Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

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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Friday, November 1st, 2019

Instruction: Writing Cartoons Pt 2- A Continuity Emerges

Valiant Tailor

When I was beginning to draft this series of articles, I remembered a folder of thumbnails that Grim Natwick’s family gave me. The folder was labelled "Valiant Tailor Gags". I thumbed through the drawings several times over the years, but I only looked at the drawings individually- I didn’t look at them as a group. I pulled the folder out this week and upon closer examination, I discovered that the drawings formed a clear record of a gag session from 1934. This set of sketches is particularly important because it shows how the gags were created, how they evolved and grew as the artists discussed them at the story meeting, and how they found their way into the continuity of a finished cartoon.

Iwerks Staff 1935

The basic premise of this sequence is… The King is being chased by bees. He dives into a lake to escape them. The Giant arrives and harasses the King. The Tailor defeats the Giant and saves the King. Grim Natwick directed this cartoon, and his notes appear on the drawings in red. A check mark indicates that the gag is approved for the film. A question mark indicates that he isn’t sure where to use it yet.

Here are some of the gags that the staff of the Iwerks Studio came up with for this premise. At the end is a Quicktime movie of the complete cartoon, so you can see how these plans were realized in the finished film.

Writing Cartoons

William Hamner suggests a gag where the King is swallowed by a whale and is shot out his blow hole. (Since the character design hadn’t been established yet, Hamner draws the character as Otto Soglow’s Little King!)

Writing Cartoons

An artist named Hudson elaborates on Hamner’s basic idea, adding a tail flip to the end.

Writing Cartoons

This gag suggests that the King be underwater, hiding from the Giant. The Giant tries to catch him like a fish with a gold watch as bait.

Writing Cartoons

Underwater, the King uses a looking glass as a teeter totter.

Writing Cartoons

The Giant blows on the water and a passing octopus offers him Listerine.

Writing Cartoons

Ed Friedman suggests a gag where the Giant breaks a limb off a tree and uses it as a boomerang.

Writing Cartoons

Another variant on the broken tree branch- The Giant uses it as a straw to drink the lake dry.

Writing Cartoons

Several unrelated gags: The King runs out of the lake with streams of water from his crown. / The King is poked in the butt by a sword fish. / The Giant gets honey poured on his head. / The King is stung by bees on the patch on his butt.

Writing Cartoons

The Giant runs from a swarm of bees and stumbles over some wagons.

Writing Cartoons

Grim suggests a gag where the Giant takes a header into the dirt, plowing the ground in a furrow.

Writing Cartoons

He attempts a topper gag with a farmer using the Giant to plow his field.

Now comes the really interesting part! Here are Grim Natwick’s thumbnails showing how he takes the random gags and works them into a rough continuity. The drawings are very rough. You might want to print them out so you can compare them to the finished film.

Writing Cartoons

  • (32) The King enters scene and does a trout dive into the lake to escape the bees. We pan with the soldiers as the pursue the Tailor and chase him up a tree.
  • (33) The King bobs up and down in the water as the bees circle in a repeating cycle above him.
  • (34) A thunderous laugh is heard in the distance. The Giant steps over the crest of the hill and takes a few steps over them.
  • (35) The Giant scares the soldiers away. He looks at the King and laughs. The King ducks.
  • (36) The Giant blows on the water and throws a stone at the King.
  • (37) The King reaches up into the tree and grabs a branch. The Tailor jumps to another branch.

Writing Cartoons

  • (39) The Giant uses the branch like a gaffing hook, reaching to catch the King with it.
  • (40) The hook at the end of the branch catches in the patch on the King’s butt.
  • (41) The Tailor sees what is happening and ducks into a hole in the tree. The camera pans down the outside of the tree to its base, where the Tailor crawls out of another hole.
  • (42) The Tailor sneaks past the Giant and runs off screen
  • (43) Dissolve to: Interior tailor shop. The Tailor grabs a jar of honey.

Writing Cartoons

(44) Exterior Tailor Shop: The Tailor runs down the street with the jar.

  • (45) Dissolve to: The Tailor diving back into the hole in the tree trunk.
  • (46) The Tailor, standing on a high limb of the tree, drops the honey jar.
  • (47) The pot of honey dumps all over the Giant’s head.
  • (48) The King comes to the surface of the water as the bees go after the Giant.
  • (49) The Giant runs from the bees. He shoves his head in the dirt to escape them. He runs through a barn and a church over the hill and into the distance.
  • The sequence went from here to the storyboard stage, where the action was defined better and the gags were plussed. Watch the film and see how it came out…

    Writing Cartoons

    The Valiant Tailor (Iwerks/1934)< (Quicktime 7 / 7 minutes / 18.5 megs)

    The next article in this series will show how the structure of cartoons became more sophisticated in the mid-1930s, and the development of organizational tools that made that possible.

    Stephen Worth
    Director
    Animation Resources

    INSTRUCTIONINSTRUCTION

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

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    Tuesday, October 22nd, 2019

    Instruction: Writing Cartoons Pt 1- The Gag Session

    Writing Cartoons

    Disney Studios

    If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably daydreamed about going back in time to be a "fly on the wall" at a golden age cartoon studio. Imagine getting the chance to witness how your favorite cartoons were written and see the twists and turns they took from initial idea to finished story. Unfortunately, that isn’t likely to happen. But we can find out an awful lot about the process used to write classic cartoons by looking at the scraps of paper left behind by the great artists who wrote them. I’m going to do just that in a series of posts over the next few weeks.

    The specifics of the process of writing cartoons in the classic era varied a bit from studio to studio and from time period to time period. Like every other part of the production line, there was an evolution as experimentation led to the development of more effective techniques. But the general outline of the progress of a story from raw idea to boards ready to put into production didn’t vary all that much. I’m going to show you some specific examples that illustrate these general concepts in the hopes that you might come away with a better understanding of how cartoons were created.

    Writing Cartoons

    Warner Bros.



    THE GAG SESSION

    The idea for a cartoon would start with a simple premise- a few sentences that described the general theme of the cartoon. For example… "Porky is a bullfighter." or "Mickey, Donald and Goofy are ghost exterminators." In the premise there would be no real attempt at describing details of the plot, just a simple statement of a situation or series of situations that might offer entertaining possibilities.

    Writing Cartoons

    Premise for a 1930s Barney Google/Snuffy Smith cartoon.

    Once the premise was chosen, a group of artists would be called together for an initial gag session to come up with ideas. At Warner Bros, this meeting was referred to as a "No No Session", which meant that no one was allowed to say "no" to any idea- all suggestions were fair game. At this stage, the gags were generally isolated variations on the basic theme of the premise, with no attempt to put them into any sort of continuity or plot. The goal was to come up with funny situations that could be expanded upon and reworked into something more specific further down the line.

    Writing Cartoons

    Terry-Toons

    The artists would sit with pads and pencils or lap boards, jotting down notes and doodling up thumbnail sketches of what the ideas might look like. The sketches might be pinned up on a cork board so the other artists could work gags off if it. One person would be responsible for taking notes for the group, so after the meeting was over, the story man could go back and refresh his memory of a specific gag. As the doodles and notes piled up, certain themes would form, gags would lead to follow up gags and build to "topper gags". A continuity would begin to take shape.

    EXAMPLES

    The notes taken at early story meetings were usually for the artists’ own reference, so the sketches were loose and the notes were scribbled down quickly. This makes them quite difficult for the layman to read. A certain amount of deciphering is required. At the bottom of each example, I summarize the contents of the notes. You might want to print them out. It’s easier to study them in a hard copy than on the computer screen.

    Here are story notes from an unmade Fleischer Screen Song cartoon from the late 1920s. Based on the song, "Mysterious Mose", this premise was shelved and revived a couple of years later as a Betty Boop cartoon.

    Writing Cartoons

    It appears that a little bit of development had occurred by the time this document was created, but not much. The lyrics are typed out with lots of space for drawing out the action between each line. The character of the piano player is to be in live action, while the moon and the cat are animated. The first page refers to the location of the beginning of the song on the bar sheet and indicates that a scene of the moon on the second page should be moved forward to this page, to allow the cat to be the focus of the shot the second time up.

    Writing Cartoons

    The notes say that the second shot on this page should be focused on the cat, and he should jump from this scene cut to the next scene for the bouncing ball sequence.

    Writing Cartoons

    Here we have all the lyrics of the song, and a quick outline of the sorts of gags the artists should come up with for the bouncing ball section of the film. By the end of the meeting, the director would have a stack of gag drawings to choose from. In the early days of animation, the story process was very informal, and the individual animator was often expected to flesh out the specifics of the action in his scenes on his own, co-ordinating with the animator of the preceding and following sequence on the hookup between sequences. Dave Fleischer was known to add gags all the way up to the animation stage.

    There aren’t a lot of doodles on this next document, which dates back to the Charles Mintz Studio around 1934. Some gags are indicated by just a few terse words. This probably means that these notes were accompanied a pile of drawings, which the story man was trying to order into a basic continuity. The action has been divided into seven segments, each one representing approximately a minute of screen time.

    Writing Cartoons

    The First Segment shows a circus parade arriving in town. A drum major disappears into his oversized hat; a french horn player pops out of a tuba to take a solo; a team of horses pans through pulling a street sweeper behind, a lion cage is propelled by the lion’s own legs- no wheels; and a polar bear drowns in an ice wagon full of melted ice.

    Writing Cartoons

    In the Second Section the parade continues. A clown in a horse costume sticks his head out the tail and gives the crowd a razzberry; a clown jumps through a paper hoop- but it’s actually a Chinese gong; a parade of elephants- each one smaller than the one before- ends with an elephant so tiny, a clown has to use a magnifying glass to see it.

    The Third Section includes a giraffe whose neck extends to eat the fake fruit off the hat of a lady in the crowd; a fat lady riding a hippopotamus wagon, and a gorilla who plays the harp on his cage bars, then escapes and kidnaps a girl. He snatches her up to the house tops.

    Writing Cartoons

    Part Four: The circus performers attempt to rescue the girl. A tightrope walker walks on telegraph lines to reach the ape; a man is shot out of a cannon and the ape socks him in the nose; the ape perches on the top of a building and bees buzz around him like the airplanes buzzing King Kong.

    In Part Five, an elephant shoots peanuts at the ape like a machine gun as an organ grinder’s monkey dances on the rooftops.

    Writing Cartoons

    Part Six: The ape scares a flagpole sitter away from his perch and replaces him on the top of the pole. The organ grinder monkey cuts down the pole, gives the ape a big kick in the ass and marches him away.

    Part Seven: The ape sees his reflection in a mirror and makes faces. The reflection swats him. The ape, who we expect to act like a he-man, acts like a pansy instead. The parade marches off into the distance as the ape rubs his sore ass from where the monkey kicked him.

    Writing Cartoons

    In the next installment of this series on Cartoon Writing, I will show you a batch of sketches that document a story session at the Iwerks Studio in 1934.

    Stephen Worth
    Director
    Animation Resources

    INSTRUCTIONINSTRUCTION

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

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