Saturday, July 05, 2008

Organizing BG layout elements

Rob Richards has made a great blog where he restores old animation BGs. This makes it very handy for me to study them and pass on some observations to you.

Composition and Hierarchy of forms are 2 major fundamental tools of good artists. You can have a million different styles, but the best artists use the same fundamental skills of organizing the elements within their drawings to show them off.

Big picture first, then working their way down through the levels with each level relating to the larger form that it is part of.



This title card has a masterful use of hierarchical organization. From the overall framing of the trees around the title lettering, all the way down to the smallest level of individual leaves that radiate froM the branches and fill the washy clumps behind them. Each of those clumps flows naturally next to the other clumps and al fit together into an overall shape of foliage.

The perspective of the round bushes leads us deep into the distant horizon and keep the image from being too flat and graphic.

Each bush fits within an organized group of bushes and is also divided into sub forms and on down into the suggestion of leaves that flow around the forms.

The fungi group also has an overall form, while trees all have similar organizations and directions.


The fence is wide, contrasting against the skinny poles.

The areas of sky are different widths.

The houses are low, to contrast against the high fence.

The textures of the trees are detailed, while the geometric shapes of the houses, fence, street are flatter.

Big heavy tree next to a skinny frail tree. Lots of space between them to make it easy for us to see the contrast.

The plank is basically a man made geometric shape. This contrasts against the wheat grass which is organized into its own overall flowing form with obedient subdivisions of grass and wheat, but is more organic than the board. The cans are also man made geometric shapes-but round stubby ones to contrast against the long flat rectangular board.

Each group of forms has its own types of shapes and direction. No anarchy here. It's all arranged to give a group of waterfowl a direction to swim off into the distance.

Drawing a thick forest can easily add up to hard-to-read anarchy, but with organizational skills and hierarchies and patterns you can create quite pleasing and functional scenes that help support the characters with a rich environment and atmosphere.
A chaotic thick forest would distract from the characters, confuse the eye and defeat the purpose of being a background.


This 50s WB style is what many studios misinterpret today as "wonkiness" - no rules. Some modern layout artists see a license for anarchy in these stylized images. I see very slightly distorted perspectives and stylistic interpretations of reality, but with still great planning and organization of all the graphic elements into a quickly readable statement that has a purpose in the scene and story.

Each element does not follow its own physics ; it is subservient to the overall composition. Every detail follows and helps define the larger object it is part of.

(unlike wonkiness where every element exists in its own universe, unrelated to anything else in the picture)

BTW, I was out of town for a few days, so have not yet had a chance to check all the comments and links about storyboarding for the George Liquor Show. I will in the next couple days. Thanks!


Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Beautiful backgrounds, well explained! I'm surprised that background site is still up. I thought he took it down a while back. Maybe I'm confusing it with something else.

Bitter Animator said...

Wow, that one with the water and the little lily in the bottom-right corner is gorgeous. The shapes are beautiful. But what are those red things in the top-left?

Raff said...


I'm just starting to work with gouache paints. Anyone know how to do those smooth gradations down the page, like on a night sky or those walls?

Mark said...

That is a fabulous site. Thanks for pointing it out, and thanks for your analysis of some of the backgrounds.

BTW, how many backgrounds were typically painted for the classic 7 minute cartoons? And has that number changed significantly along with the other changes in animation over the years?

Bob said...

Hey Jon I attempted doing a storyboard for Mabel's introduction. It's at my blog
Bob's Blog

Nate said...

This may be a difficult question, but what makes these images more or less 'cartoony'?

I only ask because you've given the note 'more cartoony' a couple times, and it is hard to articulate what that means exactly.

The top image from the 3 Bops is cartoony, sure. The nature pan with the boulders much less so.

But the street scene with the fence and poles... the verticals are straight and the perspective is more or less mechanical. But it still looks like it belongs in a cartoon.


Anyway another great post. I am printing it out and tacking it to my wall.

trevor said...


Though it looks like these were 'digitally restored' backgrounds, because my eyes hurt looking at someo of them.... particularly the 'Corny Concerto' one.

But this is a great study! Thanks for making it so easy to understand, John!

- trevor.

Sven Hoek said...

The backgrounds on that website are beautiful. When I got to the bottom of the page I started singing...
"Is you is, or is you aint my baby"

*Rebecca* said...

Your blog is really helpfull for beginners cartoonists like me. Do backgrounds is a hard work, but is not given the value it deserves

The empty space without the foreground, is a little dramatic, isn't? is all so lonely...

i love it..

Greetings from Chile ^_^

Yes, south america...

stiff said...

Does that second BG constitute a double negative?

rodineisilveira said...

Johnny K.,

Jesus! I recognize these backgrounds! They're done by Irv Wynner and Boris Gorelick, who made part of the Friz Freleng's crew, from the Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies theatrical shorts, produced by Warner.

tiny dean said...

Good examples all around but I especially like the last two images.

Mitch K said...

Woah wicked! Thanks for pointing out this out!

Anthony Rizzo said...

My favorite is the green park bench with the curly little feets!

Thanks John!

flaviano said...

wow what a post! really helpful
i don't understand about the previous post if there are an open job position for story artist and how can be applied.
thanks and thanks for taking the time to share all this stuff (for free)!