Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Maintaining Guts From Storyboard To Layout

Going from storyboard to layout has similar problems that cleaning up a drawing does. You have to not lose the life of the board (when there is any). It's not the same as tracing though, because you have other problems to solve and sometimes you have to put the characters "on-model" which is not tracing the model sheets! A layout artist has these tasks to fulfill:

1) Functional: The scene has to work
2) Enhance the Storyboard Artists' ideas- this means to take the poses and acting further, which is not easy. There is a lot of analysis involved.
3) Add poses and expressions matching the voice actors' inflections.
4) Make the drawings tight enough that the animator knows where to put the lines. Leave nothing vague.
5) Draw the characters "on-model". That means they have to look like who they are, but without toning everything down. They still have to be alive and constantly in action and thought.


Unfortunately for all of us, TV studios don't do animation in house. They send it overseas, or now some move cutouts in Flash. Even some of that is sent thousands of miles away- away from the control of what should be the cartoon director's supervision.

Animation is the most important creative tool we have. That's why we call it "animation" and not "storyboarding" or "scripting". (I stole that from Eddie)

Because we don't do animation in TV anymore, no one even knows what it is or how it works. That is our #1 biggest creative problem and why creatively, TV can't evolve, it can only decay as each successive generation copies the previous one's mistakes instead of learning to animate and adding to a book of knowledge by animators amassed from generation to generation.


The creative parts of animation comes from 2 basic elements:
1) The drawings - the drawings visually tell the story and the acting
2) The movement- the movement and can smooth out the drawings and color the emotions and acting, but smooth movement without original compelling, entertaining, custom made drawings doesn't hold much interest.

Animation is expensive, because it takes so many thousands of drawings. That's why it is sent to cheap overseas studios to do. So my TV theory is, if you can't afford lots of drawings to make it smooth, then keep some drawings here and make them entertaining. I reasoned that expressive characters will tell the story better than smooth bland ones anyway.


When I started experimenting with the TV production system, I realized that the closest thing we had to controlling any of the animation was in the layout department.

Layout is the step before animation. It's where artists plan the scenes and draw the characters and backgrounds in relation to each other. In the early 80s, that was still being done in the U.S.

I figured if I drew funny poses and acting in my layouts, then at least the animators overseas would have something to go with, even if the cheap animation wasn't going to be smooth.


By the mid 80s, even layouts were starting to be shipped to Asia and there went the artists' last chance to have any control over the final product of the cartoons. I found myself heading up a layout department in Taipei, Taiwan on The New Jetsons. It was here that I started experimenting with what was to later become the Spumco layout system.


We had Hanna Barbera send us audio cassettes of all the dialogue from the cartoons and we listened to the tracks and drew poses with lots of life that matched the actors' inflections.

The young layout artists like Bin and Ronald and others all were eager to do it this way and drew some lively fun cartoons.

The trick was then getting the animators to actually use the drawings! They were trained to look for anything that wasn't on the model sheet and then "fix it" - put it on model. So they would undo all our efforts, until I found a sympathetic director who worked extra hard to untrain/retrain the animators and he made them use what we did....then there was another department of assistant animators! and then a mysterious department called "Model fix-up Department"!

Holy crap! The whole system was engineered to bland out any creative input anyone along the way had managed to insert into the product.


On Mighty Mouse we worked on my system and did all the layouts in house. Our overseas director Dave Marshall used my crew of Chinese layout artists, who were now animating and made sure everyone there used our poses. The animation as someone said in the comments was not the smoothest- but at least our cartoons were now acting!

At Spumco I refined the system further, but anytime I worked with any new artists or studios I would have to retrain everyone to get them to not tone down whatever we sent them to work from.

This is getting way too long...maybe later I will tell the whole history of how we had to create this production system and train other studios to follow it.

Hey, I just found a Spumco layout manual that explains a layout artist's tasks in detail, step by step. Want it?



Barx said...

Many TV productions don't even use a layout system to enhance the finished product.
The BG's are 'built' and animation poses are pulled straight from the board.

Anonymous said...

"Hey, I just found a Spumco layout manual that explains a layout artist's tasks in detail, step by step. Want it?"

Yes sir, yes sir, yes SIR!

I'm doing the exercises on how to make a functioning storyboard, and it would certainly be beneficial to my education, and maybe I might be able to work in L.A one of these days.

Also, I remember one of my teachers, who’s a storyboard artist for a crappy cartoon entitled Atomic Betty, produced here in the beautiful city of Vancouver, was despised with working on the series; he only applied for the job because he needed to make ends meet, what with raising a family, playing in a rock band, and working in the comic book industry.

Ryan G. said...

Thanks for this John!

toon_monkey said...

john -- this is the most valuable series of posts i've seen on this site.... one of my life's biggest life-shortening headaches is getting my artists to maintain the dynamics (my word for 'guts') from board to layout to ink..... all of your students here should study this with intense diligence!!!!

JohnK said...

Hey Mitch...Whoops!

I forgot that was in there.

I censored it, because I don't want the kids who come here to get in trouble with their Moms.

But at least you have an uncensored copy!

I couldn't post your comment because you quoted my vile choice of words.

Sorry about that

if you reword our comment I will post it.

Mitch said...

"Hey Mitch...Whoops!

I forgot that was in there."

Hehe, I do it all for the kids and their Moms ;)

But I want to give this a try. But do you have any (or where can I find) modelsheets to do this? Or should I try without?

Thnks alot!
This is a great post!

Mitch said...

Oops, there was something else I wanted to say! I wanna see the spumco layout manual!!!!! That would be great.

Rodrigo said...


(God, why am I paying for school?)

Bill Field said...

I, too want to see that manual, John. So, like the very limited animation of Roger Ramjet, it worked because of the crazy/funny drawings, the cuts and transitions and Giant Text screens, not to mention a fast paced scripting style and terrific voiceovers?So, it was really fun to watch because of these choices, not in spite of them? Is that kinda what your'e getting at-- make your negatives work for you in limited animation situations?

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

It's wonderful to see ideas like this in print! So many new and exciting ideas can be tried if only real, creative animators could be re-introduced to the animation industry.

Kali Fontecchio said...

These are great to study! Thanks!



Dan! said...

Page one meaning more to come? C'mon, John, don't hold out on us!

Great stuff. Thanks a lot.

Brandon said...

I'm still trying to get a handle on how the layout works. If you're establishing all of the key poses in the layout, are the animators basically just inbetweening the layout? Or is the layout not getting that detailed?

Do you precede the layout with an x-sheet, and do you annotate the timing with a layout?

Great stuff, I'm still waiting for you to publish this in a book.

Newie said...

Hey John love and agree with your views on every single detail possible. (Just got laid off from the Simpsons looking for layout gig) i totally totally see your way of things. And you are one the best out there, if you EVER need top quality creative help ...for free free freeee, i got a fiend that can might maybeprallykindawouldmaybe help you out, he draw real purdy like you.
As long as you ain't one of those Hollywood Freaks i heard (herded) about.
I gotta be honest with you a do tend to lie a lot, it's a medical problem but i'm not lying now.
~thank you for, for, for caring John, thank you...really...really

SoleilSmile said...

Hi John,
it's Ashanti, your old employee :)

I just requested your wisdom on layout via Animation Nation last week. Thanks for posting the layout stuff again on your blog.
In regards to donating. I'm going to be teaching layout class at the Academy of Art in Fall 2008 and I could probably convince the animation department make a donation to this site. Heck, I would love it if you came to lecture as a guest speaker in my class. Character layout is very daunting and I'll need all the help I can get to keep my students encouraged. I think we pay well, I'll be more than happy to give the details after I've done a bit of research.
Do get back to me when you can. I can't wait to hear from you again!

Pink and Purple,



ubergrafik said...

Would the Animation directors think of outsourcing the character voices? I doubt it. It's interesting that there's such a distinction between the control of the voices and the artwork, and they don't care. I guess one session in a studio to nail the voices is quicker and cheaper than animating.

Anonymous said...

Si! would love to see the manual! All these principles are fantastic!
Thanks John!

Anonymous said...

These post come faster than I can retain them. I need MOAR!

Gregg said...

"This is getting way too long...maybe later I will tell the whole history of how we had to create this production system and train other studios to follow it."

Damn cliffhangers...

Can't wait for the follow up.

David Nethery said...

This one and your other posts on clean-up are gold. Thank you posting these !

I'm really interested in your ideas for getting animation production back on the North American continent . It seems to me that even if you get a new generation trained up to use these production methods to do high quality work , how is the work going to be seen if the distribution is still controlled by the usual crowd ? How to get around the mainstream distribution channels that squeeze all the life and fun out of animation, but still get the work out to a wide audience ?

Franker12 said...

thanks for this post john...it actually helped me out a lot...ive always had a tough time getting excited or interested in the layout aspect of animation...i know thats a shamefull thing for an aspiring animator to say...but what you presented here makes a lot of sence...and ill have to put some of these theorys to test on a short film we're working on at sheridan.

Kali Fontecchio said...

Those men are very tempting.

Erik Griott said...

i'm probably not posting this in the right place, but i finally finished (sorta) the oswald test. i didn't do any lipsync, i just focused on the poses, and i timed it wrong, but i [i]though[/i] i was using your x-sheet. i musta read it wrong (still new at reading thems.) anyways, it didn't turn out too bad. if i spent another day or 2 on it i could really fix it up. so here's what i got so far...

Taber said...

This is really great, and I second the request for the Spumco Layout Manual. Pretty please!

Jason Tammemägi said...

Absolutely spot-on. It is "animation" and not "storyboarding". If the creative process ends at the storyboard stage, chances are what you'll end up with is without soul.

Many producers see the actual animation as "grunt work" that is more an inconvenience than the crucial creative realisation of the story/gags/drama/whatever that it is.

Would a live action director farm out the actual filming of his film to Korea?

Bitter Animator said...

Mr.K, I have a question related to all of this that I'd love you to go into if you get the chance: how do you keep crews enthusiastic?

Especially in these days where so much of the process is split and so much of it takes place on computers. I'm currently sitting in a studio where people are watching YouTube videos and couldn't care a damn about what they are animating. The director is so removed from the process, nobody really cares. The producers, well I don't even know where they are. It makes for absolutely crap animation, as you can imagine.

So how do you inspire each and every person on your team, both at home and wherever else the work is done? How do you keep them loving it? Wanting to put their best work into every scene?

Trevour said...

More layout manual, please!

Von Weiggart said...


I'm working on storyboards and layout issues concurrently... It's blowing my mind. This helps a ton. Thank you!

Brett W. Thompson said...

Oh man. Of course we want more of the layout manual :) I love these manuals, they're so clear!

I was also curious whose layout drawings those are? Did Jim Smith work on Ripping Friends?