Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Language Of Cartoons

As we all know, cartoons ideas and stories are written with drawings, accompanied by words for dialogue.
The drawings don't need to be finished, totally on-model drawings of the characters. The cartoon story writer has to be more concerned with the story- continuity, acting, staging, gags clarity.
If the story man has to worry about doing cleaned up perfectly on-model characters and finished background drawings, then his mind is not free to think about story.

The storyman wants to show the continuity through the characters. The characters need to appear spontaneous and alive and motivated from within. A really good story man can draw fast and confidently, which automatically gives the continuity a spontaneous - this is really happening now - quality to the work.

That's why storyboards are generally simple and don't have a lot of extraneous detail. When you see a storyboard that is very clean and does have a lot of intricate detail, you can assume that the artist was not thinking about the story. He might have been thinking about impressing an executive, or preparing the drawings so that an overseas studio can just xerox them up to use for layouts, which is a very wrong use for storyboards. It generally adds up to general stiffness, lack of spontaneity, formula staging and storytelling.

The story artist still needs to use some of the same tools that other cartoonists use-clear silhouettes, line of action, opposing poses. All these tools make the acting and story clear and easy to read. They give direction and purpose to the ideas.

He needs to understand the characters and the dynamics between them, so that he doesn't draw each character acting and posing the same way.

Here are some Dan Gordon storyboards for the first Flintstone cartoon. Lots of life and spontaneity.

Here's a Flintstone board by someone else with no life and formula staging. This started the trend towards cartoons where the cartooning doesn't matter. The characters just become surrogates that exist only to mouth the generic words of the people we've come to call writers - who are really just "writers - for -hire", a totally different animal than an actual writer. The irony is that it was probably cartoonists themselves that started this horrific trend, and made it easy for non-cartoonists to take over our business.
There are a series of semi-historical articles at the animation archive that tell how storyboards and the general writing procedures evolved at animation studios. Pretty interesting and very logical.





Sphyzex_9 said...

Bob Camp did an excellent job storyboarding Stimpy's Invention

Zork McZork said...


I was just looking at those articles yesterday!

*starts drawing*

marco's blog said...

GREAT POST!! You really are invaluable resource, thanks.

Thornhill said...

John this is much more open-minded than your past posts have been on storyboarding. Animation schools (including mine) and the industry are so hell-bent on making the storyboards 'presentable', so they can double as layouts. It places to much emphasis on the drawing instead of the story structure and characterization.

Colter said...

Great information!

PCUnfunny said...

If I could, I would give you a big ol' hug for posting wundaful info John. So those are the storyboard images from FALLING HARE ? Neat !

s9: Yes he did.

John S. said...

Holy crap!!! Everything you said is everything that I believe and is exactly what is wrong with at least 2 of the major animation studios!
Thank you for this sir!!
IT is really cool to see these boards as well.

murrayb said...

These boards are very inspiring! Ah, my kingdom for a time machine.

How do you feel about all these studios digitally boarding with cintiqs? I think it's great to be able to plan your cartoon on the fly, to the frame; **BUT***

In my recent experience With digital boarding & animatics, you practically have to animate them to get them approved by the network numbskulls. Not to mention hunting for temp sounds and music to sell a gag.
You waste a bunch of time pacing gags out, that the execs will hate anyways.

Execs want a cartoon finished and polished in crap form before they give you an approval to move on to the next stage. They have no idea what they are looking at unless its keyed out for them, on model. So this is what is happening with digital boarding:
design(in some cases)
layout & staging
timing & editing
rough animation
rough sound mix

Story is done in the script stage (poorly) Once they see their dumb ideas played out in sequence, you "rewrite" with multiple versions of the animatic , spliced together from ten idiot's emailed lists of "thoughts".

Oh, and a frown is off-model, because the designs are grinning like a idiots on the shitty design. a smirk with 'tude is all that is allowed in prozac-ville. If someone stole your car and punched your grandma, you would be "bemused".

They should change the name from Animatic to Dogmatic. TV animation is officially dead.

Unrelated, but you'll like this:

The Riddler did a pretty good Douglas.

Larry Levine said...

John, I draw a webcomic, which is in itself a storyboard & agree 110 percent on your emphasis on acting, staging, spontaneity, etc.

The most important thing is to make the characters/staging alive & fun to look at in the Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett & Milt Gross tradition.

Booo Tooons Ltd. said...

How is it that people with no creative talent or artistic understanding are the ones in charge? That's fine if you're an investment banker who owns a small chain of coffeehouses, but not if you're in the field of entertainment.

They must think Popeye, Betty Boop and Bugs were flukes; products of a time when everything was good.

I just watched The Making of The Real Ghostbusters and most of it's about the executives. You get interview after interview with one milquetoast after another, and the artists ( shown in the background and in quick edits ) look like they want to kill the execs and THEN themselves.

The only fun bit is the interview with Frank Welker, the voice man, because he's the only talent that's actually being utilized.

Eeesh. Too bad Vincent had to work there.

- trevor.

Kali Fontecchio said...

Thanks for these.

Anonymous said...

Hey John,
I know that full animation shorts were done on storyboards, but what about ones like The Flintstones and Yogi Bear?

I'm not insulting the Flintstones, or supporting writer-driven cartoons, I'm just curious.

Although they have great drawings, they're often very centered around dialogue, which I imagine would start as scripts. There's visual gags, but not very crazy or abstract ones. I think it would be pretty easy to write on a script "Fred twists Barney's nose" or "Barney uses a bird's beak as a record player."

Were these the cartoons which started the writer-driven cartoon age, or were the boards still done first, followed by dialogue scripts?

Thanks Steve and John for revealing your cartoon secrets to the world!

Josh Heisie

Adam Gunn said...

This is for sure the best way to do story boards, but when they are sent off for approval by some non-artist they won't be understood. When someone who draws looks at a rough spontaneous drawing they can see the finished drawing in there head, understand it and feel inspired by it. When a non-artist looks at that same drawing, I think they are unable differentiate the important lines from the searching lines. All they see is a bunch of messy details.

I think this is what happens. Does anyone else think the same thing?

Stephen Worth said...


TV cartoons were written in drawings at first too. Here is a Yogi Bear cartoon storyboarded by Warren Foster. The lack of acting, design and visual interest was the result of the changeover from storyboard written cartoons to script written cartoons, not the other way around. Cartoons are a product of the way they are created. It's much more efficient and less expensive to write in drawings instead of words too. There's no excuse for TV cartoons being nothing more than "illustrated radio". I'll go into that in more detail in later posts in the series.

See ya

Gabriele_Gabba said...

Mmmm i never knew about the gag meetings Warner Bros did. Its interesting to note how open and involved the animators were with the story making process. Atm i'm in the process of making a 5 min animated film and i gotta say when we were hammering out the story we came to realise that there has to be 'what's going on' and 'what do we see' So we started by making a rough script, changed it during the thumbnailing stage and then once the story was in place we made a treatment to describe what we'd see in the storyboarding stage. Hope it works well for us :P

patchwork said...

one of my favourite topics, especially when spoken by you

Tony C. said...

Those Flintstones boards are fantastic. I would love to see more like stuff like that!

Sherm said...

Thanks for posting those Dan Gordon boards, John -- You and Steve W are packing a one-two punch for great cartoons!

James said...

Thanks for the tips John! So the drawing don't need to be perfect, but still fun. I think that Bob Camp's storyboard was a great example to use. The drawings are a bit off model, and unfinished, but the whole layout is fun, and tells a clear story. Glad you made this post John!

I used to draw storyboards and comic type stuff like that last Flintstones one, but after REALLY practicing HARD I think I got it down. Lately Ive been going back and completely studying the PB book. When I started out I had so many mistakes, but now I'm good! I draw fun now, not stiff!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for clearing that up, Steve!