Friday, June 29, 2007

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.


J. J. Hunsecker said...

Depressing, but true.

Anonymous said...

As usual, a fine reading, and many new things to learn

2 Questions:
- "[animators] often took staff jobs at one studio and then freelanced for another studio at night" - which source do you use, and how common was/ is this?

- "When the animators get the scene, the mouth action is already complete." I can't see how this could possibly work in traditional drawn animation, if characters do something else than standing still. In "rigged" animation, as 3D or vectorised 2D, I can at least imagine a kind of "talking head" done first, then all other motions being added.

Mark Mayerson said...

Slowtiger, your first question about working staff during the day and doing freelance at night is from personal knowledge. This was commonplace in the 1970's in Hollywood. I doubt it's common in the U.S. or Canada now as most of the animation of this type is done elsewhere in the world. However, I wouldn't be surprised if animators in India, China, etc. aren't working staff during the day and picking up additional freelance for evenings and weekends. Unfortunately, in TV animation the amount you earn is closely tied to the amount of footage you produce, so there is a powerful financial incentive to produce as much as possible.

Doing the mouth first can't really work in drawn animation in terms of creating finished mouth animation before an animator deals with the body. However, when drawn shows use standardized mouth charts (which is especially prevalent when the animation is going to be done by somebody who doesn't speak English), it's common to put numbers on the exposure sheet that reference a standard way of drawing a particular phoneme. Technically, the mouths aren't done in advance but they are indicated and the animator will copy what's on the chart if only to avoid doing revisions.

In 3D, it's simple to animate the mouth before doing the body. Some animators choose to do this even if they're handling the entire character. However, I think the preferred way is to animate the body first and work hard to make the posing and timing communicate the emotions of the scene before the facial animation is tackled. At Nelvana, the mouth animation is done by one animator prior to the body animation being done by a different animator.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the clarification. Animators sleeping under their drawing table I know from personal experience, too, and that was the 90's in Germany.

Martin Juneau said...

It's very true, indeed for animations today. All of the North American shows today was all released in Asia. :(