Monday, June 25, 2007

Disney Gets Almost Specific

It's so rare to see characters in Disney films that have expressions, that it really stands out when you finally do see something approaching specific expressions.

The scenes that introduce Captain Hook in Peter Pan stand out to me especially after so many long boring totally generic scenes of other characters.

Hook is a pretty standard Disney construction. He has the same construction as all the human characters, only with a pointy nose pasted on. The design is all in the body proportions and the costume. The way he is proportioned and the outfit he's wearing give him his instant iconic look. But the face is fairly standard Disney.

The construction and design is cleverly made to be functional-to make the features pliable and to leave enough room between each feature to move them so that they don't bump into each other when they do move.
It's a very solidly drawn 3 dimensional construction with difficult tall body proportions and like most Disney characters, very hard to control.

That's the Disney animators' greatest skill-controlling tight animation of difficult to draw characters so that it doesn't look like there are any mistakes or jerky actions. They almost always achieve this herculean feat (the original Walt Disney movies) and suitably impress the hell out of us-especially if we are animators. We know how hard it is to do.

The acting in Disney movies is usually a lot less impressive, but Hook is a step in the right direction.

This expression above is not really an expression, It's a stock Disney trick. Squash one eye and stretch the other, which makes the face look organic, rather than mechanic, and organic is what life is.

Squash and stretch and organic pliability are concepts we should understand if we are going to draw life, but they are just the first steps. They are simply tools we could use then to create a lot of unique expressions like humans have. But many animators are merely content with the tools, not the creative use of them.
Frank Thomas is breaking the mold here. He cautiously tries experimenting with Hook's mouth. He is trying out shapes that aren't totally symmetrical and that haven't been drawn before.

The eyes are standard. Nothing new. Squash one, stretch the other. The design of the eyes is the exact same design as all the other characters' eyes and they move exactly the same way as every other character. One at a time. For a take, stretch one up first, and the other follows but doesn't quite make it as high.
Standard eyes, interesting mouth.
For comparison, here is another Disney man. This design is exactly the same design and functional construction as Hook, except fat and with a slightly different nose bulb pasted on. But Smee's expressions are all stock Disney. They aren't expressions, they are merely stretch and squash.
Smee's specific personality trait doesn't happen in his face. He wiggles his fingers every time he gets excited and that's how you know he is a different character than the other pirates who all move the same as hundreds of previous Disney characters.

These mouth shapes Thomas is drawing for Hook are very subtle but original and look more human than the stock mouths we are used to seeing. That is such a radical departure for a Disney character that we start to think of Hook as a real character, by contrast with all the stock characters.

Stock eyes, interesting mouth.

Here's just a really nice angle and tilt of the head.

Same eyes, neat mouth...

I have to wonder, if an animator is capable of taking one part of the face and making original shapes with it, why not do that with the rest of the face? Eyes can be very expressive too. They don't merely squash and stretch.
What is it about Disney films that offer such promise but then never take off? Something or someone is holding everyone back and making them feel guilty if they stray too far from accepted formula. We can forgive a lot of the lack of adventurousness in the drawings and animation, because the draftsmanship and the motion is so awesome.

But for heaven's sake, why not let these animators go and do something?
This Hook stuff looks like Thomas is practicing and getting ready to really do something with the character.

Here are some cool drawings that you don't really see in real time. They are accents on the way to blander expressions. Why not make these keys instead so we can appreciate them?





Peter Pan, like so many Disney movies is a huge unfulfilled promise.

It has a few scenes where it seems like the animators have experimented with certain characters and are now ready to really let loose with them, but the damn story holds them back.

It's 90% filler.

Hook's introduction makes you think he's going to progress and get more and more specific and rich, but he never does. There is no chemistry between him and Pan. Their ancient rivalry is told to us in exposition, but it never comes to life on the screen. They don't seem to connect, even when they fight. They just perform what the story tells them to perform and get it over with.

The story people should have spent more time developing thier relationship and giving them meatier scenes to perform.

Tinker Belle is phenomenally animated and has a great design, but there's nothing for her to do in the story.

The Indian Chief has a very interesting set of dialogue mouth shapes, but once we see that, it never progresses.

It's like Disney teases you with what could be but is never fulfilled. Does anyone have an explanation for this? It's such a mystery!

Instead we get tons of bland boring scenes with generic personalityless characters:

The lost Boys
The snob family
A bunch of generic pirates.
A song about how wonderful Moms are.
(Moms are wonderful, but that's what greeting cards are for, not cartoons.)

Think what kind of a great movie could have been made if they had focused more on Hook, the crocodile, Tinkerbell, the Indians, the mermaids and Pan. These are all the characters that the kids love.

If you lined up an image of each of these characters you would think, "Wow! This is gonna really be fun!"



If you lined up the lost boys, Wendy and the parents and slapped them on a billboard, would anyone want to come see that movie?


That's what modern cartoon movies do, they make stars of the bland characters.


The biggest shame of this Disney blandification and filler is not the classic Disney movies themselves, but the terrible influence these movies have had on later, less skilled generations of animation producers.

Now we have only the blandness and stock acting, but none of the amazing animation or great drawing and none of the characters that at least show promise.

I agree with Milt Kahl about this kinda stuff:

38 comments:

Kali Fontecchio said...

Captain Hook is definitely a well animated character (except those scenes that were obviously animated by someone else, like an assistant or someone.) There is a lot of skill and knowledge behind those drawings, as you have shown here. I really like those frames where he looks like an alarmed cat!

Wutatool said...

i really like these kinds of posts(solid drawing type animation) more than the UPA related ones. i find these very educational :)

Mad Taylor said...

I recently watched Peter Pan and I noticed some really great expressions that Hook does. They all occur when the crocodile is around. Check out the scene when the crocodile first approaches.

My dad wrote the Disney archives and was curious to know what Fred Moore had done on the movie. He did a few scenes before he passed. I'll have to ask my dad what scenes those were again but I think there were only two and I know one had Schmee rowing a boat.

David said...

I think that most of us animators wouldn't dare come down on a Disney feature this hard, since we have enough trouble keeping our volumes constant, and only dream of moving forms in space so smoothly. That said, the Disney set of stock eye shapes has passed under the critical radar for too long, and it's nice to see someone take issue with it. It's superficially pleasing, sure, but is it the only way to communicate emotion? I hope not. Somehow this post makes me wistful for zanier Disney features, with more 'tactile' and percussive animation.

Doctor Cerebro said...

i grew up watching disney classics and i cant help but love them. nevertheless i agree with you about the stock acting and constant repetition. I come from spain and it is pretty sad to see that even there producers are trying to apply the disney formula, leading always to pathetic results... it is so awful to watch spanish characters like "El Cid" or whatever acting in this awful and bland disney copy...

cartoon lad said...

Why are you posting Disney stuff? Disney movies are for toddlers and wimps.

Chris_Garrison said...

> What is it about Disney films that offer such promise but then never take off? ... But for heaven's sake, why not let these animators go and do something? ... It's like Disney teases you with what could be but is never fulfilled. Does anyone have an explanation for this? It's such a mystery!

Here's my explanation -- It is the job of a big publicly traded corporation (i.e. Disney) to make money for its shareholders. It's against the law for them to knowingly waste shareholders' money. If they take too many risks (i.e. experimenting and pushing envelopes), they might not get a big enough return. So, as a corporation, it's actually AGAINST THE LAW for Disney to excel. They can only take baby steps with each project, because they're so deathly afraid of failure.

I think about this in terms of content, too. Animation lends itself perfectly to cool stuff like aliens, and funny stuff like family members who yell at each other. Disney should've made movies about those things in the 60's or something, but the fear of losing money kept them to fairy tales, just taking small forays outside that formula. Finally, with Lilo and Stitch, they decided maybe it wasn't too risky to draw aliens and family members who shout. DECADES LATER than they should've started with that stuff.

JohnK said...

>>I think that most of us animators wouldn't dare come down on a Disney feature this hard, since we have enough trouble keeping our volumes constant, and only dream of moving forms in space so smoothly.<<

Hi David

yeah I agree with you.

The sheer monumental craftsmanship of moving those characters like that is hard to fathom today.

If you knew what went into the making of the pyramids, you'd be impressed but if you didn't you would just see big dusty triangles.

I just wish people wouldn't talk so much about acting, when that's not the impressive part of the animation.

Didn't Kahl himself long to animate simpler designs, so that he could spend more time on acting and fun stuff?

Ryan G. said...

I always thought that the reason the main characters were designed so blandly was to be universally accepted. The character has to relate to the "everyman" so therefore it is less specific. The more specific the character gets, the chances are that the millions of people that they want to see the movie, wont relate to them. Is this another decision by the suits or is this a trend among animators?

PCUnfunny said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
PCUnfunny said...

It's like Disney teases you with what could be but is never fulfilled. Does anyone have an explanation for this? It's such a mystery!"

Disney has always been afraid of life and even more so now. The world is Disney is strictly principle and going beyound that is too big for that narrow scope.

PCUnfunny said...

By the way, that gold robot in the "meet the robinsons" picture looks like a blander,gayer, C-3PO.

Wutatool said...

I always thought that the reason the main characters were designed so blandly was to be universally accepted. The character has to relate to the "everyman" so therefore it is less specific

i think the more specific or complex with any drawing you get, the more chance it just plain wont appeal to somebody. look at the abstract asian hello kitty type stuff that is pretty popular. they have no real personality to the drawings, they look completely mindless with not the slightest illusion of thoughts in their heads. you couldnt act with those designs if you tried without pushing them as to be unrecognizable as the iconic, graphic designs they are. thats an extreme example.

so as far as stuff like disney, its either the execs, or the artists, who probably just dont want to take the risk of making something that is just not appealing to a lot of individuals, if they dont have the more relatable proportions. there is huge security in blandness, and thats a sad thing if you wont take any risks.

but i just mean as far as overall character design, i dont think there is any risk if you pull off specific acting with orginal shapes, i dont think thats going to rub anyone the wrong way.

Kali Fontecchio said...

"i think the more specific or complex with any drawing you get, the more chance it just plain wont appeal to somebody."

I disagree, in fact, I believe the exact opposite of that statement.

"look at the abstract asian hello kitty type stuff that is pretty popular."

The whole Hello Kitty franchise was just created for toys, stationary, etc. whereas you're comparing it to something that was designed to entertain and come to life. There is a pretty big gap between those worlds, don't you think?

Roberto González said...

Hummm...I'm not sure...

I like Tinkerbell more than Wendy, but they are both kind of generic in their faces, aren't day? Anyway I kinda like Wendy too, for some reason I think her design is adequate to her personality. Wendy's father is pretty generic, but it kinda fits with his personality too. Wendy's brothers could have more interesting designs or personalities.

I used to like the Lost Boys when I was a kid and I still find the design of some of them kind of peculiar. Not the racoon one you posted, that is pretty bland. But the fat and the Foxy ones I think they look good.

Especially Peter Pan I do think he's kinda bland in both design and personality. I actually would prefer if Captain Hook would win, I don't really symphatize with Peter.

Roberto González said...

Incidentally I am a fan of The Greatest Mouse Detective, I think it's one of the best Disney movies in therms of STORY. Although it's a pretty current film and you probably have a lot of criticisms to do I'd like a post and/or comment about it.

Basil is a different type of Disney heroe and here you could really see the ancient rivalry between Basil and Rattingan IMO.

Also, I forgot to say it previously, Smee looks like Eddie Fitzgerald to me...

pappy d said...

Where else can you find this kind of serious cartoon scholarship?

Questions of art aside, Hook is a great example of sound industrial design. If you try drawing him, you'll be surprised at how simple his construction is. His face is a concave bean, his nose is a square wedge & his eyes are spheres. Even his ruffles are as simplified as they can be. (Note that when the pressure hit, they eliminated those pointless squiggles on the front of his coat).

You can turn him every which way & you'll still have a clean silhouette. The simple shapes & clean through lines look good in motion & won't strobe like more angular shapes. The bottom line is: They're built for speed, both onscreen & on the assembly line. What individuality they have is largely in how they move.

In a studio the size of Disney, you have artists of widely varying talents (on Pan, everything was hand-inked, too). If your scene has to run the gauntlet, you want to give them something dead simple like balls & beans to draw.

The Indian Chief has a really COOL set of dialog mouth shapes, but he was a bit player & Ward K. probably keyed it all himself.

What really impresses me is that these guys were cranking out 15+ feet a week.

Wutatool said...

The whole Hello Kitty franchise was just created for toys, stationary, etc. whereas you're comparing it to something that was designed to entertain and come to life. There is a pretty big gap between those worlds, don't you think?

i noticed theres a shitty looking TV show from korea called "pucca" that is that exact same hello kitty aesthetic. i assume it does attempt to tell some semblence of a narrative though i doubt it approaches 'life'.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

A terrific post! It may be historic because I doubt that the handling of a major character in "Peter Pan" has ever been criticized this thoroughly in print before.

I mostly agree but not entirely. I definitely wish there had been more specific acting but the amazing thing is that Hook succeeds on some level even without it, maybe for the reason you mentioned, maybe for additional reasons as well. I need to dig out my copy of the film and watch it again!

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Roberto: I do NOT look like Smee!!!!!!

SparkySparky said...

Hey JohnK!

Off topic... you mentioned you are into yodeling. Ever hear of Stimmhorn? Throat singing AND yodeling.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ii1mS0faiyI

Jus' wonderin' Ren... (I can call you Ren?) :-)

Marc K said...

"i think the more specific or complex with any drawing you get, the more chance it just plain wont appeal to somebody. look at the abstract asian hello kitty type stuff that is pretty popular. they have no real personality to the drawings, they look completely mindless with not the slightest illusion of thoughts in their heads. you couldnt act with those designs if you tried without pushing them as to be unrecognizable as the iconic, graphic designs they are. thats an extreme example."
Takashi Murakami wrote a lot about Hello Kitty and how his aesthetic fits in with it. Hello Kitty is loved because it is a design that allows the most projection. Hello Kitty doesn't judge its owner. Hello Kitty has no mouth to express feelings. When a little girl feels sad Hello Kitty feels sad with her. When a little girl feels happy Hello Kitty feels happy with her.

Katie said...

" Something or someone is holding everyone back and making them feel guilty if they stray too far from accepted formula. We can forgive a lot of the lack of adventurousness in the drawings and animation, because the draftsmanship and the motion is so awesome."

You're not really allowing for any kind of style, are you? You could say that Ren and Stimpy is always so crazy and wild... it's like the animators had someone looking over their shoulder the whole time making sure they stuck to that "accepted formula."

"But for heaven's sake, why not let these animators go and do something?"

I find it bewildering that you consider Disney animation and design uninventive and unadventurous. These are the animators who gave us the rules and techniques that students are taught in Animation 1. They made animation and character design what it is.

I used to get annoyed at your posts like this. But then I began hearing stories about you from my instructors. Apparently it's simply the case that you just don't like what's popular... just because it's popular. So now I just kind of shake my head and laugh at posts like this.

JohnK said...

Hi Katie

thanks for your post. I must challenge it slightly though...Bugs Bunny and Popeye were very popular. So was the Honeymooners, Film Noir movies, the 3 Stooges and lots of other stuff I've done posts on.

Ren and Stimpy and my style is totally influenced by popular entertainment.

Would it have been so different than everything else that was around before if I just accepted what everyone believed about animation at the time?

You're right I stood over people's shoulders... but to get them NOT to follow formulas!


Anyway, I like Hook and just wish they would have given us more of him and took him further.

I wouldn't believe everything your teachers say either. Check the stuff out for yourself and make up your own mind.

When I challenge accepted notions, I do my best to present some evidence to support my opinions, and it's all for a grander purpose, to encourage animators to bring back growth and evolution to our art.

We can't do it with closed eyes...

Mike said...

i like that johnk doesnt accept anything as perfect, and finds explainable reasons how all sorts of things have room for improvement, have good elements and less good elements.

thats how i was taught you should approach your art skills for your entire life until you are dead, there's always more to learn. Even though you have to stop working on a certain thing it always could have been better. i was told milt kahl said something like that, coincidentaly. that even he saw room for personal growth in his skills even at his genius level.

JohnK said...

I'd swear I read Milt Kahl hated working on Peter Pan and begged for more cartoony stuff.

amir avni said...

IMO Milt Kahl's approach to animating is very similar to Bob Mckimson's- Both had solid control of their characters and used subtle 3-dimensional gestures in many of their scenes.

Milt Kahl became a legend, however McKimson is dimmed to many.
That's why I'm glad you've been reminding blog readers and commentary listeners of what McKimson could do. He really deserves the credit.

Daffodil said...

Hi, I am working on producing the different effects like squash, stretch, joy, etc using a algorithm i found in a paper. But to test this I have not bee able to find images showing these actions. I was wondering if you could help me with this an suggest some sites which show images of cartoon characters depicing these effects. I came across your blog in google search.
Thanks in advance.

Maximum Awesome said...

Milt Kahl, in 3 youtube videos (disney family album) complains about "middle of the road human characters", saying you just have to accept doing the "straight jobs", and hope there'll be entertainment in other characters.

He didn't specify too much, but it seemed he was bored by their inflexibility more than challenged by their complexity: though he did say "hardest", so I dunno.

Max Ward said...

Wow I've never read anything analysing a major Disney character like this before.

And Milt Kahl did say he was tired of animating hard to draw bland characters and wanted to get back to characters like Br'er Rabbit, who he thought was the most rich character he ever animated. In this video Milt talks about it in the beginning and towards the middle.

JohnK said...

Hey thanks for the milt Kahl links!

i posted the clip in the article.

Gabriel said...

John, your link got screwed. But cool clip, and great post as always.

The best thing about snow white are the witch and the dwarfs, but they made that dwarf look dull in the clip, by showing him right after a ridiculously funny fat guy dancing.

Marcelo Souza said...

"Why are you posting Disney stuff? Disney movies are for toddlers and wimps."

Please shut up! What are you talking about? No one posting here, including John K. himself, can draw and animate half as well as those giants did. You may not like the type of stories they produced but the sheer draftsmanship is awesome to say the least. Actually I don't know how they did it because even the great ones of today(Keane, Deja etc...) don't come close to those guys. Let's face it, we are a generation of lazy and fat couch potatoes who rush to criticize anything in sight but are mediocre ourselves. We don't want to go through the extensive training and dedication to perfect our skills like they did in those days. The stories may be for "wimps" but to achieve that level of quality you got to be tenacious, you got to have balls, you got to be "macho".

cemenTIMental said...

Daffodil, are you a robot? You've found an algorithm for Joy? Good luck in your quest to become human i guess. :)

Mr. Semaj said...

Milt Kahl claimed later in his career that he was indeed dissatisfied with most of the characters he had to animate, to the point where he worked in isolation on The Rescuers. There was a disagreement between he and other animators in how he animated his characters in that movie, and it would incidentally be his last film.

If Kahl was so dissatisfied with drawing mostly humans from the features, why didn't he go back to animating shorts?

Virgil said...

those Hook poses you like are extremes, and for a good reason. If everything would be that insanely twisted and exaggerated in an animation... well, it would be called... cartoony animation, hahahahaha. I mean, no, there would be a whole lot less contrast, if any. Anyway, I don't agree that only exaggerated expressions should be called expressions, au contraire, in live action, like on a close up especially, you still see a lot of richness, while the intensity of the performance is extremely reduced. Disney style tries to simplify mouth shapes and have smoother shapes in general, with their design and animation. now maybe some people, like you, prefer more jittery scraggly noisy chaotic extreme look/design, but the Disney look is definitely a mature style that has a lot of merit, and a lot of people love it, because it's insanely appealing - maybe not natural, and I had many times I though it's to... aggressively appealing, and artificial, and I felt like it's stupid. but it's a highly polished and researched style that evolved in time, through the hard work and brilliant craftsmanship of lots and lots of artists. like Mozart's music - you could think of it as too simple or too limited by tight rules, but in fact this limiting is its strength, and even if it repeats a lot of the same ideas over and over, there is quite a bit of variety if you look at it closer, and there can be no denying that people love it, which is what matters most.

mt.per said...

John K. wrote: "I'd swear I read Milt Kahl hated working on Peter Pan and begged for more cartoony stuff."

I thought i read that when Kahl was complaining about this, Ward Kimball gave him a Cheshire Cat grin and said something like 'Yeah Milt, but you do the boring crap so well!'

I've always enjoyed reading your blog, it's terrifically entertaining & educational. I don't always agree though, or maybe I don't understand. I've always thought Hook was one of the best animated characters ever (and we shouldn't forget Hans Conreid's voice). You the praise the drawing of his mouth but criticize the eyes as "standard". I may not have a subtle mind, but they look fine to me. These eyes fit Hook's face, they're not generic, you couldn't cut them out and paste them on some other characters face & get away with it(unlike say, Smee's eyes, or any of the various Disney handsome princes & lovely maidens, and let's not talk about the Hanna-Barbera eyes or Roger Ramjets). Plus, Hook really looks like he can "see" though those eyes, & there's a big variety of emotions just through the eyes and eyebrows. I especially like the look Hook gives as he looks upward & starts to pull the the pistol out of his coat. And the the subtly pensive look he has with the gun on the table as he sucks on his cigars looks to me like the drawings the Disney staff used to make of some guy named Walt.

"....the exact same design as all the other characters' eyes and they move exactly the same way as every other character. One at a time. For a take, stretch one up first, and the other follows but doesn't quite make it as high."

Wasn't that the exact look Walt Disney gave his staff when he didn't like their stuff?

So John K, to show me exactly what we're talking about, my request is for you (or some other talented person) to take some of the Hook drawings and redraw more interesting or appropriate eyes onto his face. Maybe they'll be big improvements....
Last kvetch: You may be right about what's wrong with the Peter Pan story & characters. But I find it true in all the different Peter Pan productions. It's inherent in JM Barrie's original, & while Disney made his changes he no doubt didn't want to stray too far from the beloved original.
Again, I really like this blog. Thanks

JohnK said...

>>those Hook poses you like are extremes, and for a good reason. If everything would be that insanely twisted and exaggerated in an animation... well, it would be called... cartoony animation,<<

Hey Virgil
really they aren't extreme at all. They are very subtle and mild.

Real people are much more exagerrated and more specific and have a lot more contrast.

More contrast is what most animation needs.

Thanks for your comment.