Saturday, April 12, 2008

Irv Spence - Perfect Cartoon-Animation Drawing Principles

Doing that Bickenbach post the other day got me to thinking about another classic animator who had all his principles down.

Irv Spence, more than any other 40s animator typified everything that represented the style. More than Scribner, Jones, McKimson, Kimball, Moore, anyone I can think of.

That's not to say he's better or more talented than those other giants. I'm saying that he puts all the 40s principles together in one package more completely and confidently than any other animator I can think of. He is great to study.

Irv has:

Solid Construction

Line Of Action

Clear Silhouettes and staging - easy to read the image
Flow All the details of his images flow along the line of action and construction of the larger forms.

Organic Shapes
Organic shapes means that the shapes are not perfect geometric shapes. Not circles, ovals, triangles etc. The curves do not bend exactly in the middle. S curves, asymmetry. Nothing looks mechanical.

No parallel lines. Even the hat and clothes are organic.

Design Balance-
Filled Spaces surrounded by empty Spaces -
to avoid cluttered design

This lion has much empty space in his design: his face around his eyes. The mane around his ears, the front of the muzzle versus the back. The jaw. Etc. This careful design makes the face very easy to read. If all the shapes were jammed close together you would get a jumble hard to read image.

Design contrasts
These characters from Tom and Jerry have many of the principles common to 40s cartoons, but they don't have any design. They are made of circles and ovals (somewhat organic) but without strong contrasts in the shapes and sizes. They are designed merely for the function of smooth animation, not for specificity.

Compare them to this more specific mouse. What makes it a specific rather than generic design? It's built up out of contrasting shapes. It's not just circles piled on top of each other.


Spence not only applies all the scholarly animation drawing principles, he applies them to a very cartoony look and feel. It's not merely "correct", it's fun.

The miracle: He makes them all work together
What's really amazing about Spence, is that he is able to balance so many principles and methods together and still make the result look effortless.

Many animators have some skills more developed than others. McKimson has perfect construction, clarity, dynamics but is not as flowing or cartoony as Scribner. Scribner is very cartoony, spontaneous, full of contrasts, but is less concerned with perfect construction and absolutely balanced poses. He understands them, but lets his spontaneity dominate his creative statements.

The top Disney animators have all the technical principles down, but lack spontaneity, design and specificity.

Spence manages to bring all this stuff together in perfect harmony.


When you look at his drawings, you can clearly see each principle at work-which is why I recommend to cartoon students to use these model sheets to study, copy and learn your basics from. I will warn beginners to stay away from Scribner, because you get distracted by how wild his drawings are and will pick up the things he rushes through (like sometimes hasty construction or unbalanced awkward poses).

Does Irv ever Cheat? Sure...but when he does it's totally on purpose, in the clear and obvious. It's not an uneducated collection of mistakes that some people call "That's my style, man".
In this drawing, George's eyes do not follow the center line of his head. They are tilted to the left-however, they still flow; they don't look flat and don't exist on their own plane in front of the head.

The few cheats are on purpose, either to make a funny expression, or to make a cleaner design.

I always thought Spence was wasted animating for Tom and Jerry cartoons. The animators basically just had to move Joe's drawings from pose to pose using Bill's timing. Joe's poses are great, butdo limited and repetitive. There wasn't a lot of room to express any of your own acting, posing or cartoony ideas. It was a formula.

A good animator could just do what he was told, make it smooth and finish early to go play golf. Which apparently is what Irv did every week. I heard he would complete his quota by Thursday, then take Friday off to go shoot a few holes.

I also heard from other classic animators that he didn't think much about cartoons in his offtime. It was just a good job to him. He was so natural to it all, that I guess he didn't feel like there was anything to explore.

Whether that's true or not, he was a great animator and his stuff is really fun to watch.

Irv's animation for Iwerks is a lot more inventive, cartoony and looser than his Tom and Jerry work. It's much easier to spot his style. Same with his work for Avery. There is also a story that he didn't like working for Tex as much as Joe, because it was harder. Maybe someone knows more about this and can add some stories in the comments.


I always assumed this was Irv's animation but someone has said he thought it might be someone else.

It sure looks like his stuff. Irv always drew teeth with rounded blunt ends, very balloony but flowing bodies and a certain way of drawing toes.

There are a lot of scenes (like this below) in this cartoon that look nothing like the lion in the model sheet that Irv drew,

but these others look just like it and move like other scenes in other cartoons that I know for sure are him.

Either way, it's a brilliantly animated and hilarious scene!

Not Irv Spence
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Here are some drawings from scenes not by Irv. By comparison with his models, these look very stiff and awkward and have no inherent sense of design. The contrasts have been really toned down from Irv's models.

Of course the animation and gags are still really funny.

Here's a model sheet done by Walter Clinton, a very funny animator.

See, I wouldn't recommend young cartoonists study this, because:
The principles are not as clear or well understood as they are in Irv's drawings.
The line of action is broken up, the silhouettes are not clean, the construction is uncertain.

Of course, they are still funny drawings and much better than anything being done today, but if you trying to learn how old cartoons work, this will confuse you, because so many of the rules are broken.

Irv's drawings are crystal clear, so take advantage of them.

I stole these images from Kevin Langley's great site, so I hope he doesn't mind. Go there and discover lots more great stuff!