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.

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