Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Old School Layout: Part 3, Character Posing

The layout artist was responsible for designing the backgrounds, camera direction and composition of each scene. He was also required to give the animator suggestions on character posing. Often times, a layout artist would just trace pre-existing character poses from a model sheet to save time. This "short cut" could not work in all cases. Sometimes you just had to draw the poses. A frustrated animator, like myself, could sometimes get carried away and block out an entire scene of action with poses. Other times, a complicated position or a drawing of a combination of characters joined together required educated drawing skills.

Facial expressions was another challenge. Angry, sad, surprised, thoughtful, happy, confused or any combination of facial posing would be required to convey the emotion of the moment. Beyond the face, the emotional attitude also had to be extended to the whole body. In short, the artist must act-out the movement to be illustrated. The animator was to take these "suggestions" and use them (or reject them) as a basis for the multiple drawings he had to make to convey the action or emotion of the scene.

Besides human characters designed for the film, the layout artist also had to design incidental characters in the style of the show. The curse of this assignment were crowds! Audiences, armies, mall shoppers or mosh dancers were the responsibility of the layout artist NOT the design department. This assignment also included incidental animals. Horses, cattle, cats, dogs or goldfish often had to be added to a scene as the storyboard required.

Finally, any props or effects had to also be drawn and designed by the layout artist. "Props" consist of hammers, vehicles, pencils, bars of soap, writing paper, books, etc. etc. If it can be picked up, worn, consumed, driven or ridden, the layout artist designed it if the model department did not. That happened often in those tight productions schedules or yore. Flames, explosions, water, rain, snow, gunfire, dust, smoke, even spit, sweat or slime were included under the realm of the layout artist and labeled Effects.

All these character poses, backgrounds, camera direction notes, prop and effect designs were gathered together in a light cardboard folder, labeled with the scene number and added to the growing pile of folders that represented a sequence within a picture. 25-30 folders/scenes a week.

When the cost of American labor outpaced the funding available, various elements of the process were sent overseas. The first to go was the jobs of inking and painting the drawings onto celluloid sheets. Assistant animation followed and then the Animation. The process of Layout was the last job contracted overseas because once it went, all control of the final product disappeared. An attempt was made to recover this control by forcing the storyboard artists to draw "mini-layouts" in place of story panels. This added to pre-production costs because of the amount of detail required to mimic the job of the layout artist. The addition of digital "animatics" to replace the direction written on exposure sheets takes pre-production costs another step as it requires many more poses drawn to give the viewer (Usually an executive rather than an artist) the illusion of movement. Old School has now become the New Method.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Old School Layout: Part 2, Camera & Composition.

The Old School Layout folder contained other elements besides background, overlays and underlays designs. At minimum, besides a background design, a layout folder should contain a separate piece of paper with the camera directions on it. This could be simple, just a tracing from the field guide chart indicating whether the scene was to be photographed at full field or a closeup either at center or some other location within the screen field. Sometimes a tilt of the camera was required. At other times the start and stop position of a pan was indicated. In any case, even if the scene only required a shot of a background, a separate piece of paper should be included to indicate the composition of the field.

Depending on the action, a folder could also contain several animation poses. I did one scene in my youth that contained twelve poses. I did this because the storyboard artist went through the trouble of drawing eight panels and I added a couple more to those. The animator who received my layouts, now a director, came to my desk and told me he was unaccustomed to receiving more than three poses in a folder. He found my poses so complete that he just "charted" the inbetweens for his assistant and sent the folder on. He asked if I was a frustrated animator! In truth, I was, so I wasn't upset about doing the animator's job so completely. I considered it a compliment because the animator is under no obligation to actually use any of the poses the layout artist draws. Often as not, an animator complains that he can't use any of the drawings he finds in a layout folder. In those days of TV animation, animators weren't always great artists. They considered themselves "graphic actors" and the actual "on-model" correct drawings had to be done by somebody else, usually their overworked assistant. Cross-over artists who understood compositional drawing and animation action were not common.

It's uncommon again with the advent of computer generated animation tools. Computer "geeks" are becoming involved in animation in creative jobs with very little or even NO drawing experience. The tools (or "crutches") available to them give them the illusion of being artists. The best examples of great computer generated animation is the result of a collaboration between a graphically trained animator and a techno-genius computer wiz. Working in tandem, they cross-check their work so the artist doesn't stray too far from the software requirements and the computer nerd doesn't restrict the creative posing of the animator. Remember how the early 3D attempts were limited to robots or vehicles because human characters didn't look "real" when shoved through a digital process? Computer Graphic animation has come a long way since then. Still, the best animation artist has always been someone who has a workable left and right brain. More on that next installment.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Old School Layout - Part One, Background Designs

Old School Animation required that every scene be "laid out" or prepared for animation. So, after the storyboard had been completed, it was sent to the director and layout department at the same time. This was an undesirable situation brought on by time constraints. Ideally, the director should time the storyboard to the recording session and edit down the board to the time available. Invariably, the recording or the storyboard was longer than necessary. The director could cut the storyboard down to the correct length and THEN send it on to Layout.

This procedure would, obviously, save time and money but with deadlines looming and staff artists waiting, the storyboard was rushed into layout. The Layout Supervisor (Me) would "break-down" the board for layout by dividing it into background areas. Dockyards, country road, Hideout exterior and interiors, old mining shaft, etc. If a section contained a lot of scenes, it would be broken down into two or more edible lengths of about thirty scenes (a weeks work). If a background area was short, like 8 scenes or so, it would be combined with other smaller sections to make up a week's worth of labor. This was done so the background areas would match with each other. If two sections in the same area were handed out without background design elements or plans, the result would be two completely different designs of the same section. I often "plotted" out the interior of a structure so that the artist would know where each room inside were located along with exit doors. This kept confusion down and the screen direction logical.

A folder of layout drawings contained several elements. The first element was the background or "set" of each scene. The background for the scene was designed to the supposed length required. If all action or dialogue took place in one spot, a single "field" drawing sufficed. A "field was approximately ten and half inches high and twelve inches long. If a lot of walking, running or movement was required the fields would extend in length. This was called a "pan". If a chase was required, the fields would hook-up in such a way as to repeat themselves. This was a "repeat pan". The backgrounds also contained any foreground elements, a table, a tree, a fence. etc. that passed by during the chase in front of the character. This was called an "overlay". If a background contained an open door but after repeating should be closed, a door was added to the background as an "underlay". The proper use of over and underlays added depth and the illusion of space to a single background element.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Old School Animation - Part 1

The film animation process of days past required the sacrifice of acres of forest to produce the pencils and paper that went into every process of this hand-drawn medium. Not any type of paper would do nor every make of pencil. Because animation at this stage was a photographic process, every final drawing had to be photographed by specialized cameras. This demanded that each drawing remain in accurate registration to each other. To accomplish this, standardization had to be followed, starting with the paper. The paper varied in weight but was of a standard size for television production, 12 1/2 by 10 1/2 inches. It had to be thick enough to withstand a lot of handling but thin enough for light to pass through several layers. At the bottom of every horizontal sheet were three punched holes; a round one in the center flanked by two horizontal slots. These holes fit over three compatible metal projections on a drawing surface and were repeated on the camera platforms. This process made sure that the paper the images were drawn on could be used with accuracy on the cameras that would shoot the final product.

The pencils used were of varying grades of hardness from 6B (almost powdered graphite) to 6H (like filed steel). The softer grades were used for rough sketches and conceptual beginnings and the harder grades were for tiny detail and finished work. Most quality pencils came from Germany and had no erasers. Little arrowhead-shaped pink erasers were attached on the ends to compliment the larger pink erasers for serious mistake correction. Some folks liked to use mechanical pencils that could handle hair-thick graphite pencil leads in various grades. I was a wood pencil guy. Myself and others would hand-crank points on our wood and graphite tools with manual pencil sharpeners. When electrical pencil sharpeners came in they became status symbols as only the key artists or heads of departments were supplied them!

The thousands of drawings that went into the manufacture of animated movies or television series relied on this paper and pencil process. Registration required that everyone worked on an animation desk. At Disney Studios these desks were behemoths of custom-made birch plywood in specialized combination for layout artists, animators and inbetweeners. Those of us in television at Hanna-Barbera got a standardized desk that was painted over with a textured paint with a grit so hard you could file your fingernails on it! These desks had shelves above an adjustable drawing board with a two drawer cabinet to the side. Dead center in the drawing surface was hole big enough to accommodate an iron framed disk holding a rectangular pane of glass. This glass was the actual drawing surface for most of the work done. This Animation Disc changed little over the years. At first it had a permanent bar-peg-bar registration projections below the glass and a sliding ruler in a slot at the top. The ruler was adorned with the same alternating bar-peg-bar system that was used on the bed of the animation camera. With the exception of Disney, the whole industry used this system. Disney, of course, had to have its very own registration system of bar-bar-peg-bar-bar-peg, etc.

For the purposes of this series, the process described will be restricted, more or less, to the standard animation process used in Saturday morning television network cartoons of the mid to late twentieth century.

Monday, June 22, 2009

A Fallen Companion

Today I mourn the passing of an old companion of mine. Jaime Reyes Diaz was born on January 6th, 1937 and passed on to a better life on June 20th, 2009. I met Jaime in 1971 when we were both working for ABC on the animated TV series, The Curiosity Shop. We were both young and working as assistants to some great animators like Phil Roman, Hal Ambro and George Nichols. This show is where I met Don Morgan, a character designer, who would also become a life-long friend. Don and I had planned to attend a birthday luncheon for the legendary art director, Tony Rivera. But, as fate would have it, they left without me! When I looked up from the scene I was working on, the studio was empty. Except for Jaime. He introduced himself and suggested we have lunch together. Thus began a forty-year friendship.

Jaime and I had several things in common. We both grew up in small farming communities and went to school to study art in large cities. I grew up in the town of Austin, Minnesota and Jaime came from Saenz Pena in the state of Chaco, Argentina. We both ended up in Los Angeles. Jaime arrived in America in 1963 and I arrived in L.A. in 1964. We brought with us our wives and our dreams. Jaime married his childhood sweetheart Maria Ines Aguero on June 8, 1961. They proceeded to add three children to their family, Bill, Annabelle and Claudia. I watched them grow up in Valencia until 1983 when Jaime moved the whole family to Buenos Aries, Argentina.

Jaime ran his own studio in Argentina for many years. This was always a dream of his. This family-run studio produced Disney comic books, artwork for publication in Europe, award winning local product commercials and animation under contract from Hanna-Barbera. Jaime's studio was a key animation contractor for me when I produced Fish Police, a prime time show created by Hanna-Barbera, and the pilot film, Dexter's Laboratory, which would become a hit series on the Cartoon Network.

Jaime and I worked together many times over the years, as layout artists for Hanna-Barbera and in the animation department for Ralph Bakshi. We even partnered in a small animation studio of our own, Magic Lantern Productions. We depended on each other professionally and when I created ChalkZone with Bill Burnett, I hired Jaime as a staff director. Those were good years. Jaime went on to team up with Bill Burnett on another short, Dr. Froyd's Funny Farm.

In Argentina, Jaime created a short called Gaucho Pampa. It was unfinished except for a box of paper animation he carried with him when he moved back to the United States in 1995. It was his dream to finish it and place it into film festivals. Jaime was directing Danger Rangers for my company, Animotion Works, when I again saw this amazing classical-styled animation. I thought it a shame that this work had never been seen so I agreed to fund the project to completion. It was included in the Taiwan International Film Festival in 2007. It was the final joint project we would work on.

Argentinians are a proud people and Jaime was no exception. As proud as Jaime was of his craft, he was proudest of his children and bragged about them whenever the opportunity presented itself. He was prouder still of his grandchildren: Nicholas Lalli, Andres, Clara and Felix Tonconogy, Tomas Diaz, Rocio Belen Diaz, Bryana Diaz; and Steven, Anne Marie and Michael Zambon. Jaime's greatest tragedy was the death of his son Bill two years ago. My friend never really recovered from this heartbreak.

Jaime was a good friend and had a funny streak in him that was unnoticed by many. He never lost his Ricky Ricardo accent and, I think, played it up. He'd call me and say "Hello? Larry?" and pronounce it in the most extreme accent you could put on two words. When I responded "Hello, Jaime", he would say "How you know it's me?" He never got tired of this running gag. I don't think Jaime really had any hobbies outside his animation and drawing. He was happiest creating his totally charming and whimsical characters and environments. I called him the Argentinian Dr. Seuss.

He was also often unappreciated for his excellent animation direction. He was a perfectionist so he wasn't fast and that sometimes put him in trouble with Production Managers. On ChalkZone, I had to defend Jaime's tardiness to management by assuring that we would make up the excess cost in Post Production due to lack of retakes. When Jaime's first picture came back from overseas animation I was the one to inform Jaime of the result of his being over schedule. When I told him that due to his efficient directions there was not one retake in the whole picture, so relieved was Jaime that he threw his arms around me in a hug. Then holding me out he said "Larry, I deserve a raise!"

And so, Adios, my dear friend. I know you are at peace. Still, your friends and family will miss you. For as the famous western painter, Charles Russel once said in consolation to a friend, "Old man Death is only hard on those he leaves behind." We, who are left behind, will remember.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Alternate Realities

I've heard it said that "There's no RIGHT or WRONG way to do something." There's a Creative Way, a Practical Way, an Economical Way, a Fun Way, an Intense Way, etc. but no Right or Wrong way. I disagree. There's a Right and Wrong way to do Every way. If you set out to do an economical picture and succeed, you used the Right Way. If the picture went way over budget, then that's the Wrong way to do a cost effective picture. If you set out to make a commercially successful film but it failed at the box office then you did it the Wrong way. If you decided to make a Creative or Artistic picture but it was critically panned in every country that saw it, then you failed to make it the Right way. Simply put, a picture is made the Right way when it succeeds at its established goals and is made the Wrong way when it fails to achieve those goals.

If a film wins the Academy Award for technical excellence but is rejected by the paying audiences when the filmmaker was striving for a Blockbuster hit, then it is an example of the Wrong way to make a movie. It's hard to make a film that succeeds at All Ways. Making a movie that's economical, popular, critically acclaimed and a financial hit rarely happens because it's so hard to do.

So how does a filmmaker beat these odds and continue to make movies? Use Common Sense and achievable goals. Start with absolutes and add extras from that point. Here's an absolute: financial investors expect to make money. I can hear you "arty-types" groaning but this is an actual achievable goal. Just how much money is mere fortune telling. "Exceeds Expectations" is always a good goal so strive for that by keeping expectations realistic (Never say "low"). A solid, "No frills" budget increases the chances of making this goal. Keep your cast and crew balanced between proven professionals (costly but dependable) and talented new-comers (hard-working but inexperienced). If you're an experienced artist but a "new-comer" to financial matters, partner with a veteran producer with artist-friendly skills. Here's another absolute: money drives the production (lack of it kills the dream). So, have your money in the bank as you proceed according to an approved schedule. If money is slow in coming or always delayed...shut down production! That will kill the production but save the picture. If there was no money to finish the first attempt, don't assume it will be different the second time around. Find the problem! If you can't fix the problem, take inventory of the assets and the costs remaining. Do a new budget and schedule on the production elements that remain. This will allow production to quickly continue once the monetary problems are resolved. Remember, artists are the only people willing to work for nothing so fix the monetary problems before re-starting production. Setting up a well-oiled production takes time so be patient, that's another absolute.

Money isn't everything when it comes to making a movie, so we'll touch on the other, more fun, elements next time.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Old School Storytelling

A lot has been said about the "magic" of new technology. Things have changed in animation over the 40 years I've been working in the industry. The most obvious has been the introduction of computers and their artistic software. Prior to that, much tedious pencil and paint work was required for production and post was finalized via silver nitrate 35 mm film. The computers added cleaner work stations, quicker final product and instantaneous delivery by the World Wide Web. But the artistic requirement is the same. It remains a hand-drawn medium. Hundreds of people are necessary to produce an animated film, just check out the credits on the latest Pixar sensation. Scores of new categories have been added to the old credits like background painter and animator. So, what was it like in the "Olde Days" before pixels and bitmaps?

Digital projection is all the rage now and before that it was video tape. When I started, transparent film was still king. The end product was Ektachrome silver nitrate film (until the invention of "safety" film stock) delivered to one of the three television networks: ABC, CBS or NBC. Animation was a by-product of live-action film-making so the terminology came from there. Film product was measured in "feet". A "foot" of film (12 inches) contained 16 35 mm frames. It took 24 frames to make up one second of time. An hour's worth of programing (60 minutes) contained 90 feet of film and 1440 frames. You can tell by all these numbers that there was quite a bit of math used in cartoon making. And because this process was a photographic process it effected all the stages of production.

The process began with paper and pencil. I can hear the writers reading this objecting to this supposition. Obviously, the process began with a script. Not true. The process began with a story but that began with pencil and paper in a story room. The large studios like Disney all had a story department composed of artists that could create stories. They would sit around in a room and bounce concepts and gag ideas off each other. These story elements would be noted and the work load divided between various artists who would each draw a section of the cartoon (or theatrical feature). The end result of this would be a storyboard. Originally, storyboards were just slips of paper with images drawn vaguely to screen proportion and then pinned up in progressive order to cork board on a wall. These rough story elements were then "pitched" to the lead director who would contribute with the other artists in the room to the refinement of the story. During the early television production process, these slips of paper became formalized storyboard panels that were standardized per studio. This made the final board more uniformed to make the process of copying them for distribution easier and more economical. There never was a "script". The whole cartoon was written by talented artists who had a strong sense of story-telling. Scripts and "writers" came much later when visually-impaired network executives demanded a "non-visual" format they were comfortable with. Next time we'll talk about another "Old School" paper and pencil process that followed the storyboard, Layout.