Animating in the Spotlight: Creating Prime Time
by Mike Wolf
Editor's note: Due to Twentieth Century Fox's legal restrictions about publishing art on the Internet, this article does not contain any images.
In terms of large-scale animation production, the industry has long been divided between features and "Saturday Morning." The last ten years, however, has seen the emergence of a new genre, "Prime Time." While there has always been the occasional prime time animated special (most often around the holidays), it wasn't until The Simpsons debuted in 1989 that anyone had tried to produce at the prime time level on a weekly schedule, at least not since Hanna-Barbera did The Flintstones, more than 30 years before.
So what, you are asking, does he mean by "prime time level?" How is that different from any other television animation program? It is not a measure of the quality of the animation. We are still in the television medium with all the limits of a television schedule that preclude the kind of fluid, full animation that one would expect to see in a feature. No, prime time animation is a matter of style and content. Simply put, it's "smart" animation.
In the eyes of the network brass, a prime time cartoon has to compete. It has to compete with Seinfeld, Frazier and Home Improvement. It has to appeal to adult demographics. It has to hold an audience throughout the season and not get stale and predictable. Prime time is the major leagues. It's not just kid's stuff, anymore.
Script And Recording: Prime Time Writers, Prime Time Actors
Market shares? Demographics? Counter programming? Hey! Whatever happened to sight gags, delayed takes and over-the-top, cartoony animation?
The differences between prime time and Saturday morning animation start at the network level. A network risks a lot on an animated series. Initially, animation is much more expensive to produce than live-action sitcoms - at least until the show's a hit and the stars' salary demands start to escalate. Also, the network executives have to wait six months to see the first show, which means they have to commit themselves early and all the way. There is no pulling the plug after two or three episodes die on the air, because the others are already in the pipeline. These are very scary thoughts in their high-stakes business.
For this reason, the networks bet on the writers. They know the writers and they're comfortable with writers. In TV sitcom-land the writer is king.
All too often in children's animation, the writer is a lonely, underpaid soul who bangs out a script in a couple of weeks and hands it over to the producer, never to lay eyes on it again. At the prime time level, the writer is the producer, the executive producer! Usually hired away from another hit series for a small fortune and handed the keys to the store. The writer rules so by extension, the script is golden. Nobody messes with the script. It is the product of a dozen or more equally high-paid and talented scribes who've put in many long weeks of crafting characters and fine-tuning jokes.
Voice talent is another area where the producers try to separate prime time from all the other fare on television. The community of voice actors who specialize in animation is small, and if you watch enough Saturday morning cartoons, their voices start to become familiar. So, there has been a conscious decision to look for acting talent with a different sound. With The Simpsons originating on The Tracy Ullman Show, the voice talent was drawn from the ensemble of regulars in the live-action skits, mostly stand-up comics. If you look at the cast of The Critic or King of the Hill, you will find it is mostly made up of television or film actors or stand-up comics, but not professional voice actors. This choice of actors reflects the desire to move away from the over-the-top nature of cartoon acting and towards a more clever, insightful and witty, dialogue-driven show.
The Director: Really, a Director?
Let's move onto the animation production process.
We start with a director. No, not a sheet timer, a director, just like a feature director. He is charged with pulling together board artists, designers, layout artists, sheet timers ... all the creative choices funnel through him. It's his name on the screen and it's his vision. The director answers only to the executive producer.
It's a big job. The director is only asked to direct one show at a time over a four-month schedule, but he has to look at every last drawing and in most cases, he goes over every one personally to make it just a little better. Therefore, he has to be an expert at every step. He has to be a board artist, a designer, a layout artist, a timer. But he is not alone, don't worry. The director is usually one of ten, sharing a staff of over a hundred, trying to put out a series of 24 to 26 shows a year. For the director, each episode is a prime time special. He is generally not juggling multiple episodes and is thus able to focus all his attention on just one story, one 22-minute film.
Storyboard: This is a Sitcom. Think Seinfeld, Not Batman or Garfield
The storyboard artist starts when he gets the script and the assembled voice recording. As most half-hour sitcoms are written in a three-act format, the director usually divides the work between himself and two other board artists. This is not unlike how Saturday morning cartoons are boarded. What's different is the style of boarding.
Think of a one-camera live-action television show and you will start to have a sense of the thinking behind prime time boarding. There's less emphasis on ambitious, showy staging that you'll find in a feature, but it is also a far cry from the proscenium approach that is found in much of children's cartoons. Making the camera work for you is also a key factor, not only in terms of placement, but movement. There is a lot more camera action in prime time whether it's a subtle camera adjust or a big match-cut pull out. Keeping the camera in motion and quick cutting keeps the pace up. Prime time scripts are densely packed with "A," "B" and sometimes even "C" story lines, multiple character arcs and side jokes in every scene. Packing this all into 22 minutes and not losing the audience is an art.
Design: Hands-On Producers and Creators
Another key difference between Saturday morning animation and prime time reveals itself in the design area. Network executives hold all of the approval rights for a show's design in Saturday morning but they rarely get involved with the design once the initial style has been set and production is underway. In prime time, the executive producers (writers) hold sway on the design of the show and remain integrally involved throughout production. Every character, prop and background is approved or changed to their specifications. While some may bemoan the loss of creative control, it remains the price of admission to working in prime time.
Layout: The Lost Art of TV Animation?
"Where have all the artists gone? Gone to features everyone, long time ago."
Excuse this terrible paraphrasing of an old folk song, but it points out a trend in the industry that presents a problem to anyone trying to produce quality television animation. When Hanna-Barbera first started shipping animation overseas, they created a paradigm shift in the industry. Soon there would no longer be jobs for animators, assistant animators, inbetweeners, painters or layout artists in television animation. There was a period of widespread unemployment as everyone scrambled either to land a job on a feature or learn a new skill such as storyboarding, design or timing.
As a result, ten years later when Klasky Csupo tried to put together a layout team for The Simpsons, they were forced to cobble together a crew consisting mostly of students or other artists new to the industry and train them. Since then, this has become standard practice. Layout has become an entry-level position in the animation industry. The Simpsons, now in its tenth season and King of the Hill, in its third season, are almost entirely staffed with artists with no other industry experience. They've learned their craft working on the show. These shows have now become feeders to the feature houses at Warner Bros., Disney and DreamWorks.
Layout is taught and practiced a little differently on today's prime time shows than it used to be in the old days at Hanna-Barbera or Filmation, or is currently done for features. Typically, after a rough is produced, the finished background layout is drawn by one artist while another sketches out the key animation poses. In order to produce an "animatic," layouts are usually posed out with every animation extreme required by the scene, not just a first and last position. All the scene mechanics are also worked out as would normally be done by a scene planner.
Animatic: The Walk-Thru
One innovation that was utilized for the production of The Simpsons was the animatic.
On a feature, they build a leica reel so the director can get a sense of the flow of the film while it is still being animated. Problems can then be easily headed off early in the production in case anything isn't working. This isn't being done in television because the animation is all done out of the country. However it wasn't done in the early days of television either when the animation was all done in-house.
Jim Brooks, one of the creators of the show, was also a highly successful television producer. He was used to having a "walk-thru" by the actors a day before taping the show in order to give the writers an opportunity to see and hear their work play out. Jim felt this was an essential tool for a writer-driven show, but how to accomplish this in animation? The answer turned into what we call the "animatic," which is a film of the key pose animation and layouts synched to the dialogue track. This animatic is then screened for the writers and producers who in turn give notes on staging, acting and timing as well as rewrite the bits that need punching up. Sometimes as much as 50% of a script can be rewritten. It's an expensive process, but one that pays off not only for the writer, but for the director as well.
While the use of an animatic may have originated on The Simpsons it has quickly been taken up by other productions, and not only in prime time. Producers, who have the luxury of affording it, see the opportunity of bringing back some of the control that was lost by shipping the animation out to offshore subcontractors.
Timing: Sell The Joke. Stand-Up Comedy, Not Kung-Fu Fighting
Because the substance of prime time is about dialogue and acting rather than movement, the demands of timing are a little different. Recognizing early on that they were not going to get brilliant animation from the overseas production houses, directors started writing exposure sheets that called for very specific and precise (to the frame) moves with very clear instructions to the animator not to do any more than for what was called. "Ad lib" was banned from the vocabulary. Instead, a series of coded abbreviations were devised to call out a variety of pre-set animation pieces. The rest was provided either by the many layout poses or additional poses written on the sheets themselves. Breakdowns and inbetweens were indicated by tick marks so that the Korean animator was left with little or no room for interpretation.
In fairness to the Korean artists, a lot of what they were used to was not relevant to prime time. Cartoon takes and broad acting wasn't wanted. Instead, the writers were asking for a subtlety of acting to deliver their punch lines, jokes that were often hinged on cultural reference points that only the American television audience was going to appreciate.
Prime Time Results
So, what makes prime time animation special? It's certainly not feature in either the quality or complexity of the animation, nor does it try to be. But, it is in a class by itself as far as television animation and this is due to the time, care and, most of all, thought that goes into this deceptively simple style. Like I said, it is smart animation.
You can't argue with success. The animation that has succeeded in prime time has all been produced in a similar fashion. These shows have competed with the best of television and won out. That satisfaction is the reward for those who work so hard to do their very best.
Mike Wolf, a 20-year veteran of the animation industry, is currently producing the animation for both The Simpsons and King of the Hill for Fox at Film Roman.
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