Chapter 4: Animation Tech-Talk
Up to the time I was sent to Prague in 1959, I assumed that American cartoon animation was the only kind that mattered, and that all others in the world were merely copying us. I hadn't taken in the fact that what we were doing at UPA in the mid-forties was not just revolutionary American animation, but was in fact an international absorption. Up until UPA, the basis of American Style Animation had always been the striving for realism. In Prague it came into focus for me that the main difference between the American and the European approach to animation was just that. I noticed immediately when I went to work in Prague that Czechoslovak film animation was directly descended from their centuries-long tradition of puppetry. I noticed that the animators in Prague referred to the figures they were drawing as, well: figures. The actions of the figures resembled puppet movements. The mouths did not move as they spoke dialog, and the eyes did not really look. There was no great consideration to weight, or the laws of physics. There was no realistic presentation of characters. That was secondary to mime. I do not say these are inferior qualities, but they did differ from the American approach. There is an age-old tradition of puppetry in the Czech lands. The oldest articulated puppet ever found, about 25,000 years old, was discovered in an archaeological dig within the territory of the present Czech Republic. So there was this ancient tradition of puppetry that lapped over into cinema animation in that country. The people are used to suggestion rather than a full-frontal imitation of reality, so animators maintained a certain distance from the figures they moved.
But if you watch an American animator work, or talk to him about it, he will always refer to the figure he is animating as a real, living character, and he will refer to it by its name, as if it is a real actor. "I am animating Mickey," or "I am animating "Donald," or "Bugs," he will say. The animator puts himself inside his character, trying to think like the character.
When we at UPA were unsettling the animation industry in the 40s and 50s, we were labeled as introducing "limited animation." That was intended to sort of put us in our place. The reality of that was that we had "limited budgets." We didn't favor limited animation as such, only the right kind of animation for the particular graphic style. That was the nub of what we were doing:
Graphically stylized characters couldn't animate in a realistic way.
In those days, each of the major animation studios had its own "house style." It was jokingly said that if you worked at Disney's, all you needed was a quarter and two dimes, so you could use them to help you draw Mickey Mouse. An animator at Disney's had to adapt to the Disney house style. If the animator moved to the Warner Brothers studio he had to draw and animate Bugs Bunny in the Warners house style. At MGM, he had to fit into the Tom & Jerry style, etc. etc. The central idea of UPA was to abolish the whole idea of a house style. This was the genius of John Hubley and the core creative staff - to open animation to the whole world of graphic art and painting styles, and to the whole world of storytelling. Each film could be unique in its look, texture, and construction. In short, anything could be animated! And when I came to Prague 10 years later, I found that the Czechs had independently been on the same road!
What I want you to do is to learn to think about animation in those broad terms, and further, to always keep in mind what you are trying to say with this limitless and universal language.
What if I told you that what we are doing had its clear roots over 35,000 years ago?