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.

Thursday, March 19, 2009


I got my first professional job through a recommendation of a man who admired my work. That is how I got the second job and just about every job since then. I only recommend artists to others that I can be sure will perform work up to the standards I expect of myself. Now that so many new people have come into the industry, I find I have to reintroduce myself to employers all over again. Only now I have a reputation. Once you build your reputation, protect it. It will bring you work. You build up that reputation through strong networking. Today, this word "networking" means electronic communication but, even today, a personal visit or your actual voice on the phone holds greater value. Sometimes you don't have that phone number you need and that requires you contact a friend who does.

After working at the HB Company as a unit layout supervisor for a couple of years, my immediate supervisor left to become the Production Manager at a new company. After working there a couple of months, he recommended me to head up their Layout department. He set up a meeting with the studio executives. This new company had as a department head a tremendous designer as layout supervisor. Unfortunately, this great artist was a poor manager. His right brain overwhelmed his left and the company was way behind schedule. I agreed to accept this new position but I wasn't interested in holding this job. I wanted a different situation in the company. The executive producer asked me what job I was seeking and I said, "Yours."

My boldness and honesty did not scare him off and we agreed to see if we both lived up to our expectations. After three years, when the growth of the company warrented it, I was promoted to producer, then senior producer as other producers were employed. This all started because of the recommendation of the Production Manager who knew my work. I outlasted him at that company but we continued to work together on mutual projects over the years. Good recommendations are the life blood of this industry.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Korean Konnection

The first time I went to South Korea was in 1981. Disputes with the north were still a fact of life and the airport was full of soldiers armed with automatic rifles. Downtown Seoul was a mix of old and new construction and, in the month of November, the air was heavy with carbon monoxide fumes. Many space heaters fueled by kerosene oil provided warmth in the concrete office buildings but you had to leave the windows open for ventilation so no one died of asphyxiation. It was an exciting place for a young man who had never been out of the country. I was sent there by the animation studio I worked for to oversee a trailer film for a feature we hoped to produce. Television work was slow, the studio wanted to keep me on staff and going to Korea for a few weeks was the cost of continued employment.

The Koreans, like most Asian countries, respect old age. Unfortunately, I was young at the time so I was not the ideal vision they had for a director when I arrived on the doorstep of the Korean studio. They put me in a room with an English-speaking Korean director and a translator, gave me a desk and coffee, then, ignored me...politely. I was given a short stack of animation work to peruse. I looked through it and gave it to the Korean director with my comments. He put it aside without looking at it...politely. I tried to be of use and was always offering my valuable suggestions but the Koreans all smiled and went about their work as if I wasn't there. After several days of this, I bought a book on Korean culture because I figured I was doing something wrong. This book was an eye-opener. It taught me how to work with Koreans who, unlike Americans, don't just naturally assume that the guy from out-of-town must be a genius. I was being judged. Politely.

I learned enough Korean to be polite. I deferred to my peers, was pleasant but not overly friendly with those under my jurisdiction and learned patience. When I finished a stack of work, I approached the director by saying, "I have finished looking through this work and have made notes about several scenes. If you find any of my comments useful I will make myself available to you in any way you wish." Then I sat down, drank my coffee and waited until needed. Eventually, the director finished his stack of work and asked if I was ready to review my notes with him. On his schedule, not mine. Once the pecking order was established and my professionalism confirmed by my work, we became fast friends. We are friends today.

The Korean language has a status component to it. You change the ending of a word when you are speaking to an equal, a superior or someone of lesser status. Of course, being American, we are taught to use the equal term for all our communications. When I departed for the U.S. after a month, I took leave of the studio I worked in. To the animation supervisor I said my good-bye using the peer ending. Nothing unusual there. The Koreans assumed I didn't know better. When I said my goodbye to the studio manager, however, I chose the terminology used when speaking to a superior. Suddenly the atmosphere in the room changed. Everyone realized that I knew what I was doing and had just paid the studio executive a huge compliment! Not only that, I had deliberately elevated the animation supervisor to my level as director. This simple compliment was reported back to my superiors in the U.S. along with a fervent request I be assigned a longer level of stay. Finally, an American that understands!

When working in a strange environment, understanding the culture, language and customs of the natives will ease the working relationship. A little research can produce great rewards. Make sure those who represent you live by that creed.

Friday, January 30, 2009

The Shit Filter

Anybody who thinks being a supervisor is an easy job has never been one. You answer to way too many people and you are responsible for the work of way too many others. The difference in pay is negligible or less than what a good, fast artist can make. I say FAST because commercial animation art is all about volume. As a Layout Supervisor I was responsible for turning out 300 scenes of layouts in two weeks time. This required being able to do the layouts that my crew was unable to do or did incorrectly. Why not hand the bad layouts back to be done over or corrected? I did, if there was time. If not, I found it faster to do them myself. This made for a lot of late nights.

It was also essential that I know the strengths and weaknesses of every artist on my staff. Not all artists are born equal. Some are very good at landscapes but weak at character drawing. Some can produce great poses but have no idea how to draw architecture. Animal drawings are no problem to some artists but automobiles or bicycles are beyond them. Casting the artist to his strength was a mark of a good supervisor. Of course, background layouts are often more difficult and time consuming to draw then a simple close-up of a character. In order to keep on schedule and prevent rioting, I would have to balance out how many background heavy scenes I gave to everyone. The scenes that demanded a good background went to good background artists and when excellent character acting was required, I'd cast a great character artist. That meant, I'd have to correct character posing in the scenes that the background artist had to draw and adjust the background in the scenes that the character artist couldn't do.

Once I had my crew running smoothly and our quotas were being met, they gave me another show to run at the same time! Oh, I got more people, of course. Instead of doing one show with a mere staff of six artists, I now had ten artists to do two shows! By the standards of the day, this seemed management. This challenge required a division of work. The solid background artists were pulled off into a separate unit to draw nothing but backgrounds for the two productions. I had to hire outside "free-lancers" to make up the difference in personnel. Their work was competent but I had less time to require I did them. I had little time to train new people, least of all a new assistant supervisor I was required to take on. I was issued an ultimatum; either I choose an assistant or the department head would. I picked a solid, if unimaginative, artist with good work habits for the job. He thought it was an advancement until he started to make repairs and excuses for his crew. I felt vindicated when this former worker came to me and said; "Until I started doing this job, I never realized what jerks my co-workers were!" Supervisors aren't born they're made.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Anime Eyes

Asian animation has arrived in full force in the U.S. As a boy I remembered it as Kimba, the White Lion and Speed Racer. I hated it. I was raised on Disney feature animation with the mastery of the "Nine Old Men". I loved the fast paced humor of the Warners and MGM theatrical shorts and the droll characterization of the early Hanna-Barbera television cartoons. I found this imported look to be uninspiring. No more. Anime and Manga are here and are as popular as sugar cereal.

I had my first "flirt" with Asian animation many years ago on a feature unit. It was after my introduction to independent feature production at Vinnie's underground comic book venture. Many of the animators on Vinnie's show went over to work on a Japanese funded product based on Greek tragedies. I'm not sure why someone thought tragedy would be a good venue for an American audience but the money was good and the quality was high. I started as an assistant animator and got involved in story sketch as time progressed but progress was slow. There was plenty of time for partying but no one in the art staff truly believed they were working on a hit film.

This was the only time I worked on a show where the lead character had Anime eyes. He also had Mickey mouse ears and proportions three heads high. A character's proportion is always judged on how many heads high a typical human stands. On the average, Five heads is a good "norm". Tall, long legged women can be six heads high. Mickey Mouse and all those old characters were three heads high. Our character looked like that with huge ears even though he was human. The logic behind the story selection was that the Greek fables and stories were universal in scope so a large audience could be reached. This was Japanese money and the financier wanted it to be popular around the world NOT just in Asia. He chose an artist that was born in Japan but worked at his craft for many years in America. A young man who personified the goth artist look. A good designer he was but not a good producer. All projects demand a return on their investment and progress must be made. I can't remember when I received the realization that there was no chance of turning this picture around. Another example of good money gone to make a bad picture. I didn't wait for the luxury liner to hit the iceberg. I jumped ship and started my own small shop. Better a happy pauper than a miserable king!

Monday, January 5, 2009

In Charge...At Large

After a very disappointing second attempt at running my own company, I wondered if there was any need for a small operator in a time big industry? As it turned out, there was! The layouts I did as a Free Trapper were in demand and a spot opened up as a Crew Chief for the Company. An ol' employer of mine remembered the level of quality I turned in on a regular basis and hired me on. I was back working at the HB company but this time running a crew of layout artists.

Most of the guys I learned from were now retired or had moved up the ladder. This left a spot open in management. My reputation as an artist with a functional left brain recommended me to this task. More importantly, I had the ability to communicate specific information clear enough to expect an accurate product in return. So, my job as a Layout Supervisor began. This position is rather an antique one by today's digital production system. In the days of 35mm film production and paper animation the process demanded that scripts be converted into storyboards. These were small panels of shot by shot action and compositional drawings of background elements that visualize the whole cartoon in a form similar to comic books. They were done quickly in those days and were often very sketchy. The details of the actual compositions, background designs, incidental characters and prop designs as well as all initial animation posing was done by the Layout Department.

The Layout Department was the first directorial step in the film making process. Each panel of the storyboard was broken down into sequences based, usually, on background elements.; Ext. Schoolyard, Int. Classroom, Int. Soda Shop. Ext. Athletic Field, etc. Obviously, if the episode took place mostly in a lifeboat at sea, where the background was the same, this system didn't work. In that circumstance, the show was broken down into Night and Day, Storm, Ship Sighting, Shark Sequence, etc. This was my job. I had a staff of artists that needed a week's worth of work each Monday and I had to break the show down into chewable/doable sizes that could be done in a 40 hour week. There were approximately 300 layouts in a typical half-hour show. Each artist was expected to do 30 layouts a week. Therefore using simple math, the only kind I know, I'd need 10 artists to do a half-hour show each week. I didn't have 10 artists on my team. I had between 4 and 6 artists of varying levels of speed, talent and competency. I needed two weeks to produce a half-hour episode. My job required that I meet that schedule. How I did it, Young Artist, is the subject of another blog.