Wednesday, March 17, 2010

L.O. 1 - Why Layout?

1) To free up Storyboard Artists to Think About Story

A storyboard artist is really supposed to be the writer on a cartoon. That's why it's called "story"board. Traditionally, people like Bill Peet, Warren Foster, Mike Maltese and other revered writers from the classic cartoons all drew their storyboards. They were all artists.

They drew them very roughly. They weren't expected to draw finished detailed characters and backgrounds- because this would slow down the process and distract them from thinking about story.

2) To Draw more detailed, Structured and Finished Poses

In television animation, if you have to send your animation to another land, then the only way a director can have anything to direct is to supervise the finished poses and background layouts here.

A good layout artist takes the storyboard poses, draws them
more finished,
more details and
more structured.

He also adds more poses with the director.Most of these poses were drawn at the layout stage; they weren't in the storyboard.

If you want to have any detailed and specific control over the finished acting and performances of the characters, you can use layouts to do it.

We always did this at Spumco and our characters' performances are what many fans remember about the shows. e could not have done it without using layouts the way we did.

When Nickelodeon took over Ren and Stimpy, at some point they abandoned layout and you can see the difference. They instead, took small "thumbnail" storyboard sketches and sent them overseas to have them blown up into layouts. That's why the characters later looked so simple-almost like stick figures.

This process of drawing tiny drawings, then actually using them for finished animation poses was used on later shows and ultra-simple became a trend. If you want better stories and better performances from your characters, you should separate storyboard and layout into 2 different jobs and use each step for their particular advantages.

3) To Separate the Backgrounds From the Characters

4) Making the poses work with each other and with the background- functionality

In general: The layout artist usually should be a superior draftsman. A storyboard artist should be someone funny who can tell a story in rough pictures.

The best people are usually those who have experience doing each others' jobs and have eventually settled into their specialty once they find out what they are best at. Having animated should be essential too, but unfortunately most of those jobs have gone to Asia. (Not counting Flash animation, which is more like puppetry in 2 dimensions)

There is more to say about the value and techniques of layout, and I am going to organize a pile of layout posts into the "cartoon curriculum" blog. This is just a quick overview.


drawingtherightway said...

Seeing this production artwork is always fascinating! Especially if you've seen the episode that it's from. It's just a shame that tv cartoons don't have the budgets to keep everything in house. I know Filmation did it but that's probably only because they used the same drawings over and over again. I wonder if Hanna Barbera kept everything in house in the early days when they started.

JohnK said...

Hi Pappy

if you take the dirty stuff out of your comment I will be happy to post it.

pappy d said...

Great post!

ChristopherC said...

Great tips! thanks so much John!

RooniMan said...

"I wonder if Hanna Barbera kept everything in house in the early days when they started."

I'm sure they did. (Just answering your question.)

HemlockMan said...

This is a very good idea! Did you come up with that subversive method, or was it something an older animator told you about? I love hearing about ways artists find their ways around censors.

Elana Pritchard said...

Cool. The students are happy!

Shawn Dickinson said...

These Ren drawings are some of the greatest drawings in animation history! The acting in that cartoon still floors me.

I can't stand the flat simplicity in today's cartoons. Bores me to death.

Anonymous said...

Amazing R&S drawings!! & great post!

I'm working in China at the moment & have been told that when the West began to send its animation over here, giant factories were set up (there's one down the road from me) where unskilled workers from the countryside (farmers etc...) would come & do inbetweens & get paid per drawing.

I've also heard of Japanese studios sending someone over to China in the morning with the key drawings, & leaving in the evening with an episode's worth of inbetweens!

You get what you pay for i guess...

Pseudonym said...

I always assumed that part of the purpose of layout was to work out technical issues to do with the scene, such as:

- Whether or not characters will need to be registered to background elements or to each other.
- Whether or not backgrounds can be reused in different shots.
- How many layers (be they cels or multiplane backgrounds/foregrounds) will be required and what will be on them.
- These days, what CGI elements will be needed and what they will do.

Is this covered under the general heading of separating backgrounds from characters?

JohnK said...


Stone said...

a room full of artists on cintiqs SHOULD theoretically allow the more traditional pipe line of animation production to be feasible today.

you can file share between key animators and inbetweeners through a shared network.

you can board and send those to layout guys in programs like Toon Boom, Animate and photoshop.

honestly vector art is somewhat less necessary compared to drawing raster (non mathmatically calculated lines) art than it used to be. The current process of using flash animation and vector art is actually a reaction to computer limitations of the mid 90's and early 2000's. There are now retail computers that can handle nuanced, hand drawn art far, far better than before and still maintain a paperless pipeline.

the fact that we still use flash for animation at all boggles the mind when you're aware of what currently under utilized software provides.

theoretically you COULD reinstate a system of apprenticeship where an artist can start as an inbetweener, you can have key animators, story artists, layout artists all in one room with everyone gaining the experience of working a little bit in each department rather than hiring guys that only and have only ever done one thing in animation production their whole careers.

but producers (and a LOT of artists) don't understand what's doable with technology. and it seems the people with access to the tech haven't realized that they can rethink american production of animation with little to no change in costs AND regain the craftsmanship, quality that has been lost. There IS a way to utilize American talent to it's fullest potential.

really, 7 talented and dedicated people with cintiqs and someone who knows serious, no-nonsense animation production AND technology can do a traditional style animated short of about 5 minutes that won't cost an arm and a leg. just a few toes.

Corey said...

John, you ever touched ToonBoom? Aside from all the BS useless crap features, I think it can be set up to facilitate a strong layout stage in a TV production, which is what I've been theorizing lately. I havent had the opportunity to work on any production that even has a layout stage, round here it's phased out because the job is divided into model builds & " scene set-up"
Been usin' it for close to 4 years now ( puppetry "cut-out" animation ) and it seems like there is potential with the software that not many studios take advantage of.

Anyways just curious. Love your layout posts.

Oliver_A said...

Hey John,

He also adds more poses with the director.

Is it correct that this step is basically a key element to regain strong artistic control over the key animation poses, practically forcing the overseas studio to become inbetweeners?

pappy d said...


It's certainly true, but it's not necessarily correct. Just as a story artist isn't necessarily a layout artist, a good layout artist is not necessarily a good animator.

It's the same process John talks about. If we roll layout up into storyboarding, we can pocket the layout budget. If we make story do more poses, we can view & approve it as a pose-reel animatic before it goes overseas.

JohnK said...

Well, not really. Becuase then you have to spend more time and money on the storyboards - and on the animation.

Khato said...

This is so true. In testament, I'm working on a really short animation (boarded by a quite talented artist that I'm working with). I'm insisting we do this stage, since the storyboard panels, while nice looking, are unanimatable (no structure) and pretty bland. We're currently working out really nice poses and scene composition before we even key one action.

Our current animation principles lecturer is ace at showing us the pipeline, which to my pleasant surprise included(!) the layout stage, which turned his rough little animatic into something far greater and more expressive. I just hope the other people in my class take this on board.

John K., how much quality do you think is lost in giving purely imbetweening jobs to overseas animation, and how much money does it save? It seems like the nuances of the acting would be lost even with breakdowns thoroughly in place, but would it be worth it? Personally I'd just give the imbetweening to an assistant and advertise on match boxes for one!

I can't wait for more posts on layout :)

pappy d said...

I don't have any idea of the economics of it. It makes no sense to me unless they can extort free overtime from the story artists.

Usually, when there's no rational explanation, there's a tortured rationalisation that has something to do with money.

paul said...

I think, John K., do agree with what almost everybody has to say about the Layout post, and layout animation in general.

In a studio not like Spumco, you take the boards and turn them into layouts, which can be done either in-house where storyboard revision and clean-up takes place or overseas where it practically takes place.

2) To Draw more detailed, Structured and Finished Poses

In the long run, when you happen to come along, you made layout into an artform.