Sunday, February 21, 2010

Character Design 4 : Tex Avery .

I believe that character designs were much better back when the job wasn't considered very important. At least not important enough to have a separate department for it. It wasn't even until the late 50s that character designers began to get credits on title cards.

Tex Avery is not beloved because of his own personal drawing style - unlike say, Chuck Jones. Avery used a variety of animators to draw his model sheets and design his characters. He wasn't all that concerned with having a consistent visual style. He liked to experiment and just wanted the characters to be appealing and animateable. Avery is admired because of his direction and personality - which used to be considered the most important job in animation.

The guys who drew character designs were animators - artists who knew from personal experience what the needs of a good animation design were.

1) Functional:A lot of early designs were merely functional and didn't show a lot of individual style. But they are still appealing just because they are so well drawn.

later designs got more stylish, but retained the same principles.


Simple is extremely important for animation. That's why the best classic cartoon designers spent more thought on the overall shapes, than on a lot of details.

Too many details make animators sweat. It takes too long to move something if you are spending all your time on extraneous insignificant details.

Too complex proportions:
It's also very hard to keep detailed complex designs from warping and changing shape when you animate them.
Realistic or even semi-realistic humans are a great example of what can't be animated well, so logically the best animators avoided these sorts of designs. The crappy result in motion is not worth the incredible effort of just barely moving the stuff around.

Hierarchical Construction

This gives the few details you have some order and structure. Smaller parts have to obey the positions in space of the larger parts. This makes the animation more convincing and also makes it easier to control more complex motion.
The thinking behind simple well structured designs and animation is far more complex than the thinking behind "realistic" or unstructured designs.

Detail does not equal complex thought. Quite the opposite.

Line Of Action
Even fat characters can have a line of action when drawn with knowledge.
SilhouetteUse of interior negatives



2) Aesthetic: Appealing

Part of appeal is just plain obvious skill. Something sorely lacking today, but in abundance in the 1940s.

but not always: Tex had at least one designer whose work was kind of crude for the time.

Good design has balance-a hard term to define. You need a good balance of empty space VS filled space - clear areas to help draw attention to the details.

3) Descriptive of the Character:
The design should evoke some visual description of the personality of the character.

An Ed Benedict Story About Tex Avery's Animators:

I'm not sure who drew these quick sketches, but they have Tex' personality and expressions inherent in them.

When Ed started designing characters for Tex Avery in the "UPA Style" in the 1950s, the animators would come up to him to complain that his designs didn't work. "You can't move these things!" Ed, being an animator and layout man himself for 2 decades already, would roll his eyes and think "how backwards and conservative these animators are". The irony is that the animation in Tex's 50s cartoons is much more fluid than the animation in the UPA cartoons. That made Ed mad. He complained to me that the animators were resorting to all that "Mickey-Mouse-ish" squash and stretch and overlapping action.
These tracings have lost some of the guts of the original drawings. They would have been first posed by Tex in the storyboard, then Ed would have drawn Tex' poses in his style on the layouts, then the animators would trace Ed's drawings or adapt them, and then finally an assistant animator would trace the animators'. That is 4 steps away from the source of the poses.

Even the UPA designers were mostly Disney or classic-studio trained animators and layout artists-so while they were trying to rebel against the funny-animal cutesy style of Disney, they still retained all the great drawing principles of the 1930s and 40s cartoons.

In the 60s, it all went to Hell. A new generation of designers, who did not have the same training as the 50s designers began superficially imitating the simple-looking flat designs of UPA, but now without the line of action, the hierarchy, the use of space and all the other classic tools of good animation design. There are a few years of fake-UPA style TV cartoons and commercials, and then after that, even that went out the window.

A whole new generation of executives and untrained artists went against all logic and started designing unappealling, scratchy semi-realistic or just plain primitive looking cartoons that were completely non-functional and ugly to boot.

Today, there is a whole separate category of character designers culled not from the animation process itself, but rather from sketchbooks, high schools and colleges. The words "character design" to me have lost their meaning. Anybody can be a character designer today. It's a handicap if you can draw really well and you have to dumb-down to stay employed in most places.

Most designs cause problems rather than help the animators do their jobs. I think it's because the job (in theory) has attained more abstract importance than it had in Tex's time and because the designers don't have to animate - or even layout their own designs. (Some do, but not all animators are automatically good designers either especially in today's completely illogical atmosphere).

I know, everything is subjective so nothing matters anymore.
But I'll take Tex.

Have lots of experience drawing storyboards, layouts and animation. Understand personality. Know your principles. Have a rare gift from God that can't be taught. - An eye for design.

Even with all this, character design is a collaborative effort under a strong director.


Joseph said...

This is a great post! I was recently doing some research on tex avery. I thought it was great how Tex was making his cartoons entertaining even with the slightly flatter designs in the later cartoons like "Deputy Droopy" and "Symphony in Slang"

Namowal said...

"A new generation of designers, who did not have the same training as the 50s designers began superficially imitating the simple-looking flat designs of UPA, but now without the line of action, the hierarchy, the use of space and all the other classic tools of good animation design."
I think you hit the nail on the head with this observation. Even some of the "how to draw cartoon" books I've seen tend to focus on how to make a character that resembles a "flat" character. Details on how to create one that looks appealing, or how to design (and pose) it in an animation friendly way aren't bothered with...
I sure wish I could go back in time and warn my younger self what books to avoid. Ah well...

Eric Knisley said...

I've been coming back to Tex Avery's designs my whole life, for inspiration and guidance. It just doesn't get any better, and his designs incorporate so much other good stuff--design, construction, etc--that you just can't go wrong. Thanks for putting this up, John!

Fernando Sosa said...

Lovely designs.Tex Avery,Chuck Jones,W.Hanna & J.Barbera,the best in the golden animation era.

Gary Wintle said...

Great post, John. I'm looking forward to drawing some of these.

I don't always have the best eyes for what to practice Preston Blair style.

Some time in the future would you be able to show some specific model sheets by various talents that highlight different styles and principles you talk about on this blog?

I'm always worried that I'm practicing on the toned-down stuff.

Thanks as always for all the time you spend on this. It's changed how I look at everything!

SunshineFox said...

I take it you grabbed these images from the Sherm Cohen's link earlier today?? Great stuff btw!

Have you examined the designs and characters from Skunk-Fu by any chance?? All in Flash, but I think it stood out a bit from everything in some ways.

Just curious :3

RooniMan said...

Well said, Mr. K!

:: smo :: said...

i've always really loved tex. just last night i was watching a lot of his mgm cartoons and talking to my roommate about how it was a shame more people don't look to tex cartoons directly for learning [though almost everyone looks to blair which i suppose is sort of vicariously doing so]. these are some of my favorite cartoons and the silliest designs, totally taking the essence of 30's weirdness to the next level.

xynphix said...

I had the unique experience as a child in the early 1980's to see all of the classic MGM tex Avery and Warner classics. There was a kid's variety show called Hatchy Malatchy on early in the morning, this is before I was even in kindergarden! The host, Miss Judy would even show Uncle Tom's Cabana and Pint sized Pygmy. To this day, I can't figure out if at that time, those cartoons fell under public domain or not because the weird part is that that since it was a local network show, I'm positive that there was no budget and those cartoons would play in the same lineup as the common public domain toons found on those cheap supermarket video tapes.
Then those cartoons disappeared for good but I never forgot what I saw and some time in the 90's, I purchased the Tex Avery video collection.
I'll never forget being no more than 6 years old and shutting off the TV in disgust when I'd attempt to watch the Ruby Spears Happy days, Dukes of Hazard, little Rascals etc. cartoons.

Lampshade said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Timothy said...

very inspirational. It's really sad to see some of the titles that are being made these days, and how stiff they seem compared to the greats of yesteryear.

Carmine said...

Great post, as usual.

So, what contemporary shows or movies would you say has good character designs?

JohnK said...

I'd swear I just said none do in this post...

Lampshade said...

Article on a kkkrazy franchise with modern designs
The franchise itself. Great for a quick chuckle!

Cameron said...

Terrific post, John, but I'm not entirely in agreement with you on realistic proportions. I hate the dull methods employed by a lot of studios, but even with warping I see realistic proportions as being as valid as cartoonier design if attention is paid enough to motion and composition. However, I prefer such animation to either be EXTREMELY controlled and nuanced or liberal enough that the inconsistencies don't matter, but even in the former I actually enjoy seeing flaws come out. Flaws are as much a part of an animator's personality as strengths, as can even be seen in the work of the old Disney masters. If Filmation and Hanna-Barbera hadn't been so damn repressive, we might have seen some interesting animation come through despite the cheap budgets.

Herman G said...

Joy!!! It hurts my eyes to see terrible animation and designs. And I even wonder how others get up to be shown on tv. I think it is very insulting to people that put their heart and soul to their craft to see garbage.

JohnK said...

"If Filmation and Hanna-Barbera hadn't been so damn repressive, we might have seen some interesting animation come through despite the cheap budgets."

Yeah, someday maybe 50 years in the future somebody might finally figure out how to make human animation bearable.

It hasn't happened yet, so in the mean time, why don't we take advantage of what we're really good at?

Cameron said...

I've seen a number of shows and movies that have pulled it off quite well. I don't imagine you're a fan of any of them, though, and I can't quite imagine making animation with realistic proportions funny.

I think it works better for straighter storytelling. Which, again, I'm aware you're not keen on for animation.

Malcolm said...

Great Post, Sir.

You know, it's a bit odd that there are model sheets for the broader male characters, yet there are no model sheets for Red. Maybe, it's just me.

JohnK said...

"I can't quite imagine making animation with realistic proportions"

I can imagine it done well in my head, but I have a keen imagination. So far, no one has done realistic animation serious or funny that is as good as what a camera can do much more easily.

Cameron said...

Which is why there's no point in trying to emulate every little wrinkle on the human face, or every little mannerism in a way that's completely realistic.

To me, it makes as much sense to paint the human body as to animate it. You're going to get the animators and their thoughts and approximations of what people act like, simplified and exaggerated like it should be. That's not better or worse than live-action acting, it's another thing entirely.

Kiavik said...

I think that as far as "realistic" human animation goes, nothing beats this:

I mean, look at that girl! The way she brushes her teeth, when she stumbles and falls, and all the other stuff she does...
It's obviously not intended to be funny, but I think that as far as "realistic" animation goes, this is pretty damn impressive.
(In case you're wondering, the animation director here is Tatsuyuki Tanaka)

JohnK said...

What's the point? All that work-aided with CG and rotoscoping, and it still looks jerky and fake.

Just point a camera at real people and it would be a lot more alive.

Kiavik said...

I don't think it looks fake - mainly because of the anime-style face - but hey, to each his own. Where are you seeing the jerkiness however? Can you point at specific sequences? To me it looks consistently fluid.

Raff said...

Anybody...Why did 'cold' become such a sought-after aesthetic, and increasingly so over the years?

flashcartoons said...

very awesome john! thanks for all of this

Perica and Toshke said...

I agree.
someone said that when movie directors started to go in school for movies directors-movies become to be worse than worst.
It is the same situation with animators...and character designers

:: smo :: said...

so john, i've been thinking about this for a while and i'm curious...

in the 40's all these productions were made with a handful of animators, granted they were 7 minutes and not 11 or 22, but generally each lead/assistant team got together 30 feet a week right? they were paid about 90 bucks, that might be around a grand today.

but they had directors who knew how to time, plan, and design. they used x sheets right and knew what they had to hit and didn't go back and re write shit a million times. they got it done in time. they also didn't pay tons of scriptwriters or middle management.

i don't see how doing a traditional production that way couldn't be plausible today. the budget seems on par with flash budgets, it's just all in the preproduction. if someone knows where to hit the keys and breakdowns the process goes a lot smoother.

do you think a revival of the traditional system is possible without cutting pay so much? without shipping everything overseas? maybe just in a city that's not new york or LA?

JohnK said...

They had to do about 25 ft a week at Warners.

You couldn't do it today.

You could maybe do a hybrid system like I had.

But everyone has to learn to draw again and drop bad habits.

thomas said...

I'm struck by how three dimensional and solid the drawings are. Each drawing, especially the fatter characters, use a lot of curves. They're the main thing that gives them a corporeal feeling.

:: smo :: said...

yeah i guess for it to work you'd need to not have facebook and email and all that crap, and everyone has to be really freaking good.

you're definitely as close as it's gotten, hopefully this blog will help people get their head out of their butts and start learning these classic approaches that worked damn well.

JLG said...

Just one quibble---"Character Design" does indeed show up as one of the first credits in Pinocchio. I was surprised the first time I noticed that, because as far as I'd understood from the books I've read, the character design was pretty much done by the key animator of a particular character.

Isaac said...

Kiavik, you asked for specifics from the tooth-brushing scene: The girl turns on the lights - her arm and body jump from place to place, and all the motion for the rest of the clip is like that. She swishes water by repeating the same two frames.
I understand what the scene is supposed to represent - a gritty, bleak, "dystopian" outlook on life, with stylistic anime timing and posing - the usual anime timing and posing. It really bothers me that when the girl "escapes" through a door she has to look like every other anime to ever escape through a door. The whole thing takes itself too seriously, like anime and comic books always must.

Paul B said...

In Anime they do some good realistic human animation I think

JLG said...

@ Kiavik:

I'm with you on that girl. There's just one quick little moment when she's brushing her teeth where it fall apart for me---they quickly repeat a cycle of her brushing. It stands out in a bad way because the rest of the action flows organically, and suddenly you have this artificially repeating motion. Still, it only lasts a second.

I've never understood the bias against "straight" animation. No, it's not something I myself would enjoy working on much, but when done well and with flair, the results are incredibly engrossing. It's just that MOST of the better efforts have come out of Japan. Believing strongly in the principles pushed on this blog does not preclude an appreciation of "straight." But as with politics, there's an either/or mindtrap that persists.

Elana Pritchard said...

I really like this post because I am working on having characters of my own right now. I definitely consider the principals I am learning right now when drawing, and even though I am not the best drawer in the world I feel like my drawing are appealing and have lots of humanity. Since I started learning from your blog two years ago I have made great progress, but it is hard to follow some of the advice you give. How am I supposed to work under great animators and learn form the bottom up when I am stuck isolated by myself in Boston and educating myself by having minimal interactions with people over the internet?
IT IS SO SLOW! IT IS LONELY! How are people supposed to have humanity in their drawings when they don't interact with other people face to face?? I know you are doing all that you can for us and at times going extremely out of your way to help, but as long as people are isolated and just interacting over the internet progress will be slow. Inspiration will be hindered. What ever happened to your school? Are you still going to do it? Give me some advice on this matter!!!

And you know I usually don't write this much so please read it.

ChristopherC said...

Awesome post John! Never seen some of those models before

Roberto González said...

I think the most decent "serious" designs in American animation are the ones in Fleischer's Superman and Bruce Timm's Batman. And they were kind of caricature, not extremely realistic. Something intentionally "dramatic" like Disney's Hunchback Of Notre Dame would have worked much better with designs closer to the Bruce Timm's series, rather than the horrible Saturday Morning look they gave them.

Yeah, I'm sure there is nothing as appealing or fluid as this classic Avery cartoons. I can't figure it out why, I think some people have the skills but there is something holding them back, probably the system is too complicated, like you say.

The Princess and The Frog had some background characters that look terrible but there were others that seemed to be simpler designs. I'm thinking mainly about some guys in the restaurant where Tiana is working during the opening of the movie. There is a soldier that looks pretty good. Also the guy who is transformed by the villain into some sort of red-haired werewolf. The main character, Tiana, though not very caricaturised due to political correctness, had a simple design as a human, generic but kind of appealing, especially in the very first scenes, where she wears normal clothes and not the princess' dress. I actually thought a lot during the movie about how great it would have looked if it had been made in the 40s. There were a few good moments here and there like the Almost there song, but a Cab Calloway-like villain, a black beautiful woman and a jazz playing alligator could have been part of the coolest movie if this had been made in another era. Instead we just see hints of its potential here and there but the actual development is too dull.

John, wouldn't you even consider Spongebob's or Mighty B's designs decent at least?

Steve Hogan said...

How can you say there's no good contemporary character designs when we have this?:

If only Tex Avery were alive to see what an Age of Wonders we live in...

drawingtherightway said...

These are great drawings. What a world of difference between these and those 80's cartoon images!

Cameron said...

I don't expect this will change anyone's mind on the matter, but for me these animators are doing things that can't be pulled off with live-action, and avoid the pratfall of mechanically sticking too close to reality. It's not superior to cartoony animation, it's merely another method.

GoldDarkShadow said...

These model sheet of the Tex characters are awesome. They look stylist , but they are also appealing too. The sheets look surprisingly different then the actual cartoons themselves.I really need to do some cartoon studies of his work. Oh, and where do you get all of these model sheets from? Do you collect them over the years since you been a cartoonist?

Carmine said...

Well, Sir, I know you don't like modern character designs, but I assumed there might be an exception...

How about the Bruce Timm stuff? It might not be fair to ask since you worked together, but I always loved his animation designs. They seem practical, simple, and asthetically pleasing.

Take Justice League Unlimited, for example. Some of those designs looked amazing animated.

She-Thing said...

Hi John, thank you so much for the model sheets. I'm going to draw all of these.

I've got a question tho- do you think that Jamie Hewlett uses difficult shapes in Gorillaz? Do you think they're appealing or bland?

Martin Juneau said...

I was never in admiration with the Tex Avery cartoons from MGM. I often thinkin the gags goes nowhere and was often repetitive by moments, but this designs sheets is impressive and actually well drawed. It gives me feelings to revisited this cartoons. (Tough i like the 50's shorts, included the four made for Lantz.)

About realistic characters, that's often bugs me since many years. Peoples wants to learn the hard way before learn the basic rules of character design. Take a look of WITCH by example. The new looks of the main girls characters tried to believe you it's realistic when it's a series of cluttering and cutting edges who can't be good as a animated cartoon and a comic-book. And those looks are now more bland than the original look made years ago.

Europpeans designers was always irrespectful of their own talents since two decades now.

JohnK said...

"I've got a question tho- do you think that Jamie Hewlett uses difficult shapes in Gorillaz? Do you think they're appealing or bland?"

I think his stuff is great.

It's not exactly realistic though. It's caricatured, and not bland at all. He also is an exceptional talent that draws much better than most animators. I imagine it would be hard to keep up the Gorrillaz quality in a TV series where they had to staff up and find 30 people who could draw that well.

And do it on a fast TV schedule. And ship it overseas.

Anonymous said...

And this post is bookmarked! Great stuff, John! Tex Avery's designs are so appealing.

FriedMilk said...

I went to the Museum of Modern Art today. As part of a series on Tim Burton's influences, they're going to be showing Tex Avery cartoons on April 9th and the 24th.

xynphix said...

Thanks to Kiavik for pointing out that great animation "GENIUS PARTY BEYOND Tojin Kit" japanese? korean?
Sure it's part rotoscoped but look at the parts that aren't and look at the brilliant background art.

Tex Avery is my favorite animator, I even named my son after him but hyper realistic stylised anime next to Tex Avery cartoons is like putting Sushi and ice cream in the same food group.

Not liking it is a matter of taste but, jerky? cluttered? recycled animation? That sure is looking for the hair in the egg. Tex Avery cartoons aren't perfect either but like the above mentioned Anime, both are different forms of highly skilled creative talent.

PatriS said...

thanks John for your posts, it's nice to know that I'm not alone in thinking there's room for improvement... or better some radical change in today's production system. I undertsand what you mean by designs but I think details don't become a problem for an animator if he knows how to draw and is confident in his principles, obviously there are limits. I can't think of the designs currently on television shows as drawings. Oddly enough the more I learn to draw, the more I find myself heading backwards in time, to Tex, Chuck, N.Rockwell, etc. I myself have fallen victim in being told to dum down my designs and I'm still in school. Sad little world we live in, isn't it? I think Animation Shows would get better design, story, animation wise if people took more chances, I've never known anyone whose met success by sitting around and doing nothing. They all took great risks and I honestly think the next animators who will risk everything will eventualy find some success. Tex and Chuck did great designs but if they didn't they would of lost everything, a chance at doing animation for a living. Crazy what the mind can up with when you have evrything to lose.

Oscar Grillo said...

The thing that amazes me most of the Avery's drawings (I have a couple of originals) is the pencil he uses. It must have been a B-6. very strong and sensuous line. Lovely!

Superdeformed said...

I think a big problem is that creators today don't fully understand the concept of the Uncanny Valley.

Rotoscoping, motion capture, and realistic styles might be able to be useful in some applications but more often than not you'll get better effects from proper applications of puppets/animatronics or a person.

With the motion capture stuff Golem from Lord of the rings was was one of the few cases where it pretty much worked, though I've always had the process dangling in the back of my head while I watch the scenes.

As far as rotoscouping goes,I've enjoyed Max Fleischer's Superman shorts and I love Bakshi's Fire and Ice, but it's still jarring for a few seconds until you get used to it.

JLG said...

By contrast, my nomination for among the worst pieces of rotoscope ever done is the Prince's scene in Cinderella where Cinderella first realizes it's almost midnight and he's trying to get her to stay. It really stands out because it's so literal and unembellished. Just straight tracing. "Dull" is an understatement.

CJ Grebb said...

@Superdeformed -

The Uncanny Valley is an EXCELLENT way of looking at this, thank you. Not everyone drops into the Valley at the exact same point. Take a movie like Akira, which has generally "realistic" character designs.

I find that film stunningly well animated. (I'm sure there are those here who would disagree.)

We can quibble all day over isolated examples of limited animation, "jerkiness," etc. It essentially boils down to one person saying "Yes, it is [well animated]" and the other person saying "no, it isn't.

But what we really might be arguing about is that one of us has fallen into the uncanny valley while watching that film and one of us has not.

duckandfish said...

Amazing designs it makes the products really pop compared to the things we see today I love your blog and I think you are the coolest animator around today love the new ren and stimpy episodes. Ren seeks help was incredible!

Isaac said...

Things can be jerky and formulaic without being realistic, CJ. You don't have to focus on the human characters to see that, there are plenty of "cartoony" anime characters that move the same way.

TedM said...

Great post John. Tex Avery was one of the greats right up there with Bill Hanna, Joe Barbera and Chuck Jones. Did you ever meet Tex Avery or Chuck Jones?

Whitney said...

Agreed. This is a great post.

Appealing animation that isn't perfect versus that awwwfulll 70s animation that is in no way appealing. Sad stuff.

I liked Tex Avery's cartoons but Chuck Jones is my man, drawing-wise.

By the way, I had to look up the Billy cartoon. It was a favorite when I was little.


Stewart Comrie said...

Your view that everything is subjective is what lets the current industry get away with all the crap you complain about. It's the how they justify it. Its also how the Nazis justified their actions.

Stand up for your methods. They work. The logic backs them up.

Stewart Comrie said...

Your view that everything is subjective is what lets the current industry get away with all the crap you complain about. It's the how they justify it. Its also how the Nazis justified their actions.

Stand up for your methods. They work. The logic backs them up.

Stewart Comrie said...

Your view that everything is subjective is exatcly how the industry justifys the crap they produce. Crap is crap and your not gonna eat plate of shit because someone say's it's lasagna.

tendoboy1984 said...

John K: What do you think of Friz Freleng's character designs?

tendoboy1984 said...

When did the whole concept of outsourcing animation to Korea begin? What about all the talented animators right here in America? I know companies outsource to "save money", but it clearly wasn't a concern in the 1930's through the 1950's.

You don't get the same quality by outsourcing that you would if everything was done in-house. I highly doubt the animators in Korea even know about the techniques that were used in the old days of animating.