Tuesday, September 09, 2008



You hear the word "style" used too much today. Young cartoonists excuse their lack of knowledge by saying they have a style. Even executives; folks who by nature are as blind as bats toss the word around as if it means something to them. They used to hate the word "style", but for the last decade and a half it has been trendy to pretend you like it.

People call that flat stuff you see everywhere a "style". If it's a style, then it's a style made up of mistakes-and the exact same mistakes that hundreds of cartoonist make just through natural ignorance.

Well at one time "style" did mean something, and actually had more than one meaning. Having more than one meaning confuses things by allowing people to equivocate between the meanings when they try to talk about it.

One meaning of style is "personal style."

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Another is a wider general or "house style". Like the Warner Bros. style.

But within the "Warner Bros. style" are 5 or 6 "directors' styles".

Each director in turn constantly experimented and evolved his style.

Within each director's unit are individual animators' styles whose styles also evolved with time.

Looking wider, you can say the Warner Bros. style is part of the "40s pear and spheres style" which also includes Disney, Terrytoons, MGM and Columbia.

The "UPA style" is both derived from and rebelling against the "pear and spheres style".

Through all of these cartoons you can see similarities of wider principles. People confuse principles with style all the time.

When cartoon studios in Canada look at a good cartoonists' portfolio that has solid principles, they say "Oh you draw in John K.'s style". In other words if you draw well and solid and fun and non ambiguous, then you all have the same style, which is ridiculous.

Nick Cross, Jim Smith, Katie Rice, Helder Mendonca, Bob Camp, Vincent Waller

Buy "The Waif of Persephone" on DVD

all draw really well and all have their own unique styles on top of their good principles. The fact that none of them draw in the modern "generic group style" means to bland people that they all draw the same. Their very uniqueness and good drawing - to a modern dummy makes them all the same.

Then there is a whole group of people who draw in a generic style that is a combination of the "spumco and Tartakovsky style".
The above fake commercial is drawn in Dave Sheldon's personal style which came from a lot of influences out of the 50s rebellion against pears and spheres. Dave was one of many stylists I used on Ren and Stimpy. His style was probably the most influential of all the Spumco artists.Genndy and Craig McCracken did their own take on the 50s and created a lot of original stuff.

The imitators of this stuff from the last 18 years combined it into a non custom-made generic unindividual group style. It started in the early 90s in LA, and then made it to Canada about 5 years ago - right when great Spumco artists were being turned away by Canadian studios who told them they needed artists who could adapt to other styles - which meant could adapt to the style that rips us off ignorantly.

Now this resulting soulless flat broken glass style is everywhere and animation executives all think it is hip and modern - but then wonder why none of the shows are as popular as Ren and Stimpy or Dexter's Lab. D-uh!

An unevolving generic group style like fake-Disney, or fake-Genndy is a dead animal, unlike a wider group style like the "pears and spheres" 30s and 40s "style",

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Hank Ketcham and Walt Kelly have very individual personal styles, yet both these very different looking finishes are based on the exact same principles of good animation drawing. They were both animators trained at Disney's who broke away from the stifling genericism at the studio to become successful on their own. They benefited hugely from their Disney training.
Harvey Kurtzman is not an animator, yet has a style that uses the same principles again.

This 40s animation technique of drawing is not really a style at all - it's a drawing approach that suits animation and is open to constant development, growth and experimentation - when it is in the hands of clever individuals who don't cage themselves in by the group style.

Whew! Now on to Harvey Eisenberg...

Harvey was an animator, then a layout artist at MGM on the original Tom and Jerry cartoons. Then he went into comics and used the 40s principles pretty generically at first,
but quickly developed his own individual style, and in turn adapted to the changing styles of animated cartoons over the next couple decades.

he was able to adapt to totally different looking styles, because he had his principles of drawing down pat, was really talented and knew how the more modern takes changed from the overall 40s "style" on the surface.

The link below will take you to some Yogi pages drawn by a few different artists, all trying to draw in the same "house style" but still letting their individuality come through.


My point? Good drawing skills are adaptable and give you more creative choices than blind imitation.


SoleilSmile said...

Uh, John. A huge reason why studios went for the UPA derived "broken glass style" is because it's simpler to draw and does not return from the service studio overseas lookin' like Hell warmed over.

When I was a revisionist on Pinky and the Brain, me and rest of the crew used to lament over how our shows came back from Korea looking like sh*t. We all wanted our shows to go to TMS in Japan who always did a great job. However, only 13 shows out of 39 get to go that faboo service studio, the rest goes to Wang studios in Korea. To be fair to the Korean studios though: later on in my career I spoke to a few overseas Korean directors who told me that American TV SB artists would send work to to be laid out and animated to Korea with no evidence of perspective which is a bitch to pull on model and perspective in layout with all that line mileage to boot under an impossible deadline! Therefore, production designs became simpler.
I thought I already hemmed and hawed about this when I worked for you years ago. As I told the crew you had at the time, it's rare to have a director actually take the time to draw over your mistakes for you so it's easy to understand. Directors at other studios give their artists lecture on how to improve their work and then trust the bewildered pencil monkey to interpret the critique to a "T" once they return to their desks.

John, perhaps, your critique should be about vague direction and artists not REMEMBERING everything they learn in school, rather than an attack on the current retro house styles.

Ryan G. said...

Hey John. Revisions are


JohnK said...

John, perhaps, your critique should be about vague direction and artists not REMEMBERING everything they learn in school, rather than an attack on the current retro house styles.

Hi Ashanti

I don't know how you could direct non-characters in the first place.

Characters need to be created as characters, not as generic colorforms.

It doesn't cost any more to have good design.

Jeremy said...

I just started looking into this blog---then...I sifted through all of the post previously! Mr. Kricfalusi thank you for having such a wonderful output and analysis of the Cartoon ---It keeps me inspired!

Jeremy said...

I had just poured over this blog for the past few days....Thank you Mr.K for keeping me inspired and sharing such valuable analysis on the cartoon and its evolution!

SoleilSmile said...

Characters need to be created as characters, not as generic colorforms.

It doesn't cost any more to have good design.<<<

Perhaps no one has thought of complex designs that can be successfully animated by a huge American/overseas crew for TV yet? Also, they are cultural differences that make character acting difficult for Western TV. Korean's are a lot more reserved than Americans. This is a gross generalization, but after when I complained about the acting mistakes committed by overseas studios, a Korean friend of mine told me just that. For example" never SB the "shaking of the head" that is seen in so many classic cartoons when a character is a state of disbelief. It comes back from overseas as a wonky chin to shoulder turn that ruins the scene. Animation is a lot easier when it's all done in-house.

It's a pity that studio heads are not going to shake up a system they don't see as broken for it still brings in money. It would be great to have animation projects done all in house again for TV. One improvement has been made though: studios are a lot pickier about who they hire for shows now. It's not enough to draw well, you have to able to act for the characters of the show's genre. The "warm body" trend of the 90's is over and I totally agree with the ethos. I should never have been on Futurama or Dilbert, but instead stayed at Disney and not been afraid to become the SB artist they wanted me to be ( I have a fear of promotions/extra responsibility-getting yelled at). I think I contributed to the ruin of Futurama to some degree, because I hated the characters so much. Thanks again for the rescue, by the way.

Lesson learned, I now hold out for projects that are within my genre, which are few far between because girls shows are rare, but great work when I can get it.
One thing though, In order to keep projects lined up, I have to accept management positions because smaller "start up" studios have trouble attracting leaders. So, I have a question for you:
How do you remember all of your solutions at once when the time comes? Furthermore, how do you face new challenges when they arise and still keep your cool? Do you keep a list of tricks at your desk that no one can see? A friend of mine who was a director at CN said that's exactly what a director's office is for--hiding all the tricks that don't quite fit up you sleeve:)

Leadership in the scary "everyone-yells-at-each-other" animation industry would be a great topic for a future post, John.
Now go finish your B-Day cake, you thing from another world you:)

Caleb Bowen said...

The word style really does get used too much. I mistakenly used the word style on your Canadian bear post referring to the broken glass look. I should have said 'trend'.

Mitch L said...

Nice post, some great art again.

It's hard. I still can't draw construction etc. good enough to draw good characters. I keep practising. And often when I show my portfolio for work they want to see more "style" (they want people who can do evrything). So I need to spent time working on things that could give me work here in NL, time I could use to learn more about good cartoon drawing. I hope that I get a job soon, so I can train more in spare time.

Mister Zero said...

Yeah, I too have done this. I'm glad you made this post, it really helped differenciate a lot of things for me.

I'm no pro but just an amateur artist who does it as a hobby, but I've always been into cartoons and cartooning and your blog here is excellent.

Happy Birthday, btw! Long live the king.

trevor said...

Are executives scared that if they let artists work on good stuff that it'll create a trend of originality that they won't be able to critique and therefore not pump out like sausage?

Or is it just that they have all the money and have an inherent need to understand everything? Because if it's the latter, I don't think we should have to suffer just because they all have pea-sized brains that can't understand fun.

The only executives that seem to care about trying new stuff are the [adult swim] guys, and the result there is that A/V geeks like Tim and Eric and people who can't draw at all produce crap shows teeming with irony ( "See, the joke is that it's animation but the drawings don't look good and barely move.... ironic, huh?" ).


- trevor.

JohnK said...

Perhaps no one has thought of complex designs that can be successfully animated by a huge American/overseas crew for TV yet?"

who said anything about complex designs?

Complex doesn't equal good character design.

Ed Benedict created great characters who were easy to draw on super cheap budgets.

Phantom Spitter said...

John, I've been wondering and wondering and finally got up the nerve to ask you this: What do you think of these artists and cartoonists?

Robert Williams
Jules Feiffer
Johnny Ryan
Will Elder
Bud Fisher
George Herriman
Boris Artzybasheff
Stanislav Szukalski

Mattieshoe said...


I don't remember ever seeing TMS Animation on Pinky and the Brain (except in the Christmas special)

were you talking about your work on Animaniacs? in the first season, a good third of all episodes were done by ether TMS or Startoons. (After that, TMS was almost never again used for a WB cartoon series)

Mattieshoe said...

"Ed Benedict created great characters who were easy to draw on super cheap budgets."

They were easy to draw if you had a knowledge of cartoon construction and posing. to Korean Animators, the only thing that's easy to draw is Family Guy. (beacuse It's all tracing)

I recall watching an early episode of Tiny Toons recently, drawn by Akom, and wondering why one particular drawing was so much nicer then the others. turns out it was a direct trace from the model sheet, with everything the same down to the position of the eyes.

this is what "On Model" is to Koreans. they Don't understand that a Model Sheet is only for reference and that their animation should FEEL like the character, not just look EXACTLY as he does on the Model Sheet.

Ryan Cole said...

So I'd been wondering since the last post, but didn't really know how to ask: If Canada is a nation of imitators, wouldn't an advantage of that mean that many artists produced here have more sense to adaptability than in other countries? Is that what you mean when you say that many Canadian animators are very skilled?

I'm always afraid that everything I draw is less of an inspiration of other artists and more of a meager imitation. I've turned my nose up to my own work when people compliment it as being very Chuck Jones-esque or Don Bluth-y. How would I know if I were just imitating, rather than adapting?

Biff Boulder said...

what's the 11mars1 image from?
it's quite interesting.

captain ahar said...

Just wanted to say thanks. I've glanced at the blog before in reference to specific posts (by request of some friends), but haven't expressed any interest to follow it closely... until now.

After reading back through the archive, into your recounts of Canadian animation, and the cultural attitudes of my great northern neighbor (I speak from Grand Rapids, MI woot), I am hooked. Funny stuff, but more importantly, I am deeply curious about the time line of shows you have going.

My computer now seems to not have Flash enabled properly, so no video watching for me. But rest assured, I shall sift through the videos later.

Thanks a lot, the awkward stares I am getting in the computer lab due to my laughter were worth it.

Gabriele_Gabba said...

John something is happening on T.V now that i can only describe as pure horror.

There seems to be this new type of generic (SUPER) FLAT flash/toonboom animation hitting the screens.

Its low budget and its impossible to describe how it makes my eyes bleed.

They are using 3D animation tools like IK/FK skeletons to animate 2D like puppets.

What is this new trend and where did it come from?

I saw this one today:


pappy d said...

"My point? Good drawing skills are adaptable and give you more creative choices than blind imitation."

A personal style of drawing isn't just about how you perceive the world, it's also about your personal misperceptions. Drawing in someone else's style is like interviewing them. The choices they make about what to emphasise or omit, their own strengths & weaknesses, job history & personal insights are all reflected. It's like when you kill your enemy & eat his liver while it's till warm. You absorb his courage. In somewhat the same way, you collect little glimmers of brilliance from other artists.

Style is about the meaning you project onto the world. It's not a few clever tricks & gimmicks that you use to "brand" yourself in the marketplace unless of course, you are genuinely shallow & stupid.

In animation design, there also needs to be some cold rational thought given to industrial design. How do you fit the design to the project & the budget? When all cartoons were animated with 12 to 24 fps., the industry evolved the "sphere & pear" look because it offered the best entertainment/cost ratio. In college, I hated that look. There were so many graphic styles in print in those days & all animation could do was this one hackneyed look. As I learned to animate, I came to appreciate how practical this style was. It was built to move. Flash is a diferent set of tools with different potential strengths & some really creative & intelligent design has been done for it.

I love this guy:


Most kidvid is just recycled UPA with more violent timing & colors & a jagged silhouette which announces it's newness in comparison to the ovoid Tom & Jerry look.

captain ahar said...

gabriele_gabba said:

"What is this new trend and where did it come from?"

At the very least, I think it is safe to say South Park would have something to with the trend. If you take a look at some of the production work for the show, you'll see their high-class workstations running powerful 3d software. They set the 2d elements like a thinly constructed stage foreground elements separated from background and so-one. They even use lighting to give the impression of shadow beneath the simulated paper cutouts.

Shawn said...

Amen, brother John!

BTW, I love that cartoon with the pincushion man. Show more stills from that!

JimSoper85 said...

Hey John,

I have a bit of a conundrum on my hands. I hate to ask advice in this manor (in the middle of a discussion) especially because I know you’re busy at the moment with the new show and keeping up with your blogg… but if there is anyone whose advice I need right now it’s yours. (I’ll stop pussy footing around)

I have an action adventure show, three years in the making, that a few other animators and my self put together. We’ve already pitched this to Cartoon Network, who passed on it because they felt they had “action adventure” covered with “Teen Titans” and felt the show wasn’t dumbed-down enough for kids. Right now through mere luck I’ve been able to secure great contacts at News Corp and Fox who are willing to listen to me (EVP of HR and the CIO). My family thinks I should focus more on pitching myself to them (getting a job) then pitching the show. I’m split because I’ve heard nothing but soul sucking horror stories when it comes to working for large animation companies, but I also know that it’s necessary to slave in the industry for a while and pay your dues before they allow you to have a show.

Once again I don’t mean to turn your Blogg into “Ask Amy” but I don’t know any one who has more knowledge and experience with this then you…

Do I take the job they offer and pray it doesn’t rip the life juice out of me while I continue working independently on the side? Or do I go full fledge and start up a small time animation company with these other animators, doing enough freelance work to keep our heads afloat while we continue to pitch the show?

Any advice would be gratefully appreciated. And thank you for your time.


crazyharmke said...

flat tv's
flat ipods
flat phones
flat woman
flat notebooks
and also flat cartoons!
"flat" seems like a virus that infected everything!
What you say is so true...

Larry Levine said...

John, Great post.

The great Bill Melendez told me the first & foremost importance on being a cartoonist/animator is to develope your own indivdual style & not get hung up on or be rigidly glued to always being exactly on model. Rod Scribner is a perfect example.

This creative direction 'draws' the difference between classic Termite Terrace & 1970's Filmation (no offense to any Brady Kids & Archie Funhouse fans).

:: smo :: said...

this is an awesome post! the fundamentals are soooo important! in college i tried to teach myself by referencing 20's and 30's cartoons and such but i didn't really "get" construction and basic fundamentals until after college and going back to preston blair.

even so, it IS a really difficult thing to draw other people's characters, especially without injecting personal style [or messing up proportions] that's why i love that yo pushed people to take the blair exercises totally literally and make sure all the images you draw look exact and could be overlayed and look traced. it's great proportion practice.

that post about drawing bugs and the dog from that avery cartoon is great too. awesome exercises!

Jake the Animator said...

wow. this art is inspiring.
i agree with everyone here.
except the idiots. you know who you are

SoleilSmile said...

I referring to line mileage when I mentioned complex designs, John.

The Simpsons shows were coming back from overseas looking way better than Pinky and the Brain (unless TMS animated it). WB took notice.

SoleilSmile said...

Mattieshoe, I was at WB when the meeting was held that informed us that TMS wanted to work on their own projects and no longer wanted to be a service studio. Everyone left the meeting so dejected. Who wants to do their best on a board when all their work is going to come back from Wang animation looking like crap? Furthermore, all the WB people who may have known a way around the problem took off for WB feature, so there was a less experienced crew, not really green, but not quite "invincible" yet on the floor. Therefore, Pinky and the Brain's second season looked wonky. Volumes would change in animation and no one at Wang would use straights against curves, to give the characters weight and the asymmetrical shapes that John here preached about. It was quite sad. I think everyone just wanted to cry at their desk after that fateful meeting.

The Sylvester and Tweety crew, was thankfully spared and TMS finished out the contract on that show. Lucky devils.

Appropriation. Naturalistic. Stylistic. Conceptual. said...

I think what has to correspond with those appropriated "genndy" and "disney" has to be the Bruce Timm/ Paul Dini superhero "style". With inspiration from the great Fleischer bros. Superman cartoon. Its as if all current superhero/comic cartoons watered down their principles while not taking into consideration of great artists who visually defined the dynamic "comic" look such as Jack Kirby, Will Eisner, up to Darwyn Cooke.

p.s.- after the liddell-evans fight how do see the 205 arena panning out, anderson silva moving up again and flushing it or Forrest Griffin running it?

Emmett said...

Great images in your post Mr. K.

Now I feel like a bland artist. I envy the artists who hang out with you Mr. K. Everything you know, they instantly absorb. I just started a sketchblog (although I hope to put other artwork up there). I'm probably asking for a beating here, but could you possible look at it, and give me some tips on what I should be working on skill-wise.

Rudy Tenebre, esteemed secretary. said...

I love what Vincent W. does on his own (the ink sketches). It's a real departure from the debatable "non-style" of Spumco style. And also nothing like what he is asked to produce in the workplace, (certainly havn't seen the likes of it IN a Spumco cartoon).

Quit your jobs, embrace drawing in-itself, an mebbie there's a future for drawing, if not animation.

Joseff!!1 said...

Hey John,
Quick question about the post,

if you would improve your skills as a cartoonist, is it necessary you should study other books on art for exaple realistic figure drawing so then we could adapt that skill on the cartoons or keep practicing on cartooning only?

ByTito said...

John, really it is very difficult to find good comments about animation and drawing here in southamerica.
Thanks your blog, we can find them very easy.

And from a master like you this is easiest!!


Tony C. said...

Really enjoyed this post John. The examples are fantastic, and I'm already checking out the blogs by Vincent Waller, Bob Camp, and Helder Mendonca.

It's also good to see some great, well thought out comments.

Thank you as always.

Gabriele_Gabba said...

captain ahar,

Thanks buddie, that does make some sense and strangely i also heard that they used 3D software to make South Park, but i just never understood why.. i kinda still don't!

pappy d said...

It's really asking a lot of the overseas animators that they care about the quality of the work. It's all piecework or paid by the foot. a friend was supervising for H-B in the 80's in Seoul. It was winter & (lacking central heat) they had these stinky coal oil heaters under the desks. Being so cold out, they had no ventilation & by the end of the shift, everyone had headaches from the carbon monoxide. One assistant finally decided to get up on her hind legs & complain to management. During the next air raid drill, she was picked up by troops & disappeared for a few days. When she returned to work, he never heard a peep out of her again.


Bill Melendez was a fine animator & a real nice guy but I can't help thinking his advicde was hindsight. He'd been animating Peanuts since 1959. Maybe he was trying to tell you to be Charles Schultz.

captain ahar said...

Gabriele_Gabba said...


I feel strange knowing this stuff about South Park, even though I don't watch it.

The gist of their reasoning is, as far as I've heard it, so they can preserve the standard that Matt and Tre used to hand animate the first shorts using cut out paper shapes. They have standard models they can re-use in a heavily controlled environment. given the kind of time restrictions I've heard thrown around for the show, its seems like a load off that they don't have to worry about an animator sneezing.

At the same time using the 3d environment it allows them to simulate that aesthetic they were going for (i.e. somewhat imperfect geometry, animation (un)smoothness, and the afore-mentioned shadowing).

In a weird way, the process makes sense. I just can't shake the sense that, all the same, it is a really strange solution to a problem.

serth said...

I hereby find this blog very informative and inspiring. Inspiring so much enough for me to donate.

I will read on and continue to practice my craft with far more knowledge backing it.

El leo said...

Hi john! i'm practicing with some human expressions and digital inking.i know it isn't the best work around here, but i wanted to shared it with you, maybe some observations, be hard, please. my name is leo, from venezuela, check this illustration i made yesterday for a party


and some details: http://www.flickr.com/photos/leonardogonzalez/2850567547/sizes/o/in/photostream/

and here:

i used this as reference for the astronauts...


i'm practicing this digital inking on illustrator, but my home pc is freaking slowly, so the wacom makes some mistakes and sometimes the lines aren't too smooth.. for the background i tryied to use neutral, complex colors, to make the characters pop up from the illo.

well, i had some time without checking your blog, now i gotta do the homework and keep drawing.

thanks soooooooooooo much

btw. my email is lasangredecristotienepoder@yahoo.com
(tricky, isnt'it? =)or ilustreishon@gmail.com