Friday, October 19, 2007



Cartoon direction has meant many things depending on the studio and era. In most cartoon fans' minds the idea of a cartoon director is represented by what Bob Clampett, Tex Avery and Chuck Jones did.

This kind of director was in total charge of every creative aspect of the cartoons, the story, design, animation, color, backgrounds, voices...and timing.

The Unit System Headed By a Director- the Benevolent Dictator

The director had his own crew and this crew stayed with him for years and they all grew creatively together under his guidance.

The director didn't personally perform each job, he chose which he wanted to do personally and supervised the rest. Each director concentrated on the aspects of the production that fit his own talents the best, and everyone else on the crew supported him and did what the director himself couldn't do or didn't have the time to do.

Chuck Jones was great at posing and character design, so he drew most of the poses in his cartoons. He relied on Mike Maltese and Tedd Pierce for story and various background artists for the BG styling.

Clampett was great at ideas, gags, personality, timing and exaggeration, but gave his animators more leeway than Jones did.

Avery was really good at high concepts, gags and structure, but had other artists "refine" his poses and draw them in their various styles. He also gave his animators more freedom than say, Jones would.

This concept of Cartoon Director is the ideal. It gave one animator the total creative control over the films and produced the longest lasting, most popular cartoons and characters in history.
One experienced animator.

From assistant animator to animator and then maybe to story or design and then to director.
It's not like on today's shorts departments where they just pluck you out of high school and call you "director". The classic cartoon directors all knew how cartoons were made and then on top of that had a clear vision of how they wanted to express themselves because they had animated themselves and learned under other directors.

Directors at other studios had somewhat less control. At Disney's the directors all had to report to Walt and their jobs were to translate Walt's vision to the screen, so they weren't directors like at WB and MGM but they still supervised many of the artistic aspects of the film making- unlike the later TV directors. (I bet you can find more detailed info on how Disney directors worked at Mark Mayerson's site. He's pretty thorough with his history.)


By the 1970's there was still a job in animation called "Director" but it bore little resemblance to what it used to mean.

By then every job in animation was unrelated to the next. There was no more supervisor at the top of a "unit". Each job went through a cold department, run by a department head.

Cartoon assembly Line- no more communication between artists

The Storyboard supervisor.
The script editor.
The layout department.
Character design department.
The development department.
Background Painting department.
The Voice Recording department

Each of these departments worked on multiple series at once and no artist had a personal vested interest in any of them. He just did his job according to the rules-and pretty retarded rules they were. The main rule in every department was- "Don't ever make anything up! Don't create anything. Do exactly what you've already done a million times."

Jobs in animation studios were as boring as office jobs-except that there actually were many talented cartoonists and we all had fun on breaks and lunch acting like idiots and making each other laugh. You just had no way of putting that energy or humor into the cartoons.

The weird thing was....most people were completely OK with that!!

Not me.

Directors Merely Timed Sheets
"Director" meant writing timing sheets. The director didn't work with any artists. He was just grabbing storyboards off the conveyor belt and writing up timing formulas onto ex sheets.

The first of these directors were old time animators like Bill Hanna, Ray Patterson, and Charles Nichols, who at least knew how to make the timing seem natural and not clunky.

But they eventually started training non-artists and taught them them the formulas, so by the 80s, there were all kinds "directors" that had no idea what any of the actual symbols and squiggles they would scribble all over the timing sheets actually meant!

The timing became completely amateurish, just like every other aspect of cartoons.


The craziest job category to come out of the Saturday Morning Cartoon system was the voice director.

In classic cartoons, the guy who had supervised the creation of the story and who was going to work directly with the animators would direct the voice recording sessions. Completely logical.

Clampett already knew his own stories intimately and knew how the characters should act because it was his own film. He has already worked on it every day for a couple months before Mel Blanc would come in.

Now we have people who have no creative input in the cartoons except to see the script for the first time and then tell the actors how to read the lines. Right in front of the person who might have actually been working on the story for months and who really knows what's going on.

Even Mel Blanc Needs Direction

Mel Blanc was the greatest voice talent in history, but he would be seeing the dialogue script for the first time when he came in. The director would have to explain what was going on in the story and guide Mel to get the emotions the way the director saw the film. Sounds logical, right?

If Mel had just read the script and acted it out as he went along with no guidance from someone who molded the story, he would get the whole emotional pattern and context of the story all wrong.

Visit To Anthony
This exact thing happened to one of my cartoons-Visit To Anthony. There was a character patterned after my Dad - and I didn't get to direct the character's voice in the cartoon, although I directed the rest of the voices. Games animation -who finished the film- hired a well known good actor to play my father, but whoever directed him..didn't. It sounds like the actor is just reading the lines for the first time and has no idea of the context of the story or what's going on. I imagined that the "director" was too afraid to give any direction to a star. That coupled with the fact that whoever directed it hadn't worked on the story and didn't know my Dad.


This whole assembly line system was what I walked into in the 80s. I had wondered why for 2 decades, cartoons didn't seem to have any point of view, style or quality. This is why.

There were no directors and no director system.

It wasn't because there was no talent. I was working with Tom Minton, Eddie Fitzgerald, Lynne Naylor, Bill Wray, Bruce Timm, Jim Gomez and many other super talented folks but it was impossible to get anything we wanted to do to end up on the screen because of 2 main things:

1) The Stupid Production System That Erased All Creativity

2) There Was No Training Ground

This was the other big disaster caused by TV production.
Even if you had talent, you couldn't learn how to use it. Talent without skill and knowledge of how things work leaves you pretty helpless. (This is where we are again today)

You couldn't learn to animate properly. Or time, or do layouts right, or act, or work with voice talent.

No one knew how everything fit together anymore because the director/unit system was gone, and then all the animation was being shipped overseas, so you couldn't even learn how crappy animation worked! You just stared at the films you worked on when they came back from Asia and died. It was awful, but even if we would have been allowed to complain and fix things, we wouldn't really know how to go about it.

Everyone was completely creatively helpless.

In 1980 it sure looked like the days of fun, quality and creative animation were gone forever because the whole system was geared against it.

(amazingly, cartoon fans in their 20s sometimes come up to me and tell me how they loved 80s cartoons, the ones that we all were ashamed of making!)

Now with all this tedious background info to bore the crap out of you, I will try to give you some thoughts about the first cartoon I directed. It was called "Meowww"

check in later

the stills are below...


...many of today's production systems are versions of mine that are mutating back into the 80s system. They have elements of both systems in different proportions depending on which studio and whether series or shorts' departments.

I wonder if anyone who works in this kind of patchwork system has any thoughts to share with us...

Do they still call any shows "Creator-Driven"? Do the creators supervise the stories and the voice-direction? Does he supervise the posing, if not the actual animation?

I'm just curious