Thursday, October 05, 2006

Composition 11 -The Eager Beaver (1946) - functional & beautiful layouts

Chuck Jones staging-using the backgrounds and characters as a composition.

Here's a cool concept: Designing your BG layouts and character poses so that they compose artistically together.

Chuck Jones always thought about how his cartoons would look as graphics-even at an early stage of his career.

He worked closely with his layout artists-John McGrew and Robert Gribbroek in the 1940s to design each scene so that it would look good and read clearly in almost every pose.

Most cartoon directors staged their cartoons functionally-so that there was negative space in the background designs that would allow room for the characters to perform their actions in the clear-so you could see what they were doing, without a lot of clutter crossing through the silhouettes of the characters.

Jones took this functional concept and made it an art in itself.


THE EAGER BEAVER (1946) credits

Framing: The tree on the right and the smaller tree on the left of the beaver serve functionally as a frame around the character. Behind the character there is no detail to get in the way of the beaver's action.
Now, artistically-the contrasts in the design of the BG and pose are crafted very cleverly.

There are 2 trees.

One is big and tall

The other is small and short-contrast in sizes.

Nothing is in the middle-many cartoons today stage everything symmetrically-the left side of the composition mirrors the right.

The left side of the composition is mostly empty-the right side is filled with trees and a hill-this side is not going to interfere with the action so it can be filled to balance the open space on the left.

The trees are all slightly different angles-contrasts in angles.

Negative shapes-negative shapes are the spaces between the objects-these spaces, when used correctly, help make the positive shapes "read" clearly.

The 2 framing trees create a clear shape in the negative shape-a big "U" shape.

There are large negative shapes to frame the character. There are small negative shapes in the character's pose to help the line of action of his pose read. Contrast in negative shapes.

His line of action opposes the angle of the tree on the right which makes the composition dynamic.

Here's just a still background. It looks simple. It doesn't have a lot of detail or arbitrary clutter to impress your Dad or Jeffrey.

The complexity is in the thought behind the picture-in the choice of shapes and the placement of them.

Nothing is in the middle.

The main tree is in the foreground on the right.

The shdow of it falls on a diagonal and points to the tree behind it.

The skinny trees in the negative space between them are composed towards the right of the negative shape.

All this careful artistic asymmetry makes the designs seem natural and organic, not stiff, cluttered and accidental like many cartoons today.

Here the tree on the left acts as the frame around the beaver's pose. The negative shape between the trees will help his axe swing read clearly.

The skinny trees are not evenly spaced and all follow organic curves moving up, rather than straight lines.

Here is an example of what today would be misinterpreted as "No perspective". We are looking up at this shed, yet the lines all converge down rather than up and away from us as they would in reality.

Today's wacky layout artists think this means there are no rules in cartoons and they draw no perspective at all and the lines don't converge anywhere. Windows don't fit on buildings. Every building twists and turns in a different angle. This is sometimes referred to as "wonky" design. It started in Ralph Bakshi's Mighty Mouse, was copied by Beetlejuice (the Nelvana cartoon), Tiny Toons and A pup Named Scooby Doo and now is everywehere used as an excuse to not have to design anything with control or purpose or visual appeal.

This shed's backwards perspective is consistent with its bending of one rule-every edge doesn't follow its own way, so the shed holds together as a solid, yet cartoony form.

I find all these layouts to be elegantly handsome. Jim Smith is an expert at this kind of controlled design and composition.When we did Ripping Friends, Jim would deisgn and draw many great compositions-we sent them to service studios up north who immediately redrew them all and undid all the design, filled them with ugly clutter, placed everything in the middle and took out all the contrasts. I later discovered that that was the Canadian layout style that it is actually taught at the schools up here.


Nick Cross was the first Canadian I've met to break from the clutter style and he quicky became a top designer and layout artist once I informed him that is was OK to use artistic principles in cartoons.

These great Chuck Jones cartoons inspired other animators and designers who later founded UPA and used some of these principles and got rid of the clutter of the entertainment part of cartoons.


LeoBro said...

Wow. Great observation on the "Explosives" shed. It looks so right that it took me a while to see that the perspective really is backwards even after you pointed it out.

I still don't understand why it works so well. Is it because the horizon is curved? (The vertical lines of the shed are pretty close to 90 degrees from the horizon at the point where they intersect.)

Thanks for continuing to sharpen me eyes!

Shawn Luke said...

That was a great post, but I'm still not clear as to how that explosives shed drawing works. Its a great drawing to be sure. "Elegantly hansome" as you say. But how would you draw it? It's three quarter perpective, yes? But if we are looking up at it, shouldn't the shed be getting narrower?

Also, the school I went to in Vancouver did teach these principles, to the credit of the teachers, but wether the students absorbed them is a different matter. There was a lot of poorly skilled students accepted that year, including me, and we were taught so much, in such a short time, plus we all did final films. All this in 10 months, so I think its a matter of people not picking up everything and learning everything before they get in the indusry.

Patrick said...

John, with all your knowledge, you should REALLY consider publishing a book!!! Chuck Jones is one of my favorites 'THE GRINCH" is still close to my heart after all these years!

Ted said...

Golden section:

To be fair, the cartoon Beetlejuice had Tim Burton's work to draw odd angles from. "Vincent"
has a number of things at odd angles (background shadows and patterns, stairs, chair backs, etc.) in spite of an overriding up and down and left and right set up (see especially the "Abercrombie his zombie slave" shot for ), but the movie Beetlejuice had gone further in its sets.

Max Ward said...

All these still frames have better composistion than some of the paintings hanging in museums.

Vanoni! said...

Per your suggestion, a while back I went to a mutual acquaintance and put my hands on a pile of your in-house teaching guides. I was astonished at how difficult it was for you to get this layout and perspective mentality across to the Ripping Friends service studios!
I can't imagine the headaches you went through!
And Jim!

That abercrombie scene is a bad example, Ted.
It's all done with silhouettes! No forms!

- Corbett

Mitch K said...

Man, every class I've had today (including this one) has been about Chuck Jones. It's Chuck-day.

GREAT post. Fantastic theories.

Clinton said...

I appreciate the lecture on layouts, John. Good stuff.

mike f. said...

Hey, John - great analytical post on Jones, one of my heroes.

Lots of Jones' cartoons exist as an excercise in design, and nothing more - this one being a case in point.
It doesn't have a particularly memorable story or especially interesting characters, and almost no really big laughs... BUT - it's really beautiful to look at, isn't it? And that's what makes it fun to watch.

And Jones' incredibly appealing drawing style (to me, anyway) and superb talent at posing expressive characters is the icing on the cake, in this and so many of his cartoons.

(These scans came from an old print that has "reddened" with age. A color-corrected print would be even more impressive, from a design point of view.)

As you pointed out on previous occasions, he was always experimenting. Jones made some design-driven cartoons (The Dover Boys, Aristo-Cat), some story-driven cartoons (One Foggy Evening), some gag-driven cartoons (Pest In The House), and some character-driven cartoons (The Three Bears series). And, at his peak, he produced the occasional masterpiece that perfectly combines elements of all four (I'm sure there are better examples, but the one that springs to mind at the moment is Wackiki Wabbit.)

To my eyes, the late forties was truly his peak. I think having Clampett to compete against kept him at the top of his game, and when Clampett left the studio he lost that competitive edge to some degree, and that was the beginning of the period when his films started to decline, slightly at first, and then precipitously by the mid-fifties.
The period in-between is the one I admire and draw the most inspiration from - an unprecedented solid run, with a string of occasionally brillant cartoons.

I once told Steve Worth - in a fit of pique during an argument - that the sun shone out of Jones' ass from 1942 to 1954, which was kind of a bizarre metaphor, I guess (Steve sure as hell thought so) but it's basically true!

Thanks for sharing some of Jones' ass lumination for the day.

Ted said...

The room itself doesn't count?

It's not as counterintuitive a perspective as the way the explosives shed is (the top of the back wall is closer to the camera than the bottom, so even tho the back wall is a quadrilateral that's shortest on its bottom side like the shed, it's not as counterintuitive), but it is exagerrated perspective in the walls of the set.

Vanoni! said...

I thought you were talking about the first scene that Vincent mentions 'Abercrombie the Zombie', Ted.
With the staircases.

That's some real wacky perspective alright - I won't argue with you.
Especially if you're going to make up big words!

Keith Lango said...

Most excellent stuff. Thanks for taking the time to explore, elucidate and share!


Ted said...

Those are all perfectly cromulent words.

I don't really care said...

You've identified what I think Warner's directors did better than anyone before or since-- use every element to strengthen the psychology, emotion, and drama of the scene. Everything is a little goosed and charged in order to draw you further in. Clampett, Jones, and Tashlin wanted to make genuine, expressive cinema, and to use the medium to go a little further than live-action cinema can. I don't think Freleng or Avery were as motivated that way. I think they mostly wanted to stage gags, but were obviously still better at everything than almost anybody is today.

If anybody wants to know why modern cartoons suck, in a tangible and concrete way, it's because they do not even attempt any of these things. Even if modern creators understand such things, they usually exibit little to no interest in thinking about or executing them. I am still trying to figure out why. I have no working theory that does not indicate self-loathing as the cause.


The Ripping Friends backgrounds work for me, not because they are good in the sense that you just described, and they don't really work to to strengthen the actions or the characters in any technical ways, but because they seem vaguely inappropriate it's still funny, sort of like watching a big palooka sip tea from a tiny china cup with a doily. In this case the irony of crappiness pays off to some extent, because it's not just being used as an excuse to make a bad cartoon. Some of the BG's read more like vaudeville backdrops than as real backgrounds. Fortunately the comedians in the foreground are pretty funny. It wasn't what you conceieved, and I feel a little cheated as a result, but I don't have to wince when I watch RF.

The RF BG's are not much different than Harvey Birdman or AquaTeen-style BG's. They work anyway (or at least I'd say you got away with them), only because your characters are such a strong contrast. Once the locations register in your brain, many of the BG's pretty much wash out. They are rather pastel and washed out to begin with. I guess this is what they did to let the characters read, instead of thinking in-depth about where things should go and what shapes they should be. This does not explain why they would throw away the work they were given.

Mr. K, Is there any possibility of sharing some RF production art?

Robert Hume said...

I know what your talking about in Beetlegeuse with the "wonky" windows but I don't think Tim Burton stole that from Mighty Mouse...Fritz Lang had that same window and door effect in his old 1927 Sci-Fi flick Metropolis, which was obviously a huge influence on a lot of Tim Burton's work. Maybe I don't know what I'm talking about, but I always thought that's where it had come from.

Robert Hume said...

Hey my bad John, I just realized that you were talking about that Beetlegeuse cartoon and not the Tim Burton film...sorry I'm a little slow today. :P


Robert Hume said...

Amazing post by the way John. Very informative!

Joel Bryan said...

The explosives shed isn't 2-point perspective, just a little skewed? Huh... nope, it's not! I tried to work out the horizon line and the eye level and I can't... the vanishing points are all over the place!

Pretty cool.

But I'm shocked you guys would supply someone layouts and they'd change them. Why? Why wouldn't they just do what you gave them since it's your cartoon? That's so weird and stupid. Now I can see why things become frustrating in the animation industry.

Anonymous said...

Layout & Perspective are definately something I'm lacking in. Thanks for the great post John. Study it I will.

Jorge Garrido said...

Wow!!! You broke it down in MATHEMATICAL detail, yet I bet Jones thought this stuff up instinctivally, and that's why was so great! Another greta post. Let me try to break down those last few layouts.


First of all, the entire vertical part of the left side is taken up by the tree, which immediately frames the picture in a way that "skews" it, since it's an an angle. IF it was stragiht up it'd look awful, but teh cruve makes it work extremely well. Simple detials on the bark. It's cartoony how much the tree is leaning, too. This must have been one of the most deliberate design choices. The greeny part start off perpendicular but follows an nice organic curbe down, not all at the same speed either (it's not a parabola) The lack of detail in the green makes it easier to read. The combination of the green adn tha tree forms a skewed uppercase L turned on 90 degrees, using, of course, organic shapes. This somehwat frames the background, which has more things in it. The brown tree is straight (yet organic) and clearly AVOIDS parralel lines with teh skrewy white tree. They form an "A" between them (negative space) The cloud sure looks cool. It's more visually interesting than blank sky, and it's really big, too, with a nice small counterpart above it. NONE OF THE THE ROUND SHAPES ARE PERFECT CIRCLES AND NOCNE HAVE THE SAME SHAPE. He didn't use a freaking compass to draw circles, like on Family Guy! The eye is drawn towards white space, so the tree actually had a V shaped branch which POINTS down like an arrow, leading your eye down to the characters. Ingenious!


This one had a great dramatic perspective whihc doens't really make sense. IF there was a lciff like taht in real life, from teh angle the charcteer is in, near teh bottom of teh fram,e you wouldn't be able to see the side droppiong off, the perspecitve is all wrong, which makes it right. The detail is sparse yet effective, so you believe in it (The little rocks contribute to this) The shape of the cliff is a round shark fin, an great unorthodox choice. The clouds follow this motif of blades, everyhting is in S cruves which sort of swoop and lead into each other. The tree is great, Jones used the rule of thirds and put it off center,and of course the lines aren't parallel. A tree could never be that far on the edge of a cliff, so agian you have visual interest derived from a lack of real life physics, but it's well thought out. Oh, yeah the side of teh cliff is a similar shade of teh brown tree, to the pic is monochromatic, I think that's the word. An, holy shit, the grass isn't bright green? That's wrong with him? I've taken the liberty of fixing this picture, according to modern day standards and will be psoting it soon.

This post is full of typos. GO!

Jorge Garrido said...
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Max Ward said...

This post has really got me thinking for the past 2 days. I really want to see Chuck Jones cartonns but I don't have alot of tapes with his stuff on it. Thank you for posting this.

Jorge Garrido said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
The Butcher said...

Are the buildings in the original Firedogs an example of wonky design? The perspective is all out of whack with some of them.

christopher said...

Hey John, if you look at Gribbroek's imdb profile it has him working into the 90's on Warner's stuff. Is this because they were reusing old footage from different shorts or did Chuck bring him back out of retirement? I ask because I know you've always sung his praises as a layout artist and I was wondering if you ever visited him? Is he still alive? Anyways, incredibly informative post! Thanks!

JohnK said...

>>Are the buildings in the original Firedogs an example of wonky design?<<

probably. There is lots of wonkiness in my cartoons. I hate it. And that's what everyone imitates, rather than the few good things, they imitate the mistakes.

Jorge Garrido said...

Hey, Christoper, to answer your question, all of Robert Gribbroek 1990's credits are from clips shows of his old cartoons from the 40's. It looks like his last cartoon where he did orignal work was in the Bugs Bunny/Roadrunner Movie.

I fixed that Chuck Jones layout so it's more modern:

christopher said...

Yeah, I figured. Does anyone know if he is still alive? If he is someone needs to get there pronto to interview him. It would be cool to hear what he has to say about working in "Unit A" with Chuck and why he was seemingly cast aside for Maurice Noble? Thanks Jorge!

The Butcher said...

"probably. There is lots of wonkiness in my cartoons. I hate it. And that's what everyone imitates, rather than the few good things, they imitate the mistakes."

I never even cared to take notice until I started drawing buildings in perspective. Ren Seeks Help has some of the best backrounds I've seen in Ren and Stimpy though.

william wray said...

I love this "modern" period. My all time favorite cartoon backgrounds, so much right so much "wrong" on purpose. It's easy to do bad tight real, hard to do good tight real, easy to do bad stylization, harder to do good stylization, but almost impossible to blend then together and have them not fight. Good examples, more please.

rebelbarbie said...

this was my birthday - and i am a canadian and i love this cartoon! hooray!

Raff said...

>> but I'm still not clear as to how that explosives shed drawing works. <<

Here's my theory:

If the rules are really backwards, how do we know we're looking up at the shed at all?

For one thing, the handling of lighting is pretty logical. It looks like top lighting from a specific angle.

And to my eyes, it isn't wonky perspective - it's a wonky shed rendered in correct perspective. If you take what you see literally, the shed tapers down like a wastebasket, the front of the roof is higher than the back, the door is shaped funny and the word "explosives" is crooked.

Meanwhile, you can tell how thick the shed's wood panels are because the perspective of the front and side edges of the roof and the side edge of the door is relatively kosher. That's why it doesn't look flat.

Mind you, I'm basing this all on one layout.

Anonymous said...

hey John K, could you speak a little more on Chuck Jones' influence and contributions to animation? I'm an aspiring artist and animator and I'd like to know more!

Paul B said...

Hi john:
I made a study from one of the Eager Beaver frames. Here it is:

Eager Beaver Study

could you please answer some of my questions? I think this composition stuff is a very important element in telling stories and I'm just bad at it.