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.