Monday, March 29, 2010

Direction 3: What You Need To Be A Good Director

How do we even know about cartoon directors?

We get our whole notion of cartoon directors from a small handful of famous names, most of whom came from Warner Bros. in the 1930s and 1940s (that should tell you something right there):

The Big 3
Bob Clampett
Tex Avery
Chuck Jones

2nd Most Revered

Friz Freleng
Bob McKimson
Frank Tashlin
Hanna Barbera
Dave Fleischer

These people are the real stars of cartoons. They are far more important than the hordes of characters they created. Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Tom and Jerry, Betty Boop are all great characters, but no one else but the original directors have ever been able to do anything good with them. You'd think someone in the business would have noticed by now that the treasures in cartoons are the directors, not the characters.

Great - or even good directors are extremely rare in the cartoon business. They were even rare during the 30s and 40s, animation's golden age. Lots of animation studios had directors, but who remembers them?

We don't really think about directors when it comes to Disney, because he himself was the dominant personality in the studio. He had directors for sure, but they didn't normally have a lot of freedom to paint their personal styles and worldviews into the pictures. It was all a matter of second-guessing "What would Walt do?" Even Ward Kimball - who is probably the most distinct of the Disney directors - is still pretty Disneyfied.

Disney was one of the factors in the Warner Bros. directors' revolution. In the 1930s, while most studios were frantically trying to figure out Disney's formula by copying him, the emerging WB directors had to have very strong personalities to go against the imitating hordes. Whenever something is successful, most people think it's because it has hit upon a magic formula. Most folks are afraid to go up against the herd mentality by being themselves - even though every modern cartoon is a lecture on "being yourself". If these cartoons were honest, the moral of the story would be "do what the committee tells you to do".

All real directors share some common attributes:

General Prerequisites:

Unique Viewpoint and Way of Seeing The World ("Voice")

That's hard to define, particularly when almost every young cartoonist thinks he (or she) is unique and has a completely original style.

It's what I hear people calling "voice" these days. It's what makes a Chuck Jones Daffy Duck a different kind of experience than a Bob Clampett one.

It's the difference between the 30s Fleischer Popeyes and the later ones.

There were a number of directors making Terrytoons, but it's much harder to tell their directors apart than it is for us to distinguish Warner Bros. directors. There are of course a couple people who can tell the difference, but they are as rare as good directors are.

This voice is a combination of factors: genetic disposition, upbringing and environment, and the experience of handling the medium itself. Feeling the clay squish around in your fingers and discovering what it is capable of. This is not something you can get just by being named "director" and then shipping all the work out of town.

People with "voice" tend to avoid imitation and formula better than those without. Imitators have no voice and instead copy blindly. Almost every cartoon studio in the 1940s imitated Warner Bros. cartoons - because they lacked their own "voices". Every period has its voices and their accompanying faint echoes.


Even if someone actually does have a unique outlook, it doesn't necessarily follow that it's appealing to a large number of people. The successful directors all have personalities that appeal to a wide audience.

Extreme Talent

The talent should be fairly obvious at least to other artists, if not to the executives. The good director can do a lot of the work himself, and must do so because only he really knows what he wants. Extreme talent commands respect from the crew. Not from everyone of course, but from enough people that a cartoon can get made and that the artists don't all argue with him.Talent is not enough though either. It's just part of the equation- an essential part, but even more is needed.

Clear and Logical Communication Skills:

A good director has to be able to get across his ideas to the audience - in the way he meant them. He needs to be able to control your feelings and make you laugh when he wants you to and grip the seats with tension when he commands it.

If he expects the audience to interpret the message, then he isn't directing. He is shooting craps.

Clear communication skills are not common to many people, especially today.


The director must have those other traits as fundamentals, but on top of those, he needs experience.
The reason the classic cartoons are so much more confidently executed is because the directors all worked their way up. They had experience working in various jobs within a well-structured cartoon studio system and so they learned how everything fit together.


Control isn't just a matter of being able to boss others around. It's having the personal skills to be able to bring your vision to life.

A director who wants his own personality and style to come through in his pictures has to have a great deal of mind-to-pencil control. Without the ability to actually put down on paper how you see and feel, you are going to be frustrated by the inadequate methods of trying to say what you want, while using standard formulaic cliches of drawing, animating, acting etc. You have to be able to break away from second-guessing how someone else would do something, or how "it's supposed to be done".


None of these factors alone are enough to make anyone a good director. These are what I would consider fundamental raw materials a cartoonist needs if he has a chance at becoming a solid director. You need them all - just to start with.

I'm going to put some direction articles on the curriculum blog, so keep checking in if you are interested.


The specific skills and tools at a director's command.


Stone said...


patrick sevc said...

Thanks John! You're one of the good ones!

Funky Al said...

Slightly (completely) off topic, but have you seen these abominations yet, John?

Eidenbrock said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kawks! said...

Clear and logical communication skills is also important to communicate to your team as well as the audience.

David Gale said...

"Clear communication skills are not common to many people, especially today."

I very much agree. Every second commercial I see on TV leaves me scratching my head. "What the hell was that supposed to be about?!"

Tim said...

Mr. Kricfalusi,

What are your opinions on Jack Kinney? I find his direction to be very idiosyncratic, characteristically irreverent in a way most unusual for Disney. He seemed to be more in touch with the Terrytoons/WB/Avery mentality albeit with the formal gloss one would expect from Disney.

Eeva said...

The way you write "Hanna Barbera" leaves the impression that there's just one woman behind the Hanna-Barbera company. William Hanna and Joseph Barbera? But otherwise a great article, you can't really praise these guys enough.

There are quite an amount of animator breakdowns for Looney Tunes and MGM shorts on youtube but I remember seeing for 101 Dalmatians. It's pretty damn impressive to be able to tell Disney animators apart. But you sure know it's Disney when it gets deleted before you've even finished watching it.

Anonymous said...

Great post, John!

RE: Extreme Talent, I read an interview where Bob Singer said all of Chuck Jones' animators worshipped him.

I also have a question about directing actors, John. What is the best way to direct actors? Is it the no rehearsal, minimum direction and one-take style of John Ford, the 40-take and no direction style of William Wyler (director of Detective Story and The Big Country), the heavy direction style of Eliza Kazan, or the heavy rehearsal style of Sydney Lumet? How do you get an intense acting performance from an actor?

Ignacio Ochoa said...

Excellent post!!!

These attributes are seen clearly in the animation films that mark differences. For example: The Oscar Grillo short film that you posted last week, the films of Miyasaki (he draws all the Storyboard), the films of Nick Park, the films of Bill Plimpton. And surely this that you explain here, conducted to "Ren & Stimpy" toward the success.


K. Nacht said...

Using the term "voice" figuratively, meaning saying something or presenting something distinct in a certain field, (e.g. "A new voice in American theatre.") is nothing new, as a rhetorical fashion.

Elana Pritchard said...

Very interesting subject

seckscab said...

Wow, now I know who I'm going to be for Halloween: a young Chuck Jones. The resemblence is uncanny.

Luis María Benítez said...

Great post, keep it up. Of course we're all interested to know more.

Raff said...

I like where this is going.

drawingtherightway said...

It's weird looking at that photo of Avery, Jones, and Clampett because they look like they were the best of friends but there are those reports about Jones hating Clampett that say otherwise. I guess Jones was a very jealous person.

TedM said...

That was a really interesting blog. Those guys were the greats.

Rusty said...

Great information this is going to be a long post (sorry) but I wanted to give feedback.

What is unfortunate is that their are some studios that don't have directors that go by any of these principals. They just slip through the cracks especially in the seventies and eighties.

General Prerequisites

I agree with you about people having their own voice to a certain extent. It is clear that the Golden Age had the best voices especially at MGM, and Warner Bros. Also many artists on blogger have very unique styles as well like you, Kali, Jim Smith, Patrick Smith are extremely influential to my work. You all have your own voice. Also when viewing their work I can easily tell the difference because each has their own distinctive style.

Then some whom I am not going to mention out of respect no offense who spend to much time copying their favorite anime or retro style. Its hard to tell the difference between them because their not being themselves and just copying what they like to see. If your a serious artist I believe its key to develop your own style along the way.

My voice although not fully developed yet is influenced by life experiences and post modernism. I want to be distinctive and I believe to do that is to surprise the audience with new ideas.

I think post modernism is key to a voice.


This can be very difficult in some instances. You have to carefully study what the audience wants to see and what kind of personality you can bring to the table to impress them. You did this very effectively and well with Ren and Stimpy and George Liquor.

Extreme Talent

People like this are workaholics dedicated to their craft. It depends on the studio and how large the talent pool is in whether or not it can be effective and put to good use.

I have my ideas but I want to be sure that their aren't so many objections that it would put a halt to a production. I have to find out how to get everyone on the same page if they have different artistic tastes.

Clear and Logical Communication Skills

I'm always sincere in how I present my ideas. Its just that because people think differently and unalike it seems to be a challenge to get all of them to understand things. Some people I know have a hard time understanding Ren and Stimpy which gets me frustrated because I get the purpose of the show quite well. You can convince a person not a village to believe in the same thing.

JoJo said...

I suppose principles would have to come second nature to someone when it comes to the part about Control in your post. I guess it depends where the emphasis is in the idea you're trying to communicate.

I may be wrong.

GoldDarkShadow said...

The Warner Bros were the greatest of the directors because they were the most recognizable for the different styles they had.I can recognize them right off the bat. Does any one know anything about the Disney directors. Awesome post. Your one of the most recognizable directors of this generation I think in cartoons

RooniMan said...

Those directors sure, if I may say, had the power in their hands, but they used that power for good, not evil. Also they earned that power form the ground up.

James Dalby said...

Looking at your own directorial work definitely made me believe you had a very unique "voice" yourself.

How would you grade yourself as a director?

chrisallison said...

Hey John, I'd like to echo Jorge Garrido's post about your directorial approach to voice actors. I know you do voice acting yourself, and when you have a talent often it's hard to articulate it sometimes, but insight into your approach would be helpful to those of us making cartoons out there. Thanks!

Doctor Jones said...

You mentioned studios that were copying work, as well as directors who were creating something new instead.

Well where or when does a director find the freedom to do such things when it comes to big contracts and network involvement?
Especially in an industry that demands mostly cookie cutter cartoons restricted within the boundaries of what networks decide is good or bad for and audience.

The internet isn't going to make you much money.

It seems like if you have a "vision", you either have to work your way into a position to push the limits, or find the funding elsewhere.

Is that not what these copy-cat studios of the past and present are trying to do? Put themselves in that position?

It's hard not to be part of the herd.

Drawing A Day said...

John, I love your blog, been reading it for a while. I've got some old 16mm prints of Warner Bros. classics. Yosemite Sam Bugs, Inky, Daffy. They are in b&w. They seem to all date from the 40's. I love watching them on my dads old 16mm projector, but I dont know if these should be in a museum or something. Any idea what I should do with these gems?

Jeff Overturf said...

Great stuff John

David Germain said...

I have wanted to be an animation director from the moment I learned who Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett and Tex Avery were. Therefore, this blog post in particular was a very good read.
Some of the aspects you mentioned here are obtainable if one works hard enough, such as extreme talent. Sadly, I think charisma is something you either have or you don't.

Nevertheless, I still have ambitions to become an animation director one way or another. I want my voice to leave an impression on the industry, however that may affect society.

SoleilSmile said...

Nice commentary on directors, John. Chuck has always been my fav, but I'm falling in love with the work of Dave Fleischer as well. I love that Fleischer studio clean up line and staging. Richard Williams, though his resume is hit or miss is another director I admire.

Do you have any favorite art directors, John? I tend to follow that branch of animation management since it most closely reflects my career path.

kurtwil said...

Another fine post, JK. Thanks for the insights!

BTW, what JK says about successful animation direction vividly describes successful engineering project direction; Iphones and the Dubai Tower being recent examples.

How ironic that many USA engineers, especially boomers, despise animation and/or deem it only worthy of children.

Dave Mackey said...

Dave Fleischer is a strange case because, generally, "his" cartoons actually got weaker as the 30's morphed into the 40's. There are myriad reasons for this - the production code reining in Betty Boop, the horrible 40's characters from "Gulliver's Travels" no one cared about, or the dilution of the gritty New York style when the studio moved to Miami and was expanded with Hollywood cartoonists. Not to say that Fleischer didn't make any good cartoons in the 40's - "Superman" and some of the Popeyes were the exceptions rather than the rule.

"His" is in quotes above because as we all know the head animators (usually the first of the two credited) took a lot of the direction chores off Fleischer's hands. Some head animators really shined through: the best three were Willard Bowsky, Myron Waldman and Dave Tendlar (who had been part of the Bowsky unit until he became a head animator).

Dave Mackey said...

Doc Crandall is up there, too. So make that four.

Isaac said...
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Pat Desilets said...

This direction series is pure excellent. Thank you, sir.