Archive for the ‘theory’ Category

Tuesday, November 19th, 2019

Theory: Objectively Breaking Down Reference

Objective Analysis

Many animation students love anime and 90s animated features because they grew up with these films and know them like the backs of their hands. But in order to advance the medium, you have to go beyond what you personally like. Is it possible to learn important techniques from films, you don’t really like? The answer is YES, but you need to learn to objectively break down your reference and mine it for techniques you can use.

Captain January

When Animation Resources’ Board Member JoJo Baptista was in his final year at Woodbury University working on his senior film project, he was animating a rhythmic walk for a child character. He asked me if I had any suggestions for reference to study. I immediately thought of Shirley Temple. I think as you read this, you’ll get a pretty good idea of how I feel about Shirley Temple’s films. However, for an animator there is a lot to learn from them. JoJo and I broke down one sequence and analyzed it to help him animate his senior project. I’m going to give you a peek at the discussions that went on at the Archive regarding this film… Captain January.

Captain January

When Shirley Temple made this film in 1936, she was in the first grade. If you take a moment to view the clip below, I think you’ll agree that even at that young age, she was already a talented and skilled performer. She acts, sings, and especially dances on a level that rivals or surpasses the skills of most current pop divas, even ones with a couple of decades of experience under their belts. If you tried to think of a current seven year old who compares to her, you would have to think pretty hard.

Captain January

That said, I have to admit that I don’t personally care for Shirley Temple movies. They follow a rigid formula- a lonely curmudgeon adopts an adorable orphan who melts his heart. The moppet and the old fart are separated, which creates oceans of tears, only to be joyfully reunited at the end… Although they are cute, her films really have very little to say about anything real. Perhaps some people might enjoy them as an escape, but they aren’t to my taste.

Captain January

There is another aspect to these films that makes me uncomfortable. Graham Greene, writing in the magazine Night and Day wrote of Shirley Temple, "Her admirers – middle-aged men and clergymen – respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire." I don’t think I need to add anything to that quote.

Captain January

Maybe I’m a crusty old curmudgeon myself, but these films just don’t do it for me… Have I made it clear that I don’t care for this particular movie yet? All right.

JoJo and I sat down with this DVD to analyze Temple’s performance to see if there were characteristics of performance that he could use in his film. We chose a clip where Shirley dances and sings "At The Codfish Ball" with Buddy Ebsen. Here is a video clip of the sequence…

Captain January

"At The Codfish Ball" from Captain January
Shirley Temple and Buddy Ebsen (Fox/1936)
(Quicktime 7 / 32.5 megs)

Here is the storyboard of the scene cuts for your reference…

Captain JanuaryCaptain January
Captain JanuaryCaptain January
Captain JanuaryCaptain January
Captain JanuaryCaptain January
Captain JanuaryCaptain January
Captain JanuaryCaptain January

Watch the video a couple of times and refer to the scenes as you read our notes below…

OBSERVATIONS

STAGING: Ebsen and Temple are surrounded in the sequence by incidental characters. Temple begins her song in a close up that isolates her from the group. As the sequence progresses, the incidental characters recede into the background, placing the focus on the dance routine. The crowd is dressed in dark colors, while Temple wears white, making her stand out. Ebsen wears a dark shirt with light pants, directing the attention to his legs, which makes sense since he is dancing. One scene at 4:02 uses Ebson’s legs to frame Temple as they dance on the wooden cask.

CUTTING: The four minute sequence is broken into 11 cuts, many of which are quite long. Temple is able to sustain long takes with high energy and accuracy in her performance. The sequence is bookended by an entrance and exit through a doorway. The first half of the sequence moves from left to right. After a 180 degree jump cut at 2:16 (which works perfectly in this context) the action moves from right to left. The cuts are dictated by the staging of the dance routine, never to cut around errors in performance. Only one scene at 4:02 seems to have been performed out of continuity and inserted. The reason for this is to allow Temple to push her performance over the top for the big finish.

ACTING: Temple’s ability to put across the lyrics to the song through her movements and expressions is remarkable. The scene that begins at 0:19 is packed with contrasting expressions reflecting her attitude clearly. Her gestures are always specific to the meaning of the lyrics ("from the herring to the whale") and her facial expressions never seem to be "pose to pose". If you still frame through them, they evolve through dozens of different attitudes in the space of a few short seconds.

Temple’s pantomime is clear and expressive. At 2:33, she throws the lead to Ebsen, studies his dance steps skeptically, does a small take of disgust and petulantly cheats by scraping her foot on the shingled wall behind her. She is always aware of the camera, and keeps her face in view, even when she is walking away from the camera (2:08) or being whisked around and around (3:41). Temple’s hair is a perfect of example of "follow through" and her dancing exhibits other principles like "secondary action" and "overlapping action" as well.

There are a couple of portions of the routine where Temple’s guard falls for a few frames, or we can see her preparing for a difficult move. At 2:08 she misses her lipsync as she navigates dancing down stairs. At 3:17, she scowls and looks down to Ebsen’s feet to coordinate with him as he scoops her up and trots her up the gangplank. At 3:36, she takes a beat to recover and gain her footing after a few spins. But on the next main beat, she is right back in the groove again with a glowing smile. She never falters more than an instant. Most audiences would never even notice it.

DANCING: The rhythm and synchronization between Temple and Ebsen is amazing. At 0:42, Temple struts back and forth setting her heel down on the main beat, and her toes on the back beat. She performs several different types of dance steps, including a cakewalk, a shuffle, a can-can and a truck.

Right before the scene cut at 1:29, Ebsen hitches his pants up in the background, anticipating his entrance. Even though the two dance in perfect sync, their steps are subtly different. At 1:43, Ebsen dances only below the knee. Since Temple’s legs were so much shorter than his, he had to govern his movement precisely to maintain a consistent distance between them.

Ebsen’s gestures throughout the routine are very original and funny, particularly in spots like "to the bottom of the sea" where they flash their fingers and mimic a dive (1:42) and as they exit the scene at 4:12, where his arms flail like rubber. Ebsen is probably one of the most remarkable and under-appreciated dancers of his time. Today, most people think of him as Jed Clampett, and don’t even realize the spectacular talent he posessed.

SUMMATION

JoJo found a lot to think about and study in this film. It exhibits a level of skill and craftsmanship that today’s movies just can’t touch. Do I say that because of my personal taste? No. I don’t even like this movie. I say that because I took the time to define the criteria I judge films by and sat down and analyzed what I was looking at.

There are two ways to look at a movie or cartoon… one can look at it as a member of the audience… or as a filmmaker. One of the sacrifices one makes when one chooses a career as an artist is to lose the ability to passively "experience" art. Once your mindset shifts to the analytical way a filmmaker thinks about his medium, you can never go back to the innocence of just sitting in the dark and "experiencing" a film the way ordinary people do.

Oscar Wilde once wrote, "Bad artists always admire each other’s work. They call it being large-minded and free from prejudice. But a truly great artist cannot conceive of life being shown, or beauty fashioned, under any conditions other than those he has selected."

The moral to this story is… The worst thing you can do is to tell old fashioned, hackneyed stories using the reduced skill levels and slack techniques of today. It’s much better to use the powerful techniques of the past to recapture a classic level of skill, and use that skill to tell honest stories that are relevant to modern audiences.

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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Monday, November 18th, 2019

Theory: Retro Cartoons Are A Dead End

Retro cartoons are a dead end

Last night at our Animation Resources screening, some of the students from Laguna College of Art and Design asked me what I thought of “retro cartoons”. Everyone assumes that because I know a lot about old cartoons, I must think that old fashioned cartoons are the way to go today. I surprised them by saying that I think retro cartoons are a complete dead end.

Irish cops, candlestick telephones and hobos with all their belongings wrapped in a hankerchief on a stick may have been relevant to audiences sometime in the distant past, but today, they are just empty archetypes- symbols that have no real world connection any more. I love Fleischer’s “Minnie the Moocher” and “Snow White”, but that music has absolutely no relevance to contemporary young people, and the primary reason these cartoons are so much fun today is because the passage of time has obliterated the topical contexts of the gags and just left behind puzzling, surreal non-sequiturs. The Queen’s face turns into frying pans and skeletons sing about 20 dollar gold pieces on their watch chains… These things seem weird and otherworldly to us because people today don’t say phrases like “She was so mad her eyes looked like fried eggs” and we don’t know that if your dead body has a 20 dollar gold piece on the watch chain it means you didn’t leave behind any debts for your heirs. What’s the point of doing a WWII A card gas rationing gag today, or using character designs based on caricatures of celebrities that died half a century ago? References like that just serve to distance the audience from the characters and draw them out of the story being told.

Making retro cartoons is like dressing up in your grandfather’s suit and pretending to be him. You may superficially resemble him, but your grandmother isn’t going to be fooled. But the biggest obstacle by far is competing with golden age artists on a quality level- that is VERY hard, and competing with them on their own playing field is absolutely impossible. The best you can hope to achieve through imitation is “almost as good as the original”.

Characters like Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse were fantastic in their day. Audiences connected with them and the artists creating them were expressing aspects of their own personalities. But “reboots” of NEW Bugs Bunny and NEW Mickey Mouse cartoons don’t connect with contemporary audiences the same way, and the artists making them struggle to psychically channel a character that represented their great-grandfather’s time, not their own. I produced a retro cartoon myself, and I am proud of it, but the things I admire most about it are the NEW ideas the director brought to the classic characters. The elements we were able to recreate from the original cartoons are the least successful things about the cartoons. In retrospect, I think we would have been better off doing a story using original characters.

Nostalgia for the past isn’t just a problem for fans of classic cartoons from the 30s and 40s. Many students at animation schools think like fans, not like film makers. If you ask a fan what kind of cartoon he or she would make if they could make any film they want, they describe styles that they have seen before… 90s Disney, Anime, the “wacky” TV cartoons they grew up with… But if you ask a film maker what kind of cartoon he or she would like to make, they speak in terms of ideas. Nostalgia is a very strong pull on young artists. The cartoons they grew up with were probably the inspiration for wanting to become an animator in the first place, but the first thing they must do to become a film maker is to leave those things in the past and move forward serving their own creative muse.

Too many animation students come out of college unable to make the leap from thinking like a fan to thinking like an artist. They cling to nostalgia for their childhood favorites and are unable to function in a workplace that isn’t working in that style any more. Racking up $100,000 in student loans to gain an education in how to draw Sonic the Hedgehog or Animaniacs, or to design characters in the style of Fox & the Hound is a good way to go straight from cap and gown to Starbucks apron. Sadly the vast majority of animation school graduates never realize this until they are out of school and discover that they are unemployable. Schools are producing scores of professional animation fans, and very few professional animators. The fault for this lies not just with the schools, but also with the students who won’t let go of style and study fundamentals.

There is a LOT to be learned from old cartoons, but all of the value embedded in old cartoons to today’s animators lies in the TECHNIQUE, not the content. Whenever someone does a retro cartoon, they always end up getting that totally backwards. They emulate gags, situations and characters from the old cartoons and animate them using the same cheap current animation shortcuts. Instead, they should be using totally new and relevant gags, situations and characters and animating them using the techniques and fundamentals of classic animation. If someone finally figures that out and makes a cartoon using that theory, they stand a chance of creating a film that is BETTER than classic cartoons, not just “almost as good”.

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Wednesday, November 13th, 2019

Story: Writing Cartoons Part Four- The Rough Board

Cartoon Story The Rough Board

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

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

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

INSPIRATIONAL ART

Cartoon Story The Rough Board

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

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

Cartoon Story The Rough Board

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

Cartoon Story The Rough Board

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

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

THE ROUGH STORYBOARD

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

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

The basic story of this board is as follows…

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

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

Writing Cartoons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cartoon Story The Rough Board

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

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

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

Stephen Worth
Director
Animation Resources

INSTRUCTIONINSTRUCTION

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

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