Sunday, September 21, 2008


Some people wonder what I mean by "wonky".

I mean an arbitrary placing of shapes within a picture. When a picture is filled with unrelated 2 dimensional shapes that have no overall graphic concept holding them together.

The inspiration for wonkiness was not actually wonky though. Wonkiness is a misunderstanding of controlled distortion.

Here's what inspired the late 80s, 90s and up to today's wonkiness.

Tin Pan Alley Cats blew my mind when I first saw it. I couldn't believe a cartoon could be this imaginative and beautiful and alive.
Right from the opening pan of the waterfront I was sucked into the mood and atmosphere of the cartoon. I noticed the distorted perspective in the buildings and noted that even with distortion, you could still have mood. I was used to seeing 50s distortion-particularly Maurice Noble's Chuck Jones BGs. I liked them, but felt they were cold - graphic for graphic's sake, just to show off and steal the show from the characters.

Tin Pan Alley Cat's BGs didn't do that They enhanced the the strangeness of the unreality; drew your attention to it but it was all planned to make you feel something, not just notice intellectually that the cartoon was graphic. It makes you feel like this weird world is real and you are inside it, experiencing everything that is going on.

As distorted as these buildings seem, they still follow a careful graphic plan and composition. Each building doesn't just go its own way and the windows don't go in opposing directions.

The difference between Tin Pan Alley Cats and modern distortion is the first is carefully planned and on purpose; the other is superficial and by accident.

I'm amazed that UPA gets so much credit for creating graphic cartoons and purposeful distortion, when it was done so much better much earlier.This Clampett distortion was inspired by Milt Gross, so the ideas are even older.
All through the 80s I had tried to do this sort of distortion in the typical bland cartoons I had worked on at Hanna Barbera and Filmation. I got yelled at a lot.

Then Bakshi hired me in 1986 to help him develop some TV concepts and he let me try all my wonky theories and flat pointy character styles out.

None of this stuff sold, because the networks just didn't get the "new look" and the types of stories we were creating.

The Rolling Stones came along and gave Ralph a video to do. I designed it and directed the animation. Ralph directed the live action but built the sets to match my wonky BG styling.

This is completely obviously stolen from Tin Pan Alley Cats and I didn't really understand what I was copying. I just wanted to do something wild that emulated my heroes. I sort of combined Clampett with Hanna Barbera, partially on purpose, but also because I am terrible at perspective. Drawing wrong perspective gave me a great excuse to draw mistakes!

to be continued later today...


David Germain said...

It's about time you got to talking about that Harlem Shuffle video.

I noticed your headstone in one of the BGs. Is this like that whole Paul McCartney thing in that the real John K. died sometime in the '80's and you're just a look-alike that took his place? I sure hope not. ;)

Nevertheless, I can't wait to see what you say about that Rolling Stones video.

The Jerk said...

found the vid on youtube:

Anonymous said... I'll suppose that Tarzan's dreadlocks from the 1995 Disney movie would be considered wonky? I can see why.

JohnK said...

I noticed your headstone in one of the BGs."

All the artists' names are on the headstones. It was the only way we were gonna get any credit.

Ralph shared credit with someone who had nothing to do with it creatively.

patrick said...

what the hell is that first picture from?

Jake the Animator said...

i can't believe I've never seen this Harlem Shuffle video before! I would have been hooked on MTV at a dangerously early age.

oppo said...

Patrick: I'm guessingthat that picture is from Beetlejuice. what with the skull and everything.

Vince M. said...

Love the Harlem Shuffle poster. I've had it hanging in my studio for years.

Masked Stinker said...

What do you think of the distortion used in Cliff Sterret, John?

Mr. Semaj said...

I still remember seeing that Jetsons episode. It felt so different from the rest of their 80's episode.

Chip Butty said...

What was Screaming Horror going to be?

Arthur Filloy said...

Wonky is all part of the zany whacky world of "animations". You know, just draw everything bent for no apparent reason and it becomes instantly cartoony, or should I say "toony". It's the b/g layout version of flailing animation.
Seriously though, as time goes on,more and more people miss interpret deliberate direction for some kinda style or something. Wonky has been around since I was in my teens and I don't think it's going away, just like hideous design, flailing animation and creative executives. What do you expect when 95% of the animation industry just doesn't get it.

PCUnfunny said...

That Jetsons episode has always been my favorite in the 80's run. Glad to see you were responsible for that one John. ;)

Mitch L said...

Wow great posts.

More please!

Jizz Wad said...

I love 'Tin Pan Alley Cats', it is Looney and the pace is great, so much energy.

JohnK said...

This is a post about wonkiness, not political correctness.

Jizz Wad said...

Surely the 'wonkiness' is used to match the characters curves and angles, the flexibility of the buildings in the background to mirror the flexible animated actions?

Perhaps on crap cartoons it seems worse to use 'wonkiness' if the character animation is flat.

Is 'wonkiness' used to heighten a sense of dramatic scale for the cinema screen (audience looking slightly higher then they may at a television screen). Maybe that's why studios make the 'wonkiness' flat and less interesting on these shows, because they're on a TV set. Does the 'wonkiness' or extreme perspectives make a scene more cinematic?

Also to exaggerate 'wonkiness' in a scene do you need a line/object that is not as wonky to act as a foil?

JohnK said...

"wonkiness" is never used on purpose. That's the whole point of these posts.

It's the opposite of planning and organizing your graphic elements.

It's chaos.

Mitch K said...

> "wonkiness" is never used on purpose.

They taught us 'wonky' at school. People actually used it as a 'design style' there.. Yeesh!

thedanmancan said...

Did the style in Tin Pan Alley Cats come from German expressionism? I see some Caligari, Nosferatu style going on there.

kenn said...

Wow am I the only one that sees something wrong with some of those pics. God.