Friday, October 19, 2007



Cartoon direction has meant many things depending on the studio and era. In most cartoon fans' minds the idea of a cartoon director is represented by what Bob Clampett, Tex Avery and Chuck Jones did.

This kind of director was in total charge of every creative aspect of the cartoons, the story, design, animation, color, backgrounds, voices...and timing.

The Unit System Headed By a Director- the Benevolent Dictator

The director had his own crew and this crew stayed with him for years and they all grew creatively together under his guidance.

The director didn't personally perform each job, he chose which he wanted to do personally and supervised the rest. Each director concentrated on the aspects of the production that fit his own talents the best, and everyone else on the crew supported him and did what the director himself couldn't do or didn't have the time to do.

Chuck Jones was great at posing and character design, so he drew most of the poses in his cartoons. He relied on Mike Maltese and Tedd Pierce for story and various background artists for the BG styling.

Clampett was great at ideas, gags, personality, timing and exaggeration, but gave his animators more leeway than Jones did.

Avery was really good at high concepts, gags and structure, but had other artists "refine" his poses and draw them in their various styles. He also gave his animators more freedom than say, Jones would.

This concept of Cartoon Director is the ideal. It gave one animator the total creative control over the films and produced the longest lasting, most popular cartoons and characters in history.
One experienced animator.

From assistant animator to animator and then maybe to story or design and then to director.
It's not like on today's shorts departments where they just pluck you out of high school and call you "director". The classic cartoon directors all knew how cartoons were made and then on top of that had a clear vision of how they wanted to express themselves because they had animated themselves and learned under other directors.

Directors at other studios had somewhat less control. At Disney's the directors all had to report to Walt and their jobs were to translate Walt's vision to the screen, so they weren't directors like at WB and MGM but they still supervised many of the artistic aspects of the film making- unlike the later TV directors. (I bet you can find more detailed info on how Disney directors worked at Mark Mayerson's site. He's pretty thorough with his history.)


By the 1970's there was still a job in animation called "Director" but it bore little resemblance to what it used to mean.

By then every job in animation was unrelated to the next. There was no more supervisor at the top of a "unit". Each job went through a cold department, run by a department head.

Cartoon assembly Line- no more communication between artists

The Storyboard supervisor.
The script editor.
The layout department.
Character design department.
The development department.
Background Painting department.
The Voice Recording department

Each of these departments worked on multiple series at once and no artist had a personal vested interest in any of them. He just did his job according to the rules-and pretty retarded rules they were. The main rule in every department was- "Don't ever make anything up! Don't create anything. Do exactly what you've already done a million times."

Jobs in animation studios were as boring as office jobs-except that there actually were many talented cartoonists and we all had fun on breaks and lunch acting like idiots and making each other laugh. You just had no way of putting that energy or humor into the cartoons.

The weird thing was....most people were completely OK with that!!

Not me.

Directors Merely Timed Sheets
"Director" meant writing timing sheets. The director didn't work with any artists. He was just grabbing storyboards off the conveyor belt and writing up timing formulas onto ex sheets.

The first of these directors were old time animators like Bill Hanna, Ray Patterson, and Charles Nichols, who at least knew how to make the timing seem natural and not clunky.

But they eventually started training non-artists and taught them them the formulas, so by the 80s, there were all kinds "directors" that had no idea what any of the actual symbols and squiggles they would scribble all over the timing sheets actually meant!

The timing became completely amateurish, just like every other aspect of cartoons.


The craziest job category to come out of the Saturday Morning Cartoon system was the voice director.

In classic cartoons, the guy who had supervised the creation of the story and who was going to work directly with the animators would direct the voice recording sessions. Completely logical.

Clampett already knew his own stories intimately and knew how the characters should act because it was his own film. He has already worked on it every day for a couple months before Mel Blanc would come in.

Now we have people who have no creative input in the cartoons except to see the script for the first time and then tell the actors how to read the lines. Right in front of the person who might have actually been working on the story for months and who really knows what's going on.

Even Mel Blanc Needs Direction

Mel Blanc was the greatest voice talent in history, but he would be seeing the dialogue script for the first time when he came in. The director would have to explain what was going on in the story and guide Mel to get the emotions the way the director saw the film. Sounds logical, right?

If Mel had just read the script and acted it out as he went along with no guidance from someone who molded the story, he would get the whole emotional pattern and context of the story all wrong.

Visit To Anthony
This exact thing happened to one of my cartoons-Visit To Anthony. There was a character patterned after my Dad - and I didn't get to direct the character's voice in the cartoon, although I directed the rest of the voices. Games animation -who finished the film- hired a well known good actor to play my father, but whoever directed him..didn't. It sounds like the actor is just reading the lines for the first time and has no idea of the context of the story or what's going on. I imagined that the "director" was too afraid to give any direction to a star. That coupled with the fact that whoever directed it hadn't worked on the story and didn't know my Dad.


This whole assembly line system was what I walked into in the 80s. I had wondered why for 2 decades, cartoons didn't seem to have any point of view, style or quality. This is why.

There were no directors and no director system.

It wasn't because there was no talent. I was working with Tom Minton, Eddie Fitzgerald, Lynne Naylor, Bill Wray, Bruce Timm, Jim Gomez and many other super talented folks but it was impossible to get anything we wanted to do to end up on the screen because of 2 main things:

1) The Stupid Production System That Erased All Creativity

2) There Was No Training Ground

This was the other big disaster caused by TV production.
Even if you had talent, you couldn't learn how to use it. Talent without skill and knowledge of how things work leaves you pretty helpless. (This is where we are again today)

You couldn't learn to animate properly. Or time, or do layouts right, or act, or work with voice talent.

No one knew how everything fit together anymore because the director/unit system was gone, and then all the animation was being shipped overseas, so you couldn't even learn how crappy animation worked! You just stared at the films you worked on when they came back from Asia and died. It was awful, but even if we would have been allowed to complain and fix things, we wouldn't really know how to go about it.

Everyone was completely creatively helpless.

In 1980 it sure looked like the days of fun, quality and creative animation were gone forever because the whole system was geared against it.

(amazingly, cartoon fans in their 20s sometimes come up to me and tell me how they loved 80s cartoons, the ones that we all were ashamed of making!)

Now with all this tedious background info to bore the crap out of you, I will try to give you some thoughts about the first cartoon I directed. It was called "Meowww"

check in later

the stills are below...


...many of today's production systems are versions of mine that are mutating back into the 80s system. They have elements of both systems in different proportions depending on which studio and whether series or shorts' departments.

I wonder if anyone who works in this kind of patchwork system has any thoughts to share with us...

Do they still call any shows "Creator-Driven"? Do the creators supervise the stories and the voice-direction? Does he supervise the posing, if not the actual animation?

I'm just curious


jhbmw007 said...

Hi John,
Can you or one of your readers point me to one of your lessons on Storyboarding? I seem to remember you did a post on that...

he said said...

How much more does Kali or Mitch have to go? Where could they even go nowadays? Williams St?

They seem like good examples since we have an idea where they are talent-wise.

Jim said...

Your post brings up some maxims I've learned that I keep finding are true even outside my profession (software development).

1. You can't replace talent with process or methodology. These things should only serve talented people by taking distractions and roadblocks out of their way so they can focus on executing their talents.

2. People are not interchangeable.

3. Teams that grow and gel under even merely decent leadership, where every member plays a distinct part that balances the rest of the team's strengths and weaknesses, can always produce greater stuff than any process- or methodology-driven team where people are squeezed into predefined roles.

4. People want to do excellent work, and have a ball doing it.

5. There is no substitute for learning from highly experienced people. If this isn't happening in your life and you're not at the top of your game, make the changes necessary to get it.


Newie said...

Hey John i'm not a massively experienced pro i'm very very old school like you and i believe every word you say, i've recently worked (briefly) on the Simpsons and what i've noticed is that the guys today kinda understand the audience more than you or i would, our (your) stuff would be just as funny as those old warner brothers shows but the audience that would recognize it are too busy (kids ...grandkids) nowadays to pay attention, the sensablities have been changed, they like Family Guy and stuff.
Every time i watch saturday cartoons i see your stuff somewhere and i say "why not have have John K.?? HIMSELF??
You should be running the WHOLE animation section of Warner Brothers, Look at daffy just sitting there doing NOTHING. Why are you not working man, in one of the studios? even if you "play the game" you still would end up making funny shit. With all respect, it seems to me like you don't value your position or your Rep among Cartoon freaks or something.
Well if you ever start something, I'm your man for layout or boards or whatever

Julián höek said...

i know a lot of people about my age who grew up with those horrible cartoons from the 80's and now they are huge fans again from shows like he-man, transformers, gummy bears, thundercats and the list goes on. i guess it's a retro trend that is going on now with the fashion, music and guys colecting toys from that time.
i don't know, it's like mid twenties are feeling nostalgic about they're childhood i guess! and in the years to come when my generation became "creative executives" they'll want to see on tv the same crap we saw when we. i were kids!

Anonymous said...

Williams St is where garbage artists go to work on Aqua Teen and Home Movies. I'd say Kali and Mitch are leagues ahead of that.

Zam3d said...

This is why the 90´s rocked so hard over 70-80´s and 2k´s. The animation were more fluid and there was an experimentation spirit in several series.

flashcartoons said...

Thanks for the breakdowns of how the animation work has been through the years to today.

When i watched cartoons that were made in the 80s growing up, I didn't notice these errors in animation.

Now that i've been practicing animation more and more its hard for me to re-watch these cartoons I once played the toys of.

Bitter Animator said...

There are still creator-driven shows here in the UK and Europe. Not saying you'll like any of them and the best of them, in my opinion, are the shows for the youngest children, preschoolers etc, but there are many driven by the vision of a single artist.

There's still the corporate dregs of course and some great potential creator-driven shows never make it to television but it can often be quite refreshing to see what's going on. Not sure they'd be your cup of tea though.

Emmett said...

Mr. K,

I have been checking out Ralph Bakshi's other work. How did he work as a director? I heard somewhere that he just let most animators do their thing.

And what about feature animation directors? Any opinion on how they work?

Ryan G. said...

I do like Anthonys voice acting though.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Boy, does that bring back memories! I remember the old guys telling me, "Don't get worked up over this stuff. It's all been done before." These guys stayed pretty much to themselves and made no effort to educate the younger guys. Of course there were exceptions, like Benny Washam.

My guess is that the old guys had all been through WW2 and The Depression together and that created a bond between them. They looked at the younger generation (like us) as lightweights with no emotional depth. They felt no responsibilty to teach us anything because we were held to be undeserving. Their attitude was: "After us, the Deluge."

In my opinion, wether they deserve it or not, the older generation has a moral resonsibility to teach the young. The old guys were helped in their turn and now it's time to give back.

BTW, one of this applies to John, who's made a greater effort to pass on skills than anyone in his generation.

Dume3 said...

Sorry to be off topic, but could sombebody explain the difference between a layout and a background?

I've searched everywhere and I can't get a clear definition.

Sean Worsham said...

I got dogged by my animation peers in college because I would'nt say GI Joe or Transformers was a masterpiece. For shame, a lot pretend they love the Warner Bros. and MGM classics, but I don't see that influence in a lot of their drawings (not naming any names). I see imitations of stuff based on crappy toys today, my life is more sad for it.

Robert said...

A Rubik's Cube cartoon. I had no idea such a thing existed. I'd say that must be the very nadir of the make-a-cartoon-about-a-toy period, but as soon as I did someone would find something worse.

Nico said...

That "Rubik" intro is absolutely horrifying.

Pete Emslie said...

The so-called "directors" working in TV animation today often have no ability to visualize something on their own whatsoever (let alone being able to actually draw things out like Chuck Jones did.). At one of the local Toronto studios, I've heard that one of the directors idea of directing is to just let the animators go ahead and animate the scenes based on the storyboards and then he'll take a look at it all afterward and tell them why it's wrong. Obviously this results in a lot of revisions and complete redos costing the studio money, when these revisions could have been kept to a minimum if the director had only sat down with the animators ahead of time to give them a clear indication of what he's looking for. I suspect this particular overpaid poor excuse for a director really hasn't a clue what he wants until he sees it! Such is the current state of the industry...

R. Banuelos said...

Home Movies is made at "Soup 2 Nuts" just to clear that up. I don't think their shows try to be more than what they are. Just funny improv characters. It's really silly to point out the drawings of Home Movies are drawn bad.

I saw a little deal on Ed, Edd, and Eddy once where every story went by Danny's approval. But I was stunned that they only do storyboards and ship those off. That show's not too good anyway.

Also, how about your prince Sponge Bob? How does that cartoon run? When they first were running I remember up to three writters and one director. Now I see Vincent Waller alot as Technical Director, what job is that? I can see some of his drawings in the cartoon as well as sometimes Springer's. I wonder if they use layouts or if they go off of storyboards. I've seen that (I believe) Nick Jenning does a number of the backgrounds.
That cartoons about the best new series on T.V.

Long post.

Mitch K said...

Cool cool let's hear about your first directing gig!

Matt J. said...

John, "A Visit to Anthony" is one of my favorite Ren and Stimpy cartoons. Could you talk a little about where the idea came from? I just love it when Anthony goes into shock from seeing Ren on the toilet.

Anonymous said...

These back stories are really intersting. I'd sure like to hear more. Keep it up!

Sorry to be off topic, but could sombebody explain the difference between a layout and a background?
Would these three links help? (example of a layout) (more layout examples)

I bet John could give a better answer, though.

Kali Fontecchio said...

"Now with all this tedious background info to bore the crap out of you..."

Hey! I like tedious background info!

Whit said...

"Rubik, the Amazing Cube" many people consider the nadir of Saturday morning animation but Joe Ruby topped it with "Turbo Teen" two years later.

Mr. Semaj said...

i don't know, it's like mid twenties are feeling nostalgic about they're childhood i guess!

You can't blame them.

A lot of what made television unique back in the 80's and 90's is long gone, and many networks purposely retooled their programs so they zero in on one demographic and shut out everything else. Why else did Nickelodeon abandon game show production? Why else is every other program on The Disney Channel the same premise with a different set of characters? Why else is Cartoon Network dropping out of the creative individuality in their newest shows?

I even see videos on YouTube that talk about how TV Guide Channel was better when it was still the Prevue Channel!

And let's not forget those cereal ads. While many cereals haven't been advertised in at least a decade, many surviving ads have very little appeal.

I still watch a selection of new cartoons, but out of all of them, SpongeBob seems to have the closest match to the unit director system that has been described. Whereas with shows like Family Guy, they're constantly bragging about their recent lack of inspiration. (In some cases, they use another show's shortcomings as an excuse for their own.)

I actually like these stories that tell how sucky animation used to be, and still is to some degrees. John is basically telling us everything we're supposed to be avoiding when out in the industry.

Kris said...

I think the fondness people have for the TV shows of the '80s is based largely on nostalgia, but also partly because the shows were so dumb. The latter appeal is the same feeling we get toward certain types of bad movies--it's just so retarded that it's entertaining, but in a different way than was intended.

There are shows that are called "creator driven" now, but I think very few if any of them are really controlled by the creators anymore.

R. Banuelos said...

"John, "A Visit to Anthony" is one of my favorite Ren and Stimpy cartoons. Could you talk a little about where the idea came from? I just love it when Anthony goes into shock from seeing Ren on the toilet."

Buy the D.V.D's they have commentary tracks for such cartoons. I like the commentaries on Games Animation where John and the others are trying to figure out what's going on in the cartoon.

Possibly the best commentary is on "A Yard too Far" where John breaks down simple story structure, or the one about Reverend Jack Cheese where Bill and Scott are doing commentary. The D.V.D's are really worth it and have great information behind the cartoons creation. I wondered why Destephano wasn't in any commentaries, but then quickly wondered about something else.

David Nethery said...

Peter Emslie wrote:
"I've heard that one of the directors idea of directing is to just let the animators go ahead and animate the scenes based on the storyboards and then he'll take a look at it all afterward and tell them why it's wrong. Obviously this results in a lot of revisions and complete redos costing the studio money, when these revisions could have been kept to a minimum if the director had only sat down with the animators ahead of time to give them a clear indication of what he's looking for."


When I read about the amount of work that directors like Jones put into their cartoons (like Jones doing up to 300 character layout poses per cartoon) you can see how they were able to get that amount of footage pushed through and it still looked good. Timing was sharp. A hands-on director like that is a bargain! Working that way on a director/creator-driven unit system actually SAVES MONEY (in addition to being more creatively satisfying) ,so the madness is that the networks and studios actually choose to pour money down the drain by making their production system less efficient , and less creative, so they end up with over-priced junk shows that aren't worth watching.

Guys, the big question is how do we get around the mainstream distributors who control the purse strings ? Self-distributed, creator controlled content is the big problem we have to solve (I mean self-distributed creator controlled work that actually turns a profit and allows you to make a living ... there's plenty of self-distributed stuff out there that's not making a dime )

Mark Mayerson writes a lot about this stuff on his blog. Other places , too, but it seems like only a few are making that breakthrough (Jib-Jab for example) to holding on to their content and rights and able to make a decent living from it , too.

Julián höek said...

the demand for those 80's cartoons is very big now. they are doing movies about them! ninja turtles, transformers! i heard that he-man is about being made! what's next? it's pure nostalgia

PCUnfunny said...

Today, I think a director just makes sure all the writers are writing. I think they should just call them supervisors.

paul etcheverry said...

Greetings, John -

Re: a return to old-school production methods. . . We can only hope that some rock star or comedian with pockets deeper than Rupert Murdoch, the desire to make superior cartoons and the power to influence distribution will step forward and pay for the next "Termite Terrace".

In a search for inspiration from the largely misbegotten 70's and 80's, what do you think of using DVDS of "SCTV" or "The Black Adder" as training for animators? The acting, staging and comic timing in those shows is impeccable.

JohnH said...

People come up and tell you how much they love 80s cartoons because they didn't have much to compare them too.

They first saw those cartoons when they were kids, and kids are not usually the most sophisticated of reviewers. When you're nine years old and are frantic to get up Saturday morning to see cartoons, no matter what cartoon is on you'll get excited over it. Of course you would, they're -cartoons-. The networks knew they could shovel out any old schlop and the kids would eat it up. Sometimes those attitudes make it into adulthood unexamined, especially if the original shows aren't available on DVD, so the rosy blush of Saturday morning sunrise remains thick on memories of the show.

Even kids back then could tell, however, that there's a night-and-day difference between Gilligan's Planet and The Bugs Bunny & Road Runner Show.

Mr. Semaj said...

Now that I think of it...

Joe Murray set up directorial units for both Rocko's Modern Life and Camp Lazlo, although Rocko was more successful at it. Each director had their own assistant director/storyboard artist, writer, and animation directors, and the directors made their own contributions to the story.

That was what most likely inspired the production system for SpongeBob, since many of that show's original crew worked previously for Rocko.

Rare Hero said...

Hey, I know there's no love for Family Guy here - but it IS a creator driven cartoon. Obviously Seth voices a majority of the characters himself. He's in on the writing. He goes over every single storyboard, drawing new poses and shots when he wants them. He approves every design. He's there for locking a show for timing, locking a show for air....and a million other things I'm probably forgetting. Yes, yes, I know you all hate the show - but, the creator is there every step of the way.