely due to the work of one man… a man who went from spending his life as a quiet landscape painter to being the most powerful cartoonist of his day, Louis Raemakers. His story is a fascinating one, and you can read about it and see examples of his work on our article titled…

Louis Raemaekers- The Cartoonist Who Helped Win The First World War

Propaganda Posters

By WWII, leaders realized that battles could be fought and won on the homefront. Propaganda became an important part of motivating the population to work together toward the common goal of defeating the axis powers. Compare the WWI posters in this and the previous post to the examples from WWII presented here. Notice how the design and layout enhance the emotional impact of the concepts. Many of these posters still pack a wallop.

Propaganda Posters
Propaganda Posters
Propaganda Posters
Propaganda Posters
Propaganda Posters
Propaganda Posters
Propaganda Posters

For more on this subject, see Alfred and Elizabeth Briant Lee’s excellent book The Fine Art of Propaganda: A Study of Father Coughlin’s Speeches 1938.

Now you may be asking yourself, what does propaganda have to do with animation? Well… Think for a moment about the definition of propaganda, "bypassing the intellect and motivating an audience through a direct appeal to emotion" and then think about this image from an animated film I’m sure you’re familiar with…

Pinocchio

Can you think of any other plot devices used in animated features that operate on this direct level?

Stephen Worth
Director
Animation Resources

TheoryTheory

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

IllustrationIllustration

This posting is part of a series of articles comprising an online exhibit spotlighting Illustration.

Wednesday, March 4th, 2015

Theory: Big Boy and the Power of Licensing- A Cautionary Tale

Bobs Big Boy

In 1936, entrepeneur Bob Wian opened a small lunch stand. He had a brilliant, yet slightly devious idea for a hamburger. If he took a standard hamburger bun and sliced it down the middle twice, instead of once… and if he took a standard hamburger patty and divided it into two small patties… he could create a double-decker hamburger that appeared to be larger than the average without costing him any more to make. He named it the "Big Boy".

Bobs Big Boy

Wian hired pretty high school girls as car-hops and dressed them in short skirts and cowboy hats. But something was still missing…

Bobs Big Boy

One day, animator Benny Washam was lunching at Wian’s stand, doodling on placemats. Wian saw that he was a cartoonist and asked him to draw a caricature of Richard Woodruff, a chubby, apple cheeked boy who helped out at the stand sweeping up after school. Washam obliged, depicting the lad in oversized checkered overalls munching on a burger.

Bobs Big Boy

Ben Washam’s Original Design

Wian loved the doodle and gave Washam his lunch for free. Bennie gave the sketch to Wian to use as a mascot for the stand.

Bobs Big Boy

Bennie didn’t think any more of it for many years…

Bobs Big Boy
Bobs Big Boy

Bobs Big Boy

Wian turned the caricature into an empire, branding not only his hamburger stand, but a line of sauces and spices and a franchised chain of family restaurants that eventually covered the entire country. A cutened version of Washam’s doodle was plastered all over the menus, signage and television advertising.

Bobs Big Boy

Bobs Big Boy

Wian knew who in the family made the decisions about where to eat… It wasn’t mom and dad, it was the kids. Outside each restaurant in the chain, he placed a huge fiberglass statue of Big Boy as a beacon to attract children…

Bobs Big Boy

And cartoonists, like assistant archivists, Alex Vassilev and JoJo Baptista!

At the restaurants, Wian gave away free comic books featuring the character. Here is an extremely rare example… Big Boy comics number one from 1956. These comics were produced by Timely Comics, which later became Marvel. They were written by Stan Lee and drawn by Bill Everett. Later issues featured the work of Archie comics artist, Dan DeCarlo. Adventures of the Big Boy is one of the longest continuously running comic book lines. It’s still being produced fifty years later.

Bobs Big Boy

Bobs Big Boy Comic BookBobs Big Boy Comic Book
Bobs Big Boy Comic BookBobs Big Boy Comic Book
Bobs Big Boy Comic BookBobs Big Boy Comic Book
Bobs Big Boy Comic BookBobs Big Boy Comic Book
Bobs Big Boy Comic BookBobs Big Boy Comic Book
Bobs Big Boy Comic BookBobs Big Boy Comic Book
Bobs Big Boy Comic BookBobs Big Boy Comic Book
Bobs Big Boy

Years later, when Big Boy had become a familiar figure to the entire country, Washam admitted to his fellow artists at Warner Bros that he was the cartoonist who had created the character. They laughed and teased him, saying, "Benny, you should have been heir to a hamburger fortune, but no! Your lot in life is to toil day and night making animated cartoons!" They were joking, but there’s an element of truth in it. Never underestimate the power of a doodle. The Big Boy sketch that Washam traded away for a free meal in 1936 ended up selling millions and millions of dollars worth of hamburgers.

If you would like to see more Big Boy comics, let me know in the comments.

Stephen Worth
Director
Animation Resources

TheoryTheory

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