Monday, December 01, 2008

Jetsons 1985 - Mixing Curves and Angles

I almost didn't get a job on the Jetsons because Bob Singer (head of the model department) thought I drew too angular and flat. He was right, but the models they were doing themselves at HB were beyond primitive. I wish I had saved some to show you. We used to pin them up on the walls in Taipei and everyone would laugh hysterically when the new ones came in. We'd have contests with the Nelvana directors to see who would be sent the ugliest models.
I'm embarrassed to show these now, but at the time they were fun to do and were considered pretty radical.

The perspective and construction is off in a few places.

This model is too cluttered in the face and too pointy in general.

Lynne Naylor's models had a nicer overall feel to them. She too used angles, but softened the corners and made them flow into the curves. This made the characters seem more organic and real.

All model designs tend to be stiff when created out of thin air. The best models come from the layouts, after you have taken your designs and moved them around and made them do things in context of the story. All these same characters came to life in the actual stories.

It was lucky for me that Bob Singer didn't hire me to just do model sheets. Instead Bill and Joe sent me to Taipei to do layouts - and as a bonus, told me to throw out the HB models and do my own.

Having to draw layouts from my own designs was the best thing to happen to me. When you draw character designs in the abstract you are just drawing pictures of characters that exist floating on a page - like a sketchbook doodle. Even if I'm thinking about the character's personality (which I always do) I can't be sure if the design will actually work for animation. It might not be functional.

When you take these same drawings and all of a sudden have to move them around, bend, grab things, walk, talk and come to life you start to see problems in the design - which we did while doing Jetsons layouts.

Luckily, we had the freedom to take liberties with the designs as we posed the cartoons and we could improve the functionality as we went. This liberty doesn't exist at most studios that demand you never veer of-model - even to correct mistakes or eliminate stiffness.

You can't be a good designer if you have never inbetweened, animated or done layouts. You will just be pasting on your own drawing problems to the next department - who in most studios is not allowed to interpret your designs to make them work.

A cartoon designer needs some basic talents:

1) an instinctive design sense-
He/she needs to have what all designers in any craft have - a natural sense of balance, organization and appeal.

Not all cartoonists and animators have this ability (as you could see from my post yesterday)

Designers need this natural gift. It can't be learned; it has to be innate. But it's still not enough.

2) Experience in animation, assisting, layout

This should come first before you ever design anything. You should have a good idea of what makes things work functionally. When you have these skills, then you can apply them to your designs.

Ed Benedict, Tom Oreb, Tom McKimson, Chuck Jones, all the admired designers of the past had learned their craft from the ground floor up. They started as assistants, animated for awhile or did layout and then began designing their own characters.

We haven't had this logical production system in decades. When I started, each department existed by itself in the abstract and didn't communicate with the other departments. Bob Singer at HB would hire students from his model design classes and plop them cold into the model department with no experience ever doing production work first. I'm not picking on Bob; this happened at every studio. There was also a crazy theory that you should be able to design in any style. Cartoonists should also be able to do superhero shows. This is utterly crackpot thinking. There is the odd person like Jim Smith who can do both, but he is rare indeed.

Lots of great classic designers couldn't transition from 40s style to 50s style, but tried anyhow. Designers are individuals with their own specialties and tastes and should be cast according to the tone of the shows they work on. What they all should have in common is experience doing the real work of animation first.

Alex TothAlex Toth
I know Alex Toth has a huge fan base and his model sheets for HB's superhero shows are very handsome indeed. But look at the shows!

No one could animate those designs. They didn't work for animation and the whole 70s decade is considered the dregs of animation history because of it.

And there were other "realistic" designers that didn't have Toth's talent. Those shows are even worse.

This Saturday Morning cartoon design style has since even seeped into feature animation:Why would anyone spend a couple hundred million dollars on something that looks like a low-budget Saturday Morning cartoon? Anyone have an answer for that? Will?

Is it possible that drawings like this are in features with Disney's name on them?

I've heard that Disney 2d films let the animators design their own characters (I could be wrong) which might sound sensible on the surface - but not all animators have a sense of design. Plus the executives get in and monkey with everything to make sure there is no appeal sneaking into the designs. They like everything to be "realistic" which doesn't mean looking like real people; it means having small heads, long legs and tiny features. Sometimes the more rebellious animators fight the execs and demand that they at least get to paste Bambi eyes at the top of their Filmation/ Saturday Morning TV character long as the animators promise to fill their scenes with visual metaphors aimed at the family audience

Many of the modern features are filled with characters that don't go together; they look like they are from different design schools and this makes your involvement in the stories suffer when it is so obvious.

Today's TV execs hire kids out of college who can't draw at all, let alone have any design sense and absolutely don't have any experience - and they not only let them design shows, sometimes they even let them create shows and boss around artists with actual experience! This has to be the most illogical inefficient period of animation history yet.

The Jetsons wasn't any great achievement, but it opened the door to a short period of cartoons returning to some measure of common sense.


Wicks for Candlesticks said...

Angles are something that keep me up at night. It's nice to see examples of angular figures that have a sense of density. It can be done if you have your basics down.

-David O.

Jeff said...

Great post.

Matt G said...

I always thought there was something horribly wrong with Jim from Treasure Planet, but more so; that there was something unforgivable about the design of the spider-legged bug-eyed villain. Not to mention the other "extras" characters. Have you ever noticed that they all look like a bunch of humanoid elephant people?

Keep up the awesome posts.

J. McNair said...

As a fan of the Jetsons (there, I said it), thank you for posting these model sheets. Lynne Naylor's especially are very charming and even cute without being grating or saccharine. They "feel" like a good cartoon. Yours are more dynamic and exciting (implied motion anyone?).

Thanks for illustrating ways to do angles without badly copying Bruce Timm or Genndy Tartakovsky.

I have read that Alex Toth was an extremely demanding and meticulous artist, and was hardest on himself. Looking at his art and watching 70's H-B cartoons and wonder what actually happened.

The "classical" animation studio system sounds like the best way for any creative professional to work. But I don't think that exists anywhere anymore, does it?

JohnK said...


JohnK said...

No, it doesn't although the studios could afford it with the huge amount of money they waste today.

I created a hybrid system that takes into consideration realities of TV budgets. It was used by the cable network studios for a few years and got watered down bit by bit, until it's lost it's efficiency and functionality.

Now there are more execs than ever and more obstacles in the way of common sense cartooning.

Christine Gerardi said...

Great post, John.

This is kind of off topic, but what do you think of Top Cat? It's always been my favorite Hannah Barbara cartoon. I don't recall you ever posting anything about it.

JohnK said...

I like the designs of the cats. I don't think the human designs fit in though. They aren't cartoony.

bob said...

its really great to point out the fact that not all designs look good after animating, like alex toth designs. some of the worst animation ive ever seen was the super friends, i laugh my ass off when i watch it because there are so many mastakes in that show. why did they keep making shows with designs that didnt work well for animation, didnt they see how bad it looked. reminds me of how bad some flash toons look, too many angles.

trevor thompson said...

Ya know, this blog does a lot to motivate me... but for every time I get motivated and go home and try to apply what I learned to my drawings, there's a period of grave depression: "What's the point?"

When I was a little kid, I wanted nothing more than to work in animation, but my appreciation for it quickly led to learning how upsetting it can be ( my first taste of this was reading 'Cel Out: The Plot To Kill Cartoons' ).

Sometimes when I read this blog, I'm met with the thought that if it's this upsetting and troublesome for John, who's been making healthy contributions to the medium since the early 80's, how am I going to take it? I'll read stories about the execs mucking things up and I'll ask myself, "Do I really want this?"

Plus, anyone who knows my behavior on other blogs ( I have to keep in check here because of the rules of the house ) knows I'm confrontational like a motherfather. If someone who went to business school tells me I'm not drawing right, I'm lucky if the situation ends with only a write-up or a suspension for throwing someone's Emmy at them.

I'll probably get a lifetime ban for asking this, but what the hell: How come you're not an executive, John? If a twentynothing with a piece of paper on his wall can be an exec, why not you?

Surely there must be at least one out there who does the whole Baby Boomer thing of 'trying to fight the fight from within the system', yeah? And if not, then you could add that to your list of 'firsts'. The first television executive who knows something about cartoons.

Or would it be that you'd become even more depressed and likely to kill yourself?

- trevor.

PS: I'm buying rope at Home Depot tonight. Anyone else need some?

Elana Pritchard said...

Well what the hell are we supposed to do as young ignorant cartoonists then, eh? Either go to a crappy animation school and work in an even crappier studio and hopefully not get brainwashed in the process, or completely isolate ourselves from the whole industry and try to learn everything on our own and hope we win the lottery someday so we can start our own studio? I guess there's no answer to this question, really.

Putty CAD said...

I'm loving all these posts about character development! I find all this stuff fascinating.

Whit said...

This is also a reason George Lucas never got his animated "Spirit" feature length animated film off the ground in the 1980's. There weren't then and aren't now even six animators on earth who can draw Will Eisner's style convincingly, let alone move it around.

Shawn said...

I HATE "realistic" designs! I don't even think they're fun to LOOK at, forget about ANIMATING them. What's the point of ugly cartoons that are NOT fun? Didn't you say in a past post that cartoons are "HUMOROUS drawings"? So why do studios try to make SERIOUS cartoons? Do kids actually LIKE Treasure Planet? I haven't seen the movie, but I tried to sit through a 2 minute trailer for it, and I was bored to tears! YUCK!

craigp said...

the system of being an assistant seems to be dead, if that is true then what is the closest thing today for people needing to learn those valuable skills? getting a job in cleanup? prop design?
it's very disheartening that no apprenticeship system really exists anymore. it seems like the only way to get a foothold into the industry is either being a genius artist or spending a million dollars at Calarts just for the contacts.

Niki said...

Its now no wonder why "The Thief and the Cobbler" looks so much better than "Treasure Planet"

that thing about instinctive design sense has me worried a bit. I hope your wrong about it having to be innate, or at least that I have it.

on another note whats up with the cat lady's eyes?

Will said...

I recon the big companies spend heaps of money on these type of feature films cause they worked in the past, alladin, lion king etc, some of these where popular because they made a strong emotional connection with the audience, and was very successful so its just a formula i guess.
But theres a catch to this style, they need to draw in a more realistic style or the emotion gets lost in the whackyness and becomes kinda comical, but they still need to retain a kinda cartoony look... so maybe thats why some of the character designes whernt riped up by the director?
But yeah i never really understood why some of the characters had the weirdly different styles to them either, maybe thats it? who knows

pappy d said...


I can't seem to find any reference to 'Cel Out: The Plot To Kill Cartoons' online. I'd love to hear any plausible conspiracy theory other that that most banal of all evils: error as a function of $.

I recall weeping with frustration trying to work from Alex Toth's Superfriends designs. They were so beautiful, so elegant & economical of line but they just wouldn't turn! He's still one of my all-time favorite artists & if he'd wanted he could have been an amazing animator but he'd learned to "cheat" his anatomy into an optimal graphic statement. He just couldn't condescend to do a less-than-perfect drawing just because it had to move.

PCUnfunny said...

I admit I used to think being "realistic" in animation is good but then you realize you aren't aiming for realism at all, you are just watering down. You obesess over making sure something doesn't look funny so you can be taken "seriously" but then you just take out the humanity.

I also used to think imiating live action movement and stunts was good too but again, it's hopeless and it just comes out boring. Why is it that these modern day cartoons endlessly try to imitate live action film ? "Dynamic" Camera angles and all that nonsense.

PCUnfunny said...

Niki: That's a "cat" lady ? I didn't know what the hell she was.

Zoran Taylor said...

Crazy camera angles CAN be awesome in a cartoon, they just need to be combined with other funny ideas that work WITH them rather than against them. Remember Homer having a heart attack while he's trying to sign a waver? First it looks like the camera was strapped to a bug on the table, so you get already-exaggerated pained grimaces with extra jowlage and some funny distorted head shapes, and then there's this completely "WTF?!" double-turn into a level, almost-long shot -like a figure skater- RIGHT on the next beat: "Sir, I must warn you-" "I MADE AN 'H'!!!" If that weren't timed just right and if everything didn't follow the line readings it would be beyond incoherent. But it cracked me up, so I studied it and it turns out to be as clever as I thought it was.

Oh snap, that was the Simpsons, wasn't it? Shit, I'm asking for it. Toonworld, I await your snarky dismissals. C'mon, do your worst! PIIILE 'EM OOOON, MUTHAZZZZ!!! Ah, who cares....

Zoran Taylor said...

(By the way PC, in case you were wondering, yes this is Stinky from Spumboard. AKA, "The total nut salad in the Halloweeny Ren digs". Proud, too.)

PCUnfunny said...

Zoran: Not what I meant. I meant the ones that demand rotating CGI backrounds and just utterly pointless. They never look good and just look out of place with hand drawn, 2-D characters. The ones that work in animation was in early Disney films and Frank Tashlin's Warner cartoons.

Guy said...

Snarky dismissals, eh? How about a statement on how sad it is that things have degraded to such a degree that something as relentlessly crude as The Simpsons can seem like genius?

Yeah, that seems pretty good to me.

Zoran Taylor said...

PC, I completely agree with you there. I'll tell you what kinda burns me, though - it seems, if the little documentary on Tashlin from LTGC#3 is any indication, that there are some goons out there who think that even TASHLIN took himself "too seriously". "He was clearly auditioning to be a live-action director", said someone - I can't remember who, but I'm sure it was said. Yeesh! What's with these people who are out for secretly-cartoon-hating blood these days?! Isn't it obvious from how FUNNY those cartoons are that he was happy where he was and just wanted to try different things in his career? Bob was a puppeteer for more of his life than he was an animator - does that mean HE just made cartoons to get ahead? Now, that would be REALLY cynical!

Zoran Taylor said...

(Sorry, that might be a miscalculation on my part, re: Clampett. But I think he started working with puppets long before "Beany", so I might still me right. Remember that Milt Gray interview where he talked about using a prototype TV set as a stage for his puppets at a tech convention of some sort? I think he said it was 1939.)

Mr. Semaj said...

Yeesh! What's with these people who are out for secretly-cartoon-hating blood these days?!

It's quite often evident on this blog.

PCUnfunny said...

Zoran: Tashlin didn't take himself seriously but yes, he had a very strong desire to enter live action film. The irony is many of the gags he used in his cartoons ended up in his live action work.

Guy: I actually think the early Simpsons shorts and about 5 seasons deserves at least the merit of solid entertainment. Even at some points, very well done animation. Today the show is because the characters are merely tools for social commentary and the animation is incredibly stiff.

PCUnfunny said...

Guy: One last thing on the simpsons, I find it hilarous what the producers call "good animation". They hate the fun rubbery stuff of the shorts and they love the crap they make now. They impose so many restrictions and rules on the character models that it's a wonder that no animator has killed themselves working on that show.

Zoran Taylor said...

I never said he didn't take himself seriously, or that he wasn't interested in doing movies, just that I think he must have liked doing cartoons as well because otherwise they would evidently lack enthusiasm, even for all their obvious quality. As they were, they made for MORE than just a great blueprint or calling card - They could stand up alone and wow an audience. I just think that Tash must've actually cared about that. Some claim he didn't. I'unno, mahn...

PCUnfunny said...

Zoran: Tashlin only considered cartoons a stepping stone to live action animation though he clearly put effort in his animation. Personally, I think he should have stayed a Warners for a few more years.

Mattieshoe said...

To me, Aladdin was a lost cause partly because of it's subject matter.

It chose a story to make a film out of that was so far removed from Western values and interest that they couldn't possibly make a "Disney" feature out of it without failing horribly.

So I guess since there was no turning back, they switched the focus of the film away from the conflict or drama or even the story and onto "Comedy" and "Cartooniness" ,which, unfortunately, in some people's minds (Jeffrey Katzenberg?), meant the influx of Saturday morning cartoon characters, like the Monkey, Tiger, or Sultan, and making the only conscious color choices Red for "Bad" and Blue for "Good"

I don't know what's up with Aladdin's design. I guess they were trying to be "Contemporary"?

Despite all this, I still think there was some good stuff in the movie. the Hirschfeld-inspired Thick and thin lines and the use of lines of action actually DID help make the film seem more cartoony and loose. Under the terrible colors and occasional dumb character designs is some fine animation.

What do you think of Eric Goldberg, anyway? he and Robin Williams pretty much saved the film for me.

From then on, Disney Fims had absolutely no redeemable qualities, just because some executives felt that the "Disney Style" or appeal and functionality was only appropriate for Fantasy Stories.