Monday, March 26, 2007

Direction 2: Walt Disney Presents - "A Story of Dogs" - the director

By the 1970s and 80s, the Saturday morning cartoon studios had devolved an extremely creatively inefficient production system.

They produced cartoons on an assembly line basis. Each function of an animated cartoon now had its own department: The "story" department, the storyboard department, the layout department, etc. No one in any department talked to anyone in other departments. They were all kept separate.

Each department had a department head. The head of the story department was a "story editor" or some such nonsense. This head would oversee all the stories in the studio-superhero cartoons, funny animal cartoons, girlie cartoons, whatever generic product was rolling down the conveyor belt. He was an expert in every single style. ...Hmmm. What's wrong with this picture?

Well I'll tell you: This system has no communication from artist to artist, and no one can do every style. A storyboard artist has no director to guide him in his presentation of the story. The script writer sure won't talk to him. He expects the artists to literally follow every word of the script, even though most of it doesn't even work, let alone being entertaining or inventive.

The layout artist doesn't consult with the storyboard artist. Instead he follows his manual of how to stay on model, and how to stage everything in the stock studio way. The animators then ignore the layouts after complaining about them and in turn xerox more model sheets and write timing charts on the presupplied poses worked out by the model department - who also has no communication with the animators. In other words, each step in the production is a waste of money, because the next department is just going to do everything the same way they always do it.

All the individual job functions in a cartoon studio had their functions changed in the 70s. Storyboards were no longer for writing the story. Layout was no longer where you creatively staged the scenes. Animation had become tracing.

In this impractical system, no one has any any creative stake in any cartoon. If anyone happened to sneak an act of creativity into his layout, or animation, or storyboard, the system would have automatically erased it. When you saw the final cartoon that you worked on, nothing you put in it made it to the screen. By the 1980s, animation cartoonists were a mighty depressed lot.

This Dark Age system eventually migrated into Feature production, although it was cloaked with superficial elements of how Disney used to make cartoons and no one would admit they weren't still doing full-animation the classical way. But 80s and 90s Disney movies sure as heck look and sound like the stuff we did for Ruby Spears and Filmation in the 80s, although with trickier camera angles and lots more inbetweens. - and airbrushed dirt all over the characters. Filmation characters covered in dust.

Anyway, the old system that produced classic cartoons was a sensible system that evolved though trial and error as animators and cartoonists learned by actually making cartoons all in one place - together. It had directors in charge. The directors were animators who had worked their way up in the system and knew exactly what went into making an animated cartoon. These directors would in turn work directly with each of the key creative people on their cartoons. Everyone knew how everything was going to fit into the overall creative scheme. Creative people could have a stake in the success of each individual cartoon they created, so they had an incentive to do things well.

That's why old cartoons have feeling, style and are directed. They have creative points of view, while modern cartoons are committee-made, executive garbled mush.

Look how sensible this old fashioned production system is.
No scripts in sight. The director (Gerry Geronimi) works with drawings.

The layout artist (Tom Codrick) who staged the scenes visually is in on the meeting with the animator and director.

Woolie Reitherman is the animator.
Geronimi explains the scene generally to the animator.

Then the animator (the performer) sketches up specific suggestions for how the action might work.
Everyone can look at the pictures and see exactly what the suggestions are. There is no need to describe the actions in words when you have artists making the story.

* an interesting side note: Tramp is a typical cute but generic Disney design, but the other dogs are starting to look like 70s "realistic" Saturday Morning character design - an ill omen of what will eventually happen to animation in the coming dark ages.

On my own various productions, especially at Spumco, I had to restore a version of this old fashioned production system -adapted for TV schedules, just so I could actually direct my own cartoons and make sure all the ideas made it to te screen. For a while Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network "borrowed" this creator-driven system. But years later as more and more executives have been added into the process, the system is gradually reverting back to the weighty non-communicative production system of the 70s and 80s. And maybe even worse, because there are more execs now than ever and decision making is so slow, feeble, arduous and expensive. Indecision is always more expensive than decision. The elaborate process of eliminating creativity and fun from cartoons burns money.



LH said...

You know what's sadder? As you've mentioned, most of the money used on these new shows is pissed away on PR bullshit and marketing with crappy slogans like "I pooted." and other crap like that. All the while, unexperienced creators with no cartooning or artistry background get their shows made, many ripping off your "style", and copying the "Twelve (Un)Holy Manditory Plots" with minor variations.

I'd like to ask...what exactly are these 6/12 "manditory" plots anyway? It could help budding real cartoonists draw (write) actual plots rather than xeroxing everything that's sucessful, shitty looking or not.

Hector Cortez said...

Another great post John.

Have you ever considered opening up your own animation school?

You could change the animation world by implementing all your ideas that you've written about here.

And make it even more revolutionary by making it low cost... screw those $100,000 art schools... charge community college prices! I'd be first in line to sign up!!


Craig D said...

I just watched Mike Judge's "IDIOCRACY" last night. Has anyone else seen it? This post brings it to mind, which is why I mention it.

To paraphrase a doctor's diagnosis from the movie, "Your shit's all retarded!"

(Meaning the current state of the industry's production methods, as described herein.)

bc3 said...

Ah bummer... I thought the movie was going to be a bunch of lack luster execs sucking the creative juices out of artist whilst keeping warm by a pit of burning money.

again thanks for your steadfast posts!

Paul B said...

Hi John! another killer post. wow! how fun is work like that!

i have a couple of questions for you

1.- what do you think of the software toon boom storyboard? do you know it?

2.- is the animatic made with the layouts or with the storyboard?

well, taht's all for now john

thanks for the material

waiting for your answer.

Anonymous said...

this "executive" virus is the bane of our times. you see it everywhere. in my crappy office job, they constantly recruit people to be our "supervisors" who don't know the first thing about what we do. i don't know how many times i've trained the person who is supposed to be making sure i'm doing my job, to actually do my job so he looks like he knows what he's talking about in his weekly meetings. ridiculous.

Mike said...

@ Hector Cortez,

That's sort of what this blog is designed to be. A low-cost school.

That's why John is always posting his manuals, Disney making-ofs, the Preston Blair book, etc. He wants there to be enough skilled artists around when he gets geared up for whatever he's planning.

The PB lessons are sort of the first step.

Hector Cortez said...


Yea, I understand that but how F'en awesome would it be for there to be an actual school and actually have John and other industry pros teaching you? :)

Kali Fontecchio said...

People always email you their art all the time, I'm sure, but does anyone ever email you a script? If so, how do you punish them?

Although there is the odd exception- I'm going to go make clips of those!

S.G.A said...

i think it's great to point out this stuff, It really works out good for artists and the people who spend the money to make cartoons, If theres anyway to to to them it's by making them notice their wallets.
Plus people get entertained, artists are happy, and money is made.

Ryan G. said...

Im still dumbfounded by the fact that studios dont use directors and that the departments dont talk to each other!

Anonymous said...

Could you elaborate more on canadian animation cliches? (cluttered backgrounds etc.) Personally I think its impossible for a good animated series to get made in canada. Even a poorly drawn yet funny show is impossible since the people writing them are hack Toronto writers who werent good enough to write for Air Farce.

Have you seen atomic betty? Its the epitome of stupid "cinematic" nonsense. Every action scene is done in widescreen and has all sorts of splitscreen and bizarre cuts.

Anonymous said...

I hope that system comes back. It was way more creatively driven.

I would fill like my work would be more appreciated. And not just a number in an assembly line.

Anonymous said...

I definitely think the way to go is to just do a funny short on your own and put it up on youtube or something. If its funny it'll become a phenomenon and idiot executives who turned you down will see 1 million hits and be more willing to listen to your idea

Anonymous said...

Hey John,I Know you Hate Roger Rabbit,but It's gonna turn 20 Next Year.

Anonymous said...

an animation employee in the 70's and 80's rarely thought of themselves as an artist. okay maybe a few delusional types. jobs were just that- a
job. most seemed to be merely passing thru while pursuing their real love on the weekends. seasonal layoffs were almost welcomed by anyone who had creative ideas. they could take the time to work on thier pet projects while waiting for the next season of the smurfs to start.

what i get from all this stuff is that you'll have to do it yourself. waiting for some management types to wake up could take forever. they all drank the cool-aid and see animation as a business, not an art form.

Tigersan said...

Good day to you all,

Me just had a happy-happy, joy-joy breakdown on me birthday and found this blog!

Me will be sure to avoid any and all ‘executive viruses’ ;)

See you all around :)

JohnK said...

>>they all drank the cool-aid and see animation as a business, not an art form.<<

Not any executives I've met. I wish they did.

toonamir said...

I really Identify with what you write John, Just like a baker should make bread, cartoonists should make cartoons.

I wouldn't want to live in a building designed by musicians, it might fall apart. So does a cartoon planned by businessmen, a good professional designs his craft to best suit it. Sadly, many bosses are unqualified for their job, look at politics!

Gavin Freitas said...

John, AWESOME post! Something needs to be changed in the industry. I hope those "Dark Days" don't come back for animation. I think Hector Cortez is right, have a school or teach at a Academy or something. I'll sign up when I move to LA after I'm done with school. It is hard to beat these coperate executives at controlling the direction of cartoons but their in charge. We gotta pay the bills, I just hope it changes a least a little in the next few years to come.

Robert Stephenson from Australia said...

The number of producers on USA cartoons does seem strange to me. I'd love to know what the job descriptions are for a producer, or associate producer or creative producer or executive producer on a Simpsons cartoon. How many producers does a cartoon need these days? Are producers and execs frightened to make a decision on their own?

Mr. Semaj said...

I'd hate to think of what Joe Murray and C.H. Greenblatt are really going thru at Cartoon Network. I still can't get past Greenblatt's joke of a comment of how CN is "committed to excellence" (again, I hate to be beating up on a SpongeBob artist).

Also, you might wanna talk about the way Disney conducts their television cartoons. In spite of their figuring out other styles since the late 1990's, they still have a terrible habit of recycling their pre-existing characters, poorly so, and homogenizing their products.

John Pannozzi said...

"Also, you might wanna talk about the way Disney conducts their television cartoons. In spite of their figuring out other styles since the late 1990's, they still have a terrible habit of recycling their pre-existing characters, poorly so, and homogenizing their products."

Actually, from what I heard, Disney TV animation (at least in the 1980s) were more like the old studio system, in that it was worked on drawings and there was less micro-management

Doug said...

this is so cool

Jason Miskimins said...

What is with the increase of execs these days? Not just in animation, but in all fields. It seems more and more that everything is being controlled by people who have no experience or even any interest in what they are in charge of.