Thursday, July 09, 2009

Smears and Poses

I remember when I first discovered "The Dover Boys" I was swept away by the technique of "smears" that the animators used to get from one pose to the next. What I later realized was much more important were the poses themselves. If you don't have great poses to get to, the smears are wasted.
This whole cartoon is great: the gags, the timing, the design, the backgrounds, the voices, the music. The smears are really just an added cool trick.

Like other animation tricks, smears are hypnotically tempting and they can distract an animator from what is more important - the cartoon itself. Luckily, Chuck Jones had his whole cartoon working from top to bottom and the smears were tailored to the ideas, rather than the other way around. Animation tricks won't make a bad design, generic pose, bland characters or a boring cartoon any better than what they are in essence.

I love this character! Dan Backslide's design is funny - a specific variation (a caricature of Ken Harris?) of a generic villain - and Mel Blanc's voice acting is great.

These poses are very strong, specific and organic.

...and funny!

This is an early experiment in "limited animation". Once the character hits his pose, his head moves around while he talks and his body stays held - but in very dynamic poses. The way the moving parts look and move is very funny and creative and this separates this kind of limited animation from the kind that most people (even executives) associate with cheap crappy stuff.
The Dover Boys really influenced the way I used limited animation once I started directing. - not the smears, but the posing and expressiveness. If you can't move everything - at least you can make the poses fun and make what does move expressive and funny.

Again, the smears are fun, but the poses are way more important to the success of the film. I see a lot of young animators who discover animation tricks and get carried away by them - while neglecting the much more important aspects of the entertainment. The harder things to do - like drawing well and drawing specific or original poses and expressions that are tailored to the story.
The rumor is that Leon Schlesinger hated this cartoon, but I can't figure out why. It's one of Jones' first really funny cartoons. But he never did anything this extreme again.
The irony is that the Dover Boys inspired the founders of UPA cartoons and later Jones said he didn't approve of the UPA approach to animation.
Bob Cannon was one of those founders and he was one of Jones' main animators in the early to mid 40s. Some say The Dover Boys was largely his idea, but who knows? Which part of the "idea"? The story? The timing? The design? The smears? It sure has Jones' posing all over it. I think it's one of the best cartoons ever made.
1942 was a very creative year at WB. The competition among the directors must have been fierce.
"Idea". What a misleading word. I meet so many people who think all it takes to make a successful cartoon is a magic "good idea". People ask me all the time, "How did you get the idea for Ren and Stimpy?" It's hard to answer quickly because there is no single idea. It's a whole bunch of ideas that keep changing. Ideas are a dime a dozen. The execution is what makes things work - or not. Talent, skill, experience putting things together coherently and entertainingly, working with people who complement your talents - a lot of more important things than having an "idea". What's the idea for The Beatles? Long hair?

I think I'll expand upon "What is an idea?" in another post


Niki said...

I have the dover boys on my laptop. It was my favorite as a kid, along with the Rabbit of Seville

David Germain said...

Back in animation school, one of our teachers said "smears are for wimps". I certainly agree with him to a certain extent. They can be overused by lazy animators who just want to get the scene done as quickly as possible. But, of course, like any technique, it can be used effectively is capable of producing some fabulous works like the Dover Boys here.

One nice part about this scene with Dan Backslide that I didn't notice until much later is that there's a painting of a nude lady behind his head.

Isaac said...

That Batman really bugs me. The open palm with index finger separated from the rest, is there a living person who actually makes that hand gesture? It's ridiculously common in Japanese anime and WB superhero animes, just one of many gestures that have a predefined meaning--in this case, "I feel evil"--but have no real meaning.

Pilsner Panther said...

The original source material—

Which would have been as familiar to children of the early 20th century (Chuck Jones, Tedd Pierce, and Bobe Cannon, for example) as the Harry Potter books are to today's.

I was much too young to have ever heard of the Rover Boys when I saw this cartoon for the first time, but I did know that it looked like no other cartoon I'd ever seen. Being maybe 10 years old at the time, I wasn't quite sure what I was seeing or why it was different, but it always fascinated me whenever it happened to show up on TV.

It's like, nothing is left to chance here, "limited" animation aside. You could do a detailed analysis of every single character's movements, because they all move so differently. For example, Dora Standpipe doesn't seem to have human feet, but little rollers under her dress. Who thought of that?

Dan Backslide is all extreme poses like you see in these stills, with almost no in-betweens... and we know he's evil, because he's green! Not that having a green skin has anything to do with being a villain, per se, but who else but the villain would have one?

And then there's the strange little guy who seems to have wandered in from some other cartoon, always accompanied by the old song "Strolling In The Park," which dates to around 1900, the same era as the Rover Boys books.

This cartoon is unique; it might have inspired UPA's work to some extent, but you can't say that UPA or any other studio ever did anything else like it. For that matter, neither did Warner's, ever again.

Was that because Leon Schlesinger hated it? Maybe, but he didn't quash it in production and tell the Jones unit to make a Bugs or Daffy cartoon instead, so maybe he didn't. The Disney crew could never have gotten away with making anything so radical.

"Dear old P.U.!"

Luis said...

I don't want superman smearing behind me :(

J C Roberts said...

Wow, I knew The Dover Boys had a lot of smears, but I didn't realize it was that many. It was an important cartoon in puhing the design envelope in it's day, which you know executives are all so fond of. They didn't make anything else quite like it during that era.

I use smears occaisonally myself, they're best left to hectic, hurried motions, as they make the character appear to be fighting against time to move faster.

One of the most important lessons I learned from your cartoons by just watching them is the strong hold poses. It made immediate sense to me that if you're doing limited/planned animation, and need to hold poses, they should be entertaining to linger on and worth holding longer. Of course, it should also match the emotion of the line or scene. If you can stagger the moving elements, such as arms or hair bounces happening while the head holds, the motion helps it keep flowing as well.

Or you could compose all your scenes like the old "Fat Albert" show. The same dame frozen heads filling up half the screen with their mouths flapping. That's a good approach too.

Rick Roberts said...

The rumor is that Leon Schlesinger hated this cartoon, but I can't figure out why"

No it was true. Schelesinger and Warners hated the limited animation technique. They must have felt that this look was not as "smooth" as Disney or MGM and by comparison, this film would look cheap.

Kali Fontecchio said...

Every time I watch this cartoon it cracks me up!

thomas said...

Thanks, I, for one, haven't seen this before. The look of it is pretty unusual. Too me, it looks a little like Disney's 60's stuff; like Cruella De Ville, though I like this much more.
Seems like there are quite a few "gay 90's" themed cartoons back then. I wonder what made it so popular of a subject. I guess it was just part of the popular folklore of the time.
The Blanc voice is great. It's actually kind of painful to listen to, but that's what makes it funny.

Mattieshoe said...

I feel like if Jones had made more cartoons where the design itself drives the ideas and the humor, he wouldn't have taken until the late forties to make his most entertaining films.

That was really the area that Jones personally excelled in, even thought it may not have been entirely appropriate for a studio like Warner Bros.

SunshineFox said...

In the extremely short "Animation History" lecture on Chuck Jones... our instructor told us that Jones was technically fired over this cartoon, but because of the large studio lot, odd location of the tiny animation building, and hectic executive schedules to keep on top of details he managed to keep dodging the "pink slip" delivery and most of the tension was forgotten and left alone after the next cartoon came out.

No idea about the truthfulness of that, but there it is how I heard it.

Nayantara said...

Now if that Superman cartoon was done entirely like that second- to- last frame, all blockheads, that would be great!

bloatedsackofprotoplasm said...

I love it. Those smears are so much more fun to look at than the streaks that appear unattached from the character. I can see how someone just discovering this technique would be inclined to abuse the privilege. This clip is great.

Rick Roberts said...

My farvorite line:

"A round-about ! I'LL STEAL IT ! NO ONE WILL EVER KNOW !"


mike f. said...

Great analysis of an essential American classic. It's also one of those rare parodies that's become more famous than the original source material! (Who remembers The Rover Boys nowadays, except in connection with this cartoon?)

The Dover Boys is also the best UPA cartoon that UPA didn't make, and one of the most influential caroons ever produced, period. (It reportedly inspired the founders of UPA. All I can say about that is - they maybe should have studied it closer.)

The Dover Boys is actually funny. That makes all the difference...

Mister 1-2-3-4 said...

When I first saw this, I also had the sensation that this was a very different sort of cartoon. It has an underlying feeling of creepiness that isn't usually associated with Warner Brothers. Granted, I was watching it late at night, but there is something deeply unsettling about Dan Backslide's stylized design and dramatic movements. He reminds me of Max Schreck as Nosferatu-- highly theatrical and even a bit hammy, but that only serves to make him more menacing.

Zorrilla said...

Perfect scene! Nothing to add really.

And about Superman... now he looks like he could stop bullets! Not sure about flying though.

John A said...

The next bit of animation has always been my favorite; when Dan pounds down shot after shot after shot at the bar and the bartender sneaks one for himself.Everything in this cartoon just kills me.

Caleb said...

I'm reading the Chuck Jones book 'Chuck Reducks' right now, and here's something he said about the Dover Boys:

"The Dover Boys was one of the first animated parodies, and of course the distributors in New York hated it because they had never seen anything like it before. They would have refused to release the picture, but they had already paid for it, so they tried to have me fired instead. They would have succeeded, but they could find no acceptable replacement. This loathing of originality continues in television today: when something original does successfully appear, everyone imitates it, but most are afraid to do something genuinely new."

RobochaoXX said...

My parents just told me to shut up from laughing at smears.

I've seen some of these things in the 90s Sonic The Hedgehog cartoon and Tiny Toons Adventures.

They looked terrible. Like really bad.

I know a guy named Wiley that said it would be really interesting to see Kennedy Cartoons animate Ren and Stimpy. I would've gladly told him "Hell no, man. That sounds disgusting."

They used smears like crazy and the characters bounced up and down every drawing for no apparent reason.

Batman is still bothering me like there's no tomorrow. What's wrong with him? Lol.

Rick Roberts said...

Mike F.:

Glad your hear again buddy because I got a doozy for you on your favorite subject, the ignorace of youth.

During the Micheal Jackson tribute that recently aired, some jackass on MTV was stating that Micheal Jackson's favorite song was "Smile" by Charlie "Chapman". Yes Mike, the dimwit said "Chapman" not once but twice.

Ardy said...

Dan Backslide looks more than a little bit like Frank Zappa.

Also, I would cite Chris Reccardi's work at Games as an example of abusing smears, mostly because they didn't even transition to another pose, they just happened out of nowhere. I'm not sure what his theory behind them was, but they always bugged the hell out of me.

Pilsner Panther said...

Lots of great comments, fitting for such an amazing little film. I can't draw to save my life, but if I could, I'd draw something like Chuck Jones and his team did here.

What I'm good at (sort of) is written story construction and continuity, so Mr. K astonished me recently by saying that the most classic cartoons of the 30's-40'-50's had no written scripts behind them, only storyboards.

Trying to sell this storyboard to Uncle Leon must have been a bitch-and-a-half. Or, Tex Avery showing one of his absurd-crazy storyboards to MGM Producer Fred Quimby, who reportedly had no sense of humor at all.

Those money men never understood a single &%$#*!! thing about comedy or creativity, until the profits started adding up. Then they'd tell the cartoon directors, "Give me some more like that one!"

While continuing to underpay them, but that's business. Even today.

Willem Wynand said...

love the dover boys
"a runabout, I'L STEAL IT NOONE WILL EVER KNOW!" lol

John said...

For me this is Jones' best cartoon - that one really big smear, (just before he says 'love is money') still gets me every time!

Larry Levine said...

Another shining example of Chuck Jones' genius.

Iritscen said...

Yeah, now that's the stuff! And thanks for the Superman smears. I discovered smears from that show -- specifically from the episode "Knight Time", where Batman is missing and Superman fills in for him -- in his costume! This leads to a scene where "Batman" catches up to a villain with a casual burst of super-speed where he smears across the screen. I remember advancing through that with my VCR in wonder as I finally got to see what they were doing frame by frame when super-speed happened.

John A said...

John- The line is "how I LOVE HER--father's money."

Preston said...

What's particularly cool about the "...father's money" pose/smears/pose moment is how the smears work with the apparent "camera move." Just a couple of frames past the big smear, Dan goes partially off-camera (just his nose!) as the camera "catches up" to him. This highlights the abruptness and, more importantly, fits right into the moment's dramatic context -- the Shakespearean-style villain's "aside."

Fabián Fucci said...

The first time I saw The Dover Boys I just couldn't believe the transitions. They were too far way original.

Iron maiden said...

his personality reminds me of the character you made for the ripping friends man of next thursday for some reason

Lohengrin Navarro said...

The smears "smell" good. Ha ha ha!.. ehem... sorry.

Chickens_are_crazy said...

I saw that WB short.It's a classic.
The animation...incredible.
The comedy...hysterical.
Just brilliant.

Alec said...

I love the old WB shorts including that one.

The Dover boys are classics.
Don't you agree?