Wednesday, June 20, 2007

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.


Thad said...

Thank you for posting this Mark. A lot of people seem to think it was the animator's job to do slick, polished drawings by themselves, but it wasn't. It was their job to animate.

Willie Ito told me that the work for an inbetweener at Warners would vary randomly from the Jones, Freleng, or McKimson units. I know that gave the inbetweener practice to draw in different styles, but that's just crazy.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating stuff, Mark! Thanks for letting us read it.

You might want to check out the page on my website I built to house the "Mickey Mystery", including my pet theory that Ward Kimball animated the dance earlier:

I'd be interested to hear your thoughts!

Mark Mayerson said...

Hi Galen. Sorry for taking so long to get back to you on this. Your theory is plausible and is a good explanation. The only issue I have with it is the same as I have with all the other suggestions: we are just guessing. Somebody's got to go into the animation morgue and dig out the scene folder and see if they can figure out where the scene comes from and who animated it.

I used to know many people at Disney, but I'm not close to anybody who's there now. Maybe somebody will take it on themselves to figure this out and then let us all know.