Monday, March 26, 2007

Direction 2: Walt Disney Presents - "A Story of Dogs" - the director

By the 1970s and 80s, the Saturday morning cartoon studios had devolved an extremely creatively inefficient production system.

They produced cartoons on an assembly line basis. Each function of an animated cartoon now had its own department: The "story" department, the storyboard department, the layout department, etc. No one in any department talked to anyone in other departments. They were all kept separate.

Each department had a department head. The head of the story department was a "story editor" or some such nonsense. This head would oversee all the stories in the studio-superhero cartoons, funny animal cartoons, girlie cartoons, whatever generic product was rolling down the conveyor belt. He was an expert in every single style. ...Hmmm. What's wrong with this picture?

Well I'll tell you: This system has no communication from artist to artist, and no one can do every style. A storyboard artist has no director to guide him in his presentation of the story. The script writer sure won't talk to him. He expects the artists to literally follow every word of the script, even though most of it doesn't even work, let alone being entertaining or inventive.

The layout artist doesn't consult with the storyboard artist. Instead he follows his manual of how to stay on model, and how to stage everything in the stock studio way. The animators then ignore the layouts after complaining about them and in turn xerox more model sheets and write timing charts on the presupplied poses worked out by the model department - who also has no communication with the animators. In other words, each step in the production is a waste of money, because the next department is just going to do everything the same way they always do it.

All the individual job functions in a cartoon studio had their functions changed in the 70s. Storyboards were no longer for writing the story. Layout was no longer where you creatively staged the scenes. Animation had become tracing.

In this impractical system, no one has any any creative stake in any cartoon. If anyone happened to sneak an act of creativity into his layout, or animation, or storyboard, the system would have automatically erased it. When you saw the final cartoon that you worked on, nothing you put in it made it to the screen. By the 1980s, animation cartoonists were a mighty depressed lot.

This Dark Age system eventually migrated into Feature production, although it was cloaked with superficial elements of how Disney used to make cartoons and no one would admit they weren't still doing full-animation the classical way. But 80s and 90s Disney movies sure as heck look and sound like the stuff we did for Ruby Spears and Filmation in the 80s, although with trickier camera angles and lots more inbetweens. - and airbrushed dirt all over the characters. Filmation characters covered in dust.

Anyway, the old system that produced classic cartoons was a sensible system that evolved though trial and error as animators and cartoonists learned by actually making cartoons all in one place - together. It had directors in charge. The directors were animators who had worked their way up in the system and knew exactly what went into making an animated cartoon. These directors would in turn work directly with each of the key creative people on their cartoons. Everyone knew how everything was going to fit into the overall creative scheme. Creative people could have a stake in the success of each individual cartoon they created, so they had an incentive to do things well.

That's why old cartoons have feeling, style and are directed. They have creative points of view, while modern cartoons are committee-made, executive garbled mush.

Look how sensible this old fashioned production system is.
No scripts in sight. The director (Gerry Geronimi) works with drawings.

The layout artist (Tom Codrick) who staged the scenes visually is in on the meeting with the animator and director.

Woolie Reitherman is the animator.
Geronimi explains the scene generally to the animator.

Then the animator (the performer) sketches up specific suggestions for how the action might work.
Everyone can look at the pictures and see exactly what the suggestions are. There is no need to describe the actions in words when you have artists making the story.

* an interesting side note: Tramp is a typical cute but generic Disney design, but the other dogs are starting to look like 70s "realistic" Saturday Morning character design - an ill omen of what will eventually happen to animation in the coming dark ages.

On my own various productions, especially at Spumco, I had to restore a version of this old fashioned production system -adapted for TV schedules, just so I could actually direct my own cartoons and make sure all the ideas made it to te screen. For a while Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network "borrowed" this creator-driven system. But years later as more and more executives have been added into the process, the system is gradually reverting back to the weighty non-communicative production system of the 70s and 80s. And maybe even worse, because there are more execs now than ever and decision making is so slow, feeble, arduous and expensive. Indecision is always more expensive than decision. The elaborate process of eliminating creativity and fun from cartoons burns money.