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