Monday, June 12, 2006

Subtle Animation Acting-Bugs Bunny by McKimson and Harris

I'm not very conservative myself-in fact I'm the opposite. I usually think the conservative tendency is evil-at least when conservatives are in charge of anything.
I do however have a respect for highly skilled conservative practices, and here are two examples of such from America's Golden Age.

They are both Bugs Bunny scenes from the 1940s, and from Warner Bros.' 2 top directors-Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones and each of their top animators, Bob McKimson and Ken Harris. At first glance you might think there isn't much different about the approaches to both these scenes. I will explain the vast differences in approaches by the directors and the animators. Better pay attention. These are tricky concepts to grasp.

Both these scenes are what you would call 'subtle' animation. "Subtle" is a very misunderstood word today. Most people think it means the lack of anything happening-and they think that's good. It actually means that lots of things are happening but they are happening not blatantly obviously and they are conveying meaning even though each individual subtle move is hard to detect.

This scene is from a Bob Clampett cartoon: Falling Hare. It's animated by Warner Bros.' best animator, Bob McKImson. The combination of the greatest director and the greatest animator is pretty powerful.

First, let me explain how they worked together. Clampett worked differently with McKimson than he did with his other animators. For most of his animators, Bob would draw rough "energy sketches" indicating where he wanted the characters to move within the scenes, what their important expressions and poses would be and how extreme or subtle he wanted them to go.

Clampett more than any other director really cast his animators. He knew what each of their strengths were and really took advantage of them. Unlike Jones, he would not restrict them to animate only what he himself could do.

Every other director had turns using McKimson, and McKimson's strong dynamic and solid style is always recognizable, no matter who he animated for.

But in Clampett's cartoons he would do things no one else ever realized he (let alone anyone else) was capable of.

Not only was McKimson a great solid draftsman, but Clampett quickly realized he had a photographic memory and figured out a way to take advantage of it.

Clampett understood Bugs Bunny more than any other director and realized that the key to his personality and believability was that unlike most cartoon characters, he was like a real down to earth guy - someone you might know and want to hang around with. The way to make Bugs seem so real was to not only write down to earth dialogue but to have him move and act like a human, rather than relying on stock animation moves.

When you draw, you tend to rely on "animation poses" and expressions, but when Clampett directed McKimson, instead of doing that, he just acted out the scenes in real time in front of him. He would act out the scenes like a human, using human gestures and street poses and expressions. McKimson instantly memorized every move and expression Clampett made and then sat down and drew the whole thing out-with no roughs!

Watch the scene again. Look at every head move, every hand gesture. Notice that every single move communicates a meaning of what Bugs is trying to tell you. He isn't relying solely on the dialogue to tell you what he thinks about the gremlin business. "Oh Muuuurder" he says flopping his hand towards camera and rolling his eyes. Look at how he holds his knees and laughs calmly and sarcastically. And all this subtle stuff is drawn completely solidly.

There is no overt exaggerated Disney-esque squash and stretch, no overly floppy blustery hand gestures like Bill Tytla or Freddie Moore would automatically inject into every scene because "that's the way animation is supposed to move". This McKimson-Clampett style of movement and acting is completely unique in cartoon history. It has never been done by anyone else.

McKimson never in his own cartoons had scenes so convincingly natural as this and likewise Clampett never had scenes like this except with McKimson's animation. Every animator at Warner's did his most outstanding work with Clampett and they all animated in their own styles-styles they weren't even aware they were capable of.

Again-look carefully at every head move and gesture Bugs makes-you can describe in words what each one means. It is a visual language-more powerful than the words accompanying them.

I'm going to be posting more McKimson scenes soon. He is one of the all time greatest animators and completely unique. He is strangely underrated by cartoon "historians" and it kind of makes sense why. Most cartoon historians are not artists, let alone animators, so when they write about cartoons they don't write about the drawings and animation, because they don't know what they are looking at. I'm going to try to correct this blatant disregard of one of the most amazing talents in animation history.

There are some talents-like McKimson, Scribner, Jim Smith, Katie Rice and a tiny few others who learn things that aready were discovered by other artists, and can be analyzed and explained to an extent to other artists, but then on top of that they have something else that just can't be explained in any logical sensible way - magic.

Bob McKimson's ability seems just supernatural.I can make you aware of some of the things he is doing, but the rest...well..just look and be dumbstruck by the heights that some humans are able to achieve.

This next scene is from Rabbit Punch - a Chuck Jones cartoon. Jones directed very differently than Clampett-not just in the kind of content that he chose, but in the way he worked with his talent. Basically, Jones was the star of his cartoons. He really only used his animators as glorified inbetweeners. They are there to link the poses that Jones himself draws. In his earlier cartoons-from 1938 to 1940, the animators had more leeway to animate their own ideas-particularly Bobe Cannon and Ben Washam, but Jones soon evolved a style of pose to pose animation which was more creatively comfortable for him.

Jones is a stickler for every pose in a cartoon looking like he drew it himself. It is somewhat possible to tell the different animators apart if you study very closely, but it is harder than picking out Clampett's animators.

Jones is satisfied as long as the action is fairly smooth inbetween getting from one of his drawings to the next. I would imagine this would be frustrating to creative animators, but maybe some animators like having all the creative work spelled out for them, I don't know.

This scene from Rabbit Punch is pure acting. There are no backgrounds, just Bugs standing alone delivering his lines.

Every pose and expression that conveys a meaning was drawn by the director, Chuck Jones.

Now inbetween these main poses, Harris animates subtle movements of Bugs' head rolling around. These extra movements though, unlike McKimsons' scene - convey no meaning. They are just happening to "keep the scene alive". Like smacking a bobblehead.

This is an actual animator's term. Keeping a scene alive is to protect the scene from being labeled as the derogitory terms "limited animation" or "illustrated radio".

To me keeping a sceene alive with random movements isn't any better than limited animation. Any drawing or idea that doesn't have meaning or entertainment value in of itself is a waste of time and money. If it doesn't add anything, why pay for it?

Harris, also unlike McKimson was not a good draftsman. (Everyone, including Jones says so) He couldn't control solid forms moving slightly and slowly through space. If you watch the scene again, see how Bug's eyes and head shape and features warp and float around-now go back to McKimson's scene and look at how solid Bugs looks throughout.

Subtle animation is a very dangerous thing to do if an animator is not a good solid draftsman. That's why there are so many full-animators -especially today- who use tricks to avoid the problem of any of their drawings reading as moving holds. Animation that overly squashes and stretches way past the key poses means no pose is held long enough to establish itself as a non-stock-animation pose or expression. Poses that zip from pose to pose and everything is "snappy timing". This kind of stuff to me is all animation cheats. It's all over modern "full-animation".

It takes brave men like the old Warner Bros. animators to commit to their poses and expressions and not run from them as in modern Disney movies or Cats Don't Dance.

Go to Thad's great site to see more Harris and McKimson and other great old-time animators' scenes and look upon them with new eyes!