Saturday, January 03, 2009

Animation School 11: Getting Back To The Primal Needs Of A Cartoonist

This comic cover by Harvey Eisenberg shows off every animation cartoon drawing fundamental in beautiful complex balance. It has a composition, great posing, perfect artistic use of negative space, lines of action, opposing poses, overlapping action and one thing more fundamental than all those. It's a good solid drawing.Every now and then I have to go back and remind people that the number 1 most important weapon in your cartoon arsenal is CONSTRUCTION.

Every other artistic principle, technique or tool is less important - and easier to learn once you can actually draw a solid figure.

People ask me to critique their lines of actions and negative spaces or their character designs, which is fine - but they still haven't learned to draw a 3 dimensional figure.

So here's this month's reminder to learn construction and a step by step guide how to construct something.

The best way for you to learn this is to do the drawings in the Preston Blair book
and THEN to copy drawings by the best animators and cartoonists who do this well.

Pinocchio and Captain Hook use the same fundamental skills. The main difference is in complexity. Hook has taller more difficult proportions, and more details to control. The details start to make sense the more you understand how they fit into larger forms.

Don't try to learn fundamentals by designing your own character designs. You are putting the cart before the horse by trying to pose something that is full of design flaws. Copy someone who knows what they are doing and learn how they do it. Then later, when you are competent, you can apply what you learned to your own poses and drawings.

Harvey Eisenberg is one of the most technically able cartoonists and he is great to learn from, because his drawings are so carefully constructed. They follow all the classic principles, have great balance and no superfluous details.

If you do this exercise and copy drawings like these, don't trace them like I did. Copy them using the same step by step process. I just did it on the computer so I could separate each step on its own layer to show you. Tracing is cheating though.

I used to copy still frames from old cartoons off 8 mm cartoon prints. I took a bunch of my pencil sketches to Friz Freleng when he was looking for artists on "The Looney Looney Looney Bugs Bunny Movie". He took a look at them and said "What didya do, trace 'em?" I didn't but that was a good proof to me of the value of being very slow and careful in learning from the masters. He didn't hire me though, because he refused to believe I drew them -maybe because he couldn't draw his characters himself. "No young punks today can draw that stuff." I eventually did get to work for him on "The Pink Panther Zygotes" or something and he was a very crotchety and funny.

PART 2: I'll show you how to add the details in the next post.


Now you may think, "I don't want to draw in Harvey Eisenberg's style", "I want to be completely original, never go to the dentist or bathe, eschew toilet tissue and make cave paintings with sticks covered in ox-blood", or "I like Tom Oreb's more flat designy style."

If you are a fan of Frank Thomas, Tom Oreb, Rod Scribner, Bob McKimson, Bobe Cannon, Tex Avery, John Hubley, Milt Kahl or any of a horde of great animators and designers from the Golden Age you can learn the tools and language they all share in common.

Every one of these artists uses the same basic principles of 40s constructed animation characters, yet they each developed very distinct and well-loved styles. They also share many tools with related fields - illustration, stage, movies, music and more. I talk about those all the time, but the #1 tool that makes us cartoonists unique is cartoon drawings. Simple drawings that are fun and unrealistic, yet are still good drawings.

It's not a good idea to try to learn fundamentals by copying a strong stylist like Tom Oreb or Jim Tyer - or Disney artists in the 50s, because it's harder to see the underlying principles and visual forces that hold the drawings together. After you understand and CAN DRAW the basic principles on your own, then you can study the variations of the stylists and add stylistic techniques to your own work.

If you are a fan of classic cartoons and you want to learn fast and get to the point where your own drawings have that much appeal and strength, then learn from the best and most controlled and conservative.

The kind of animation I promote on my blog is entertainment animation that requires a lot of people to work on the same cartoons. We all have to share the same language and grammar, or there's no way we can make a comprehensive community effort. Not every artist in a studio can just go his own way and make whatever mistakes he wants to make and call it his style. Each artist is subject to a director and a story, and needs the tools with which to make the story work. Or he won't be useful.

You can be an independent animator if you don't want to be part of a team, and that's fine. No rules and if you work real hard and learn to promote yourself as a rebel, a small but maybe dedicated audience will be your reward.

The better you can draw though, the more choices you will have.


Elana Pritchard said...

John, you are so helpful.

Trevor Thompson said...

That last part sounds like you're talking about Williams.

- trevor.

Oscar Baechler said...

Always a treat, keep it up. I think a lot of beginning animators got into it because they thought it would be easy and fun. It's definitely fun, but when it turns out not to be easy they throw temper tantrums and burn out.

Thanks for the homework assignment.

diego cumplido said...

TREVOR: I suppose John is not talking about Richard Williams. Because that guy functioned quite well doing team work and had TOO MANY RULES. Don Hertzfeldt and Bill Plympton, instead, fit in that profile.

SibbSabb said...

My God I can't keep up with the posts, which is a good thing :) Your last few posts on staging really helps. In fact I drew something in one pose recently, and had to change it since the initial pose wasn't clearly conveying what it should. Furthermore, I zoomed out in Photoshop and saw where I had some miscalculations with my overall structure. These are very helpful tools.

Draconis said...

John, I've been a longtime fan and wanabe cartoonist but in my old age, I'm ready to make the jump to getting serious and am taking your suggestions as word of god. I appreciate the wisdom your sharing here and would very much like to get your critiques on my work, but I still consider myself a very crude artist but will take your lessons to heart and will participate more on your blog and will try to give you something not so horrible to critique soon. Thank you once again. You're providing information that even my 70,000 dollar degree program hasn't touched.

-Steven Graziano

Niki said...

john Hubley and Tom Oreb, you just add two people to my favorites list. for some reason I really like these abstract appearances. I thought it was very strange when I found out that almost all the time they use the same type of structure with different looks! and coincidentally I was practicing my structure all day today!

Niki said...

sorry for re-posting but I just saw a Red Bull commercial, although I hate the style I do admit, whoever made it had a structure under that ugly as sin cat.

Jorge R. Gutierrez said...

Really loving all your latest posts John. We all have so much to learn!

Steven said...

Good post! I always liked the saying "You have to know the rules before you break the rules".

Toonimated said...

You know, there are alot of animations made for the internet that are a billion times better then anything that's on the modern telivision. This guy called Adam Phillips might interest you. He worked at Disney if i remember right.

Peggy said...

That story about you and Friz is awesome. I don't think I've ever heard it before, but I can totally believe that happened.

The thing that always strikes me about seeing the early stylized cartoons is how solid they are. A while back a friend linked me to a copy of "Norman Normal", one of the much-derided post-UPA Warner's shorts; each frame was pointy and abstracted, but they'd regularly turn in 3D space with the casual ease of someone rotating Porky's head. Modern stylized cartoons feel like they're been drawn by people who've only ever seen stills from the 50s design revolution.

HemlockMan said...

"Don't try to learn fundamentals by designing your own character designs. You are putting the cart before the horse by trying to pose something that is full of design flaws. Copy someone who knows what they are doing and learn how they do it. Then later, when you are competent, you can apply what you learned to your own poses and drawings."

That sounds like flawless advice.

Christopher said...

John, amazing as always. Your last bunch of posts are invaluable in learning how to cartoon. Whether one wants to be an animator or comic cartoonist, all the same principles apply.

I can't thank you enough for sharing all your experiences and knowledge. I never had a chance to go to art school but I'm glad I didn't. I would have felt completely ripped off after your posts.

Sketchbook On the right track?

Grab0id said...

Best post yet! I know I haven't posted a comment yet, and yes maybe I was in the tub sipping on bourbon whilst reading this last post on my laptop, but don't let that detract from the message, and I think the message John is trying to say here is don't spray perfume on a turd and call it "quality". A basic understanding of the laws of the universe will help you whether you are trying to break those laws (for your supposed style) or follow them ( to get others to sympathize with your creation) You can't manipulate your environment to "help you" unless you have learned the fundamentals of said environment. The basics "make" A GOOD cartoon. Even if the writer doesn't know funny from his ass.

Paul B said...

hey John
I found this comic, I think it's really funny

what do you think?

Dan said...

Very inspiring post. Thank you.

Mark Borok said...

I once worked as a character layout artist on the Simpsons. while Film Roman did their best to make Matt Groening's characters into animatable designs, the result was that drawing them was a kind of torture. They only look halfway decent from one angle, 3/4 view.

I got a chance to do a storyboard test for "The Little Mermaid" saturday morning show, as a part of which I had to study the design of those Disney characters. It was a beautiful experience. They practically drew themselves, the construction was so logical that I felt as if I was drawing them on-model after only a few tries.

I like to think of myself as an "independent" animator, but even for an individual artist, having a well-constructed character makes the process of animating easier and more pleasant. Especially if you do full and not limited animation. I think only the best draftsmen can animate a loosely drawn character that is not constructed out of 3D volumes.

Putty CAD said...

Great stuff, I like how you broke down the image (nice font btw).

I managed to get hold of the Preston Blair book a while ago and need to practice more to make my stuff more solid.

I'm gonna have a look now, see if I missed any more of your posts over the Christmas break!

Happy New Year Mister K!

;) Ric

Peter said...

From what Disney animation did the Oreb Mickey designs come from?

[Moth] said...

Hi John.

I just wanted to tell you I had been disconnected for some time, so to gain time I have read all your posts from about September, 2008 in a row, (it took me a couple of weeks); and I have to say i have learned A LOT from your advice and examples.

I don't know if I can draw better than one month ago, but at least i have some visual knowledge of framing, composition and construction. I PLAN what I am going to draw. I think that's a big improvement. I just need to practice, practice, and practice even more.

Now, used as I am to read a couple or three posts a day; I'ts gonna be hard to slow down the rhythm.

Anyway, thanks a lot for writing this blog, John!!!


Brandon D. said...

Thanks for clarifying, starting on learning construction and using an action line.

Mitch L said...

Really awesome posts! They are so helpfull and keep motivating me to work on principles besides work. Thanks, hope you will keep making more!

Paul B said...

Hi John

I know this is off topic but i was seeing the cartoon Tom Thumb In Trouble and i don't know why but some scenes reminds me some of your cartoons.
I noticed some hold drawing of Tom dad's angry face and it reminds me the face of Bakshi in Fire Dogs 2, when he grab Ren's hand. The other thing I noticed was the dramatic snow sequences and it reminds me the sequences of Stimpy's First Fart.

Is it just me...?

Do you like this cartoon?

drawingtherightway said...

Hey John long time reader first time poster. I'm just curious but when you did those caricatures of people at that convention did you first construct them in pencil and then do them in ink or were they drawn straight ahead?

Bill J. Barry said...

Step Four: Marking perspective lines... can you please explain those lines? Are you indicating a change in perspective at those points? For example, the elbow mark is the form bending/changing perspective?

JohnK said...

"when you did those caricatures of people at that convention did you first construct them in pencil and then do them in ink or were they drawn straight ahead?"

No I just do them as fast as possible straight ahead so I can make it to the end of the line. No time for construction or composition or any thinking. Just first impressions of how to make it look like someone I've never met before and make them happy.

But I also already have a lot of this stuff in my head anyway, so the mistakes won't be quite as obvious as a beginner's - and there are a lot of technical mistakes and sloppiness in my fast caricatures, for sure.

Anonymous said...

Off topic- Thought you might find these interesting:

Looney Tunes placemats (ebay) from 1940's

I never knew they made LT merchandise that early. Must be rare, considering the price.

There are also some metal Looney Tunes banks from the 40's on ebay: apx. $5,000.

Plain Jane said...

Everyone has different animation goals. and that is good. Perhaps you haven't yet conquered all levels of communication.

Loren Broaddus said...

I'm doing the Preston Blair drawings but I can't really school myself that well because of impatience. How long should I spend on each particular lesson?

Loren Broaddus said...

I'm doing the Preston Blair drawings but I can't really school myself that well because of impatience. How long should I spend on each particular lesson?