Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Shorts Goals 6 - Where Can Cartoonists Get Well-Rounded Experience Today?

Where do you get all-around experience in each department today?

What Does a Director Need Besides Talent?
The best directors are the folks who not only have talent, but who know how each department fits into the whole of the product. You can only get this knowledge by doing a number of different jobs over a few years to see what the function of each job is. Then you have a view of the whole system.

Most directors of the classic cartoons started as inbetweeners, worked their way up to animators, and if they were especially talented at telling stories, became directors. This took a few years within a very sensibly built American capitalist merit based system.

My Own Way Of Gaining Varied Experience At A Bad Time In History
In the 80s, when I started, the system had come apart creatively and became a cold factory - but it still separated many of the jobs and did them i the country. I worked as an inbetweener at a commercial studio, shot camera, then did some animation, did storyboards at TV studios, then layouts. I was really excited when I got my first official designer job on Heathcliff of all things. From there, I got into doing presentations for HB and TMS. I broke into some writing at the same time. I was learning bit by bit how the whole process worked (or didn't). By the time I got my first directing job, I was as ready as anyone could be in the late 80s.

I at least knew how everything was being done currently - and the handicaps of the system too, and I also knew kind of how they used to do things on the cartoons I liked. I knew real well who many of the most talented artists in the business were. So I combined the realities of modern TV production with some of the sense of the old system. A director isn't just a guy with some abstract idea that he got by chance spastic molecular activity in his brain; he is someone who knows how the all the parts fit together first, then is able to build his ideas (if he has any) around practical reality. And he needs a crew of very specialized talents who work well with him.

Today, I don't know if there is any way to get even as much experience as I accumulated before creating my own show. Animation is done overseas so not many in the business today actually know how cartoons are made - because studios hire other countries to make them for them. Or they do them in Flash, which amounts to the same thing.

Starting At The Top Is Just Plain Dumb

People start out in the business today doing jobs that used to require a lot of experience.
Storyboarding - without ever having animated, assisted or done layout, writing without ever having even drawn a storyboard! Storyboards aren't even used to write stories anymore. Ridiculous.

Model sheets are made by non-animators.

Most studios don't even do layouts anymore so there is nowhere to learn that.

Directors (the top creative position) are seemingly pulled out of a hat. It's open to anyone who walks in and can barely scrawl a stick figure out but can somehow convince a non-creative manager that he's got some latest in-thing (which usually is just a watered down poorly drawn copy of something that already exists). The execs even admit it's hard to deal with these young immature folks because they don't have a realistic or experienced overview of how cartoons are made. (I have to hold their hands through the process, one exec told me) Well, "D-uh" as they say.

Animation has turned into a mystery religion.

Standards so Low Now That There Is Nothing Even To Aim For

When I was starting out, the studio system was pretty awkward and inefficient, but at least I had lots of old cartoons on TV to record and study - and there were some old timers around to ask questions about how they made their cartoons. So I pieced together a picture of how everything fit together and when I got my chance to try it out, saw what worked and what didn't, then was able to continue adapting the production system to favor creativity and artistic ambition among the cartoonists.

The old cartoons also had much higher standards than the current ones, so it encouraged some of us to aim high, regardless of the junk the studios made us pump out in the 80s.

Now sadly, there aren't many classic cartoons on TV anymore to at least inspire people to want to aim high, draw well, or let alone create lasting characters with personality. Any kid in high school can look at cartoons on TV today and say "Hell, I can do that!" And then they do. And each year cartoons become more primitive and get poorer ratings.


A sensible shorts program has to solve these problems in order to increase the chances of finding top talent and hits. Right now, the programs are all set up as crap shoots. Toss a pile of money in the air, hire 50 inexperienced kids and call them directors, then water down the actual experienced talent pool who has earned the right to maybe try directing by splitting it into 50 sub-standard units and hope one your 50 handicapped shorts somehow flukes its way into success. It's an admission by the management that they have no idea what makes something work. Extreme gambling with the companies' futures.

Let's use simple math:

50 units x say 8 people per crew = 400 artists you have to find.
OR: 50 cartoons made by 3 units of 8 = 24 artists.
Is it more likely to find 24 very talented artists than 500 for one program? Are there 500 really talented artists in the whole business? Let alone in 1 studio? There might be 24, though.

These 24 top talents each would get to make 16 or 17 shorts instead of just 1 each, and learn by experience and get better with each short.

The 50 crews each get one chance - all or nothing to get it right.

Which system sounds like it has a better chance to succeed?

How We Could Benefit From A Little Logic
No one uses their shorts program as an empirical way to create as many hits as fast as possible and to develop top talent who can consistently do it. And that's what the whole purpose behind a shorts program used to be. To kick the Hell out of the competition. Isn't it?

So another main goal of a shorts program should be:

To Give Cartoonists Real Experience - climb the ladder, earn your way up

Give cartoonists a ladder to climb so that when they finally get a chance to direct, they at least know how things work.

to be continued...





3-to-discover Talent


5-let-mistakes happen


Trevor Thompson said...

Hey! No pictures?

Man, just like grown-up books, no pictures, no fun.


- trevor.

PS: Thanks for this continuing lesson, John!

JohnK said...

Yeah no time for pics, and I couldn't figure out what pics would illustrate these concepts.

Geneva said...

I'm dyin' for a ladder to climb!

Trevor Thompson said...

So what's the good news?

I get really depressed reading stuff like this, because it sounds like there's no hope. It seems like a complete fluke that we got someone like you in the 80's, so how can we expect to see anything worthwhile now when times are even tougher?

I can see something like this existing on a purely independent level and being distributed on the internet, but if what you say is true ( which I believe it is ) then television is truly dead and anyone who tries to pitch a real good idea to a network is basically a necrophiliac.

So, is Ralph right when he talks about how the independent route is truly the only chance artists have at making uncomprimised work?

I hope not, but I'm doubtful.

- trevor.

JohnK said...

The good news is that there is tons of info on the net today about classic cartoons, and lessons and ways to improve your skills for when the next sensible fun project accidentally gets picked up.

My generation had nothing like that.

Thomas said...

Great photo. I'm taking it that this is an example of who the studios are currently looking for.

Trevor Thompson said...

Good point, John. I feel better now.

BTW, have you seen Superjail yet?

It's on [adult swim] and although it's got a degree of that 'draw lousy on purpose' feel to it, it's easily the most cartoonist-inspired and gag-conscious show on TV now.

Then again, I may be applying my famous "2% of this is good' filter to the show.

- trevor.

Bill Wright said...

Sounds like the perfect plan, John. So why won't all those self-appointed know-it-alls listen to such logical wisdom?

And who knows what the heck these guys even want? I pitched a guy at Cartoon Network about my own animated toon about a spazzy show bix fox (with a maturity level of King of the Hill) I've been working on for 10 years and he said the were doing only cartoons aimed only at children, even though they currently have stuff like Adult Swim and Robot Chicken. Go figure.

Some days making a breakthrough in the world of animation can seem like a hopeless road to nowhere, but I'm keeping the faith that there's a City of Oz at the end of the Yellow Brick Road. Thanks for all the insightful insider knowledge, John.

Bill W

ciacco said...

Why don't you put together rag tag team of young, talented renegade animators who are willing to work for free. Animate one of you're many zany ideas, put it on youtube and let spread through the internet like the ebola virus!

Isnt that how that stupid little bush show was picked up?

Alex I.R., Esq. said...

'Storyboarding - without ever having animated, assisted or done layout, writing without ever having even drawn a storyboard! Storyboards aren't even used to write stories anymore. Ridiculous.'

I may be in the learning process, but one of the animation careers I'm interested in IS storyboarding. 'Cause pushing for VISUAL storytelling can't be all bad, I guess. I don't like super-talky cartoons, either. At least when the dialogue is wretch (like in many Cartoon Network-made shows of the last ten years.)

In fact, I have storyboarding samples that I did based off of 'thumbnails', outlines, and even a two-page, dialogue lacking script written by someone else. They're at http://elekiddo.blogspot.com/search/label/storyboard.

Vujovic said...

Unfortunately, shorts don't make much money, which, let's be honest, is what keeps the art continuing.

Tanya said...

I love these posts...your points make a lot of sense. It's frustrating that there's really no commercial way to even "climb the ladder" right now (though I agree with Trevor about the possibility of it existing on an independent level). Reading about storyboarding used to confuse me, and not in the sense that I didn't know what the purpose of storyboarding was; now I really believe that's because the logical system is needed to get a feel for each department.

I do think there's hope for the future, though it can get frustrating knowing the system is what needs help. :)

Niki said...

Even though you've kindly given us these points to look at, it still seems so far fetched that they could even think like this. Logically since they get lower ratings won't they eventually die off?

pappy d said...

It does sound rather depressing.

There's still commercial production. You get to work with a boutique studio where everyone knows at least 2 or 3 production jobs. You get an overview of the production process. You meet people who are trusted in the industry who can vouch that you're not flaky or mentally ill. Most importantly, it will matter to SOMEBODY what the stuff looks like.

You'll likely start out freelance & the best times to break in are when the kids are out of school for the summer & at Christmas time. They're most likely short-handed then.

Everything is still new in the digital production process. Flash & Harmony are becoming industry standards. Keep software manuals next to the toilet.

:: smo :: said...

I've always wanted to work my way up a bit more. I've already learned a ton from the path I've taken thus far, but it's tough. Inbetweening, using charts, having someone direct my animation and not just what is supposed to happen in the scene would be really helpful...oh and actually drawing? that would be cool...but it's hard to come by/doesn't exist?

Every few months i have a falling out with the animation industry and i can't decide if i should keep trying to find work or just go underground and try and do things on my own. i'm between gigs again and taking my sweet time looking for something else. i've gotten pretty solid at flash tricks and all that, but that's not what i want to be good at. frustrating. it might be time to just make a project for myself and get focused.

Maximum Awesome said...

"Animation has become a mystery religion."


I never correlated hippies/religions/corporations before - you're really on to something there.

An exclusive, pampered priest caste (corporations) that relies on baffling, jargon based snake oil claims (religion), and denies that any objective standards can be used on its amateurish, "freely expressive" products (hippies).

It's the perfect facade for The Man.

Adam T said...

If someone has ever learned how to do even ONE THING well they learned that doing ANYTHING well takes persistence and the ability to fail and try again to build up your skills. You shouldn't even have to make an argument like this!

When I hear your stories about the stupidity of network executives I get so irritated because it's a constant reminder that people in any organization can gain huge amounts of power without knowing anything about reality. They haven't learned lesson ONE on how to avoid being incompetent all their lives.

One thing I've always wanted to know after reading your posts on this subject is how did these weenies acquire so much power over the production system in the first place?

TankAnims said...

John man, I agree with alot of the flaws in the process in the industry today, there are alot of valid points.

But honestly, I think you give a program like flash too little credit man. The program is glitchy sometimes, but it can be used for far more than just tackling limited animation. Ive seen some truly incredible work come from flash, all traditionally done. Comparing the use of flash in animation amounting to the same as a bunch of people who dont know cartooning seems bias. Sure there are alot of bad shows coming from flash and toonboom, but that is from the production standpoint and does in fact tie in with your arguement. are you sure its not just from how you approached the program, with your own projects, that make you see it as something that cant be used for true cartooning?

Dan szilagyi said...

hey John,

I'm interested in knowing where can one go if they want to climb the "ladder"? like you said so few if any studios do ANY of the work inside the country or it's done in flash which has been getting outsourced as well lately so what can i do? could i work for you?

it's true though, your points i mean, i know people who "moved up" purely because they knew someone or had a connection but no real skill at all...sad really

thanks for the post and for keeping it real


SlashHalen said...

On the subject of having fresh, young blood directing, it shouldn't be that big of a mystery as to why they're just pulled out of a hat. The execs want to be able to say they were responsible for the new comers HUGE success on there first picture. They could just as easily higher someone with experience, who worked hard to get were he is... but that's not as interesting to the execs as "The Little Twit That Could."

They want to be able to say "This little twit made Pulp Fiction 2.0 and I help. Don't forget that I help."

Old people these days don't seem to get the job unless they're named Clint Eastwood or Martin Scorsese (nothing against these 2, I love there movies, just using them as an example).

And some people have been saying to post your work on the internet. The only problem with this is that you can put pretty much any piece of work on the internet and no matter how hugely it sucks you'll find some dick who's prepared to tell you it's brilliant. This is the principle on which Deviantart appears to be founded.

The internet is a great tool and we should use it to its fullest extent, but lets not put all our apples in one basket.

nktoons said...

Thanks for sharing your experience John. Working all those different fields seemed to have had a great influence on your success and is definitely worth striving for. Very inspiring post.

drawingtherightway said...

Didn't Chuck Jones start off as a cel washer? Speaking of Chuck Jones, tonight (Tuesday march 24th) on TCM (Turner Classic Movies) there is gonna be a half hour special about him and then they are going to be showing a bunch of his cartoon shorts and then his movie "The Phantom Tollbooth" (never seen this movie, doesn't sound to interesting to me but maybe it'll be okay). It begins at 8:00 p.m.(east coast time).

Hey John, you said there was still some animation being done in the US in the 1980's. I'm surprised at this. I thought maybe the only ones doing animation over here during this time would have been Disney and maybe Filmation.

Vince Gorman said...

A ladder sounds great to me. It makes logical sense! So where is the ladder?

Brubaker said...


Filmation had all of their works done in-house, with the exception of "Zorro" (outsourced to Tokyo Movie in Japan).

Disney's films were animated in-house, but their television output was also outsourced. Tokyo Movie, again, did bulk of the work for them.

Ken said...

The information, and insight, you provide in these posts are great. Thank you.

I'll echo the sentiment of other artists aspiring to get in on the ground level -- there seems to be a dearth of options for those wanting to break in, learn and gain experience. I'll keep working on my craft, but more opportunities to apprentice or mentor under experienced industry vets would be welcome.

drawingtherightway said...

Thanks for the info Brubaker! I kind of thought Filmation did most of their animation in house, but I wasn't sure. As for Disney, I figured the features were done over here but I think I remember hearing that Ducktales was outsourced.

Nayantara said...

The Chuck Jones bio on TCM was quite good ; moving.

HemlockMan said...

I'm curious:

did the Soviets make cartoons? If so, were any of them any good? Were any commie cartoons from Soviet-bloc countries any good?

I've never seen a commie-produced toon, so I wonder.

(You got me thinking about that with the "American capitalist merit-based" comment. Just started wondering if there had ever been a Slavic Tex Avery or a Russki Bob Clampett.)

Ahahnah said...

The last thing any corporation wants is someone who understand the entire process of how it works so they can later challenge it economically.

Our whole society is built this way. Here is a book on it.

Brubaker said...

"did the Soviets make cartoons? If so, were any of them any good? Were any commie cartoons from Soviet-bloc countries any good?

I've never seen a commie-produced toon, so I wonder."

Yeah, they did. I don't how to describe them, but quite a few of them were done in UPA style, with more emphasis on graphic design.

Whether it's good or not is subjective. If you're a fan of artsy cartoons, then you'll love it.

If you ever saw a Gene Deitch cartoon, chances are they were made in Prague. Deitch relocated there in the sixties and did alot of contract work for American distributors and television thru Bill Snyder in New York. He attracted cheap animation companies since Gene's an American and knew how to make American cartoons, and happened to live in a cheap country.

Anonymous said...

Great post, John

Vinnie Pukh (Winnie the Pooh)

Colbynfriends said...

Wow. Before reading your blogs, I never knew how harsh and how hard being in the world of animation really is. Its a good thing we have people like you that have been through a lot, and are willing to share your knowlage with the rest of us. This is the kind of stuff I should be reading before I (or anyone) jump right into professional animation.

- Colbynfriends

Joseph said...

I think animation hit an all time low towards the end of Filmation. I could have animated better on cocktail napkins at a bar.

Joseph said...

I believe animation quality hit an all time low towards the end of Filmation. I could have animated better on cocktail napkins at a bar!

Julián Höek said...

great post john!
what about the disney current short program? i think they put one in progress after that goofy's dvd story to find new talents. i guess they must do all the lay outs, animation and inbetweening there.

Rodrigo said...

Mr. K, I think you're spot on in terms of creative development. I haven't been here at DW for very long, but the disillusionment is kicking in.

It hit me hard after a prescreening of Monsters v. Aliens (a film I had high hopes for). The character design was at least interesting, and on the surface, it looked like the tone might have been bold in some offbeat way. After the credits rolled, I wasn't sitting pretty with a stomach full of processed animation spam.

That idea you mention of a group dynamic that generates novel/fresh/experimental entertainment is something that's so hard to find, but magic happens when all the stars do align.

Though I know you don't dig most CG, Brad Bird and his entourage of artists do prove your point. He has a brain trust of story artists/designers/animators who are responsible for his most notable films (minus that Rat movie in my humble opinion), and the feller himself is quite seasoned in terms of industry.

In this big studio, the departments feel very disconnected, and often I wonder how the hell the directors get to where they are. Jerry Seinfeld, for instance, was deemed the infallible creative for Bee-Movie, and look at the shitpile that turned into.

So yeah, I'm trying to figure this out, but it's nice to hear it from the Mr. Horse's mouth, so to speak.

Rudy Tenebre said...

How can the "good" be objective? Good in what sense, Moral? Ethical? The "good" belongs to those domains, which in turn belong to metaphysics, so you contradict yourself when you suggest you're contrary to the work of mystery religion. Advanced philosophical studies with a basis in scientific empiricism have even come as far as to say that qualia (or qualities) don't exist from the standpoint of objective experience, (read M.I.T.'s Daniel Dennett). And you speak of nothing but qualities. The greater philosophical orientation of your arguments are a shambles, John. I'll take a beefsteak to your funny-cute candycane, now where's the objectivity in that?

JohnK said...

"good"as in "It takes skill and talent to do it. It's not something that just anybody can do.

Rick Roberts said...

"Didn't Chuck Jones start off as a cel washer?"

Yep. Back in the pre-Dumbth days, you could only start from the bottom.

pappy d said...


Good point. "Objective good" is a habit of thinking that 's become a habit of speech, but you're hoisted on your own petard.
'Ever have an "objective experience"? There's no such standpoint.

Frankie said...

Hey John, your post gave me an idea:

Giant Zombie Douglas MacArthur has risen from the grave to find that all his favorite cartoons and hoagie joints have been desecrated by hippie yupsters, and now he's pissed!

Now he's waging war on corporate hippies and vapid trendoids to restore America to greatness! Did I mention he's also 100ft tall and smokes crushed executives in his giant corn cob pipe?

When he said "I Shall Return"...he wasn't kidding around!!

Rudy Tenebre said...

I'm all for skill and structure, just find untidy abuse of terms like 'objective', used in socio-political-aesthetic diatribes to be worth debating.

Rodrigo said...

Rudy, your pretentious metaphysical rant tries to deconstruct everything with subjective appeal, but it doesn't take a self-absorbed M.I.T. geek to show how full of shit it is. How can you claim that qualia (oh, excuse me, douche-speak for qualities) of beauty don't actually exist. Explain to us that visceral reaction to an aurora borealis, a Rembrant, or even a skillfully rendered Bugs Bunny (vs a poor one).

People generally don't stop and decide whether or not they will find something unsettling or appealing. It's an unqualifiable moment. It does get more complex in terms of conditioning and tastes, but most people can recognize what is "good".

What you should have said was, "I don't like funny and cute cartoons."

Anonymous said...

The qualifications for "good" are subjective. Whether or not something meets these qualifications, whatever they may be, is completely objective.

John is right on- in opinion and logic.

ther1 said...

I now have a system to judge whether a cartoon is funny or not. If it makes me laugh, it's good. If it doesn't, it's garbage (unless it's a Michael Sporn fable or something similarly sweet).

Superjail makes me laugh, but only when I'm really angry. By the end I've cooled off and the gore just gets kind of gross.

pappy d said...

If there was an objective quality of 'good', you could specify in a production contract that you require a good cartoon. If you didn't get it, you could sue.

As it is, you have to pit this airy-fairy idea of "quality" against the hard science of accountancy. Pretty soon, these solid dollars-&-sensible citizens realise that you're trying to talk them out of real cash with all your abstract, human mumbo-jumbo. If "good" can't be quantified, it can't be effectively costed out. If we put it on the agenda, we'll be stuck in this meeting all day.

Granted, money is an abstraction too
but everybody likes money.

Rick Roberts said...

Really, people need to stop thinking what is good as a matter opinion. Standards are set, like it or not, and that is how good is measured. This everything is objective s*** has decayed are society for decades. Wake up people, you have to live up to some standard when you forge your careers.

Adam T said...

I'm all for skill and structure, just find untidy abuse of terms like 'objective', used in socio-political-aesthetic diatribes to be worth debating.

I work at a snooty college so I have to listen to guys like Rudy all the time. Let me translate this for everyone else...

'When people say they know how things really are that totally pisses me off.'

Rudy Tenebre said...

I'm trying to clarify John's language, (qualia, rodrigo, is latin, of which the anglicized term quality is derived--it's not pretentious, but perhaps out of your league).
I don't believe in the objective nature of John's precious principles. (though I may agree, those principles are an effective way to make pictures). But John has wierd , over-arching cultural theories he invests into why he likes what he likes, and tries to explain what he see's as a degeneration through them. At some point, we've left the domain of good fun cartoon crap, and start speaking in terms which touch economics, social ethos, aesthetic theory, and cultural history. If he limited himself to what he's found to be an effective production system, then I would have nothing to speak of. But he triangulates hippie values, advanced corporate capitalism, and his oblique, nostalgic, nuts-in-a pair-of-slacks conservatism into some bullshit meta-narrative as to why today's cartoons suck (they do suck) and why the Golden Age rules (it does rule)... These are John's terms (objective, good etc.) not mine. Show me something objectively provable as the right way to make a cartoon, and we'll have something. I've been asking for that demonstration for months on this blog and none seem to take a shot at it.

JohnK said...

All I offer is a better way to have control over what you want to make.

If you want to make unskilled anarchy, you don't need any tools or principles and you have every right to do that.

This is a dumb waste of abstract argument for nothing.

Rick Roberts said...

"Show me something objectively provable as the right way to make a cartoon, and we'll have something"

So that's it from all your unnecessary babble? YOU just don't get it ? Don't ask John to explain something you are too lazy to find out for yourself. There are already over 100 posts here justifying that the old factory system is priceless to making cartoons.

Rudy Tenebre said...

My last one didn't make it past the censor, huh... and knavery has the last word. I can't tell a bunch of imbeciles to blow me-? but in turn I may be called a pretentious douche-bag with no sense of reality, a snob and a defector from what's right? Doesn't seem entirely fair. It's your circus...

JohnK said...

Nothin' against you Rudy, but I just get tired of arguments that go in circles over vague terminology.

We got your point.

I'd like to see a little less anger and more industry from fans who could benefit from all the free info.

I'm trying to help the next generation be more skilled and prepared for an industry that doesn't help them much.

There's always "independent animation" for those who don't like collaborative popular cartoons.

And to call me "conservative" is about the funniest way I've ever heard me described. Good one.

pappy d said...


You're overthinking this. You could wind up with nothing but theoretical cartoons.

Just get a pencil & draw something good. That's the proven method.

Rick Roberts said...

That is good advice from Pappy.

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bryantempest said...

I used to draw storyboards alot for my cartoons back in the late 80's for my college paper. Matter of fact, I had an entire 200 pages of nothing but storyboards that I drew. I've always believed that it takes real artistic talent to create quality cartoons, at least back when I was growing up it did. Nowadays if you just touch a pencil to a piece of paper and sneeze hard enough, you've got yourself a cartoon character with about as much morals. I don't even waste my time watching this garbage of today that they consider cartoons because my sense of intellect is just too high above it.

bryantempest said...

...also to comment on another readers advice about youtube. I think that it would be a great idea for true talented cartoonist to start posting there. I'm talking cartoons that took time to draw, like for example, the old spiderman cartoon, scooby doo and the gang, the superfriends, x-men, cinderella and all those good 'ol kind of characters. Just my .10 worth.