Saturday, June 30, 2007

Six Authors in Search of a Character: Part 13, Rotoscoping and Motion Capture

Rotoscoping was invented by Max Fleischer in 1915 (Cabarga 19). The process involved taking live action film and projecting it onto glass from underneath. The images would be traced on paper placed over the glass. Fleischer’s invention was created specifically to turn live action into animation and it was first used to trace images of Max’s brother Dave wearing a clown suit (Cabarga 21). The appeal of the process was more lifelike motion for cartoon characters. The film led to the Fleischers being hired by J.R. Bray, for whom they did a series of films using the clown, later named Ko-Ko, as their main character (Cabarga 23).

A drawing from Max Fleischer’s patent application for the rotoscope taken from The Fleischer Story by Leslie Cabarga.

In the 1930’s, the Fleischers used the rotoscope in several Betty Boop cartoons featuring the performer Cab Calloway. Calloway and his band provided the soundtrack for the cartoons, appearing in brief live action clips during the titles. Within the cartoons (Minnie the Moocher, Snow White, The Old Man of the Mountain), Calloway was photographed dancing and the animators rotoscoped the footage turning Calloway into a walrus, an old man, and other characters (Cabarga 63-69).

Later in the 1930’s, Disney used rotoscoping during the production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The studio was not experienced drawing and moving realistic human characters, so Marge Belcher (later known as Marge Champion after her marriage to Gower Champion) was photographed as Snow White under the direction of Ham Luske, the animator assigned to supervise the character (Barrier, Hollywood 194-95).
“It was only by using live action as a guide, or so Disney must have thought, that he could give to Snow White the consistency – what Marc Davis called the “unity of acting” – that was possible in a short cartoon when a single animator handled a character all the way through. Ham Luske, by directing the live action for Snow White, thus assumed control over the character greater than any he might have enjoyed if he had been only the lead animator” (Barrier, Hollywood 195).
Another reason for the use of live footage was as a communication tool in production. David Hand, the supervising director of Snow White, said, “The value of live action is the working agreement between the animator and the director” (Barrier, Hollywood 215)

How much the animators used this footage seems to have varied. Grim Natwick, one of the animators assigned to the Snow White character, would often discard some number of rotoscoped drawings in a sequence before starting his own work. He remarked, “you always had to carry [the rotoscoping] further, and you always had to be very careful that you didn’t depend on the rotoscope” (Barrier, Hollywood 196). Some animators made it a point in later years to say that they used it as reference, but did not use it as the basis for their motion. Rotoscoping had the aroma of a cheat and animators wished to distance themselves from it. Art Babbitt was adamant about his work on the Queen in Snow White not being rotoscoped.
“You may have read that a lot of rotoscoping was done, but I have proof that I didn’t rotoscope my Queen. Live action was taken of an actress who acted out the parts. I studied the live action on a Moviola, got it firmly in my brain, then put it away and never touched it again” (Strzyz 83).
The issue came down to who originated the character’s behaviour. Had the animators simply traced the live action, the behaviour would belong to the actor. The animator would be functioning as an assistant animator, altering the appearance of the original to make it resemble the character, but not altering the behaviour. While animators were willing to admit to the use of reference, they understood that rotoscoping usurped their control.

The Fleischers didn’t have any reservations about rotoscoping in their first feature Gulliver’s Travels. The character of Gulliver was blatantly rotoscoped. A comparison of the drawings with a photo of the actor, Sam Parker, shows a strong resemblance between the two (Cabarga 158).

Rotoscoping and filmed reference continued to be used for animated features. The scenes containing human characters in Disney’s Cinderella were shot completely in live action on a bare soundstage before the animation stage started. Cinderella was Disney’s first all-animated feature since Bambi in 1942 and the studio could not afford to exceed the budget or produce a flop. Live action reference was a way to try out visual storytelling and acting possibilities on the cheap before the expensive animation stage (Frank Thomas 330). Frank Thomas recalled,
“When all of the live film was spliced together, this was undeniably a strong base for proving the workability of the scenes before they were animated, but the inventiveness and special touches in the acting that had made our animation so popular were lacking” (330).
Rotoscoping has even been used in stop-motion. For the clay-animated film Closed Mondays, directed by Bob Gardiner and Will Vinton, live action reference was shot of the main character, a drunk who stumbles into a museum (Furniss 175). It’s obvious when the character is in close-up that the facial expressions have been copied from live action.

Motion capture is the computer animation equivalent of rotoscoping. In the beginning, some systems hooked potentiometers to a body suit, so that when the actor moved, the potentiometers would measure the angles of the body’s joints. Newer systems rely on using multiple cameras shooting reference points on a performer’s clothing. Software takes the views from the cameras and is able to calculate the location of the reference point in space. This information is then used to drive the equivalent parts of a computer character (Serkis 36).

Recent examples of motion capture include the character of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy of films by Peter Jackson, the titular character of Jackson’s version of King Kong, and the character of Davy Jones in Pirates of the Caribbean II: Dead Man’s Chest. In these films, motion capture is used to place computer-generated characters in live action environments and interact with live actors.

Andy Serkis (left) wears a suit covered in markers. Cameras and software take the marker information and use it to drive the computer puppet of Gollum in The Two Towers. From

Other recent films have taken a different approach. Robert Zemeckis’ The Polar Express and Monster House (the first as a director and the second as producer) have used motion capture to imitate the look of computer-animated features. Actors are motion captured and their performances drive caricatures of humans placed inside computer-generated environments. In Happy Feet, dancer Savion Glover was motion captured and his dancing was used for the penguin character Mumble (Sarah Kaufman 1).

Motion capture is a way for live action directors to make films that look like animation without utilizing the process. These directors are used to working in real time with actors.
“[Savion Glover] was fitted with a skintight suit covered with small reflectors. Cameras then captured the motion of the reflectors as Glover danced, and technicians applied the data to the image of Mumble. The result could be seen instantly -- instead of looking at his reflection in a mirror, the way a dancer might practice in a studio, Glover faced a computer screen as he danced, which showed what he looked like as Mumble. [Director George] Miller, also peering into a monitor, could speak to Glover through a headset to keep his performance in line with a penguin's range of motion” (Sarah Kaufman 1).
As both rotoscoping and motion capture record motion that exists in real time, they are not animation, though they may be processed to look like animation. Both these systems utilize artists to take the results of the live action and alter it. In the case of rotoscoping, artists will trace the live action and turn it into drawings, whether they resemble the original live action or are transformed into a cartoon character. In the case of motion capture, the process of capturing the motion data is not perfect. Animators routinely have to clean up the data (Solomon, Penguins 1). In the case of Gollum, animators were also responsible for key-framing the facial animation, though only because the producers didn’t feel confident that they could solve technical problems in time to do facial capture before the film’s delivery date (Serkis 91). However, by the time that Serkis played King Kong for Jackson, the technology had advanced to the point where Serkis face was captured along with the larger body movements, though there are claims that only 25% of the facial animation is by Serkis and the rest is by animators (Rowley 1).

As the motion does not originate with animators, when animators work on rotoscope or motion capture results, they are, in effect, doing the jobs of assistant animators. They are cleaning up someone else’s motion. They may be using the expertise they gained as animators to finesse the live action source, but they are not responsible for doing more than polishing the performance.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Brad Bird Interview

There's lots of Ratatouille publicity out there right now, but this interview with Brad Bird is several cuts above the typical hype.

Six Authors in Search of a Character: Part 12, Animation for Television

Just as animation came late to movie theatres, having to adjust production schedules to fit an already established exhibition model, animation also came late to television. Large scale animation for TV did not start until the late 1950’s, a decade after regular TV production had been established in the U.S. Instead of having to turn out a one reel short every week or two, a cartoon studio had to produce a half hour show every week, a significant increase in volume. As a studio became successful, the incentive was to produce additional series, ratcheting up the output to unheard of amounts of animation.

Chuck Jones, bemoaning the state of animation on television in 1974, wrote this about Hanna-Barbera.
“One team in Hollywood which once turned out eight to ten seven-minute short a year now turns out four half-hours a week during the production year, an increase from one hour a year to at least 130 hours, or a 13,000 per cent increase” (27-28).
In theatrical animation, the move into sound production meant that many aspects of animated behaviour migrated upstream from the animators. The move to television did nothing to reverse this trend, but the need for greater volume combined with lower budgets per minute meant that animators were not able to maintain the quality of their work. If animated characters’ behaviour is a partnership between pre-production and production, in the television era production was reduced to a junior partner whose creative contribution was secondary to simply getting the footage out.

Several factors contributed to the shift from theatres to television. In the late 1940’s, the Paramount consent decree forced the studios to sell their theaters and eliminated block booking. Studios no longer had guaranteed bookings for their short subjects, so revenue for cartoons went down (Solomon, Enchanted 171).

In addition, the animation union negotiated a 25 percent pay increase in 1946 that drove up costs (Gray 43). With the consent decree in effect and bookings down, studios were not about to raise cartoon budgets. What happened was that the length and complexity of short cartoons were gradually reduced over time to compensate for rising costs. The Tom and Jerry cartoons often ran 8 minutes in the 1940’s. By the ‘50’s, they were down to a maximum of 7 minutes and sometimes less (Solomon, Enchanted 170).

The last nail in the coffin was the increasing popularity of television and its effect on movie attendance. With fewer people attending movies, there was pressure on theater owners to reduce their own costs, and short subjects were seen as unnecessary frills that theatres could do without.

Disney made the last Mickey Mouse cartoon in 1953 and reduced the production of animated shorts. That year, Disney released 15 short cartoons; by 1955, the studio released only 4. Several studios got out of the short cartoon business all together. UPA produced their last theatrical cartoons in 1959. MGM closed their cartoon department in 1957 and that indirectly caused the birth of mass-produced animation for television (Maltin 306).

There were cartoons made specifically for TV as early as Crusader Rabbit in 1950 (Scott 17), but there was no large-scale animation production. When Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera were let go by MGM in 1957, they were faced with the problem of earning a living. They adapted their story reel approach, adding just a few more drawings, and started making cartoons for TV. Their first endeavor was a series of shorts starring the characters Ruff and Reddy. After the success of that show, they gained Kellogg’s as a sponsor and created The Huckleberry Hound Show and spun off The Yogi Bear Show from it. In 1960, they broke into prime time with The Flintstones (Beck 180-81).

TV budgets were considerably smaller than theatrical budgets. Hanna and Barbera spent $35,000 on each Tom and Jerry cartoon. When they produced Ruff and Reddy cartoons that were approximately the same length, the budgets were $3,000 (Hanna 82). The Crusader Rabbit episodes had cost a similar $2500 (Scott 16). Where animators were responsible for producing 10-15 seconds a week of animation on the Tom and Jerry series, for television animators had to produce anywhere from 50-120 seconds per week.

The only way for animators to increase their output was to get more screen time from the same number of drawings. Each drawing was photographed for more frames. Another technique was to break the character into separate pieces, so the head could be held and separate mouths could be placed on top of it to make the character speak.

The effect of this was to reduce the importance of animation as a contribution to the final film. Animators contributed fewer drawings per second of screen time than they had in the past. Where many aspects of character behavour were controlled in pre-production in theatrical short cartoons, the one thing that animators undeniably contributed was motion. The contribution of animators was reduced proportionately with the reduction in motion. The result was something at director Chuck Jones referred to as “illustrated radio” (Barrier, Jones 17).

There was also financial pressure on animators, as TV production was seasonal work, starting in April and ending by November or December. Because animators knew that they faced months of unemployment every year, they often took staff jobs at one studio and then freelanced for another studio at night. The long hours were not conducive to doing creative work; the artists were focused on producing as much work as possible.

Just as rising costs and fixed budgets in theatrical cartoons led to a cheapening of the product, the same pattern held true in television. Animation and ink and paint remained the largest part of the production budget. Producers worked hard to reduce costs in these areas.

In the late 1950’s, the Disney studio adapted Xerox machines to photocopy drawings onto the celluloids used in animation production. The technique was first used on a test scene in Sleeping Beauty and then in the short cartoon Goliath II. One Hundred and One Dalmatians was the first animated feature that used this technique from start to finish (Maltin 74). Prior to the adoption of Xerography, animator drawings were traced by hand onto celluloid. Xerography allowed for the elimination of an entire department, saving a significant amount of money. By the mid-1960’s, the use of Xerography had spread to TV animation production for the same cost saving reasons that made it attractive to Disney.

Another trend to cut costs in TV animation had to do with outsourcing work. Rocky and His Friends, produced by Jay Ward, was perhaps the first TV series sent outside the U.S. for its production. The work was subcontracted to a studio in Mexico (Scott 66).

Other TV studios continued to do work in the U.S. but the idea of outsourcing gained in popularity. By the late 1970’s, the Motion Picture Screen Cartoonists Local 839, which represented the majority of animation workers in Los Angeles, struck the producers with runaway production being a major issue. The resulting contract prevented studios from outsourcing animation until there was full employment for local 839 members. However, in a second strike in 1982, the union lost that protection and producers no longer had to worry about local employment levels before sending work overseas (Solomon, Enchanted 245).

In 1989, TV animation production company Filmation closed its doors. It was the last of the TV animation studios to do all its animation in the U.S. From that point onward, it was considered a standard business practice to send the animation, photocopying, and cel painting overseas to lower wage suppliers.

Even prime time series with healthy budgets, such as The Simpsons, routinely send their animation and colour work overseas. Rough Draft Studios in South Korea has supplied the animation for The Simpsons for many years.

While there was a possibility in the early years of TV animation for animators to make a contribution to a character’s behaviour, that potential was gone once the work was outsourced. Overseas artists did not necessarily speak English and did not share a cultural background with North American viewers. Studios in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines and today in India and China are chosen purely on their ability to meet the price and delivery schedule. North American supervisors are sometimes sent to foreign studios to oversee the work, but their job is to prevent deviations from the pre-production planning. Where animators were once asked to enhance what they were given, that possibility is now gone as enhancements are difficult due to language and cultural barriers. Animation is now considered mechanical. Overseas artists merely follow instructions and assemble what they’ve been given into a film.

Where Chuck Jones and the other Warner directors timed their short cartoons to the frame, TV shows are routinely timed to run long so that editors can tighten the shows to suit a producer’s taste. If there is any sort of a problem, the work is sent back for retakes. It’s possible that 10% of a TV show may be redone to fix errors. This lack of efficiency is acceptable due to the low cost of the work.

With the development of computer animation, some TV work returned to North America. However, the urge for greater efficiency combined with computer animation has allowed for an even greater division of labour. At Nelvana, lip synch has been separated from the rest of a character’s animation. There is a department that does nothing but match character mouths to dialogue tracks. When the animators get the scene, the mouth action is already complete. Their job is to move the character’s body. In this way, even the behaviour of a single character in a single shot has been fragmented between artists. Where assistant animators formerly took care of details and follow-through elements, the behaviour was still completely in the control of the animator. This is no longer the case. It should be pointed out that Nelvana is using this approach even for in-house production, where the lip synch department and the animators are under the same roof in Toronto and everyone speaks English.

Because animation is now considered mechanical, there’s a greater emphasis on behaviour decisions made in pre-production. We’ve reached the point where animation is taken for granted, like dry cleaning. You drop off the work and pick it up, giving little thought to what happens to it when it is out of your sight.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Pinocchio Part 14A

This sequence is really a vaudeville turn. We've already seen Honest John bamboozle Pinocchio once, so the only surprise here is his approach and the individual gags in the sequence. There's no character development, just comedy and exposition. Pinocchio is heading home and the purpose of the sequence is to get some laughs while changing Pinocchio's destination.

Walter Catlett, who started in vaudeville and had a long career as a character comedian in films, is the voice of Honest John. Catlett worked for Frank Capra several times (Platinum Blonde, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Here Comes the Groom) and also worked for Howard Hawks in Bringing Up Baby. Hawks credited Catlett with teaching Katharine Hepburn how to play comedy in that film. Disney was obviously happy with Catlett as he later hired him to play Colonel Plug in Davy Crocket and the River Pirates. Catlett knows how to deliver Honest John's slick line of baloney fast enough to overwhelm any objections.

Animation-wise, this sequence is marked by the absence of big names with the exception of John Lounsbery on Gideon. This is another sequence where we have to acknowledge Disney's bench strength. Harvey Toombs, Sam Cobean (later a New Yorker cartoonist) and Preston Blair all contribute solid work to carrying the sequence. Phil Duncan does some very funny animation of the disheveled Pinocchio after Honest John examines him.

The characters once again exit singing "Hi Diddle Dee Dee," and Honest John and Gideon vanish from the film having accomplished their purpose. From this point forward, the film takes a much darker turn.

Kyle Baker Again

I pointed to a Kyle Baker interview last January. Here's another, newer one, where Baker continues to hammer on the same important points. For instance:
Kyle: Well, I can make the same money writing and drawing a graphic novel that I would creating a show for Nickelodeon, and I own what I create.

CMix: But isn't there more money working for Nickelodeon in the long run?

Kyle: Not for me there's not. They don't pay WGA residuals, they don't pay licensing residuals. I believe that many of the guys who run animation hate what they do. Kids' cartoons was not their first career choice. They all want to do live-action for grown-ups, and they think being in animation means they've failed. Because they trained for a career in network sitcoms, they have a formula they've learned which they then try to apply to an 11 minute TV cartoon. They want to see a script with a three-act structure and character arcs. I wanted to do cartoons about animals chasing each other and trying to eat each other with lots of hitting. They wanted to know why the characters were acting like that, what their motivation was. "Why is the cat chasing the squirrel?"

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Dean Yeagle's Latest Publications

It's summer, which means it's time for Dean Yeagle to release another collection of his work. This summer, we're lucky to have two new books from Dean.

First is Mandy's Shorts, which Dean will debut at the San Diego Comicon and which will be available from book dealers such as Bud Plant and Labyrinth shortly afterwards. It's a hardcover collection of short stories in colour.

Second is Melange, which is another hardcover that's 128 pages in colour. While it features Dean's Mandy character on the cover, it will offer a wider range of Dean's drawings.

Dean is also working on a multi-comic series based on the Disney version of Roald Dahl's Gremlins, coming from Dark Horse Comics, though I don't know the release date for these.

Links Addendum

Stephen Worth has informed me that my link to ASIFA-Hollywood was out of date. I've updated the link to the main site as well as the Animation Archive on the right.

Tom Sito has informed me that I've neglected to list his blog. As Tom has accepted many of my corrections, it's only right that I accept his. For those who don't know him (which is probably a tiny minority of the animation industry), Tom has worked on films such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, The Prince of Egypt and Osmosis Jones in roles that included animator, story artist, director, raconteur and general bon vivant. He also served as the President of The Animation guild for several years. His blog is a compilation of the day's historical events with a special interest in animation.

And David Nethery was good enough to point out that my link to The Animation Guild blog was also busted, so I've fixed that as well. Speaking of David, I've added a link to his blog, too.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Added Links

In addition to adding a link for Peter Emslie on the right, I've added some other new links.

Will Finn is an animator, story artist and director of features. Besides his own work, his blog is printing a lot of great artwork by the little known Henry Syverson, whose work is simple, though incredibly lively. Recent posts also include work by Walt Kelly, another personal favourite, and a letter by Ward Kimball that I've already linked to.

Scott Kirsner's Cinematech blog is essential reading for anyone with an interest in the changing media landscape. Kirsner is independent-friendly, so he's constantly spotlighting new sites and approaches that offer opportunities for individual film makers.

Many people who write about computer animation get hung up on technique. They're so involved in explaining how an effect is accomplished, they don't stop to consider the value of what's on the screen. Keith Lango loves the nitty gritty tech discussions, but never loses sight of larger issues like content and acting. He's worked at a variety of studios and with a variety of budgets, so he's got a wider ranging viewpoint than many in the industry. I consider him one of the most perceptive writers among animation professionals.

Peter Emslie

I've known Peter Emslie for decades and admired his cartooning for just as long. He's one of the two best caricaturists I consider friends (the other being Bob Jaques). While the majority of Peter's professional work has been illustrating cartoon characters for merchandising and for children's books, he's done some caricature work professionally. He's the cover artist for the Walt's People series of books and has contributed to Entertainment Weekly.

Peter has started a blog where he'll showcase his caricatures as well as his mastery with a Winsor Newton brush. He also has a website to show off additional artwork. Anyone who values classical cartooning will enjoy Peter's work.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Michael Sporn

On Wednesday evening, I attended an ASIFA-East event marking the DVD release of four more of Michael Sporn's films: The Emperor's New Clothes, Nightingale, The Red Shoes and The Little Match Girl, all based on stories by Hans Christian Anderson.

Mike and several people who worked on the films were there, recalling details of their production methods and war stories about dealing with clients. Mike admitted that there were several films that he found hard to watch because they reminded him of the struggles involved making them.

I worked on two of these films from Toronto, so I had no idea what went on behind the scenes. There were major voice track changes on some of them, causing the films to be revised while in progress. In addition to that, Mike has already gone on record (see his comment here) about giving his animators an enormous amount of freedom. I can personally testify to that.

It's amazing to me, though, given the client changes and the freedom given to animators, that the films are all recognizably films by Michael Sporn. I'm not sure how he manages to pull this off, though I think that his taste is at least partly responsible. Somehow, when he's making creative choices or selecting a crew, his decisions invariably work (though Mike would be first one to lament the compromises he's been forced to make).

Mike breaks many of the rules we take for granted. He has no house style and doesn't dominate the artists who work for him. He works with impossibly low budgets and short schedules. His crews are smaller than average. He doesn't send work overseas. He and his studio are proof that many of the rules for making animated films are just habits, and many of them are bad ones.

Mike is close to financing a feature based on stories by Edgar Allan Poe. I hope that the deal goes through as I look forward to seeing the finished film. In the meantime, check out the DVDs.

Walt's People Volume 5 Published

The Disney and animation history fans among you will be pleased to know that Walt's People Volume 5 has been published and is currently available at Unfortunately, xlibris will only ship to the U.S. so the rest of us have to wait until the book is listed at Amazon. I'll let you know when that happens.

Here's a list of the contents:
Foreword: Mark Mayerson
Michael Barrier: Hugh Harman
Dave Smith: Nadine Missakian
Richard Shale: Ward Kimball
Dave Smith and Richard Shale: Erwin Verity
Richard Hubler: James Algar
Richard Hubler: Winston Hibler
Richard Hubler: Bill Anderson
Richard Hubler: Bill Walsh
Christopher Finch and Linda Rosenkrantz: Bill Walsh
Richard Hubler: George Bruns
John Burlingame: Buddy Baker
Jérémie Noyer: Buddy Baker
Mike Barrier: Fess Parker
Christian Renaut: Walt Stanchfield
Richard Hubler: Marc Davis
Dave Oneil: Alice Davis
Richard Hubler: T. Hee
Harry McCracken: Maurice Noble
Christopher Finch and Linda Rosenkrantz: Al Dempster
Bob Miller: Walt Peregoy
Floyd Norman: Windwagon Smith
Floyd Norman: The Making of The Jungle Book
Jim Korkis: Bill Evans
Alberto Becattini: Jack Bradbury
Alberto Becattini: Lynn Karp
Didier Ghez: Dave Michener
John Musker: In Memory of Vance Gerry
Charles Solomon : Vance Gerry
Christian Renaut: Vance Gerry
Clay Kaytis: Ron Clements and John Musker
Pete Emslie: Cover Art

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

A Tale of Two Stories

Here are two items in the comics business that illustrate some fundamental issues regarding creating and selling properties.

Mike Strang pitched a comics series called Weird Adventures in Unemployment and sold it as a "work for hire" project to Platinum Studios, a comics packager. The idea languished for years until it was finally drawn up. The editor he did business with left the company and the editor's replacement decided not to publish the property in hard copy, only to publish on the web. He further decided that the idea needed to be changed. Mike Strang is unhappy about how he was treated and has gone public with his complaints.

While I'm sympathetic to what happened to Strang, he didn't do much to understand the deal he was offered or to protect his interests. Selling an idea is no different than selling a car. Maybe the new owner will allow you to drive it or take your advice when he wants to soup it up, but the new owner has every right to paint the car a disgusting colour or to junk it. He owns it; you don't. To think otherwise, regardless of what's been said to you, is delusional.

Neil Gaiman, who's a best-selling author, pitched an idea called Interworld that he created with Michael Reaves to DreamWorks and other places. Nobody wanted it. Eventually, the two of them wrote it up as a novel, got Harper Childrens to publish it and now DreamWorks is interested in making it. Gaiman certainly has enough clout that if he's going to sell an idea as "work for hire" he's going to get a better deal than Michael Strang. However, due to luck, Gaiman and Reaves now own the copyright to the published story, so any negotiations from this point forward will favour the two authors far more than if the work had been sold purely as a pitch.

The animation business is very different than publishing. If you sell a TV series or a feature idea, you lose ownership of it; you've sold the car. If you're savvy, you got a good chunk of cash and negotiated specific benefits for yourself. However, if you don't have a track record in the marketplace, you don't have a lot of leverage to negotiate those things.

Today, with the web, you can bring your ideas to the public. In a sense, you're publishing your own work. Besides establishing ownership, you're also bringing an audience of some size to negotiations with any larger corporate entities. You might, like JibJab, opt to keep ownership of your properties and just license the rights or you might opt to sell outright. In either case, you're negotiating from a stronger position than pitching initially to a company.

Mike Strang's experiences should be a warning to everybody. Unfortunately, he won't be the last one to make this mistake.

Six Authors In Search of a Character: Part 11, Assistant Animators and Technical Directors

Once the animator has taken the script, storyboard, voice track, layout drawings and exposure sheets and synthesized them into motion, the motion is still not complete. In both drawn and computer animation, other hands will touch the characters before they are in their final state.

In drawn animation, the creation of the assistant animator’s job was purely an economic decision. In the 1920’s at the Fleischer studio, management wanted to get more drawings from animator Dick Huemer. They convinced him to leave out his inbetweens so that Art Davis could do them. Because this increased animator productivity, it was adopted industry-wide by the 1930’s.
“The production methods of Fleischer and Iwerks were similar in that they both used a pool of assistants. Animated scenes were sent to the department, and the first available man completed the work” (Shamus Culhane 75).
Where most producers saw the use of assistants in purely economic terms, Walt Disney saw artistic possibilities. One of his animators, Norm Ferguson, drew in an extremely rough fashion. However, Ferguson was perhaps the best actor in the studio in the early 1930’s, and his work on the character of Pluto pointed in the direction that Walt Disney wanted to go.

A Norm Ferguson rough of Pluto from Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston.

Looking at Ferguson’s work, Walt Disney realized that drawing and acting were separate skills and he asked his animators to concentrate on the behaviour more than the quality of their drawings. “As [director Wilfred] Jackson said, Ferguson’s job had become, in a first for a Disney animator, to draw ‘the action without really drawing the character.’” (Barrier, Hollywood 79).

Assistant animators would then take the animators’ drawings, place a clean sheet of paper on top of them, and draw the character correctly based on the model sheets. As Disney animator Eric Larson stated,
“The cleanup man has the responsibility to diminish all the unavoidable differences [between animators] in his work, which is a very difficult job. The cleanup man makes clean sketches over the rough sketches from the animators” (Rasmussen 267-268).
Because drawings in animation exist in time, the assistant’s job was not simply to make the drawing clean enough to trace onto a cel. The assistant had to understand the principles of animation. “They knew how to keep a design in the free-flowing changing shapes of animation rather than make a rigid copy. They always extended the arcs of the movement, squashed the character more, stretched him more – refining while emphasizing both the action and the drawings” (Frank Thomas 229).

The assistant had to be extremely careful to maintain the character’s proportions and volumes in each succeeding drawing. If the assistant failed to do this, the reality of the character was compromised. Instead of the audience concentrating on the behaviour, it would be distracted by the character growing, shrinking, or otherwise changing in an unbelievable fashion. The challenge for the assistant was to keep the animator’s intent while making changes necessary for consistency.

Here is a rough from The Practical Pig (1939) drawn by Fred Moore. The line work is fairly clean, but a close comparison with the frame from the finished film reveals all sorts of alterations to the details of the drawing. The pig’s jaw, the hat, the tail, and the rolled paper have all been adjusted by the assistant animator. These types of changes were a routine part of the assistant’s job.

Image at top courtesy of Jenny Lerew; image at bottom is a frame enlargement.

Animators would often leave off details for their assistants to add later; this allowed the animators to work faster by drawing less. Here’s an example of Prince John from Disney’s Robin Hood (1973) drawn by Ollie Johnston. By this time, the drawings were being photocopied onto cels and no longer traced by hand. This forced the animators to work more cleanly than they previously did. However, note that details in the crown such as the jewels and the scalloping, the pattern on the robe’s trimming and the fingernails are initially missing and added by the assistant.

From The Art of Walt Disney by Christopher Finch.

There were cases where design changes were made after the animation was done. Here is a rough thought to be by animator Ken Muse from Mickey’s Birthday Party (1941) and an image from the final cartoon. Mickey’s costume has been substantially changed and the assistant animator would be the one responsible for redrawing Mickey so that his costume was correct.

Images courtesy of Galen Fott.

The assistant would sometimes add motion as well. As the animator was primarily concerned with behaviour, bits of animation referred to as “follow through” elements, such as hair, coat tails, skirts, etc, would sometimes be animated by the assistant. These elements don’t have a life of their own. They are somewhat mechanical in that their motion is dictated by the character’s motion. Dale Oliver acknowledged animating these elements when assisting on animation done by Frank Thomas (Sullivan 226).

If done properly, the assistant animator’s work goes unnoticed by the audience. However, there have been cases where poor assistant work has compromised the animator’s motion and the character’s believability. Grim Natwick, one of the animators of Disney’s Snow White character, was full of praise for his assistant animators on that project (Maltin 56). However, Natwick never said anything, good or bad, about the assistants who worked with him on Gulliver’s Travels (1939), produced by Max Fleischer. Following up his Snow White work, he was assigned to Princess Glory in that film. Unfortunately, the assistant work was not up to Disney standards. Shamus Culhane, who also worked on the film recalled,
“The one thing I found dismaying was the fact that Grim Natwick’s animation of Princess Glory had been butchered by crude cleanups. The final result bore no resemblance to his exquisite drawings of Snow White” (211).
In one close-up, the assistant was not able to maintain the relationship of the Princess’s hair to her skull. As she moved her head, it appeared she was wearing a loose fitting wig that was constantly shifting.

Some studios, like Fleischer and Iwerks in the 1930’s did not team animators with specific assistants. Those studios used a pool of assistants so that an animator could not know in advance who might work on his scene (Shamus Culhane 75). At Disney, the assistant position was used as a way of training future animators and assistants were assigned to work specific animators. The animators would give them small bits or corrections to animate (Korkis, Kimball 78).

Animators were able to take major liberties with their drawing if they knew they could count on their assistants to pull a scene into shape. Animator Bill Tytla said, “If you have faith in your first assistant and you know he will draw in the rest for you, and will give it the roundness and solidity and everything else it needs, you feel free to concentrate on trying to convey a certain sensation” (Barrier, Hollywood 211). Burny Mattinson spent 12 years as an assistant to Eric Larson at Disney.
“I went to work with Eric on the [Ludwig] Von Drakes [for the Disney TV series]. Eric wasn’t fond of doing, I don’t think, that kind of animation ‘cause he would do it in circles and stick figures and so forth, but thank God that’s where I really learned how to animate a lot more and how to draw better” (Kaytis).
By the 1950’s and ‘60’s, when the field was shrinking, the lines between job categories hardened and assistants were promoted less frequently. Animators then jockeyed to get the best assistants they could and established long term relationships with them.

Even in commercials, where studios would hire freelance animators for single jobs, career assistants were highly valued. At Zander’s Animation Parlour in New York in the 1970’s, the assistant animators worked continuously, rarely suffering layoffs, due to their ability to create polished, consistent drawings from an animator’s work. They were the ones who supplied the quality artwork that advertising agencies and their clients expected.

Inbetweeners are the lowest rung in the animation department. Even at Disney, where assistants were assigned to animators, there was a pool of inbetweeners under the direction of George Drake (Barrier, Hollywood 139). Like assistants, inbetweeners work was invisible to audiences but contained the potential for creating problems. In the words of Shamus Culhane, “A good inbetweener was, in his own area, almost as valuable as an experienced animator, because a poor draftsman and could bring down the quality of the animator’s work” (78).

In computer animation, animators generally don’t concern themselves with a character’s hair or clothing. These things are left to technical directors who take care of them after the animator has finished work.

Generally, these types of “follow-through” elements are done differently than animating characters in computer animation. A computer-animated character’s motion is done in a similar way to drawn animation, where the animator specifies key body and face poses for the character. Those images that would be created in between the keys are created on the computer mathematically by interpolating translations and rotations.

“Follow-through” elements such as hair and clothing are done procedurally. They are simulations that need to be started from an initial frame and must be calculated as forward motion with the help of parameters defining things like weight, drag, etc. These things are highly technical and if done well are not noticed by the audience. Like poor assistant work in drawn animation, they have a potential to do more harm than good with regard to an animated character.

At top, the animator works with a low resolution version of a Sully from Pixar’s Monsters Inc. because it provides faster interaction with the computer. Technical directors apply the fur to the version of Sully after the animator is done with the scene. Images from Monsters, Inc. Collector’s Edition 2-Disc DVD.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Ward Kimball Writes Will Finn

Will Finn shares a letter he received from Ward Kimball in 1973. Kimball's letter is full of clear-eyed advice that's still worth reading over 30 years later. Will provides background as to how he wrote Kimball and the generous responses he got as a result. Check it out.

Six Authors In Search of a Character: Part 10, Animating

Just as actors have different strengths – the ability to do comedy or drama, a realistic vs. stylized approach to performance – animators also vary in their skills. For instance, Dick Lundy was known for his ability to animate dances (Barrier, Hollywood 88). Disney animator Bill Justice recalled,
“A lot of us were cast like you would cast actors in a TV show. John Sibley and Art Babbitt were good at slapstick. Some were good at villains, like Marc Davis on Cruella [in One Hundred and One Dalmatians] and Malificent [in Sleeping Beauty]….I was always typed as a “cute” artist and so did all the little bunnies and kittens and cuddly things. I don’t know if that was good casting or not” (Korkis, Justice 127).
Disney director Dave Hand was sensitive to recognizing what specific animators were good at.
“The animator himself became like one you would cast for normal [live action] pictures. He became a certain type of person who could do certain kinds of animation better – not that he couldn’t animate almost anything, but he did certain things better than anyone else in the studio could. He was naturally cast on specific types of characters and business” (Barrier, Hand 77).
Disney himself saw his animation crew in similar terms. He differentiated between Dumbo and Bambi as pictures requiring different types of animators. Those for Dumbo were more caricaturists while Bambi required superior draftsmanship (Barrier, Hollywood 272).

Sid Marcus was one of three animators who worked on the Scrappy series for Columbia in the early 1930’s.
“On the Scrappy series, “we used to tag our animation,” Marcus said. “Dick Huemer’s animation was cute; Artie Davis’s animation was smooth; and my animation was funny….I would always do the last part” (Barrier, Hollywood 171)
The goal of this type of casting was to play to animator strengths. However, their differences came along for the ride. Because different animators would work on the same character within a film, differences in drawing and motion styles were perceptible for anyone who looked closely enough. Shamus Culhane, who worked on Pluto at Disney in the 1930’s, noted the differences in the animators’ styles on the character.
“[Norm Ferguson’s] Pluto, all sharp angles with a skinny nose, and [Bill] Roberts’ Pluto, with its bunched up body and big snout, were a far cry from [Fred] Moore’s highly polished version of Pluto. We agreed that Fred [Moore] was a great animator, but we both felt that he pushed his love for designing too far” (Culhane 170).
These differences were not limited to the Disney shorts. They also plagued the features. Walt Disney told his daughter Diane that,
“We had trouble with the Dwarfs…only you don’t know it. That was a studio secret. I had to use different artists on various scenes involving the same dwarfs. Doing it that way made it hard to prevent variations in the personality of each dwarf” (quoted in Barrier, Hollywood 219).
The character of Snow White was animated by several animators under the supervision of Ham Luske, including Grim Natwick. Natwick’s conception of Snow White was not the same as Luske’s, and Marc Davis, who assisted Natwick, worked to pull Natwick’s animation back towards Luske’s and Walt Disney’s conception.
“What Natwick had in mind can be guessed from the handful of Natwick’s drawings of Snow White that Marc Davis saved. In them, Snow White seems strikingly self-possessed, a sister to such actress of the thirties as Myrna Loy and Carole Lombard. She is not the innocent fourteen-year-old that Disney specified in the earliest outlines, but older and far more sexually mature. She carries herself in one drawing (from a deleted scene) with shoulders up, chin raised, and eyes down, like a girl who knows she is being watched with an admiration that she doesn’t want to encourage too much. “Those were all things I had to take care of,” Davis said” (Barrier, Hollywood 198-199).
Strong directors could override these differences for short cartoons, either with their own drawing styles or personalities. In the late 1940’s, director Chuck Jones did cast his animators based on their personalities (Barrier, Hollywood 484). However, he tightly controlled the timing of the cartoons through the exposure sheets and did the character layouts himself, so his own personality and artistic approach dominated the films. As Michael Barrier has pointed out,
“Jones’s cartoons from the late forties are, in fact, remarkably uniform in both animation and drawing style, almost as if Jones made every drawing himself. Although he generally assigned action scenes to Ken Harris and personality scenes to Ben Washam, the results were action scenes as Jones would have animated them and personality scenes as Jones would have animated them” (Hollywood 485).
By contrast, Warner Bros. director Bob Clampett wasn’t worried about letting the seams show. Instead, he played his animators’ styles off each other, casting them for maximum contrast.
“In Clampett’s cartoons, scenes by [Robert] McKimson in which characters behave ‘normally’ alternate with scenes by other animators in which the characters behave anything but normally” (Barrier, Hollywood 455).
While they ostensibly were going with their animators’ strengths, in reality these directors were using their animators like colours on a palette, more concerned with painting their own interpretations than those of their animators. In cases where animators changed the directors they were working for, they adjusted themselves to their new director’s style. That is why it’s relatively easy to identify Warner Bros. cartoons visually by director, but much harder to identify the work of individual animators. In the words of Michael Barrier, “When casting by character isn't feasible, for whatever reason, the alternative is for the director to, in effect, play all the parts, by controlling the animators' performances so thoroughly that differences between animators are minimized. That is certainly what happened in the best Jones and Clampett cartoons—in very different ways—and I'm quite sure it's what happened in [Brad] Bird's [The] Incredibles” (What’s New, September 1, 2005).

The other method of casting is by character. Using this approach, an animator does all of a character’s scenes or closely supervises other animators who help on the character. What this approach provides is consistency.

When several animators work on the same character, variations are inevitable. These have a tendency to defocus a character as each animator has a slightly different approach. Casting one animator eliminates this problem in theory, as every scene passes through a single sensibility. Casting by character adds specificity to behaviour that can’t be duplicated when casting by scene. In Michael Barrier’s words, casting by scene “encouraged defining that character through easily grasped mannerisms” (Hollywood 149).

However, because lead characters have so much screen time, it is impractical to cast a single animator for a single character. What inevitably happens is that one animator becomes a supervising or lead animator on a character, working with a team of other animators in order to meet the schedule. For example, Art Babbitt was the supervising animator for the character of Geppetto in Pinocchio. He recalled that his crew consisted of 22 other animators and assistants (Strzyz 100) and that he himself did approximately two-thirds of Geppetto’s scenes (Barrier, Babbitt 103). The benefit to this approach is that the number of animators working on a character is limited and the animators only have to concern themselves with a single role, allowing them to delve more deeply into the character’s personality. But limiting the number of animators is not the same as a single animator controlling the character for all scenes.

The inability of animators to work in real time creates problems, as under this system more than one animator will work on a scene with several characters. While actors can explain their approaches to each other and then rehearse a scene until they form a group understanding of it, animators cannot draw as quickly as actors can move. As a result, the amount of interaction is severely circumscribed. As animator Ward Kimball describes it, “Animation is very slow. When you’re an actor, you depend on spontaneity in a scene, and it’s hard to work up spontaneity when you’re doing separate drawings” (Barrier, Hollywood 204).

As two animators working on a scene could not work simultaneously,
“The first man to animate on the scene usually had the lead character, and the second animator often had to animate to something he could not feel or quite understand. Of necessity, the director was the arbitrator, but certain of his decisions and compromises were sure to make the job more difficult for at least one of the animators” (Frank Thomas 160).
In live acting, two actors doing a scene spend time listening to each other speak their lines and watching each other move. Actors consider this a powerful tool in creating a performance. Alan Alda explained how he came to understand the importance of it.
“When I started out as an actor, I thought, Here’s what I have to say; how shall I say it? On M*A*S*H, I began to understand that what I do in the scene is not as important as what happens between me and the other person. And listening is what lets it happen. It’s almost always the other person who causes you to say what you say next. You don’t have to figure out how you’ll say it. You have to listen so simply, so innocently, that the other person brings about a change in you and that makes you say it and informs the way you say it” (Alda 160).
Alda remembers director Mike Nichols telling him and Barbara Harris during a stage production that, “You kids think relating is the icing on the cake. It isn’t. It’s the cake” (Alda 160). Relating is an interaction where the actors affect each other as they perform. It’s a feedback loop where each actor spontaneously adjusts himself or herself to what the other actor is doing moment by moment. This level of interaction is not possible when animators may be creating as little as five seconds of action in a week. It’s impossible to be spontaneous when creating at this speed.

This logistical problem is a point of contention. Historian and critic Michael Barrier believes,
“that if you start with the ideal of complete identification between animator and character, and depart from that ideal only as circumstances require, the results will almost certainly be better than if you start by assuming that casting by character is impossible, then parcel out a character to six different animators and try to reconcile the results” (What’s New, Jan. 12, 2006).
However, Disney animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston have a different priority. At Disney, they preferred the approach where an animator would handle every character in a scene, echoing Alan Alda’s concern with relating.
“The new casting [of animators by scene and not character] overcame many problems and, more important, produced a major advancement in cartoon entertainment: the character relationship. With one man now animating every character in his scene, he could feel all the vibrations and subtle nuances between his characters. No longer restricted by what someone else did, he was free to try out his own ideas of how his characters felt about each other. Animators became more observant of human behavior and built on relationships they saw around them every day” (Frank Thomas 160).
Barrier argues that while this approach was more convenient, it did not produce better results on screen.
“Casting by sequence, with its expanded role for the supervising animator, was pulling away from the collaborative nature of animated filmmaking for the sake of giving the supervising animator a few shards of the power that Walt Disney himself enjoyed. Strong casting by character, with the frequent sharing of scenes by two or more animators that it necessarily entailed, was collaborative at its core. Animators had to respond to one another’s work, just as actors did – an irksome burden to some animators, but a source of tremendous energy to animators who had truly assumed parts” (Barrier, Hollywood 316).
I’ll return to a discussion of this in the conclusion.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Independent Distribution and Marketing

These two video clips are of Scott Kirsner interviewing Peter Broderick of Paradigm Consulting. The first runs 15 minutes and the second almost 9, but they're full of interesting information about financing, revenue streams, distribution and marketing. Broderick talks about documentaries, which are different than animation in that they automatically have more footage and most likely a lower budget, but his thoughts still point the way the market is evolving and suggest possibilities.

If you can spare the time, these clips are worth watching. If you haven't got the time, bookmark Broderick's site for future reference.

Pinocchio Part 13A

This might be the only sequence without the presence of any of the main characters. As such, it's purely exposition where we learn that Pleasure Island is not a place that Pinocchio should be going.

However, within this sequence, there is some character development. We learn how truly small-time Honest John and Gideon are. The bag of coins that Honest John received from Stromboli is miniscule compared to what Stromboli earned from Pinocchio's appearance. We also get a look at the Coachman's swag, so we know that he's a bigger player than Honest John.

Honest John moves his finger across his throat, implying that he's comfortable with murder for a price, but when he hears about Pleasure Island all of his bravado disappears and genuine panic sets in, reinforcing that the character is all show and very little substance. Only Pinocchio's inexperience allows Honest John to accomplish anything.

The coachman appears benign, quietly smoking his pipe and casually explaining his plans. Where Honest John panics, the coachman is confident of evading the law and the memorable close-up where he says that that never come back "as boys" clearly demonstrates that beneath the doughy exterior is a criminal far more lethal and cold-blooded than Honest John could ever be.

The draft for this section is a little confusing. Shots 25, 27, 31, 34, 37 and 40 have only the coachman, yet Nick Nichols and Norm Ferguson are both credited. I don't know why that is. The coachman's most impressive shot, 42, is credited to Nichols alone.

This is another sequence that Shamus Culhane claimed to have worked on, yet Norm Tate is credited with much of the Honest John footage. However, Ferguson's work in shot 41 is the best Honest John acting in the sequence. Perhaps sequence director T. Hee felt that Tate wasn't up to the acting challenge. That shot, and Nichols following shot 42, are both important for communicating how big a threat Pleasure Island and the coachman actually are.

There is a visual pun that probably goes unnoticed these days. One of the slang terms for a doughnut is a sinker. When Honest John says that Pinocchio fell for it "hook, line and sinker," the camera is on Gideon, dunking a smoke doughnut into his beer.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Betamax Wars Continue

Once upon a time, Sony invented the home video recorder - the Betamax - and Hollywood studios launched law suits in an attempt to kill it. The studios lost the fight and it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to them. The VCR was a success because it gave consumers more power to control when they watched entertainment. The studios benefited because the equipment allowed for the release of pre-recorded cassettes and eventually DVDs. The home video market today is responsible for a large portion of Hollywood's revenues.

Later this month, RealPlayer will release version 11, which will include the ability to grab video from the web and save it or copy it to other devices. RealPlayer argues that their new release is no different than a VCR or PVR. Hollywood, which never learns from the past and thinks there's a future in alienating consumers, will possibly sue RealPlayer.

You can read details in this Variety article by Scott Kirsner.

Pinocchio Part 13

Friday, June 15, 2007

Six Authors In Search of a Character: Part 9A, An Example

This clip from Ratatouille fortuitously arrived online. It's a clear demonstration of what I've been talking about in my thesis/MRP. Note how many acting decisions have been made before the animators start work. I'm not talking about script issues, which are going to be common to any film or play. I'm talking about things specific to the process of acting in animated films.

The voices have been cast. Their sound, their emotional delivery, and their timing have been nailed down by the voice actors and the director. The character designs have determined audience perceptions about the characters' personalities. The storyboard process blocked out the action in terms of the characters' physical attitudes. The layout process further refined the characters' behaviour. It's only after these stages that the animators start to work.

In many ways, it doesn't matter if the animators are cast by character or by shot, because in either case so much of the performance has already been nailed down.

Obviously, this system can be made to work from the standpoint of entertaining audiences. It's been working since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and certainly Pixar knows how to make it work well. But it is manifestly clear to me that even animators working on high budget features don't have nearly the freedom that live actors have to shape a performance. Is it possible in this system for an animator to create a performance or merely complete it? Is there anyone who believes that under this system animators are contributing all they are capable of to the performances in a film?

Thursday, June 14, 2007

McCay's Dream of the Rarebit Fiend

This July will see the publication of Ulrich Merkl's collection of all of Winsor McCay's comic strip Dream of the Rarebit Fiend. While the strip is not as well known as Little Nemo in Slumberland, it contains some of McCay's most interesting work. Nemo deals in spectacle from a child's point of view, and while Rarebit has no shortage of surprising visuals, it focuses more on adult hopes and fears. You can find details about the book, including sample pages, here.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Six Authors In Search of a Character: Part 9, Storyboards

Having established the timing of the animation, the question was now what the animator was going to draw to accompany the established musical beat. As we have seen, in the silent era the story for a cartoon was often nothing more than a one-page synopsis that the animators expanded at will. At Disney in the 1920’s, the story was drawn out in a form resembling a comic book, with six illustrations to a page (Barrier, Hollywood 51).

A storyboard from the Plane Crazy (1928), the first Mickey Mouse cartoon. From Paper Dreams by John Canemaker.

This began to address problems of staging the action and provided a drawn pose to describe a character’s emotional state for each shot. However, the format was a rigid one. Changes couldn’t be made easily after the images were drawn without extensive re-drawing or cutting and pasting.

Sometime in the early 1930’s, this approach was modified so that each drawing was on a separate piece of paper that would be pinned to a corkboard. This relatively simple change made a significant difference in how stories were written. Now any section could be expanded or contracted easily, allowing a character’s action to be developed throughout the story process and not just when an individual drawing was done.

A board detail from The Jungle Book. Note the pushpins, allowing drawings and dialogue to be moved around as the story is developed. From Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston.

Due to the rate at which animation is created, the rehearsal process so central to live acting is compromised. It make take an animator a week to do a scene, so it’s imperative that the scene be done as correctly as possible or there will be a significant delay while the animator revises the scene. Working at this pace, animating a scene purely as a rehearsal is impractical. The storyboard filled a great deal of the function of rehearsal, in that story artists were describing actions in single drawings instead of the dozens or hundreds created by an animator. Here, different actions and emotions could be tried out quickly before the animator started to work.

Disney director Woolie Reitherman described the function of the story artist.
“A story sketch is not geography – it is not continuity – and it is not a diagram. Nor does it merely illustrate the dialogue for the sequence. Those are all the common mistakes of the beginning story sketch man. The story sketch should show character, attitude, feelings, entertainment, expressions, type of action, as well as telling the story of what’s happening. When you look at a board, it should reflect the feeling of the sequence so the viewer starts to pick up some excitement and stimulation” (Frank Thomas 197).
In live action terms, though, it’s as if one actor rehearses a role to determine the blocking and the emotional progression and then hands the role to another actor to play. The second actor starts with many important decisions already made and while there is opportunity to improvise touches and attempt to make the make the role his or her own, there is no question of the collaborative nature.

In the stop motion feature The Nightmare Before Christmas,
“The characters’ movements were detailed in 50 storyboards, each containing 66 drawings. That makes 3300 total storyboard images for the 75-minute film – roughly 42 per minute or about 1 sketch for every 1.5 seconds of film. [Director Henry] Selick explains that the storyboards provided a means to sketch out the film very clearly before the expensive process of animation began” (Furniss 166).
Story artists don’t see themselves as usurping the animator’s freedom, they see themselves as supplying a foundation for the animators to work from. Story artist Ed Gombert says,
“The more alive it looks on my [story]board, the more character and fun I can put into the scenes, the more information the animator has to build on and improve, or plus, his animation. The animator has to work harder to pull the acting from a dull sketch than from a sketch that looks like, ‘Gee, all I have to do is inbetween that’” (Cawley 64).
Directors rely on storyboard artists for their contributions to character behaviour and storyboard artists see those contributions as central to their job. James Algar, who worked as an animator at Disney in the 1930’s and was the director of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” segment of Fantasia recalled,
“In those early days, the cartoons were worked up as stories always in visual form. Nothing was ever written or a type-scripted approach, it was all storyboards and every development, every twist, every gag, every joke was a series of sketches. You could see what was going to happen, and indeed, later that is what the cartoon director took under his wing and fed out to animators who were going to do the technical work of literally making these figures move.” (Allan 180)
Shamus Culhane, who worked as an animator at Disney in the 1930’s, recalled that, “The move to acting animation was not made solely by the animators; it was a dual effort in that the initial thrust had to come from the story department. Under Walt’s guidance, writers began to devise stories and situations that relied on acting rather than slapstick” (138). Culhane recalled that when he picked up a scene from director Ben Sharpsteen,
“Ben went over that storyboard drawing by drawing, showing me where the poses were usable, and the holes in the action where I was going to have to add my own interpretation” (166).
Reflecting on his time directing for Walter Lantz in the 1940’s, Culhane recalled, “While working with me on storyboards, [Shane] Miller would often have good ideas about the acting as well as the staging” (216).

Longtime Disney story artist Bill Peet (Song of the South, One Hundred and One Dalmatians) described his contribution to the films that he worked on.
“My Disney storytelling had been a series of sketches, hundreds of them to describe every phase of the action and the attitudes of the characters. They only words needed were the lines of dialogue printed below the sketches” (138).
When asked what he thought what was important for a storyboard artist to know, Disney board artist Ed Gombert replied,
“Acting. That’s the main thing. When I was going to school, I thought the key to being a Disney artist was the ability to draw well. I focused all my attention on drawing classes and I learned, once I got here, how important acting is to the whole thing” (Cawley 65).
The Brave Little Tailor (1938) is a Disney cartoon featuring Mickey Mouse. Comparing story sketches by Jack Kinney to animation by Frank Thomas, we can clearly see how decisions about a character’s posture and emotional attitude made at the story stage continued into the animation.

Here are some comparisons between story sketches and final frames. Animator Frank Thomas is a far better draftsman than Kinney. In each case, Thomas has refined the pose, making it more attractive. However, the content of each pose – what it says about Mickey’s thoughts and emotions – is the same as in Kinney’s cruder originals. Of course, Thomas adds movement, doing dozens of drawings for each one of Kinney’s, but while Thomas elaborates on Kinney’s work, Kinney’s decisions survive in Thomas’s animation.

Storyboard panels from Paper Dreams by John Canemaker. The final images are frame enlargements.

This approach was not limited to the 1930’s; it continues to be used in animated features. Here is a series of story panels and final frames from Disney’s Mulan (1998). As in The Brave Little Tailor, the animation builds on poses and attitudes that were created for the storyboard. The story artist’s work can still be seen on screen, though it’s impossible for the audience to identify it in the final animation without having access to the storyboard.

All images from the Mulan Special Edition DVD.

The storyboards and timings are combined into a story or pose reel, originally known as a Leica reel, named for a Leica projector used to display the art. This was a low cost way for directors to test out their timing and it became a reference point for everyone who worked on the film.

Frank Tashlin, who worked at Disney as a story artist, recalled that
“We did marvelous Leica reels – did you ever see a Leica reel? It was an interesting device. They would photograph the [storyboard] drawings, one at a time, so you had this reel of drawings. It ran with a soundtrack, which we took from the Kousevitzky recording [of Peter and the Wolf], and wherever there was a blank, a piece of tape, that would turn over the next drawing, so you got a feeling of movement to the music. It really was marvelous. Everything was there but the in-betweens. You saw the whole picture moving to the music, and all you had made were maybe a couple of hundred still drawings” (Barrier, Tashlin 52).
(Michael Sporn has posted part of the Leica reel for the "Pastorale Symphony" in Fantasia on his blog; the artwork was supplied by John Canemaker.)

This technique was not limited to Disney. It was also in use at the MGM cartoon studio in the 1930’s. Bill Hanna described the use of the pose reel and how it was used in the creation of the first Tom and Jerry cartoon, Puss Gets the Boot (1940).
“The pose reel was a preliminary test film used during that period as a kind of blueprint for the finished cartoon. It was actually an abbreviated version of the cartoon and consisted primarily of selected storyboard sketches of key poses and extreme shots. These were photographed and set to a pre-recorded soundtrack and when viewed would give the illusion of action in a limited form. Joe [Barbera] and I decided to elaborate on this pose reel concept; we expanded the test film to include more drawings to get a better feel for refining the finished product.

“Unlike conventional pose reels, our test film contained initial drawings created by Joe that were very detailed illustrations and contained indications for various camera shots including notations for close-ups, long shots, and pans. This provided us with what amounted to a layout of the whole picture to be animated. In addition, we resorted to such improvisations as shaking the camera or using zoom shots to simulate the reel’s animation to a more convincing degree. I then took those drawings and timed the picture to synchronize the images to the film’s action. When we had done all of that, we sent the layout drawings to the camera department to be photographed.” (41)
Hanna and Barbera took this approach precisely because it allowed them to visualize the cartoon in great detail without the cost of animating it. In this case, they were attempting to convince MGM management to make the cartoon, and the closer they could come to a finished looking project, the more likely that management would understand the film they wanted to make.

A pose reel for the second Tom and Jerry cartoon, The Midnight Snack (1941), survives and has been released on a Tom and Jerry DVD, Tom and Jerry Spotlight Collection Volume 2. The behaviour of the cat and mouse are there. Their poses and facial expressions tell the story without the use of motion, all timed to a musical track.

Disney even used the story reel approach in a film that reached theatres. The Reluctant Dragon (1941) is a mostly live action film where Robert Benchley tours the Disney studio, looking to sell Walt Disney a story idea. When Benchley stumbles into the story department, a story artist (played by actor Alan Ladd) begins to tell him the story of Baby Weems. The presentation starts out like a typical story session, with Ladd wielding a pointer and pointing to the relevant story drawing as he describes the action. However, the film then switches to a story reel, where the full-screen static story drawings are accompanied by a sound track of voices, music and sound effects. The segment contains no character animation; the still drawings are expressive enough to clearly communicate to the audience. Warner Bros. cartoon director Chuck Jones thought of “Baby Weems” as the first limited animation cartoon (Barrier, Jones 8).