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).


Michael Sporn said...

This is a fabulous posting, Mark. As always, you're right up at the top of the heap.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

A very interesting post! I'm a storyboarder myself and I guess I like it because it's close to direction. Like every other storyboarder I find myself wishing the finished film would mirror my storyboard.

The problem is that films with a strong storyboard feel often don't lend themselves to animation very well. If you look at the funniest Bill Nolan black & white Terrytoons you'll see that the highlights, the real audience-grabbing scenes, are often something the something the animator thought of. Cartoons lost some of their innocense and innovation when animators were reduced to fleshing out other peoples' ideas and layouts.

Of course audiences like structure and and so do I. Some of the storyboard feel is inevitable. But without the animators input to the stories cartoons are a sad thing.

I like stories and storyboards that give animators a chance to shine. We storyboarders shouldn't try to accompish everything with cuts and angles and dialogue. We should remind ourselves that the animators are the stars (or should be) and we're there to make them look good.

Mark Mayerson said...

Eddie, when I finally print the conclusion to all this in the coming weeks, you'll see that I think that animators have been shafted big time. So many of the things that we accept as normal in the animation business are the result of decisions made in 1915 or 1935 that were done for convenience, not for the good of the medium.

From a business standpoint, control was taken away from animators in order to make production more efficient. In the case of a strong producer like Disney or strong directors like Clampett, Jones, Avery, etc. it also led to good cartoons. However, without that strong artistic presence at the top of the hierarchy, the results are too often garbage. Even with that strong artistic presence, animators have usually been saddled with far too many constraints to really flower as contributors.

Today we've arrived at a situation where animators are often irrelevant to animated films.

Tom said...

Great posting, Sir! When I was animating on Disney films like Beauty & Beast and Little Mermaid, whenever the storyboard pose caught the essense of what the scene was trying to say, it made my job so much easier. That was not always the case, but when it worked it was great. Still, as a director I used to run into animators and layout people who feel it's incumbent upon them to one-up the board and find another solution anyway. I don't think that's utilizing what works in a board.

Mike Lah once told me that the way Tex Avery cut his story reels (Leica Reels to some) they were even sharper and funnier than the final animation!

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Mark, good answer! What you said sounds right! I can't wait to read the conclusion and I'll make sure I read all the installments!

Whit said...

It makes sense that Tex's leica reels worked better than the final animation. He was always pulling inbetweens to sharpen the gags.

S.Carras said...

I wonder who Lieca reel worked best for at Warner Bros. Chuck Jones obviously used them for some of his artister (and in my opion only less funnier) things like What's Opera Doc (I don't buy the Ferdinand-dung from Charles Solomon that WB never used pose reels, btw).Steve