Tuesday, November 02, 2010

The Inverted Curves Theory


A while ago Rex and I were discussing how ugly modern animation design had become and why. We discussed what the ugliest of ugly styles was.

We decided that Dreamworks wouldn't count because everyone pretty much agrees that they make the ugliest "toons', - even the folks who subscribe to other modern animation styles.

I suggested one modern style that drives me nuts - the inverted curves theory of cartoon design. I don't know where it came from, but I started noticing it about 10 years ago. It's the theory that all objects-even characters- need to look like they are made from apple cores. Or--they look like they are made of play-dough that has been squeezed by sweaty gorilla hands.

I was in Meltdown the other day and I found a huge section of books teaching you all the mistakes you can get away with in animation today. There were a zillion "How To Be A Character Designer" books - more of them than there are pimples at the SDCC. And they are filled with anti-construction applecore inverted curves characters. These imploded characters are very hard to read at one glance because they have so many awkward dents breaking up their silhouettes. It's like taking a cheese grater to your eyes. I'd love to know who started this trend. I wonder if his anatomy bends inwards instead of outwards like the actual world of forms.

It seems that everything current is the opposite of what makes sense. It's cool to be backwards.Pretty soon I'll overhear kids arguing about what the best flavor of ice cream is- armpit or gym socks.

The inverted curves theory is especially popular in Canada. That means it must be at least 15 years later than when it was cool here.

There is only one thing nastier than an inverted curves character, and that's a "toon" with inverted curves and 'tude.

69 comments:

Dennis Cornetta said...

I wish I had the money to hire you as a teacher. I feel you and I could get into some heated (yet constructive and enlightening) arguments.

Dennis Cornetta said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris_Garrison said...

Please post some examples.

Luis María Benítez said...

Maybe those who started with the inverted curves theory grew up watching anime. Too sharp, too hard, and flashy.

But mind that after Preston Blair, Ollie Johnston, Frank Thomas, R. Williams, etc., etc., many more other showed up recently and released "unholdable" books.

John, why don't you make a book with your teachings so that many future artists can go back to track and restore animation?

Nicholas said...

So are there ANY modern cartoons with character designs you find appealing? If not, what was the last cartoon you thought had appealing characters?

Since I know you've lavished praise upon Jessica Borutski, what do you think of her character designs for The Looney Tunes Show?

N. Eri said...

Inverted curves are beyond ugly. That drawing is such an accurate description.

"John, why don't you make a book with your teachings so that many future artists can go back to track and restore animation?" <---THIS SFM

C said...

Hey now, most of Canada is cool. Sometimes literally.

I wonder where this'd rank. I was pretty stunned when I saw this show years ago.

Scrawnycartoons said...

Say John do you have any specific examples of this theory?

I'm guessing you're talking about those evil teletoon cartoons?

patrick sevc said...

Tartakovsky?

Rothello said...

It's like the curve man's saddened face lets you know that he is aware of his own hideousness, yet he stoically plays it off and asks you to be his friend anyway.

There should be a cartoon detailing the unhappy life and times of the Curve Man. No one can ever love him because he is just so terrifically ugly.

JohnK said...

"do you have any specific examples of this theory?"

It's everywhere
I don't know how you can miss it

juliarose said...

i think i love you, john k.

Jeff Read said...

It seems that everything current is the opposite of what makes sense. It's cool to be backwards.Pretty soon I'll overhear kids arguing about what the best flavor of ice cream is- armpit or gym socks.

Oh my gosh -- this is the introduction to the Opposites!

Niki said...

I suppose that if your smart about it, you could do good things with it. But who am I kidding, right?

jeremiah said...

Nickelodeon's "Fan Boy and Chum Chum" is a good example of this. Pay special attention to the hands and feet.

Spongebob, though I do love this cartoon (watch the "Frankendoodle" episode for some relatively great modern animation) is drawn this way as well. The top of his head and the bottom of his square pants are wider and thicker than his face. For a sponge I think maybe it's okay, because in his case it is subtle, but it is weird when you first see it.

SandraRivas said...

Total Drama Island, 6Teen, Johnny Test, and like John said: everywhere. You really can't miss it once you turn on the television. None of the drawings make any sense and it's hard to figure where in the world it came from.

Yeesh. I can't tell what's uglier, Dreamworks or the Inverted Curves style.

Chip Butty said...

Samurai Jack is the earliest example I can think of. Then the Canadian "Clone High," which was apparently the model for everything that's come since. It lasted one season in 2002 and looks exactly the same as Teletoon's current pile of broken glass "Total Drama Island."

Roberto Severino said...

"It's everywhere
I don't know how you can miss it"

Weird. Sounds like another variant of that "hip" flat, wallpaper style a lot of cartoons are still trying to do even in this present day and age. I've hardly ever seen it either, not even on those contemporary Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon shows (not that I even watch that channel or much of TV at all anyway).

No matter. You've proved a great point. I don't want to watch cartoons that look about as appealing as my own neighbor. I want to be entertained with appealing, fun characters. Simply.

Isaac said...

The inverted curves are popular because Bézier curves are popular - they're easy to make with a computer, they're easy to reproduce, and they fool the artist into thinking their linework is good.

Timothy Merks said...

homestar runner did a good parody of this a few months (year) back

http://www.homestarrunner.com/aprilfool10.html

Martin Juneau said...

Live in Canada right now and i must admit, we have the worst cartoons creations ever. When it comes to backwards logic and ugly, nothing beats the crap of this!

Omar Momani said...

atomic betty?

Shura said...

canada will burn in hell for "total drama island"

clone high was at least funny

Rooniman said...

YUCK! That sounds horrible! I'd better be on the look-out.

JohnK said...

"do you have any specific examples of this theory?"

It's everywhere
I don't know how you can miss it

M. Phillips said...

I think Isaac is right on the money.

Victor Resistor said...

I miss it. I don't have a tv and if I want to watch cartoons I watch a dvd or a youtube link of something good.

I have given up on the modern world. It's not made for people who appreciate good things - it's made by idiots for idiots.

AtomicTiki said...

It sure seemed to have its genesis somewhere in the late 90s. The first time I had seen something that was perhaps an ancestor to the style was Stephen Silver's designs for Clerks: The Animated Series. That seemed to spark similar designs all through the early 00s.

The earliest recollection I have of seeing the style on Canadian TV was an "educational" cartoons for "kids" on Teletoon called Blaster's Universe. The credited designer from what I can gather was Geri Bertolo who was involved in varying degrees in the animation behind such teeth-hurtingly drawn 90s cartoons like Flash Gordon and The Savage Dragon.

Personally, I think the design looks like what might happen if Bruce Timm's and Genndy Tartakovsky's styles got in a car accident and had to be sewn together.

Now, I'm about as far from the animation industry as possible but one thing that seems clear to me is that cartoons that "look cheap" seem to get the green light while cartoons with some quality behind them sit on the sidelines waiting to be made.

You've said it yourself, you could produce a cartoon cheaper using traditional means than what most studios fork out for the average digital turd, why is that? There's gotta be a reason why we can't have good looking cartoons??

thomasg said...

stop stressing about this style of drawing. Most people I know don't draw this way, so perhaps in 10 years time a new wave of nicely constructed toons will appear.

Adam Tavares said...

I think I found the source...

Rafa said...

Animation seems to have declined every year and is becoming worse with every feature and cartoon released. I stumbled upon this which you may find interesting... It's a quick comparison of how The Simpsons has changed in 15 yrs. Amazing how even 15 yrs ago it wasn't even great animation but had so much more life and soul than it does today.
http://i.imgur.com/fgBV2.gif

Geoffrey Klepeis said...

Actually Mr. K,

This dates back to the masters of classical art. The french called it "plenitute". The masters made sure to always articulate the human form with a series of convexities. Concavities never exist on the human form. even in an area that might seem concave, such as a nostril, upon closer examination it will always be seen as overlapping mounds.

The only time a concavity exists in the human form, is in a corpse. Because there is no longer any inner pressure of the form.

A lot of what you talk about John, really relates to classical art. You might wanna talk with these people:

http://studioescalier.com/

Esun said...

I guess today everything is allowed as long as the designs look "fresh" and "new".

Children watching saturday morning cartoons are no art or animation experts to judge their styles.

Amir Avni said...

Why isn't this observation common sense?

This drives me nuts too

I agree with Atomic Tiki,
I suspect the populators of this trend haven't given it serious thought, but copied and distorted all the wrong elements of Timm/Tartakovsky designs.
With respect, I don't think they have a "theory". "Theory" can sometimes be seen as a term that gives educated people hope when trying to find meaning in chaos.

"Apple core Theory" is the first time I've heard anyone unify overly-common ugliness. It's hard to find anything this mess has in common, but you succeeded, as this feels intuitively true.

I think it comes down to mental capacity, If more people thought like you do, the animation world wouldn't be so depressing.

kurtwil said...

If you haven't done it already JK, why not chat with Eddie, et all, and post a theory as to ___why___ all this ugly animation crap exists today? Are the producers shoving this at audiences? Are the audiences begging for it?

What drives me nuts is digital tools can produce fine looking animation and help animators work more efficiently: I've seen many examples of that since the '90's. The tools don't produce "crap" - it's the hacks or forced-to-do-crap artists using them!

Jessica Borutski's blog says it better than I can:

http://blog.blogtalkradio.com/blogtalkradio/ren-and-stimpys-jessica-borutski-on-zookers-radio/

Scrawnycartoons said...

I guess this must be a close relative of the "arbitrary angles" theory and "floating facial features" theory that plagues modern animation

Carmine said...

"Personally, I think the design looks like what might happen if Bruce Timm's and Genndy Tartakovsky's styles got in a car accident and had to be sewn together."

True. I'm not too familiar with what cartoons people mean by "Canadian cartoons", and I also don't know if "inverted curves" is another way to say "angular".

But if it is, I'd say it all was spawned from "Batman: The Animated Series". Bruce Timm is a modern master, imo, but he really is like the only person who can do the angular style well. IMO EVERY SINGLE CARTOON since that show (minus Spumco toons obviously) has been trying to imitate its style, and doing a terrible job. I really dont think you'd have Samurai Jack w/out BTAS, STAS, TNBA, etc. Anyone watch the new "Avengers" cartoon? Its pretty decent, but the look is so stale at this point, as well as all the Marvel DTVs. Can't cartoons each have their own individual style, instead of imitating a style that is like 17 years old?

I think it has to do w/ laziness. When BTAS got revamped for the WB, people really saw the "simplified" look as a way to avoid actual drawing. So everyone draws square hands now instead of learning to draw actual hands. Again, I love Bruce Timm and everything he's done, but I'm sick of every single cartoon just being a stale imitation of his style. Its not "cool" as cartoonists seem to think today, its stale and dated and boring at this point. Not Timm's work, never, but everything else.

btw, can we also stop drawing characters w/ those pocket cargo pants please?? That look went out in like 2001.

thomas said...

Is that a sea monkey?

Zac said...

Look at elbows as the giveaway.

patrick sevc said...

Tartakovsky?

I think that this is the answer. One guy, a couple of popular shows (because of the writing), recognizable animation style; all of a sudden everyone thinks it's the cool new way to draw.

I was trying to think of any classic characters that had anything similar to this look.

Yogi Bear and Ranger Smith came to mind. But Yogi used inverted curves (withOUT sharp points) to give a floppy beanbag look that just made him more appealing, and Ranger Smith's were to make him look more buttoned-up. And if you look at their elbows, they're still real elbows instead of cusps.

kurtwil said...

BTW, anyone here know how that new Bugs Bunny show on Cartoon Network doing ratings wise ?

Bill said...

Realism and stock expressions combined with reality are what are in, appeal just gets tossed out since that implies being cartoony.

This imploded flat style is probably intended for a younger teen\ 7 year old audience with it being literally edgy and hip.

Its also the most appalling style that I've laid my eyes upon. My vomit is more appealing!

Aaron said...

that's really funny.

Jacob said...

As was said earlier, it's likely a symptom of Flash. It's hard to draw natural curves, but easy to go overboard with artificial-looking curves, and apparently kids love the over-exaggeratedness or someting.

There is a backlash starting, though. I've actually heard kids say "Why does everything have to be done in Flash?"

However, I can't take the hate on Clone High. Its designs were original for the time, and the content itself was absolutely top-notch.

Paul B said...

I think Loonatics is the best example of this crap!

http://media.photobucket.com/image/loonatics/ImDero/Loonatics.jpg?o=3

marcushelbling said...

So which are the books that you suggest for character design and which ones to stay away from? I'm looking for a good cartooning book to buy to learn stuff. thanks.

JohnK said...

Personally, I don't believe you can teach character design. It's better to learn functional cartoon drawing.

Pete Emslie said...

"Personally, I don't believe you can teach character design. It's better to learn functional cartoon drawing."

Ironically, since I am technically an instructor of "Character Design", I actually agree with this statement, John. In fact, I make a point of not teaching perceived "styles" of drawing. Instead, I concentrate on teaching the time-honoured principles of solid structure for a character to be able to rotate with the illusion of 3-dimension, combined with gesture in order to bring a character to life with an organic, pliable quality.

I'm mostly concerned with getting students to think about personality and performance, which should then also translate into a character design that communicates something visually to the viewer as to what the character is all about. Of course it must also be designed in a practical and functional way, conducive to animation, not just illustration. I personally feel that much of what passes for "character design" these days is lacking in regard to the process of animation. Characters are often designed to only look good from one or two angles, with movement restricted to "cheats", popping from pose to pose with "whooshing" sound effects to cover up the lack of actual animated rotation of form. I blame animation software programs, which have reduced animation to little more than the shifting around of cutout pieces, not real drawing.

Adam Gunn said...

It is so very ugly. I took an anatomy class where we were taught the exact opposite theory. With real bodies inverted curves don't exist at all. We were shown that when you think you see an inverted contour what you actually see is one form sliding under another form.

Isaak said...

With your (well-earned) disdain of modern animation, have you considered watching live-action tv. I reccomend Law and Order: SVU. It has great acting and plenty of gallows humor. It features former rapper Ice T, but he more than shows his acting chops.

kurtwil said...

Pete E: "I blame animation software programs, which have reduced animation to little more than the shifting around of cutout pieces, not real drawing.".

That's because too many people use those software tools to cheat, shortcut, cheapen, bowdlerize, etc.
Those ugly results drive me nuts !!

When using digital tools, I tried for a solid set of drawings first (Thanks to my Australian and Disney tutors, and JK/PE/etc for refreshing my memory!). Then, and only then, did the software get used to help tweening, or add distortions which enhance motion and acting.
Sometimes it worked great, other times I wished I had drawn the whole thing out.

Under __good__ Artist guidance, software's great at handling subtle changes in expressions or poses (people don't stand rock still - they __move__ and breath !). If jitter, bounce, crawl or trace shake's ok, then go ahead and take awhile to draw those slow poses. But wouldn't you rather spend the time to focus on the wild, Clampett-ish stuff that no computer can do?

For that slow digital stuff you gotta avoid the temptation to hit the default "linear" button and use artistic thought as to how you time tweens or velocity arcs within the poses.

BTW, Disney uses the same tools as the inverted curve folks in Canada, etc.

Ryan Cole said...

Gainax, a studio in Japan, recently came out with an animated series called Panty and Stocking With Garterbelt (let that sink in for a second), where they've intentionally aped a lot of current western animation designs. And yes, a lot of times there's that clear indication of concave/concave shapes, especially apparent on the female cast for the hips, waistline and breasts, all meant to convey some warped form of sexiness.

It makes me wonder if maybe this look sort of evolved (or more likely, mutated) from idea of the hourglass figure, which is supposed to signify an attractive figure, only blown way out of proportion. Sort of the same way that triangles are an interesting shape, and give people excuses to draw faces with 45° angles.

Aaron Long said...

When I saw this post, the first thing I thought of was that generic "faux-angular" design style animation schools seem to teach now, where the characters have lots of weird corners for no reason, but not quite as flat as what I think is actually being discussed here. THAT style really bugs me, because I see it all over the walls of the school I go to-- I'm talking about shows like My Dad the Rock Star, Braceface, Ned's Newt, Clash of the Titans...
Hey, these are all Nelvana shows. I guess it's a Nelvana thing, only all the portfolios I see in my school seem to use it as well. I think it bugs me more than the current flat style because people don't seem to realize that they're using it.

Hopefully somebody recognizes what I'm talking about...

Oscar Grillo said...

Cratoonists should stop looking at cartoons for inspiration. There is more to be learned by studying Picasso, Mondrian, Klee or Miró than watching "Road To El Dorado", "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs", "Ratatouille" or "The Princes and the Frog".

JohnK said...

How about Popeye?

Pablo said...

Yeah, I absolutely agree, is like a horrible fashion, I think, maybe its just a more simple way to draw.

Dubious Duck said...

It amazes how much misinformation is out there on how to do cartoons the wrong way. Why is it that Preston Blair's book has suddenly faded into obscurity and replaced by this?

J C Roberts said...

"the wild, Clampett-ish stuff that no computer can do?"

Is that a proven theory? I've spent a fair amount of time doing test in Flash to test it's limits, including re-creating the conveyor belt chase from "Baby Bottleneck" frame by frame, and so far it hasn't failed to keep up.

You made a good point earlier about the easy cheats and shortcuts too often used, but saying no computer could do Clampett type stuff makes it sound more like the software is limited to those cheats.

I've done 24 fps second scenes in Flash with unique drawings for each frame and so far it can handle it. What more is needed to be able to do that level of animation? Is there a technical "wall" I haven't hit yet that forever separates it from cells on film? I still can't always determine fact from opinion when it comes to this issue, but my own results show you can do 24 fps, so where's the limit?

Bill said...

At JC: Any links? I've seen some great stuff in Anime Studio from Greykid\Freakykid, I have no doubt that flash could be used to make something good.

Trouble is, quality dosen't always rake in extra money. Thats why theres so many trim levels of standard cars instead of being better cars.

kurtwil said...

J.C, you're using software to bolster your unique animation drawings. key word: drawings.
The computer is not drawing for you, nor just moving flat plates around at its whim.

JK and others have used FLASH effectively by nicely drawing the figures in the first place. I honestly don't know why it would cost $500K or more to do an R&S or other JK half hour pilot these days, but perhaps voice talent and other factors drive up that cost.

3D is full of computer assistance: You make your key poses and let the computer tween 'em for you. If you want it to be really good, you use a lot of keys and carefully adjust the timing between 'em for best acting, impact. etc. You can work straight ahead or pose-pose, but the trick is artist intervention at the right time.

Somebody could do a great POPEYE in Flash, but only if they understand Popeye's design, personality, and have the opportunity to do it properly rather than "cheat it" as I've seen various places on the WEB (one Popeye short has Popeye meeting Anime characters - kinda funny wrt its absurdity).

Dan Jackson said...

Here's a theory you may not agree with, but I'd say 3 things ultimately led to this style... Batman: The Animated Series (with it's stylized, angular, squared off characters), the UPA styled commercials from Ren & Stimpy (sorry John), and Flash.

These "retro" styles were copied and mutated through the 90's by people who just aped the style without understanding the fundamentals, and Flash dumbed down the styles and animation even further.

Before you knew it, everything was angular, squared off, and simplified to death.. and pretty soon, the artists took this to an even further extreme and angular characters became inverted. It's simple devolution.

John... I'm beating a dead horse on this but...If you want to see this kind of thing go away, write a damn book. Every animator bad or good has probably bought Richard Williams book, and while I respect the hell out of him, a lot of his theories are pure bullshit. You're blog is great but a book will could actually change some of these bad habits in the industry.

Nicholas said...

Dan Jackson, might you please elaborate on which of the theories Richard Williams expresses in his book are bullshit and why? I'm not arguing with you; I'm just curious.

Martin Juneau said...

John and everyone else, i know you will be disagree with me but you should take a look to the Famous' Modern Madcap cartoons made at the end-50's/early-60's. It's pretty stylised to the bone but contain a lot of adults references who seems to be allowed in kids entertainment today.

The problem with angular style today is it's so overatted. Everyone else want to have a style before understand functional drawing which is not a exception in modern comics. Mainstream comics today kills 100 years of hard work with their Anime and Timm/Tartakovsky imitation. It's not always the fault to the characters, i blame the artists for their sheer laziness. Why try something risking when you can make simple?

J C Roberts said...

Kurtwil: Good points indeed. I started out with Flash using some of it's various "cheats", but found for my taste, you either go with that look full-time (like "Foster's Home") or nearly never unless you can hide it. Even with the easing, tweens are just too mechanical to combine with actual animation.

The issue I have is when it's suggested Flash can't even handle full animation, since it seems like it can.
The bigger hurdle I have is the drawing tools, which are a bear to get a good clean line out of, but at least save me from having to ink acetate cells and then paint the backs. I still design all the keys on paper, though.

Bill: No links to completed work yet, but clicking my avatar should give you the path to the blog I set up where I've been posting some of the process of revamping my first Flash cartoon into a less Flash looking piece. The version I put on YouTube a few years ago is more like a color animatic. The new animation is nearly done (if I could stop going back to plus it some more) and I'm now working on backgrounds and then it's off to After Effects to composite.

kurtwil said...

Good as a book is, it may be that to get 2D animation out of its rut, it'll take another Non-Disney show with plot and characters the execs and audiences like, "in spite of" solid traditional design and animation.

That's because USA culture simply cannot accept traditionally designed animation as other than children's entertainment. Adults feel "safe" watching inverted curve and ugly animation, knowing it's for "them".

Perhaps, as hideous as it sounds at first, JK could use inverse curves art as satire-able material within an R&S "Life Sucks" or other suitable pilot (just like a MMTNA tore apart Sat. Morning TV)? The satire could be the hook that gets the show green lit.

Chip Buddy, the Australian show CROCADOO predated Samurai Jack by 8 years. Full of flat, inverse curved characters, it lasted two seasons before its funding ended.

http://www.awn.com/articles/profiles/crocadoo-entertains-energee

Tony said...

Great post John!Sounds like you stand next to me when I'm reading! Would like to see some examples with "tude" and inverted lines. Hope this is your next post!

Kind regards,

Toni

akira said...

geez, be careful or nickelodeon is gunna buy this character and make a hit show out of it

furious-teapot said...

I'd like to see some examples of the work you're criticizing rather than just one of your drawings making fun of it.

Garrett said...

Interesting. I come from a fine art background, and one of the most important things I learned from life drawing is the idea that there are NO CONCAVE curves on the human body; everything is CONVEX. This simple concept, when applied, completely changes people's drawings, giving them solidity and mass. I was talking to a friend who complained that her drawing didn't look solid...I told her to look and notice if her lines were convex or concave, and to only use convex lines on the figure she was drawing. She did this and was simply blown away at how immediately her drawing took on the qualities she was looking for. It's because convex lines have an expanding quality that communicates growth and outward movement whereas those inverted curves tend to suck the impression of mass and weight out of forms. Take a look at pretty much any old master figure drawing, you will not find concave curves, and where you think you do, chances are it is the meeting of two convex lines.

kurtwil said...

Garrette, your post brought this thought:
Mammals, including humans, follow convex curve rules. Perhaps that's because the muscle - tendon systems have their greatest bulk at mid limb (most obvious on body builders). Even Popeye, exaggerated as he is, seems to follow the convex curve formula.

By comparison, most robots, especially industrial ones, are bulky at joints where the drive servos and bearings reside, and thin in the limbs.