Thursday, January 14, 2010

L.O. 9 What is The Hardest Job At Spumco?

In my experience, Layout is the toughest job. If you have done some of the previous exercises, you probably agree by now.

Here's a storyboard panel, one of many poses that take place within the same setup (same background)WRITING IS EASY
What's the easiest job in cartoons? Writing. It takes a morning to come up with an idea for a story, then to get together with your funny friends and have a gag session. (of course if you're not funny, then writing will be hard). That means exploring how many funny gags and situations can come out of your story idea. This takes absolutely no skill at all. It takes raw talent and funny people.

After the gag session, the "writer" then applies skills to the idea. He takes an afternoon and maybe another day to structure the story- to line up the gags and ideas into an effective progression that lays out the ideas step by step and builds on them to lead to an exciting conclusion that wraps it up. This job takes some skill and brainpower for sure, but once you have it, the job itself is not difficult and can be executed in a day or 2. Then you slap the backs of the other writers and get ready for 10 months later when you can take credit for the success of the cartoon, or blame the artists when it doesn't play funny.


A storyboard artist needs more skill, and it's a harder job in terms of man hours. He has to develop all the ideas, fill them out, add continuity, stage the ideas, add dialogue etc...applying all this to a story outline takes a few weeks of work and complex thought.

BUT! The storyboard artist has much freedom from other pesky skills. He doesn't have to make all his poses flip. He doesn't have to make finished clean drawings. He doesn't have to make sure there is room in each panel for every action to take place. He doesn't have to worry about the characters' proportions changing somewhat from panel to panel. If he had to worry about all that, he wouldn't be concentrating on telling a funny and gripping story and his storyboard would end up stiff and boring. His mind needs to be on the story, not every visual detail and perfect functionality of the drawings.

My bacon scribbled storyboards are evidence of that. I draw them fast and loose, with no worry about perfecting each line. I'm telling the story and trying to make it entertaining. That's a fun, fairly easy job. The hardest part is just how long it takes compared to writing, which takes hardly any time at all.


The hardest job of all is LAYOUT, for many reasons. The main one, is you have so many restrictions and rules to follow. You also have to be a killer artist. If you don't draw very well, still can't draw construction, then forget it. A storyboard artist needs to be able to draw funny, but doesn't have to be a stylist or a skilled draftsman. This has always been the hardest job at Spumco, and definitely the hardest to teach.

The ideal layout artist has to be:

A great draftsman.
A stylist and designer.
An actor.
A problem solver.
Patient and focused.
A multi-tasker.

This poor bastard not only has to have great skills and talent, he (or she) has to balance a ton of rules at the same time he's trying to make all the drawings look pretty. It's not like drawing a random pose in your sketchbook and hoping it comes out looking swell - which is much easier to do than doing functional drawings, as we all know.


The layout artist is also not completely free to make up anything he wants. He is not anywhere near as free as the story artist. He has to use the story artist's ideas as a guide - and clean up all its problems. This sounds like a dreadful boring, laborious task - and it can be while you are learning layout skills. But it doesn't mean it isn't a creative job. To me, it is the most essential job in the studio, because it's where the characters come alive - if you know what you are doing.

I'm always on the lookout for potential layout artists. it is the hardest skill for me to train people in - even though the artists with the potential to do it have to be the most naturally talented and skilled cartoonists. I have a bunch of them in my secret college blog, and this is definitely the hardest exercise for them to do. They are all already good at design and most are good at construction when they draw one individual character floating in space. When they have to translate storyboard drawings into layouts, they quickly realize what a different world the world of functional drawings is. It separates the men from the boys, especially if they are girls.

BUT...the layout artists are the stars of the studio. It's their drawings that end up on the screen entertaining the kiddies out there and making them giddy with jiggling pantloads of pee.

Unless they tone down all the storyboard drawings to make them look like illustrations in a Jehovah's Witness tract. Then they are dirty bums.

So... here's the beginning of a series where I will try to explain what a layout artist has to do.

If you just look at one panel at a time as you draw, you will find yourself heaped in mistakes that you will later have to go back and redo, because you didn't see all the problems lying ahead.


OK, once you now why everyone is doing what they are doing and where it is all heading you can start taking individual panels and analyzing them:

1) Look for the mistakes
2) Look for the good things - that you'll want to preserve and enhance

The first mistakes you will find will have to do with staging and cramping. Storyboard artists draw small and tend to clump their characters too close together and end up with problems of cramping.

You can see in the panel above that Slab is so close to Ernie that I didn't have enough space between them to fit Ernie's hand- so I cheated and drew his hand too small just to get it in there. I left the problem for the layout artist to fix, poor bastard, so I could go on to the nest panel and just have fun telling the story.

There are other cramped areas in the picture. The background is to small. The jagged edged fence is running right through the characters and threatens to draw attention away from them. The sidewalk is too thin and everyone's feet are right on the edges of it.

The worm and flower heads have tangents-they touch the line of the sidewalk.

So, If I'm to get to the point where I can have some fun drawing layouts, I first have to take a deep breath, roll my eyes and start figuring out how to fix these problems.

Next: Fixing the cramped areas, by opening up space.
After that, looking for mistakes in construction, perspective.
After that, FINALLY, looking for the good things: contrasts, line of actions, funny expressions and strong poses - then caricaturing them.


Noel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
nktoons said...

Great post John! I was very inspired by the info on the storyboard/layout connection. As always very useful, thanks.

Noel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
drawingtherightway said...

So in this production system, is the layout artist pretty much the key animator? I know the stuff gets sent off to be inbetweened but the layout artist is creating the key poses.

Oscar Baechler said...

Great stuff, as always!

Always been curious, John, but why do you prefer the lined notebook paper? I have my college we did all sorts of stupid exercises like conte crayon, copper drawings, H-through-B pencil bullcrap. But when I got frustrated and went back to crappy old 2B school pencils, which I'd used from toddlerdom through high school for joyful doodling, it brought back a lot of the fun of drawing. So that's my theory, that it was good enough for you in 4th grade, so it's good enough now.

lovetta said...

Happy to finally find a decent post on difference between storyboard and layouts.Thanks!

RooniMan said...

Great post.

Elana Pritchard said...

How many people do you usually have working on layout? Just one?

SoleilSmile said...

Storyboards pretty much ARE the layouts in current tv productions. I just completed a Family Guy storyboard test using a layout method. I'll know by the end of the week if I goofed that up.

Alex_M said...

you should add the donate link to these upcoming posts because I'm definitely considering donating again. This is essential information not many people share. thank you

JohnK said...

It's right at the top of the page Alex.


Pauline Matthewman said...

I have been following this blog for ages now, and have to say that this was a really interesting post. It's been said above, but it really is nice to get a clear view on the difference between storyboard and layout.

Cheers Muchly.

Guy Cx said...

Thanks a lot for this post, John! The harder you say it is to be the layout artist, the harder I want to be one.

John, maybe the source of these main problems in this particular scene of Slab's First Fist is the excess of characters (and really different from each other ones!) on scene, don't you agree? I think it's you who once wrote that the ideal number of characters on scene is one or two, maximum three.

Niki said...

I understand most about the fixing cramps exect for the fence. I'n fixing that would you make it higher? Or lower? because if L.O. is the toughest job, I have to know how to do it.

JohnK said...

Yes, higher

so that ragged top doesn't cut through the characters and distract from the action

John Atkinson said...

I'm trying to do layouts for my own cartoon, so I value posts like this now more than ever - this stuff is hard! Keep 'em comin', John!

Niki said...

It's excellent to know that I got it right the first time! Thank you for answering!

Noel said...

Here is my attempt at laying out that scene, i made a blog of it check it out:

JohnK said...

Please use links if you want me to look at stuff.


Trevor Thompson said...

Hey John,

when I visited Nickelodeon I found out that storyboard artists now have to make their boards function as layouts. Does this really make sense?

JohnK said...

It makes no sense at all.

It costs ten times as much to make a storyboard and the storyboard artist is stiffened up by having to concentrate on things other than visual storytelling.

But when the characters are practically stick figures and aren't supposed to have expressions or emotions anyway, I guess it doesn't matter to them.

Cristian AvendaƱo said...

This looks really fun. I mean, I probably couldn't do it yet, but it seems fun to solve those kinds of things.

Hey, John, I was just wondering something... how do you time the drawings in the storyboard so that they fit in the timeslot? I've tried to do short cartoons and live action stuff on my own before, but it's always difficult because I tend to say "ok, this has to be 3 minutes long, tops", and after I make a rough storyboard I realize I have enough stuff for a 6 minute short. I always end up cutting something, and it's really notorious when it comes to the pacing... you can tell that there are missing or cramped scenes.

Do you run into that problem yourself? If so, how you work it out?

Trevor Thompson said...

Hey John,

when I visited Nickelodeon I found out that storyboard artists now have to make their boards function as layouts. Does this really make sense?

Trevor Thompson said...

Disregard my accidental repeat.

Gabriele_Gabba said...

This post is going places i can't begin to imagine!

I'll be closely following it and trying my hand at doing some layout myself, thanks for the lessons! :D

xynphix said...

Are there any examples in this blog of a rough storyboard as compared to a completed layout that was constructed from it? I'd like to study what makes a good fix as compared to a fix that sucks the life out of the original drawings.

Noel said...

Can anyone tell me how to make this:


a link
(i'm use to just typing it and's alink)

Lohen said...

And, what about the animator job?

Isaac said...

xynphix, this should get you started:

Maintaining guts in poses
From storyboard to layout

Maintaining guts from department to department
Maintaining guts from SB to LO 1
Maintaining guts from SB to LO 2
Maintaining guts from SB to LO 3

"Guts" are:

Line Of Action
Negative space
Interesting shapes

JohnK said...

Hi Lohen

Unfortunately, the animator's job had changed purpose drastically in the last 40 years.

It used to be that it was the animator's drawings that you saw on the screen, but when they started sending animation to Asia, the animators were instructed to blindly follow the model sheets and there was no way to direct them.

Then I brought back layouts to America and we started using layout to draw the key poses. So even if the movement was good or bad (usually bad), at least you had some expressive poses and original custom designed drawings in the cartoons.

A bit later, I sent some animation to Carbunkle in Vancouver-which was more expensive than Korea, but the animators cared and added much to the effect. But they were still using our poses for the most part.

Now, most "animation" isn't even animation anymore, It's sliding model sheet drawings around a flat surface in Flash. A big % of Flash animators don't even draw, so drawing has been completely taken out of the definition of "animator" which grieves me terribly.

Obviously, the old system of having the actual animators in a room right next to the director was the best system at all, but no one seems eager to bring that back.

My layout system is the second best one I can think of. It's the only way to get acting and life into cartoons on TV budgets.

Paul B said...

In the Layouts are the key poses?

How the animator knows the speed of motion of a character with the poses in the layouts? when to fit every pose in the action.

Zoran Taylor said...

Your point about the story process is important for everyone to hear, no matter what their personal attitude towards that process is. I think I'm the type of person who would agonize over story for a long time, simply because I'm not satisfied with a predictable, unchanging tone that never challenges the audience to feel a lot of different things even as they're laughing. But if you're just blind to how simple story is fundamentally compared to a process like layout, you'll be out to lunch on how to get something done.

Corey said...

Paul B, I believe that's gonna be the sheet timer's job/ slugging .

Correct me if I'm wrong

drawingtherightway said...

So John, back in the golden age when animation was still being done here, what was the purpose of layouts? I understand that you have to use them now because of outsourcing, but back then they wouldn't have had to. Did the layouts serve a different purpose back then?

JohnK said...

It was to plan and stage the scenes for the animators.

To place the characters within the backgrounds and make sure the paths of action are clear.

They didn't generally draw as many poses, because the animators would be there to do that.

An exception would be Chuck Jones, who posed out his own cartoons, and the animators animated between his major keys - which is kinda how I work.