Monday, April 13, 2009

Goals of a Shorts Program 8 - developing new techniques


Shorts Can Build In Technical Progress (Silly Symphonies model)
Cartoons in the 1930s and 40s advanced every year noticeably. On purpose.
Which company today can say their cartoons are more advanced than any other company's? None. The TV cartoons actually get more primitive every year at a steady rate. Even obscenely big budget CG cartoons barely change from year to year. They may grow more hairs and pores but remain primitively designed and acted within the context of the same old stories, puns and cliches retold a thousand times.
Is this an expensive one or a cheap one? I can't tell the difference.

There is no progress built into the system, no competitiveness built into it.
Walt Disney actually made a science out of progress. He built it into his studio system by creating a series of cartoons just to discover and develop new techniques. He instituted art classes and created "action analysis" to improve his animators' understanding of the way things move.

His Silly Symphonies almost seem boring on purpose, because they are so intent on pushing new techniques forward. I don't think you have to make boring cartoons in order to advance. I prefer the Looney Tunes method of trying out a few "one-shots" every year: highly entertaining cartoons that don't necessarily use the star characters but allow the directors to put more money and time into a couple of cartoons to try new things out. What they learn, they in turn can apply to their more formulaic star vehicles and in the process the cartoons get better and better overall at a noticeable rate.

At MGM, Tex Avery was an experimenter, while Bill and Joe's more conservative Tom and Jerry series was a beneficiary of Tex's (and Looney Tunes') bold inventiveness.

ONE SHOTS as well as Star Vehicles


Besides trying to discover appealing star characters, part of a shorts program should be devoted to progress: to developing new techniques to make your cartoons obviously better than your competition's.

The faster you advance, the more primitive you can make your competitor's work seem.

Our business frowns upon this and builds in safeguards against progress. It values "consistency" over experimentation and advancement. Model sheets, story bibles, pages of catch phrases for each character and on and on...

The result of the philosophy of "never change" is to actually degrade consistently year by year, because it is physically impossible to stay the same. You have to move in one way or the other - forwards or backwards.

Many TV cartoons today look like still images of stick figures. Childlike frozen stick figures that only move in the sense that they are being pushed and pulled around in flash like paper puppets. But no one knows it or cares because no studio is trying to outdo anybody else. It's like each studio looks at the others to see how low it's safe to aim this year. (The same applies to stories, but I won't get into that here)


What happened to the idea that entertainment had to be amazing? That entertainers had to have obviously rare and astonishing abilities? When my parents see a modern cartoon, I've heard them say, "I don't get it, I can draw as well as that." That whole generation expected to be amazed by anything that was called entertainment. Athletes have to be strong, fast and coordinated. Singers used to have to be able to carry a tune and have beautiful rare voices. Cartoons and illustrations used to attract and impress the average person by their rare visual skills, humor and inventiveness. The average viewer didn't think "Well, hey I can do that." Today, big studios aim down to compete with "user-generated" content. Is there a point of spending a lot of money doing what just about anybody else can do cheap?

If there was a studio devoted to progress, within a couple years no one else could compete with it because the other cartoons would look so primitive by comparison. Today unfortunately, amateurism is the trend. I don't even think the people in charge know it. I think they actually believe that the more primitive a cartoon is the more advanced and hip it is, but maybe I'm missing some work of genius out there. I remember when "good-for-you" cartoons like Caillou and Arthur looked primitive to me. Now they look like standard professional network cartoon fare - or even better in some cases.


Justin said...

I really like this series John.

I'm sure there's a more vulgar option but does the term Greedy Reductionists apply to those people or influences ruining the animation industry?

"Whereas reductionism means explaining a thing in terms of what it reduces to, greedy reductionism arises when the thing we are trying to understand is explained away instead of explained, so that we fail to gain any additional understanding of the original target."

Or put another way, repeat "keep it simple, stupid" enough and it makes everyone stupid.

Niki said...

Well, I found out how to look at cartoons frame-by-frame in flash, I guess that counts for me... I can find more given time.

Rusty Spell said...

From a fiction-writing point of view (for short stories and novels), the Silly Symphonies model works too. Whenever I write a new short story, I feel like lots of it needs to be experimental, to push my writing forward, even at the risk of creating a story that isn't technically "perfect." This allows me to have a bigger arsenal when I tackle more complicated works (like a novel).

My favorite writers are those who do aim high, and the writers I'm most frustrated by are the ones who have reached a level where they can just write easy story after easy story: technically perfect and acceptable and even good, but nothing that's going to amaze you. Instead of guts, you only get lovely sentences.

I read this blog every day. I'm not an animator or professional artist (though I fancy myself an okay drawer), but I find that the things you say apply to fiction writing, other arts I'm interested in, and life itself. Anyone who wants to do outstanding things could learn a thing or two here.

Your secret admirer,
Rusty Spell

Kali Fontecchio said...

Dover Boys and Coal were definitely creative masterpieces, among other things, like being hilarious!

Ger Apeldoorn said...

I thought Disney/Pixar has a shorts program at the moment allowing several animators to experiment.

Rodrigo said...

I agree with much of what you said here (especially in the realm of TV). In a big studio, it seems like progress is unfortunately measured in gigabytes vs. creative innovation. To be honest, since I started work, I imagined I would be in an environment that challenged my skills and broadened my perspective on entertainment. Unfortunately, I've yet to experience this sort of exciting growth.

I've been talking to folks at who work in the pitch program here, and apparently they won't make a film unless it's an "event" movie with an anti-hero. In other words, populist, i.e. potentially very bland. They got it down to a formula. So say, a reluctant turtle with low self-esteem saves Hawaii with the help of his friends from a volcano, and then realizes that being mediocre is okay so long as your friends like you or some bullshit like that. This might sell.

A shorts program that gave the entertainment savvy folks room to run wild a little bit would do wonders, I think.

Gabriele_Gabba said...

I agree completely of course. Its impossible to compare classic animation to the really poor stuff on T.V these days...

It won't be long before people start taking risks john, i'm quite sure its going to happen, CG animation is gonna reach a point were it just can't go any further, as you say MORE HAIRS AND PORES :P

Keep inspiring and keep your faith up John, there are some of us listening very hard! :) Btw, hope that pitch went well, can't wait to see if you landed it!

And i know people've mentioned this, but hopefully one day your legacy (this blog) will be available in a hardbound format too! It'd sure take a monsterous amount of editting and permissions i'm sure!

Mad Max Winston said...

Although it's hard to compare modern TV animation to the classic mind - blowing frames you have posted, I do think that the new show called "SuperJail" does a pretty good job at pushing some boundaries in a good, "high" (not "low", like many adult swim shows) way.

JohnK said...

>>I thought Disney/Pixar has a shorts program at the moment allowing several animators to experiment.<<

They do. Everyone does.

They don't seem to know why.

TankAnims said...

you know, Back when I was a web animator, I used to compete with other web animators when it came to skill, and experimentation. I know you frown upon flash animation, but we really pushed the bar with flash because of this. It reminds me alot of what your talking about here. We would evolve our skills incredibly fast because of this and learn from each other in the process.

When I made the big switch from web to tv animation, I had high hopes and met a few animators that we would get competitive with. But over time after so many client revisions forcing us to tone down our work, we sort of lost that, and now all the fun in animation seems to be gone.

Heres hoping that comes back to studio work one day!

BONE said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
pappy d said...

They still test new software & try out new pipelines in Disney's shorts program. Mainly, shorts programs are a way of trying out young directors & grooming them for bigger budget projects.

Iritscen said...

I assume many of you have seen something about Xtranormal by now, the automated software that generates talking spherical-headed characters from a script? Cartoon Brew blogged about it today. It's like we're racing towards the bottom -- who can get to the cheapest and most lifeless animation first? To the point where we might as well turn off the screen and just listen to it?

Watching some clips from old Disney movies the other day, I am reminded of just how much work used to go into animation. I miss those days.

It seems fairly obvious to me that the nature of real animation -- the hand-drawn stuff -- serves to directly convey the creators' energy and enthusiasm and emotion directly to the viewer, in a way that live-action and CG cannot. So, while I feel nothing as I watch an Xtranormal animation, and next-to-nothing watching a typical Flash-driven show, I actually feel almost overawed when I get to see something from the classic, super-fluid Disney movies. I literally begin to tear up, seeing such lifelike characters and sensing how many hours it took to draw them.

But I do think that something has to give fairly soon -- that there will be some renaissance of real animation that springs up from some place that we might not expect. And it will get this young generation's attention in a big way, because, for the first time in decades, kids are growing up without most of the classic cartoons that we were exposed to. So the concept of a smoothly animated hand-drawing will seem new and amazing to them.

Raff said...

Preaching to the choir.

>> It's like each studio looks at the others to see how low it's safe to aim this year. <<

"Because that's how THEY stay within budget! They keep it simple. You can't f@%k around, guys!"

At some point ages ago, a bunch of frustrated and ignorant up-and-comers told each other, "Guys, it's a business. It's not an art, it's a business," and the old wives' tales started from there.

I've given up on the idea that the word professional means it looks like what's out there on the market.

JohnK said...

But they don't stay on budget.They waste more than what ends up on screen.

Raff said...


Exactly!! And they waste my time, too! This is why I'd rather stick to my own projects and work my own way.

Cameron said...

I'm gonna have to disagree with you on CG. Ratatouille and WALL-E look a hell of a lot more advanced than the first Toy Story to me, from a technological, design, and storytelling viewpoint. Then again, am I really going to convince you of this?

People seem tethered to the idea that Toy Story was Pixar's high point, which I don't buy in the least. It's a great movie, but it didn't explore its design or characters to the point that many of it's subsequent movies did. I'm guessing you hate it all equally.

I'd also argue that Kung Fu Panda was a fair step forward for Dreamworks (apparently undone somewhat by Monsters vs. Aliens, though I'll wait to see it before making that judgment). I think animators want to experiment, but only Pixar seems intent on actually allowing it.

Again, you disagree, but considering my favorite animator is Hayao Miyazaki, I don't think there's much point in trying to argue with you.

But we agree in spades about television. Other than Genndy Tartakovsky (whose flaws you've pointed out but whose strengths mostly make up for them) I don't think anyone's made a single good new cartoon since 2000.

JRi said...

How wide-spread do you think the current state of stagnation reaches? Do you think it's isolated to just the animation / entertainment industry or do you see it as being a broad social construction?

Also, are there any recent examples you see as deviating from this trend?

Finally, from what I have read- this is an awesome blog- keep it up!

Jizz Wad said...

Toy Story is Pixar Studios best work, and on the interviews they talk about the things they loved/hated about Disney feature animations...

Characters bursting into song, the 2 funny side-kick characters, cackling villains etc. were things which they identified as tired, predictable, dull, outdated and annoying.

They changed the formula a bit, the film was a major hit and everybody chanted 'they are the fresh new Disney'.

After this however they have not progressed one jot, both shorts and features have gotten worse and worse. No original view points, no strong character arcs, lot's of middle American cliches, self referencing jokes and a clean cut smugness that reeks of arrogance. And no wonder, every major 3d animation studio follows their rules/style so closely.

Also I get the impression that everything these days is made to look nice on a mobile media device, so again simplistic, dull and easy to understand because you've seen it all before.

Adam T said...

If there was a studio devoted to progress, within a couple years no one else could compete with it because the other cartoons would look so primitive by comparison.John, what's preventing you from starting a studio like that. Is it startup costs?

Is it TV networks are all owned by corporations which own their own studios and would blacklist a new one?

gracesix said...

"What happened to the idea that entertainment had to be amazing... Today unfortunately, amateurism is the trend. I don't even think the people in charge know it."

On the contrary, I think that the people in charge do. With talent comes power and ego. It's hard to retain leverage over someone who isn't a commodity and knows it. This can be seen all through out most entertainment today. Level the playing field so there are no "shiny apples" and keep everybody's expectations low. You are talented and/or special if you buy certain products or services. You are talented if you boss gifted people around. You are skilled if you are willing lower the bar another inch.

HemlockMan said...

It's not just that the modern studio system sucks Holy Roman ass. It goes beyond that. The whole society in which we live no longer pushes the so-called creative folk to strive for more than the very basic. CG cartoons are a part of that horrid degeneration into less-than-mundane.

And where are illustrators and animators going to even learn their craft? Or perfect it? No one makes those kinds of cartoons anymore! Further...there's nowhere for a comics illustrator to blossom. Even the comics industry, which was once vast and lively, has degenerated into an incestuous rathole of stupid superhero yarns.

Zorrilla said...

"Athletes have to be strong, fast and coordinated"Actually there's a similar problem in sports, because the advances in physical training and tactics have made skill less dominant in sports.

Which means that nowadays, many of the most talented athletes can't compete professionally because they aren't fast/strong enough.

Older athletes suffer for the same reason, they can't keep up physically, which also has contributed to the decline in skill.

Ceu D'Ellia said...

I am carefully following this series of posts. They are mandatory both to a view of animation as an art as well as a business.
But I believe Lassetter had something like that in mind when he kept Pixar shorts programs after they start to produce features.
Apparently you do not think so, if I consider your 12:41 post.

Martin Juneau said...

Today's cartoons is often flat and made faster and cheaper, that's the real problem about the modern cartoons. Cartoons and arts is like science. You should make lots of trial and errors to make a neat result and this is with a series of new experiences and techniques, that's the today's industry don't. They hired too young peoples for make the hard work a experimented artist can. That's one of the most illogical problems i can see in arts.

Oliver_A said...

For me, CGI is more an advancement of stop motion / claymation instead of hand drawn animation. I don't like the photorealistic shading of CGI on supposedly cartoony characters. To me, it severely weakens the readability of the designs and thus lessens the visual impact on the audience. When Toy Story came in 1995, it never occured to me as a kid that this is supposed to replace an entirely different artform.

AL said...

it seems like the only real way to learn is by trial and error. The tough part is to get into a studio and be fortunate to learn under someone in the know.

any idea on places to look for assistant work?

Stone said...

o'er on the 'brew they were praising something called, "upstate 4" saying the quality was great and unmatched in current tv fare.

but it looked like crud and the story was... well... MEH. and there was no appeal to any of the characters.

but everyone praised it for being "better than what's available... "

it seems to be happening more and more around the industry. when you go back and look at cartoons considered merely "ok" from just 10 years ago, they're like friggin' masterpieces compared to what's on today.

Patrice Champigny said...

Thank you John reading your blog always reminds me I'm not alone and it has help me a great deal in my animation,

I agree Flash or toonboom harmony is a disgrace over the beautiful classical animation we once knew. I don't think anything in 3d or CGI is really impressive. I fell in love with the process of flipping and drawing animation 14 years ago, when I was ten years old, with the help of very kind animtor who gave me a tour of the studio he worked for. And now being in college and a year away from graduation I find myself researching and digging deep to find the very few studios who still do classical animation. Even many people at my school don't see it, I was even told by several people to get with the times, classical is dead. I don't beleive that and I'm lucky to have great teachers like I do. My coordinator even told me, think of it as a pendulum, everything swung towards digital and eventually it will have to swing back the other way, all the way back to classical. Sure enough I'll do everything I can to help speed up that process, maybe one day I'll have my own studio.

keep up the great work and thanks again,

Rick Roberts said...

"People seem tethered to the idea that Toy Story was Pixar's high point, which I don't buy in the least. It's a great movie, but it didn't explore its design or characters to the point that many of it's subsequent movies did. I'm guessing you hate it all equally."

The only movie that came close to advancing characters were The Incredibles but ever since, they still can't go past generic.

"I'd also argue that Kung Fu Panda was a fair step forward for Dreamworks"

Only in making better colors. It was still all fart jokes and ugly character designs. Oh, and tired old martial arts film cliches.

Luke Allen said...

Another scary piece of software from China, is a program that records the animated movement of characters, from existing shows.
It is then stored as a kind of template that can be applied to a new character (I assume in flash or Maya).

So in a few years time, we might be seeing new animated characters with recognizable walk cycles etc.

My immediate question was - can a character's signature acting be copyrighted? Anyone know?

Obelisk said...

Once again, I couldn't agree more.

I'm so glad you used the image of the Chernabog creature from Fantasia as an example. That entire sequence embodies and exemplifies everything animation as a medium can achieve. It sets such a powerful, awesome mood, and even nearly 70 years later, there hasn't been an animated feature that despite all of today's best tools and technologies comes close to achieving what Fantasia did. Of course, that's purely opinion as far as what animated movie is best, but there's no contest when it comes to Fantasia versus what's being puked out on the average American audience.

It's truly disturbing and gut-wrenching what people in the industry are doing to the medium today in America. An animated feature like Fantasia could be made with a much more modest budget given all the digital resources that exist today. Look at studios like Japan's Production I.G. They take full advantage of today's available tools, hire incredibly talented and creative artists, and as a result are consistently releasing animations that blow us away.

And the real tragedy? The average modern American cartoon could not be taken seriously as a contender. How could they? Every time I flip over to Cartoon Network, I catch a glimpse of motion-tweened rectangle people waddling around a sterile, gradient-pattern layer of vector graphics. It's sickening.

Gabriele_Gabba said...

Hey Obelisk, i agree, Cartoon Network is atrocious. I sometimes try Nickelodeon and get mostly disappointed too.

The 'Boom' (don't know if you get it in the states or canada) channel is quite good though, they have classic cartoons all the time!

John, on a side note, I'm wondering if you've ever done a post regarding animation shorts made entirely by one person?

Cameron said...

"After this however they have not progressed one jot, both shorts and features have gotten worse and worse."

Only to a very vocal minority. I, the critics, and nearly all the people I know, feel quite differently.

"The only movie that came close to advancing characters were The Incredibles but ever since, they still can't go past generic."

As in exaggeration on the level of Clampett or John K here? If we're talking plot, all plots are stock-plots when you really analyze them. Ratatouille and WALL-E have probably been done before, but so have the vast majority of cartoons.

Plot is overrated. It is the way it is executed that counts, and I would rank Pixar's work as sublime examples of execution.

Jizz Wad said...

The 'vocal minority' would like to know examples of how Pixar's work has progressed.

Ratatouille is bloody terrible, the direction is totally muddled as is the story and the motivations of the characters.

But I guess if no one cares about plot, the very thing that ties a narrative to a point of view or point of interest. I guess that's why we have dull characters screaming for attention which have no reason to further a story or develop an idea to a rewarding end.

One critic said of the Incredibles that if the super heroes loathed the standard 9 til 5, nuclear family, regular life style so much, why the hell do they want to protect it?

The Incredibles are the ultimate conservative super heroes, they hate the way regular people live, yet they'll protect it if they don't have to be part of it. It's kind of like what dictators do.

The film is also not progressive in terms of character or story, it has a cackling villain, it has dull cliche family members who need to learn to work together, and the film is a Montage of film references, stuff you've seen before and can understand at a glance. Safe, dull...

Cars anyone?

Rick Roberts said...

"If we're talking plot, all plots are stock-plots when you really analyze them. Ratatouille and WALL-E have probably been done before, but so have the vast majority of cartoons."

No I am talking about both character AND plot. Wall-E was just a robot who could say his name over and over again and is curious. All the main cast of Ratatouille was all stock Disney. (Bland leads, Sassy Girl, Oil can Harry villians)

"Olot is overrated. It is the way it is executed that counts, and I would rank Pixar's work as sublime examples of execution."

You do need a plot to compel interest to watch the film, especially when it's a feature film. Pixar most of the time comes up with a good plot but I disagree on your assessemnt of their execution, they rarely do enough to make the plot fun or unique. They use ALOT of filler. They got rid of the musicials but not much was left return.

peopledanceonice said...

I'm just starting out as an animator. At my college, they have a tiny "graphic novel" section in the library. There are more alternative comics there than superhero crap. I wanted to practice drawing the characters in these comics, but they were all stylized and abstract. They would teach me nothing if I drew them.

The only artists on that shelf with appealing "cartoony" styles are Jeff Smith and Tony Millionaire. The rest of the artists draw slice-of-life/autobio stuff depicting minorities.

Cameron said...

I'm glad to see some differing opinions, but I don't see it. I don't see terrible direction in Ratatouille, I see surehanded composition and pacing. I don't see filler, I see character. Muddled motivations? Isn't that just life?

Plot is fine, but there's a reason a film like Stalker is a masterpiece despite having a fairly thin narrative. Ratatouille, The Incredibles, and WALL-E are brilliant successes to me because they moved me with their shifting tones and unique characters (WALL-E and EVE are unique characters, despite the inevitable connections one could make to stock characters...and she was in no way "sassy.") We're just going to have to agree to disagree.

Jizz Wad, your little analysis of The Incredibles is entertaining, but only because it reminds me how critics can read too much into things.

Rick Roberts said...

"I don't see filler, I see character. Muddled motivations? Isn't that just life?"

There is no character in that film. Ratatouille was a generic mouse good sense of taste and that chef was just another bland guy with a dream he can't fulfill.

"WALL-E and EVE are unique characters, despite the inevitable connections one could make to stock characters...and she was in no way "sassy"

No, I was talking about that ugly love interest and Ratatouille. And what is so unique about Wall-E and EVE ? They both like each other for being equally boring and they look at things. They do anything that makes them unique at all.

As for Jizz's analysis on The Incredibles, he is correct about the family. They were essentially the typical American suburb family we've seen in politely humorous comic strips and sit-coms. Everything else about the film is pretty enjoyable and it had the best human character designs Pixar has ever made. Unfortunately, they seem to be now steering towards moving jello and beach balls and calling them humans.

Jizz Wad said...

The point was though whether Pixar are developing?

I'm pretty sure they would like to think they are in terms of BOTH story and animation technique, but that's what I can't see, whether I enjoy post Toy Story flicks or not.

Why not take it in turns, what they're doing now, then doing a more risky picture/experiment?

Couldn't they be making the next 'Fantasia' right now? On the side?

Dumbo was a Disney side project whilst they were making other stuff, it isn't as slick as the other features but it is fast and interesting (drunk sequence).

davidmaas said...

Fantastic (id somewhat senstationalistically reduced) comment!

How old is 3D? And all of it is technical advancement. Is it all artistically driven advancement? No. Are there hideous 3D productions coming out? Damn straight. Just like the flood of ugly 2D productions riding the wake of those truly brilliant artistic efforts.
Growing pains.

If the digital 2D market had been quarter as innovative as the 3D technologies then we would have 1) no difference between 2D digital technologies and 2) artistically driven efficiency that enables immediate artistic feedback.

Growing pains. That's all.

smbhax said...

But where would we be without our beloved old stories, puns, and cliches? :D

Love the "Wackyland" screen grab. And can anybody identify the author of the "Gee, Madge..." cartoon? I love that loose, elegant mix of thin lines and solid blacks.

As far as the main topic goes, I have to say I'm mighty skeptical that any major studio is going to reinvest in a golden-era shorts-style system. They don't have a guarantee that they'll be able to monopolize viewers anymore. We live in the days of someone climbing on a boat, singing badly, and getting 40 million YouTube hits from it. I think those who succeed are going to be those who strike out on their own and manage to find something that captures its own audience. Most of those successes will be horrible creations, but some--just a few--will actually be good. ... Maybe.

Anonymous said...

True. The point is that, sadly, big animation companies are in for the money. Disney invested in that because technical advantage and craftsmanship were a big selling point at the time. But today, who cares? And if the paying public doesn't care, why should they?

(Only a small percentage of the public is animation-savvy enough to understand the nuances of good animation vs bad animation)

davidmaas said...

I don't believe that for a second. Good animation reverberates with the audience. They may not know why, but they feel it.

I feel they're caught up in other factors... ie. higher levels of details and camera techniques etc.

So... incorporate those things with truly good aniamtion and I'm sure they'll prefer the good.

SquirrelyWrath said...

Here is my take on it. The big studios, like the music industry are becoming obsolete as the distribution medium evolves. Unable to cope with change in a huge draconian executive environment, they try to imitate in order to gain market share in the distorted view that simplicity is a trend rather than a coping mechanism for user generated content. As an animator or as a small independent studio it would be in the best interests of everyone involved to simply forgo the distributor, ie. WB, Disney, 4kids (hurl), and submit hand drawn or traditional content via high profile websites with ether a donation or set low price or even free content. It has worked out for Nine Inch Nails and AudioSlave. I don't see why it couldnt apply to other mediums and be just as successful. The real draw is the quality of the work, not the high profile logo stamped on it.

Anonymous said...

oh come on Mr. K. I hear you moaning day in day out. Not everything that's new is automatically bad.

Alvaro said...

That creepy CGI Walrus monster is going to cause me nightmares this night. Those animators didn´t thought in the children at the moment to create it?
However, I still had hope that some day CGI animation will improve a lot with the years.