September 22nd, 2021

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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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    Posted by admin @ 1:25 pm

    September 21st, 2021

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    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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    Posted by admin @ 12:41 pm

    September 15th, 2021

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    RefPack041: Russian Animated Feature and More!

    Reference Pack


    REFPACK 041
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    August-September 2021

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    Every other month, members of Animation Resources are given access to an exclusive Members Only Reference Pack. These downloadable files are high resolution e-books on a variety of educational subjects and rare cartoons from the collection of Animation Resources in DVD quality. Our current Reference Pack has just been released. If you are a member, click through the link to access the MEMBERS ONLY DOWNLOAD PAGE. If you aren’t a member yet, please JOIN ANIMATION RESOURCES. It’s well worth it.

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    The Humpbacked Horse

    The Humpbacked Horse
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    Ivan Ivanov-Vano / Soyuzmultfilm / 1947
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    One of the unquestioned masterpieces of Russian animation is Ivan Ivanov-Vano’s The Humpbacked Horse. This lavish film was produced in the years immediately following World War II when Russia was isolating itself from Western influences. Ivanov-Vano mined Russian fables and fairy tales as subjects for animated films, and adapted them to suit the ideological demands of the Soviet authorities who oversaw the Soyuzmultfilm studio. The goal was to create animation that competed with Western studios like Disney, while developing a style that was distinctly Russian.

    Based on a poem by Peter Erschov, the narration and dialogue is all spoken in rhyme. The colors and design emulate Russian folk art. It is ironic that as much as Ivanov-Vano struggled to establish his own identity, separate from American animation, the film was greatly admired by Walt Disney, who screened it for his animators as an example of a successful animated feature.

    The Humpbacked Horse

    At one point, The Humpbacked Horse was thought to be a lost film. The original film elements were poorly cared for, and by the early 1970s they had deteriorated to the point where they were deemed unsuitable for release. But demand for the film was sufficient that nearly three decades after the film’s original release, Ivanov-Vano put together a crew to remake the film. The remake was released in 1975 and a dubbed version was released in the United States titled The Magic Pony. It was not a shot for shot recreation, but followed the original film closely. In the early 2000s, film restoration technology had advanced to the point where a full restoration of the 1947 version was practical. This is the version we are sharing with our members in this Reference Pack.


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    The Humpbacked Horse

    Here is the synopsis of The Humpbacked Horse from Wikipedia:

    An old man has three sons. The elder two are considered fairly smart, while the youngest, Ivan, is considered a fool. One day the father sends the three to find out who’s been stealing hay from their fields at night. The elder brothers decide to lie hidden in a haystack, where they promptly fall asleep. Ivan, meanwhile, sits beside a birch tree and plays on his recorder. Suddenly, he sees a magnificent horse come flying out of the sky. Ivan grabs her mane and holds on as the horse tries to shake him off. Finally, the horse begs him to let her go and in return gives him two beautiful black stallions and a little humpbacked horse (named Konyok-gorbunok) to be his companion.

    The Humpbacked Horse

    Ivan leads the two black horses to a stable and runs off with Konyok-gorbunok to fetch buckets of water for them. When he comes back, he finds that his brothers have taken his horses. Konyok-gorbunok tells the boy that he will carry him to the city to recover the horses. Ivan sits on its back and they go flying through the clouds. Along the way, Ivan finds the fiery feather of a firebird, which shines without giving off any heat. Konyok-gorbunok warns him that it will cause him difficulty later, but Ivan pays him no mind.

    When they reach the city, Ivan outwits his brothers and sells his black horses to the Tsar. However nobody besides Ivan can control the horses, so he is put in charge of the Tsar’s stables. Spalnik, one of the Tsar’s courtiers, takes an instant dislike to Ivan and hides himself in the stables to watch him at work, so that he can find a way to remove him from the Tsar’s favor. Spalnik sees Ivan use the firebird’s feather for light and schemes to steal it from him. The next day, Spalnik shows the firebird’s feather to the Tsar, who decides that if one feather can be that beautiful, he needs an entire bird. With Spalnik’s urging, the Tsar commands Ivan to catch him a firebird or lose his post.


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    The Humpbacked Horse

    With Konyok-gorbunok’s help, Ivan catches a firebird and brings it back to the Tsar’s delight. Spalnik convinces the Tsar to order Ivan to fetch the Tsar a beautiful wife. Ivan is summoned and told that the consequences will be dire if he doesn’t bring back a beautiful wife for the Tsar within three weeks. Ivan again manages to do this.

    The Tsar is overjoyed and begs the young maiden to marry him, but she refuses, telling him that she would only marry him if he were young and handsome. The girl tells him that for him to become young and handsome he would need to bathe first in boiling milk, then in boiling water, and finally in freezing water. Spalnik tells the Tsar to try this out on Ivan first, hoping at last to be rid of his nemesis. The Tsar agrees. Needless to say, Ivan protests, and the Tsar orders him to be thrown into prison until everything is ready the next morning. Konyok-gorbunok comes to Ivan and through the prison bars tells him not to worry. All he needs to do is simply whistle for him in the morning and let him put a magic spell on the milk and water so that it will not be harmful to him. Spalnik overhears this, and kidnaps Konyok-gorbunok just as he is leaving Ivan’s cell.

    The Humpbacked Horse

    In the morning, Ivan whistles for Konyok-gorbunok, who is tied in a bag. The little humpbacked horse manages to free himself eventually, knocking Spalnik out a window and into a well. He rushes to Ivan’s rescue and reaches him at the very last moment. Konyok-gorbunok puts a spell on the three cauldrons that have been prepared. Ivan jumps into the boiling milk, then the boiling water and then the freezing water, and emerges as a handsome young man instead of a boy. The young maiden instantly falls in love with him. The Tsar gets excited and decides that he also wants to be young and handsome. However, the spell is no longer working, so after he jumps into the boiling water he doesn’t come back out. Ivan, meanwhile, takes the maiden as his own wife and becomes the new Tsar, with Konyok-gorbunok continuing to follow him as his friend.

    The Humpbacked Horse


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    There is a lot to learn from this film… The animation of the horses is brilliant and the design and color are dazzling. But also look at the structure and pacing of the film. Events are accordioned out or cut short depending on the flow of the film. The set pieces have plenty of time to play out, but the film never slows down to play out the narrative aspects of the story. This is something that Disney must have admired. His films handle elaboration and exposition in exactly the same way. Disney features never dawdle over explaining a plot point. We will have more treasures of Russian animation in upcoming Reference Packs. We hope you find this useful.

    REFPACK041: The Humpbacked Horse
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    Van Beuren Tom And Jerry

    Van Beuren’s Tom & Jerry
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    "Barnyard Bunk" (1932) / "Jolly Fish" (1932)

    Van Beuren cartoons are among the most misunderstood animated shorts from the golden age of animation. Armchair animation historians tend to have a certain set of criteria they judge by— either the polish and production values of Disney, or the carefully constructed gags of Tex Avery at Warner Bros and MGM. If you judge like that, Van Beuren cartoons fall far short, but that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to learn from these films.

    Van Beuren Tom And Jerry


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    Let’s start by looking at these two cartoons the way animation historians who aren’t cartoonists look at them… The style of drawing varies from shot to shot. A cow does a dance in one scene with one model and walks into the frame in the next shot with a completely different attitude and model. There’s no attempt to render perspective or depth except in the most basic way. Most of the action takes place in a flat plane from right to left. Scene cuts don’t build to a gag, most gags are completely contained within a single scene. The next scene sets up and plays out a totally new gag. The overall structure of the continuity is extremely basic. In fact, the story of the cartoon can be completely described in a single sentence… “A farmer’s farm is falling apart until Tom & Jerry play their saxophones and bring it back to life.” Or even more simply, “Tom & Jerry go fishing and are outwitted by fish and ducks.” All of these criticisms are true, and all of them completely miss the point.

    Van Beuren Tom And Jerry

    Cartoonists and animators can totally misunderstand the appeal of these cartoons too. It’s de rigueure nowadays for every TV cartoon show to do a "retro episode" where the characters are drawn in old timey 1930s rubber hose style. They use a soundtrack full of ukulele music, rinky-tink jazz and Raymond Scott’s Powerhouse, not for any particular purpose beyond simple nostalgia. They’ll paint backgrounds with farmyards or city streets from the depression and color the cartoon in shades of black and white. Yet the results are always the same… Even though the new old fashioned cartoons look and sound like the cartoons of the 1930s, they just don’t feel anything like them.

    Van Beuren Tom And Jerry

    Why is this? The answer is simple. Van Beuren cartoons aren’t good because they are carefully crafted and constructed like a Disney or Tex Avery cartoon. And they aren’t good because they are in black and white and have peppy jazz music. They are good because they were created by artists who were having FUN.

    Van Beuren Tom And Jerry

    In order to appreciate these cartoons, you have to look beneath the surface. Their appeal isn’t in their style, it’s in the creative freedom they express. The animation in these Tom & Jerry cartoons was handed out to the animators scene by scene. The artists were given a general idea of what was supposed to happen between the cuts, but if they thought of a way to make it funnier, they were free to go with that. They weren’t laying bricks to create a foundation for other people to build on, they were going all out to make their own fifty feet of film as funny as they possibly could.

    When the time came to string all the animators’ work together, a cursory hookup was all that was needed to transition from one animator’s section to the next. They weren’t building a symphony, they were competing in a jam session. Every animator was encouraged to improvise, without worrying about continuity, consistency or production value. And this competition for laughs ended up producing films that were jam packed with funny surprises. It’s no wonder that a one-of-a-kind animator like Jim Tyer started out his career at Van Beuren, and it’s no wonder that Van Beuren was the only studio who fully recognized Tyer’s creative spark and allowed him to direct.

    Van Beuren Tom And Jerry

    So when you are looking at these films, look past the surface nostalgia and focus at what is going on behind the scenes. Think about applying this kind of freedom to your own films. Imagine how much fun it would be to work on a project where the only requirement is to produce approximately five minutes of animation on a simple theme… where the animators weren’t required to conform to a specific model, but instead were encouraged to create the funniest action possible in their own style. Who wouldn’t want to work like that?!


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    Van Beuren wasn’t the "worst cartoon studio in the golden age" as some people have described it. It was one of the few studios that gave its artists absolute freedom. Many thanks to Animation Resources Advisory Board Member Steve Stanchfield for sharing these rare films with us.

    REFPACK041: Barnyard Bunk
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    REFPACK041: Jolly Fish
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    Posted by Stephen Worth @ 12:00 pm