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.