Archive for the ‘theory’ Category

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2018

Theory: A Few Thoughts On History

:History"

An Unique Point Of View

One of the things I’ve learned about animation history over the years is that you can’t count on general knowledge derived from books to understand the dynamics of the way people worked together. Each person had his own point of view, and you understand the situation better by putting yourself in the head of each participant and understanding their personal motivations and what they saw as the goal.

Likewise, you can’t trust general knowledge derived from books to know what is good and what is bad, or even what the strengths of a studio or artist were. You have to look at the films themselves and compare them and judge them according to a set of criteria designed to reveal the aspect you’re looking for.

When I was in college, I watched every animated film or TV show that I could get my hands on. I ran a VCR constantly. I didn’t judge or analyze, I just watched and absorbed. I tried to expose myself to as many different kinds of films as I could…. from Pluto and Underdog cartoons to Faith Hubley and Oskar Fischenger. After I had a fairly broad frame of reference, I started categorizing things in my head… impressive examples of effects animation, or dialogue driven cartoons, or snappy limited animation techniques. My head was full of all this stuff.

Then I went to work in an animation studio. I learned the dynamics of directors and their crew. I found out about working under deadlines. I began to understand what things were created by one individual and what ones were created by teams. I saw the complex watchworks of interpersonal relationships within a studio- competition, cooperation, personality conflicts. I realized that there isn’t just one point of view, there is a different point of view for every person involved.

Lastly, I started hanging out and talking with the old timers in the industry- picking their brains, getting them to be frank about the people they had known and the work they had done. I spoke to people on opposite sides of the battle lines, and I spoke to people who belonged to no camp other than the love of making animation. I learned a lot of things that will never be written down in books. It gave me the ability to judge and decide what was good and what was bad and where strengths lay.

A big problem with animation history books is they try to make it one unified story- the story of Bugs Bunny, or the story of the Disney Studios. That wasn’t the way the stuff we regard as history was lived though. It was lived by individuals with their own bias and goals and personalities. Some of these individuals really stand out from the rest. They were the catalysts and the ones who pushed the whole thing forward. Probably the most written about influencer in animation was Walt Disney.

I never met Disney. I waved at him once as a child as he drove down Main Street at Disneyland in a antique car. But I knew a lot of people who worked with him closely, and I asked them about him. Some of them loved him, some of them hated his guts, but all of them were talking about the same man. I don’t find that in books. Some books talk about a genius/saint who did everything himself. Others talk about an evil monster who exploited and abused the people working under him. I have no idea who these books are describing. It sure isn’t Walt Disney! Generally, the basic facts of names and dates are correct, but none of them seem to portray at him in the way I learned to see him- through the eyes of the people around him, friend and foe.

There is a biography of the low budget filmmaker Ed Wood called Nightmare of Ecstasy. It was later adapted by Tim Burton to make the film, Ed Wood. I mention it because it is the only book that I’ve ever seen that tells the story of an interesting person solely through bits of interviews from people who knew him. The book is organized into a chronology of events, but the description of the chronology is all from individual points of view cobbled together from a bunch of interviews. The image of Ed Wood projected is vivid and multifaceted and real… more real than anything I read in animation history books.

It’s too late to do that now for Walt Disney. Most everyone who worked with him is dead now. We’re stuck with the largely false image of Uncle Walt perched on the edge of his desk telling us about nature or outer space. I don’t think the average person will ever know who he was, regardless of how many books get written. But maybe the internet and social media will get preserved and someday future historians will cull through our comments on Facebook looking for nuggets of truth about all of US to stitch together into a narrative that is more true than the stuff that’s written in books.

Of course they’ll have to wade through a whole bunch of dumb memes and blather. I’ve been on the internet since the very dawn of the WWW. It’s weird to think that was over 20 years ago. I’ve been on usenet and chat boards and social media that whole time, trying to share things I think are important. Maybe someday it will provide something useful to an internet archaeologist somewhere. I think it’s important to take social media and interaction on the internet seriously. My life may someday be part of someone else’s history.

People often tell me that I should write a book… I think I’m doing something better than that. I’m throwing down breadcrumbs for future historians to follow each and every day of my life. Whether you realize it or not, so are you!

Stephen Worth
Animation Resources

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Friday, June 22nd, 2018

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…

ANIMATION IS A GIFT WORD
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

Animation

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
Director
Animation Resources

TheoryTheory

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

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Tuesday, June 5th, 2018

Theory: Cartooning’s Cousin- Puppetry

Punch and Judy puppets

This article has been translated into Spanish by David Alejandro Lopez Portillo.

For the past few months, I’ve been researching the roots of cartooning, tracing the history back long before Gertie the Dinosaur and the Yellow Kid appeared on the scene. I’ve discovered some wonderful things which will be appearing here in the blog soon. But one of the most exciting things I’ve discovered in cartooning’s “family tree” is the existence of “kissing cousins”… related art forms that developed along with cartooning in roughly the same time and place. Chief among these related arts is puppetry, and in particular, the tradition of Punch and Judy.

We all know Punch and Judy, but few of us today have actually seen a show performed. But the tradition isn’t dead. It’s being carried on by a small group of dedicated puppeteers around the world. They continue to perform in pretty much the same manner as it’s been performed for the past three centuries.

Cartooning and Punch and Judy share a common ancestor, George Cruikshank

Punch and Judy puppets

Cruikshank was a British cartoonist who illustrated one of the earliest documented Punch and Judy scripts in 1828, The Comical Tragedy or Tragic Comedy of Punch and Judy. Based on the performance by Piccini, the puppeteer who created a sensation with the puppet play in Britain in the early 1820s, this same basic story outline has continued to form the plot of just about every Punch and Judy show to this day.

The traditional show is usually performed by a “Professor”, the puppeteer inside the booth, and a “Bottler”, an assistant outside the booth who corrals the audience, introduces the puppets and plays musical accents and sound effects on a drum or guitar. The audience is encouraged to participate, calling out to the characters on the stage to warn them of danger or clue them into what’s going on behind their back.

Punch and Judy puppets

The cast of characters has been passed down from Professor to Professor over the generations, with some falling away and some being added as time went by and tastes changed. This beautiful set of puppets was created for me by artist/puppeteer Christopher van der Craats in Melbourne, Australia.

Punch and Judy puppets

In the early days, a live trained dog named Toby sat on the edge of the stage and helped with the show. Later, the live dog was replaced by a puppet, and eventually faded out of common use. But some Professors still occasionally use the Toby character in their act to this day.

Punch and Judy puppets

The show begins with the audience calling out to wake Mr. Punch, a carefree “trickster” character with a buzzy voice created by means of a “swazzle” a kazoo like device hidden in the Professor’s mouth…

Punch and Judy puppets

Next, Punch’s wife Judy is introduced. She is a bossy personality who orders Mr. Punch around. She instructs Mr. Punch to mind the baby while she goes to the kitchen to make sausages…

Punch and Judy puppets

Punch begins to play with the baby, teaching him to walk. But the action turns rough and the baby starts crying. Punch begins to frantically fling the baby about trying to silence it, eventually tossing it out the window. Judy finds out and a fight breaks out between her and Punch. Judy is beaten to death by Punch’s slapstick.

Punch and Judy puppets

Judy comes back as a ghost to frighten Mr. Punch, who is terrified and cowers in fear, unable to speak.

Punch and Judy puppets

The Doctor arrives to treat the stricken Mr. Punch, but he is nothing but a quack. He asks where it hurts, then hits Mr. Punch to give him pain to help forget his fear. Punch quickly dispatches the Doctor with his slapstick.

Punch and Judy puppets

As the bodies of the puppets Mr. Punch has killed pile up on the edge of the stage, Punch’s friend Joey the Clown shows up and enters into a game with Punch trying to confuse him as he counts the bodies. In some older versions, Joey helps Mr. Punch turn the bodies into sausages! Punch gets frustrated with Joey’s friendly taunting and hits him over the head with his slapstick. Joey plays dead.

Punch and Judy puppets

Next, the law arrives… in the early days this character was represented by “The Beadle”. There weren’t civil governments at that time, so criminal disturbances were policed by the church. The Beadle was the officer of the church who acted as a policeman.

Punch and Judy puppets

Later on, the character was replaced by the traditional British “Constable”, with his trademark lines, “‘Ello! ‘Ello! ‘Ello! What’s all this then?” The bumbling constable investigates the murders and Punch promptly makes him a victim as well. The body count rises by one more.

Punch and Judy puppets

Jack Ketch, the hangman, whose name commemorates a real executioner from the early 19th century, arrives to punish Mr. Punch for being “very naughty”. Punch pretends not to know how to put his head through the noose, so the hangman demonstrates for him… Zip! The hangman is hung in his own noose, and Mr. Punch dances in triumph.

Punch and Judy puppets

Mr. Punch next faces off with a Crocodile, who eats his sausages and slapstick, effectively disarming him. The Croc bites Mr. Punch on the nose.

Punch and Judy puppets

The Devil himself arrives to escort Mr. Punch down to hell to pay for his misdeeds. But Punch outwits the Devil and he and Joey return to the stage to wave goodbye to the audience.

Punch and Judy puppets

Other characters include Hector the Hobby Horse, Punch’s neighbor Mr. Scaramouch (who gets his head knocked off), Pretty Polly the Chambermaid, and the Servant/Blind Begger.

As you can see, the basic plot is pretty threadbare, and Professors regularly elaborate on some sections and cut other ones. The fun isn’t in the story, it’s how it’s performed. Each Professor has his own way of putting across the continuity of action. Like cartoons, Punch and Judy has come under attack by censors who claim that the superficial level of violence depicted isn’t appropriate for children. This criticism goes all the way back to the origin of the show. Here is a great quote from a great writer on this topic…

In my opinion street Punch is one of those extravagant reliefs from the realties of life which would lose its hold upon the people if it were made moral and instructive. I regard it as quite harmless in its influence, and as an outrageous joke which no one in existence would think of regarding as an incentive to any kind of action or as a model for any kind of conduct.

It is possible, I think, that one secret source of pleasure very generally derived from this performance… is the satisfaction the spectator feels in the circumstances that likenesses of men and women can be so knocked about without any pain or suffering. -Charles Dickens

Punch and Judy puppets

That same defense could be applied to cartoon violence like Tom and Jerry and the Coyote and Roadrunner. That isn’t the only thing Punch and Judy have in common with animation. I asked a professional Punch and Judy Professor for advice for aspiring puppeteers to keep in mind when performing. He suggested the following…

Each movement should be clear and precise. Don’t move the puppet at random.

The movement should have a sense of weight.

If someone bumps the puppet, it must react.

Stop and hold a pose occasionally for dramatic effect.

Use the old rule of three. Repeat a gag twice to set up an expectation, then do something different and surprising on the third time.

Punch and Judy puppets

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that animation and puppetry are very closely related. At its most basic level, Punch and Judy is about a trickster outwitting authority figures out to get him. How different is that from Bugs Bunny popping out of his hole to find Elmer Fudd holding a shotgun up to his nose?

As you look at the following clip, analyze the action the way you would analyze an animated film. Look for rhythmic timing, strong expressive poses, clear silhouettes, well staged action and contrasts in pacing and mood. You’ll be amazed at how many parallels with animation you can find in puppetry.

Pulcinella by Salvatore Gatto

I don’t know about you, but that clip above made my jaw hit the floor. Punch and Judy is pure, raw entertainment, stripped of all of the superfluous details we tend to heap upon it when we create animation. With Punch and Judy, the story isn’t important. It’s the same story that has been told for three hundred years. The design isn’t important. It’s the same design too. Snappy dialogue isn’t necessary. The puppets were speaking Italian in that clip and I bet you didn’t even notice. Fancy backgrounds, snappy jokes, flying camera moves, rapid fire cutting… none of that matters at all.

What does matter? Personality, rhythm, movement, fun situations, contrasts, and surprises. Punch and Judy is the distilled essence of entertainment. The same show could be performed for young or old, Eskimos or Aborigines and the delight and laughter would be the same. This form of entertainment goes straight to the core of what entertainment is. It probably goes even deeper than that- to the universal idea of what it is to be human.

Punch and Judy puppets

Arguably, animation’s history can be viewed as a progression of complexity. We have added layer after layer of overlapping action and tons of inbetweens to make lots of fluid and smooth movement. We place the characters over elaborate backgrounds inspired by Monument Valley or epic scenes from Lawrence of Arabia. We spend millions of dollars on crews of Harvard educated writers coming up with reams of script pages. We assemble massive computing horsepower to simulate convincing water splashes and other kinds of particle effects. And we polish and refine timing over and over in passes until the characters move just like reality- and every character ends up moving the same.

…and none of that has anything to do with why people love to watch animated cartoons.

With the Pulcinella routine above, one man was able to take a lump of wood and some rags and bring them to life as a vivid character that moves, sounds and acts in a direct, grippingly expressive way. Not only that. He did it in real time with no retakes! We can learn a lot from puppetry. Instead of focusing on the surface details of entertainment, we should focus on the raw core of fun that lays at the heart of any great performance.

The following is a Punch and Judy show by Professor Whatsit (Christopher van der Craats)…

LINKS

I hope you find these posts useful. Feel free to let me know what you think in the comments.

Stephen Worth
Director
Animation Resources

TheoryTheory

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

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