Monday, April 20, 2009

Experimentation by Chuck Jones on Looney Tunes Shorts - the "smear"

Technique 1: "Smears"

In my last shorts program post I talked about the value of experimentation and progress. This was built into many classic shorts programs, particularly Disney and Warner Bros.'
Chuck Jones was an interesting character. He seemed torn between extreme experimentation and conservatism. The things he chose to experiment with are mostly of secondary importance to the entertainment value of the cartoons - background stylings, and inbetweens.
For awhile in the early 40s you can see a lot of what we now call "smears" in the inbetweens. Stretched inbetweens that carry us from one layout pose to the next in just a couple frames.
Bob Jaques first showed me this stuff by slowing down old cartoons to study them - and he may have been the one to coin the term "smear" to describe it. We of course loved it because it was something unique to the cartoon form. Real people don't smear in front of you.
Chuck's drawing style in the 1940s was a slight variation of Bob McKimson's drawing style, only a bit softer.
In the slow scenes, the characters are drawn with pretty solid construction and conservatism.
Then they break into these wild smeared inbetweens to get to the next solid drawings. Chuck didn't invent this concept; you can see it even in 30s Disney cartoons. But Jones' crew took it to much further extremes than anyone else - to the point where you can actually see it in real time. He toned it down in the late 40s, but it was all the rage in his unit for a few years.
What's important to note, is that they didn't do it the same way every time. They had fun with it and tried to tailor each smear to the context of the action.
I find this bit odd. Daffy falls into scene without a smear. Instead they chose to use drybrush to add to the effect of the fast action.
...which brings me to another point: variation keeps things from becoming monotonous or formulaic. Jones didn't use the same technique for every action. His crew constantly experimented, studied and discovered new techniques and used them all according to which technique they felt suited a particular action best.

Technique 2 - Bobble Head acting from Chuck's Layout Pose

Here's another technique you see a lot of in Jones' cartoons, a much more conservative technique.Jones usually posed out the cartoons for his animators. For example, here's Daffy in a basic layout pose talking to the dog.
This would be a good place for the animator to use multiple facial expressions to get across his acting, but instead he uses head bobs and actions to mildly punctuate the accents in the dialogue. I don't think Chuck wanted his animators to put too much of themselves into their scenes. Not where the audience could notice it, anyway. The animation tends to stay within the framework of Chuck's layouts. This animator didn't even try to animate lip-synch for the dialogue.
When young animators first discover smears, they tend to have the urge to do everything using smears. I think it's important to remember that it is just one trick in a huge potential bag of animation techniques. When you use the same technique to bridge every pose to the next, it becomes a formula, monotonous and predictable....and DEAD.

Experiment to discover and practice new techniques
Vary your techniques
Apply Techniques in context wherever possible


Niki said...

I remember seeing this until only a few years ago. back then I took it fer granted, and they cut off t he looney toons. I think they should really repackage them like they were new and let them show on tv again, although thinking deeply about it, they would have to hire someone crazy talented.

drawingtherightway said...

How did they know exactly how to draw the smear drawings? Did they still use construction for them? They are definitely different then a regular squash or stretch drawing such as the first one in this post where the dog appears to have 3 eyes.

David Gale said...

It's kind of a shame that the average cartoon viewer never gets to see these insane monstrous versions of their favorite characters.

jens said...

Sorry for being off-topic, because I don't know how to contact you otherwise.

You probably have seen Animalympics in the 1980s, did you?
It's alot of fun to watch and has a nice nostalgic soundtrack.
What's your animation standpoint of Animalympics, did you ever analyse it on the blog?
I'd love to hear your opinion on this movie.

SibbSabb said...

I've been waiting for a recent post on 'smears'. I recently learned about the technique and I am obsessed with them right now.

Kelly Toon said...

um yeah, just seconding Jen here . . . Animalympics made a big impression on me when I was a little girl, so please give us your views :)

Anonymous said...

Animalympics is a pile of shit, that spawned other piles like Space Jam.

THE SIR, James Suhr said...

hey john,

you mentioned that you found it odd that daffy got dry brushed while the dog had a more solid smear. Now you had a great point with variation--something I'm guilty of not doing often myself. But it feels like they used the solid smear to make the dog appear faster than daffy. The solid smears always seemed to be used for the super fast action, but the dry brush was the cel way of creating just a slight motion blur.
This would make sense with the fact that the dog is trying to beat daffy in the speed department here. Awesome post as usual!

Gregg said...

Tex was also great at smears, and insanely fast motion.

Nice post.

patrick said...

SibbSabb said exactly what I was going to say-

"I've been waiting for a recent post on 'smears'. I recently learned about the technique and I am obsessed with them right now."

KW said...

he chose to stretch out a single nose into a hotdog shape, and then instead of stretching the eyes the same way, he made multiple eyes.

I wonder how he decided when to do which method.

Jonathan Harris said...

It's interesting for me that you make this post now since, a few weeks back, I helped some friends out on a job where we were using quite alot of smears to help some necessarily limited pose-to-pose animation. You're very right about it being a seductive tool when you first find out about it.

Iritscen said...

I love smears, though it seems like it's a technique that's gone by the wayside in modern animation. They did use it in Superman: The Animated Series, however, in a couple shots, at least. It was a great way to convey a short burst of superspeed.

The Japanese have their own hand-drawn smear technique (which they don't use these days since CG effects like motion blur allows them to cut corners), which is more of a wavy outline effect than a lengthening of shapes, but it's also quite effective.

Geneva said...

Fun post! I love how weird and varied the smears are... the multiple eyes, the weird extended nose, the weird tentacle stubbies. Good stuff.

Michael J. Ruocco said...

Another great post.

I'm one of those young animators who's currently addicted to doing smears. They are loads of fun to animate, but I do agree that it's easy to go nuts & animate them all the time. At this point I should start cutting back & focusing a bit more on the actual animation.

By the way, I did a few recent posts on smears. One I did myself, & the others are all screengrabs (mostly from Chuck Jones cartoons). I know a lot of people find it annoying & somewhat arrogant to include links & "plug" yourself, but I thought this might add to the topic at hand.

Rick Roberts said...

I really love this period of Jones' career. He didn't quite make the drawings as good as he did during the late 40's but he did some very rapid pace work.

smbhax said...

Chalk me up as another still in their smear-loving phase. So of course I <3 this post. The triple-eyed nose smear is great, lovely frame grab.

For the most part I'd thought of smears as a way to save drawing time--fudging movement very quickly between frames so you only have to draw one frame of movement rather than several--but the ones you've shown here by Jones look like they probably took *more* drawing time. Now those are some respectable smears.

Rudy Tenebre said...

Good meat. I love the erasure of the horizon line still indicated by the impressionistic little lines of shrub-grass, and the all-over tonality of both ground plane and sky. This pallette and open colorfield work reminds me of the Clampett aesthetic.

Thomas said...

>>> He seemed torn between extreme experimentation and conservatism. The things he chose to experiment with are mostly of secondary importance to the entertainment value of the cartoons - background stylings, and inbetweens.<<<

Jones' Oscar winning Dot and Line short was probably his effort to make a cartoon where experimenting was of primary importance.

I saw it on tv recently, and was suprised at how dismal and cluttered it actually was.

Pseudonym said...

It's true that people don't smear in front of you, but if you were shooting them with a camera, you would see "motion blur". I suspect that smears are partly an attempt to capture that, as an alternative to drybrush.

One thing that I did notice about smears when I first spotted them a few years ago is that they tend to alter the "colour" of the scene if there's a lot of contrast to begin with. If you think of a dark background with a smeared white object (e.g. Bugs' glove when he's conducting in "Long-Haired Hare"), the object seems brighter during the motion, because it's taking up more screen area. This results in a visual "pop" which I now find quite distracting.

If I were doing it today, I'd be experimenting with darkening the glove during the motion to avoid that "pop". (I'm sure Mondrian would approve.) Note that this is something that probably would have been prohibitively expensive in the 40s because changing the colour requires mixing paint.

:: smo :: said...

hey john, i just wanted to comment on the first "shorts program" thing that came up. I just noticed that mike judge released a bevis and butthead short promo for his new liveaction movie. [quality or whatever aside] i think it's a pretty great idea and it got me thinking. i bet if he were to release a short before his movie and promote it it would help with movie draw.

i bet there's other animation sympathetic directors out there who would be into having a john k short before their film to help with the draw for the boxoffice.

they keep trying 3d, fake imax, all sorts of things to get people in. now might be the time to really push for shorts as a way to up boxoffice sales.

just a thought. if you pull it off i'd totally be down to help.

here's my reel