Saturday, August 05, 2006

Milt Gray on cartoon timing past and present

I asked Milt Gray to compare the way they timed cartoons during the Golden age of cartoons (1928-1960) to the way they do it now.

He's the perfect guy to do this comparison. Milt has researched and studied classic cartoons since the 1960s. He used to study them frame by frame on little film viewers-long before VCRs made that so easy to do. He interviewed countless classic animators and directors about how they did what they did.

While learning about the forgotten secrets of the past, Milt worked in the modern business (the dark ages of cartoons), first at Disney's, then at many Saturday Morning Cartoons, so he knows how full animation worked in the 60s, how limited animation worked at the Saturday Morning studios. He currently works on the most expensive per minute cartoon in history. He is a timing director on the Simpsons and has directed many other TV shows as well.

This is the guy, folks, who can tell you both systems, old and new. He talks a bit about old cartoon timing in general, and then more specifically about how Bob Clampett did it.

I asked him to give you his invaluable insights and knowledge for free. If you see him on the street, kiss him. Or get your sister to.

Milton Gray On Cartoon Timing Past and Present
Hi John,

You asked me to write about timing for animation, with an emphasis on
comparing the timing done for today's standard television cartoon
shows to the timing that Bob Clampett did on his 1940s Warner cartoons.

Actually, all that can be commented on are the differences, because
those two subjects are complete opposites. Bob Clampett's timing was
always creative and intuitive, and an integral part of the very
conception of his cartoons, whereas the timing in nearly all current
Hollywood television cartoon production is at most an afterthought
and completely mechanical.


Nearly all current television cartoon production is done one step at
a time, completely separate from every other step, and by different
people who are not allowed to have any contact with each other;
consequently, there is usually no artistic vision guiding the
production of these cartoons.

Typically, as you know, each individual television cartoon episode
begins with non-artists writing scripts. Even though there are some
writers in the business who love cartoons and respect the input of
artists, those writers are usually never hired. Instead, the
Hollywood suits usually hire writers who have no knowledge of cartoon
production and no interest in cartoons whatsoever; these writers
write mostly dialog -- usually hackneyed dialog, reflecting their
contempt for the medium they are working in. The only thought of
timing is to make the length of dialog fit the length of the show.

Then copies of these scripts are sent, simultaneously, to voice
actors and to storyboard artists. The storyboard artists are usually
under strict orders to not add or subtract anything, but to
illustrate the script in the most literal sense.

On a few shows, the storyboards are then handed to other artists (who
have no contact with the storyboard artists), to make layout drawings
-- and like the storyboards, the layouts have to follow the scripts
to the letter.

Finally, almost as an afterthought, the timing of the scenes -- by
people called "animation timers" -- is done by still other people.
The timing is mostly dictated by the length of the recorded dialog;
beyond that, there are strict rules, of a very mechanical nature, for
handling the few actions that take place between lines of spoken
dialog. A shocking fact is that most so-called animation timers
these days are people who have never animated, and therefore have no
real understanding of timing. But perhaps no matter -- the
relatively few people like myself who do have years of experience as
animators are forced to work in a straightjacket of restrictions --
of adhering to a small set of very mechanical "rules" (usually in the
name of "cost control" or "efficiency") that we are not allowed to
depart from.

Then everything done so far is sent halfway around the world, usually
to countries that do not speak English and have cultures of body
language completely different from our own, for other artists to do
the so-called animation. No wonder these cartoons come out stiff and
wooden, with no soul whatsoever.


At the total opposite extreme is Bob Clampett at Warners in the
1940s, not just directing but really creating cartoon movies -- with
timing an integral part of his creative thinking from his earliest

It is said that in comedy, timing is everything, and I know that Bob
Clampett thought about timing all the time, always looking for new,
inventive uses of it.

The other directors at Warners, such as Friz Freleng and Chuck Jones,
also thought a lot about timing as a key element in their cartoons,
so it would seem more useful to compare Clampett's timing to that of
Freleng and Jones rather than to typical present-day television product.

In general, the most common thread in the 1940s Warner cartoons was
their very fast actions, broken up occasionally by the characters
pausing to make some wise cracks. This is where, superficially,
Clampett's timing will seem the most similar to that of Freleng and
Jones. But this is pretty much the entire range of the timing of
Freleng and Jones, whereas Clampett explored timing far beyond this
narrow area.

But first, let's look at the differences within this area. John, you
wrote recently about the differences in character acting, comparing
some of the best of Clampett in Falling Hare (a scene animated by Bob
McKimson) to some of the best of Jones in Rabbit Punch (a scene
animated by Ken Harris). In both cases, the respective directors had
a lot of input, so it wasn't just the animators flying solo. And, as
you articulated so well, the Jones-Harris scene was comprised of very
broad, general cliches of movement, while the Clampett-McKimson scene
was a masterpiece of precise, original acting, every nuance unique to
that exact moment of dialog and character emotion. Such a precision
performance requires not only a deep, careful analysis of physical
acting but also of timing. The real tragedy is that because such a
great accomplishment -- of draftsmanship, gesture and timing -- looks
so natural, it is taken completely for granted -- meaning, the
accomplishment goes by completely unnoticed -- by most cartoon fans,
critics and historians, resulting in the director and animator
receiving no credit at all when in fact they deserve to be lauded as

Unlike Freleng and Jones, Clampett's cartoons typically went far
beyond just fast character actions and character dialog. Among other
things, Clampett loved the medium of live stage theater, and because
of the extreme limitations of that medium (compared to movies), live
shows had to be very inventive in their staging and lighting, to
conceal this and reveal that at different times -- things that were
unavoidably on the stage all the time. Plus there were certain mood
effects in the use of colored lighting, and sometimes an actor would
unexpectedly swing off the stage on a rope, over the heads of the
audience. Bob was very impressed by this, and he wanted to inject
more of that into his cartoon movies, to make the entire picture come
alive on a kind of magic screen, rather than only the characters
moving on a static background. And timing was always central to his
thinking. Bob was also something of a hep cat, very interested in
the latest popular music, especially black jazz, and so his sense of
timing of the more abstract elements almost always included matching
actions to a specific rhythm.

Instead of simply cutting from one scene to the next, Bob would
sometimes move the characters and the props around, at the same time
as doing an iris wipe from one scene to the next, all with a very
specific rhythm, sometimes to suggest increasing tension in the
plot. Bob told me that on occasion, when he had a specific
syncopated rhythm in mind that didn't adhere strictly to a regular
beat, he would run blank film through a movieola at full (normal)
film speed, and tap on the film with a grease pencil the syncopated
rhythm he had in mind, and then take the film off the movieola and
count the frames between the marks. He would time his actions to
those numbers of frames, and then give that information to Carl
Stalling, who would compose music to fit that timing. I should have
asked Bob which films he did that in, but I didn't so I can only
guess, but a very likely candidate is the scene in Wagon Heels, about
5 minutes and 15 seconds into the cartoon:

Injun Joe has just fired (out of his mouth) a giant gun shell at the
circled wagon train, which blows everything off the screen (including
distant mountains). Then, in rapid succession, the wagon train's
wheels fall down to the ground, then the wagon train itself, then a
large foreground cactus, then the distant mountains, then there is a
quick iris wipe to the next scene (which is almost just empty
ground), then a white settler zips into scene, then Injun Joe zips
into scene to confront the settler, all in the space of about five
seconds. This is just a "quick transition" from one scene to the
next, but the timing and sense of energy is thrilling.

Another example in the same cartoon, but using only the wild actions
of one character, but with a very jazzy drum and percussion
soundtrack, is about 2 minutes and 20 seconds into the cartoon:
Sloppy Moe has just screamed into Porky's ear that he knows a
"SEEEEEE-CRET!", and then he bounds all over the screen and off into
the distance to this wild drum and percussion rhythm.

One can be very literal minded and say that these two scenes don't
make sense, but on a purely emotional level they feel so right, and
are absolutely surprising and thrilling.

Bob gave his cartoon timing a lot of importance. He wasn't just
frivolous about it. At the beginning of making each cartoon, once he
had the basic story gags worked out, he would spend one or more
evenings just walking alone on the beach, running the imagined
cartoon through his mind, as if he were seeing the finished cartoon
on a kind of magic screen in his head. The purpose was to envision
not only the staging of the gags, but all the little gestures and
nuances of the characters' acting, as well as the broader actions, in
his mind -- with special consideration of the timing of all these
things. When something wasn't quite jelling, he knew that there was
a problem, of writing or staging, that needed more thought, and he
would go over that in more detail the next day with his gag man.
Ultimately, all the details would be worked out in Bob's mind before
even the layouts were begun. Bob was very sincere about making the
best cartoons he could.

It's really hard to talk about good timing just in words; it's
something that has to be experienced and felt. Every individual
scene requires, for its best effect, a sense of timing unique to that
scene, which requires a very intuitive approach, and it has to be an
almost holistic, organic thing in the mind of the creator of the
scene, not just something imposed later by someone else. I don't
feel I've done justice to the subject here, but I think it would
require a whole book of examples of individual scenes to adequately
cover the subject. Short of that, a person who wants to learn good
timing should stop watching Hollywood television "product", and turn
off that part of the brain that is so accustomed to watching cheap
stuff, and expand your senses while submersing yourself in the best
of the Golden Age theatrical cartoons, and try to absorb a sense of
the beauty of motion, the ballet-like elegance of even Daffy Duck at
his elegant craziest.

Clampett's sense of timing was so sophisticated because he thought
about it all the time, and felt it in his soul. Plus the fact that
Clampett was so much more inventive visually, and adventurous in his
range of subjects. These things cannot be separated, they all need
each other for their full effect. The key to all of this, Bob
himself once said, was that he took an active interest in everything,
especially the arts -- he fed his mind with new ideas and experiences
so that his mind would always have lots of resources to draw from.

Well, John, I don't know if this really addressed what you were
hoping for. If not, maybe we can keep adding to it in the future
until we get a better handle on the real issue. But for now, you're
welcome to use this.

Your pal,

I'm gonna follow up this article with stuff Clampett, Hanna and Freleng taught me about timing and also with clips from be continued!

If any of my favorite hecklers comment and say that their favorite modern cartoons are timed mechanically on purpose and real comedy timing would ruin the jokes, I'm gonna copy and paste it into a whole new blog post where everyone can see you all together, naked.