Tuesday, June 19, 2007

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.

1 comment:

Brett W. Thompson said...

Wow. Totally fascinating, thank you for these posts!!! :)