Monday, March 29, 2010

Direction 3: What You Need To Be A Good Director

How do we even know about cartoon directors?

We get our whole notion of cartoon directors from a small handful of famous names, most of whom came from Warner Bros. in the 1930s and 1940s (that should tell you something right there):

The Big 3
Bob Clampett
Tex Avery
Chuck Jones

2nd Most Revered

Friz Freleng
Bob McKimson
Frank Tashlin
Hanna Barbera
Dave Fleischer

These people are the real stars of cartoons. They are far more important than the hordes of characters they created. Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Tom and Jerry, Betty Boop are all great characters, but no one else but the original directors have ever been able to do anything good with them. You'd think someone in the business would have noticed by now that the treasures in cartoons are the directors, not the characters.

Great - or even good directors are extremely rare in the cartoon business. They were even rare during the 30s and 40s, animation's golden age. Lots of animation studios had directors, but who remembers them?

We don't really think about directors when it comes to Disney, because he himself was the dominant personality in the studio. He had directors for sure, but they didn't normally have a lot of freedom to paint their personal styles and worldviews into the pictures. It was all a matter of second-guessing "What would Walt do?" Even Ward Kimball - who is probably the most distinct of the Disney directors - is still pretty Disneyfied.

Disney was one of the factors in the Warner Bros. directors' revolution. In the 1930s, while most studios were frantically trying to figure out Disney's formula by copying him, the emerging WB directors had to have very strong personalities to go against the imitating hordes. Whenever something is successful, most people think it's because it has hit upon a magic formula. Most folks are afraid to go up against the herd mentality by being themselves - even though every modern cartoon is a lecture on "being yourself". If these cartoons were honest, the moral of the story would be "do what the committee tells you to do".

All real directors share some common attributes:

General Prerequisites:

Unique Viewpoint and Way of Seeing The World ("Voice")

That's hard to define, particularly when almost every young cartoonist thinks he (or she) is unique and has a completely original style.

It's what I hear people calling "voice" these days. It's what makes a Chuck Jones Daffy Duck a different kind of experience than a Bob Clampett one.

It's the difference between the 30s Fleischer Popeyes and the later ones.

There were a number of directors making Terrytoons, but it's much harder to tell their directors apart than it is for us to distinguish Warner Bros. directors. There are of course a couple people who can tell the difference, but they are as rare as good directors are.

This voice is a combination of factors: genetic disposition, upbringing and environment, and the experience of handling the medium itself. Feeling the clay squish around in your fingers and discovering what it is capable of. This is not something you can get just by being named "director" and then shipping all the work out of town.

People with "voice" tend to avoid imitation and formula better than those without. Imitators have no voice and instead copy blindly. Almost every cartoon studio in the 1940s imitated Warner Bros. cartoons - because they lacked their own "voices". Every period has its voices and their accompanying faint echoes.


Even if someone actually does have a unique outlook, it doesn't necessarily follow that it's appealing to a large number of people. The successful directors all have personalities that appeal to a wide audience.

Extreme Talent

The talent should be fairly obvious at least to other artists, if not to the executives. The good director can do a lot of the work himself, and must do so because only he really knows what he wants. Extreme talent commands respect from the crew. Not from everyone of course, but from enough people that a cartoon can get made and that the artists don't all argue with him.Talent is not enough though either. It's just part of the equation- an essential part, but even more is needed.

Clear and Logical Communication Skills:

A good director has to be able to get across his ideas to the audience - in the way he meant them. He needs to be able to control your feelings and make you laugh when he wants you to and grip the seats with tension when he commands it.

If he expects the audience to interpret the message, then he isn't directing. He is shooting craps.

Clear communication skills are not common to many people, especially today.


The director must have those other traits as fundamentals, but on top of those, he needs experience.
The reason the classic cartoons are so much more confidently executed is because the directors all worked their way up. They had experience working in various jobs within a well-structured cartoon studio system and so they learned how everything fit together.


Control isn't just a matter of being able to boss others around. It's having the personal skills to be able to bring your vision to life.

A director who wants his own personality and style to come through in his pictures has to have a great deal of mind-to-pencil control. Without the ability to actually put down on paper how you see and feel, you are going to be frustrated by the inadequate methods of trying to say what you want, while using standard formulaic cliches of drawing, animating, acting etc. You have to be able to break away from second-guessing how someone else would do something, or how "it's supposed to be done".


None of these factors alone are enough to make anyone a good director. These are what I would consider fundamental raw materials a cartoonist needs if he has a chance at becoming a solid director. You need them all - just to start with.

I'm going to put some direction articles on the curriculum blog, so keep checking in if you are interested.


The specific skills and tools at a director's command.