Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Striking the Mother Load

As a worker bee in the hive of television animation you were "paid by the pound". You got a minimum salary but were expected to turn in so much "footage" or scenes or drawings to justify it. This resulted in the general opinion that television was cheap "rush" work. If you longed for respect, you had to move into theatrical features. This basically meant you had to work at Disney because they had the "lock" on animated features. Disney was considered the "Cloisters" because they didn't seem to fraternize with anyone from television and didn't know what was going on in animation beyond the walls of their studio. Amazingly, they never got laid off! Everyone wanted to work on a feature project but Disney was a "closed shop". You had to be born inside the walls, it seemed, to get a shot at working there. (This was more true than not. Disney workers beget Disney workers!) This all changed in the 70s when the underground comic book movement beget X-rated animated features!

There was a new look to animated features and it was an adult look. It was irreverent, sexy and foul mouthed. It mocked established institutions like government, religion and politics. And it did it all with the raw, unbridled look of underground comics. This movement was headed by a young man from New York, we called him "Vinnie", who brought the world of underground comic book artists to the screen. At the beginning of his rise I ended up working at his studio. During a drunken luncheon one day Nandu, an animator friend of mine, and I decided to enlist with this new studio and embrace its vision to take on the Disney giant. We were hired after an interview, Nandu as an animator and I as his assistant. I was finally working on a feature production. I had hit the mother load!

There's a lot of good things about working on a feature. First off, it's a union staff position so its pays well every week and comes with full benefits. It's a long-form project so it could last two years in production! Best of all, you have all the necessary time you need to do your best work. Of course, this was NOT a Disney feature but an independent production which meant Vinnie could make up his own rules about how the picture was to be made. He took some "shortcuts". He didn't photograph the rough pencil animation before it was painted but waited to see how it looked on the scene in color. Instead, he would "flip" the animation in his hands to see how it played. Tim, another animator on staff, picked up on that and only gave Vinnie completed, cleaned-up roughs to look at. He had a special relationship. His wife was also on staff as his exclusive assistant and his daughter was her exclusive inbetweener. Tim was a favorite because Vinnie could see his work fully as he flipped it. I had worked with Tim before and always thought his work was mediocre but the boss loved it.

The rest of the animators had to use assistants and inbetweeners from the "pool", like me. Vinnie expected a reasonable amount of work from his animators and Nandu had difficulty meeting that demand without utilizing some "tricks" he learned in the television business. Nandu was a master of the "invisible hold". He would keep a character in one position for no more than a third of a second or 8 frames of film. Even if the character stopped moving his body, something else on the character, his arm, his hair or tie, would continue animating. This was known as "overlap" in the industry. And before the character started moving again, he would begin the animation with a simple action like a hand move, an eye blink or a head bob preceding the actual movement of the character. This was called "anticipation". Overlap and anticipation were the marks of an excellent animator. In order to save money in TV animation, Nandu would use separate drawings of hands, heads and eyes animating atop a character body at rest. Employing this technique, he was able to make the footage demanded by Vinnie. The trouble was, it didn't flip well. A character would move a short while then separate into many body parts making seeing the action out of context on paper impossible. This gave Vinnie the impression that Nandu was a "hack animator". They quarreled and Nandu left. But I stayed on. Other animators liked me and was given prestigious, if difficult, assignments.

I stayed at that job long enough to see justice play out. Eventually, all completed animation was painted and photographed onto 35mm film and Vinnie got to see it in action. Tim's work, which seemed so wonderful on paper, was revealed to be mediocre and he was sacked. However, when Vinnie saw Nandu's work on the screen, he was delighted. He loved it and wanted the animator who did it praised and given more work! He seemed confused when he was informed that he fired that artist earlier. Vinnie never even knew who did what on his show. And he certainly wasn't able to tell good from bad by merely "flipping" it through his hands.

Friday, September 26, 2008


One of the distinctions of the Golden Age of Animation was uniformity of style. Some people refer to this, mistakenly, as a "house look". A "house look" is a "sameness" to each picture produced by a studio. Disney had that "look" as did Warner Brothers, MGM and UPA. In television Hanna-Barbera fell into that definition. A "house look" could be a good thing if it was considered "classy" as the "Disney look" was. It could be also be considered "dated" like MGM or "limited" like Hanna-Barbera. UPA was called the "modern" or "new look" in its day. This irritated Disney who produced a series of films, Johnny Appleseed, Wind Wagon Smith, Paul Bunyan and the Academy Award winning Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom, just to prove they could be "modern" if they wanted. After winning the Oscar and the point proven, Disney went back to their "house look".

Uniformity is something different and fundamental. It's a basic rule of animation that the finished picture should look like it was drawn by one hand. It is, of course, highly improbable that an animated film of any length could be completely drawn by a single individual. Film-making, in general and animation particularly, is a collaborative effort. Hundreds of artists, executives and technicians go into making a theatrical release movie, just check the credits after a PIXAR film for this revelation. Still, no matter how many people are involved in the production of a picture, there should be a uniformity on three levels; purpose, story and design. For the purpose of this discussion, I'm going to focus on design.

I'm a big believer of an Art Director run picture. This is an individual that will set the overall "look" of a picture whether it is character, costume, background locations, interior design or color. This doesn't mean that he draws, designs or paints all these elements himself but he chooses the style and the artists that will be responsible to deliver the look of the show. He is also the key person responsible for all these elements. It's his fault if things go amiss in these areas. The Art Director must be an artist. This person must be able to pick up a pencil or a brush and draw the correction he wants another artist to make. Often, this person is the creator of the cartoon or series being produced. If you are investing in a "film property", you are also investing in a "film maker". The final look of your product must look like this person drew it all. If several artists with different styles are creating elements for the show without an overall creative direction, the result will look like a patchwork quilt. The Arabs have a saying, "A camel is a horse made by committee". There needs to be a single vision on an animated project that controls the style or no one is going to want to saddle up and take a ride on the finished product.