Monday, June 04, 2007

Six Authors In Search of a Character: Part 7, Directing

An animation director uses very different tools than a live action director. A live action director will decide where to place the camera, specify how something should be lit, rehearse the actors and, if the director is lucky, edit the final film. Words are a director’s chief tool, though the director may act something out or draw a quick sketch in order to communicate with someone.
“A director on a live-action picture can work with the actor and see what he is going to do. The actions can be altered, refined, changed or questioned, and the results judged on the spot. In animation, there is no way of knowing ahead of time how the scene will look” (Frank Thomas 81).
In animation, where the visuals are being created from scratch and where the pace of creation is considerably slower, verbal instructions and acting something out are not sufficient to communicate with a crew. The director will time actions down to fractions of a second. The director will draw (or supervise the drawing of) poses that define a character’s actions and express its emotions. Finally, the director will cast his animators.

As directors were already working with musicians to set the tempo for the animation, it was logical for them to time all the action for the sake of expediency. The goal was to get directly to the desired result on screen, so the more control the director exercised, the less likely that the animator would produce something unusable. Dave Hand, who directed for Disney in the 1930’s, recalled,
“The director had to time the whole picture, half-second by half-second, and he could of course always use a stopwatch – sometimes you would get the feel of a thing without a stopwatch for ten or fifteen seconds, but not for technical, close actions. He’d have to time those out” (Barrier, Hand 88).
Not every director timed cartoons in such detail. Disney animator Volus Jones recalled that director Jack Kinney would act out scenes in great detail for him but not add information to the exposure sheet that already contained camera information and the dialog breakdown (Sullivan, Jones 150). Whereas Jones recalled that director Wilfred Jackson timed things in great detail and that his animation for Jackson was better than he expected as a result (Sullivan, Jones 145).

Disney shorts director Jack Hannah was one who believed in nailing the timing down.
“A lot of directors gave the animators more say in timing. I never did that. I timed every foot I directed. I don’t care how good the animator was. To me, it was the most important part of the directing – the timing, the pacing, the pauses.” (Korkis, Hannah 133).
This control of timing directly affected character behaviour. A good director took characterization into account in how actions were timed. Warner director Chuck Jones recalled,
“Of course, I paced things like Pepé le Pew a great deal differently than I paced the Road Runner cartoons, not only because the material was different, but because the characters were different. Pepé, for instance, would never walk at an eight-beat (three steps to the second), he would walk at a twelve-beat (two steps to the second). He’d walk much more casually, and he’d stop and look at something and contemplate it, instead of going right to it” (Barrier, Jones 18).
Chuck Jones’s control over timing was not just motivated by aesthetics. At Warner Bros, there was no money for reshooting or for editing, so the films had to be pre-timed for the proper length.
“We’d time it in our heads so that it would come out pretty close to 540 feet, the average length of a six-minute cartoon. We had to time it ourselves, because we didn’t have the luxury of shooting something and then not using it, as was done at Disney” (Bailey 148).
While storyboards include drawings that define a character’s body position and attitude, and while those drawings might be incorporated into the animation, there are relatively few storyboard drawings compared to the number of frames that exist in a final shot. Directors refine how characters behave through the use of additional drawings. In some studios, such as Disney, there would be a layout artist that was responsible for doing these drawings. Animator Shamus Culhane recalled the birth of the layout function.
“Heretofore, the animators always drew their own layouts, and decided on the size and composition of the characters in their scenes, without much attention to the approach that was being used by the animators who were working on adjoining sequences.

“By having one man drawing layouts and positioning characters, the result was a more cohesive approach. Now Walt [Disney] could see what the whole picture was going to look like before he gave work to the animators” (95).
At other studios, the director did the layout drawings himself. Frank Tashlin recalled doing several hundred drawings per cartoon (Barrier, Tashlin 46-47) when directing at Warner Bros. Chuck Jones did between 300 and 400 drawings for each short he directed. While Jones didn’t insist that the animators follow his poses exactly, he was confident that if they changed them they would still give him something consistent with what he intended (Adamson, Jones 137). Jones recalled,
“My job was to present what I wanted to see on the screen, and their job was to animate it. It was the same thing as conducting an orchestra, where the individual musician has no right to change a note. The director served as the composer and the conductor” (Jurgens 189).
Some animators were happy to work with Jones’ drawings. Animator Virgil Ross worked for Jones in the 1980’s and considered the work easy. “His layouts were so good that it was almost inbetweening” (Province 19). Ross implies that he only had to connect up Jones’ drawings for the scene to be animated.

Not every director would do the final drawings. Friz Freleng would do character layouts and then pass them on to a layout artist, such as Hawley Pratt, who would refine them (Barrier, Hollywood 472). At MGM on the Tom and Jerry series co-directed by Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera, layout artist Dick Bickenbach worked over Barbera’s drawings. However, when Hanna handed out work to animators, he would include Barbera’s rough drawings along with Bickenbach’s to make sure that Barbera’s intent was clear. In Tex Avery’s MGM unit in the early 1940’s, Claude Smith would do the character layouts. Preston Blair recalled that he would use a lot of Smith’s layout drawings verbatim in his animation (Barrier, Hollywood 413).

Casting for animation is significantly different than live action as well. Having cast an actor for a live role, it’s difficult to replace that actor on stage or on screen without the audience noticing. In film, live actors are often replaced by stunt doubles during dangerous scenes, and pains must be taken not to show the double’s face so that the illusion of a single performer in the role won’t be broken.

However, in animation, the artists are invisible to the audience. As a consequence, it’s possible for several animators to control the same character in a single film. This is most often done for the sake of efficiency. In order to hit deadlines, it is easier to split a character up among several animators than delay completing the film while a single animator finishes work on a character.

While acknowledging the need for efficiency, there are still three ways that animators get cast for shots. The most basic is that when an animator needs a new shot, the director simply hands the animator whatever shot is ready to go. No one would argue that this leads to consistency, but few productions can afford to have an animator doing nothing while waiting for the next appropriate shot to be ready. While directors attempt to avoid casting in this manner, it is not always possible. Animator Ward Kimball declared that, “the logistics of casting depended a lot on the timetable” (Shale 9).

Studio records for the Walter Lantz cartoon The Pied Piper of Basin Street, directed by Shamus Culhane, show that three shots in a row of the piper were done by three separate animators. The most likely reason is that Culhane had to keep the animators working. Even if he were casting by sequence, so that the piper would be controlled by several animators throughout the film, it would still make sense to give three successive shots to one animator in order to avoid problems with the cutting continuity.

Three successive shots from The Pied Piper of Basin Street with the names of each shot’s animator at top. Images are frame enlargements. Animator identifications taken from Lantz studio records in the collection of the author.

There are two methods of casting that are calculated to produce better results: casting by scene and casting by character. Both remain in use and both have their partisans.

Casting by scene has two advantages: you can assign shots based on an animator’s strengths and it’s more efficient for a single animator to handle all the characters in a shot. However, it does introduce inconsistencies as to how characters are drawn or move over the course of a film. Casting by character provides greater consistency in individual character behaviour, but creates logistical problems that slow down production.

The decision which animator to cast can have a profound impact on the resulting behaviour of a character. The decision to cast by scene guarantees that animators will deal with a further level of collaboration.

A fuller discussion of casting will take place in the section below on animators.


Hans Perk said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hans Perk said...

The first way of casting that you mention, casting to whenever the animator needed a scene, was - to my surprise - done a lot in the early 30's at Disney. From the drafts, which had start and end times on them (like in Arctic Antics, 1930), you can see that new scenes were handed out one at a time from the start of the film to the animators, whenever they turned in the previous one. This, of course, made for very erratic handling of characters...

Graham Ross said...

Please make a post where you compile all of these articles. I really enjoy them and would like to have an easy way of accessing them all!

Mark Mayerson said...

Graham, your comment made me realize that I forgot to put the tags at the end of the latest installment.

If you click on Thesis at the bottom of any of the entries, you'll get them all on one page. That's the best I can do at the moment.

Anonymous said...

Sadly, in the current ways of TV animation, there seems to be little in the way of real directors. Not only do they not plan out a scene with character pose sketches, but they often lack drawing ability completely and seem unwilling or unable to give proper guidance to the animators in executing their scenes. Instead, some directors merely tell the animators to do the scene and then they'll take a look at it after and give revisions. That sounds more like the role of an editor to me.

This sorry situation is mostly due to the abhorrent trend of Flash animation, where animators don't even get to draw, but merely shift hinged "puppet" parts around on screen. Can you imagine - directors who don't direct and animators who don't draw. Such is the tragic downfall of today's sorry excuses for cartoons.