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Dr. Toon: The Animation Critic's Art - Part VIII

Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman returns with another animation criticism lesson focusing on direction by dissecting Dick Lundy's classic Donald Duck short, A Good Time for a Dime.

Dr. Toon says the devil is in the details of the direction of A Good Time for a Dime. All images courtesy of Walt Disney Co.

Directing is a complicated subject to address when evaluating animated shorts or films. An animation director does not have an analogous role to that of live-action director. The most obvious difference is that animated characters don't actually exist in the sense that live actors do, but that is not the only contrast between the two directing jobs.

An animated film exists in a separate plane of reality. If, say, a live action-director does not like the placement of a tree, the entire shot must be moved or altered. If an animation director does not like the placement of a tree, the tree itself can be eliminated or substituted for. Live-action directors who now have weapons such as WETA digital magic at their disposal are just beginning to reap the advantages that animation directors have had for over 100 years.

The role of an animation director can be simplified into the following definition: The person who ensures that all elements of a given short or film are consistent and congruent while guaranteeing that said elements tell the story as conceived. Of course, there are writers and storyboard artists involved as well, but the director is most responsible for the end product.

Sounds simple, right? In truth, it would take several columns to explain and to give examples of how this is done for better and for worse. What I will attempt to do, however, is identify the elements referred to and give examples of how they are most effectively utilized.

The Character(s): The director is responsible for how the character is used. Under consideration is the character(s) role in the story, the consistency of character presentation, and how the characters react to the conflict or problem essential to the cartoon. Deft handling of the characters will invariably result in a good cartoon., even if the story is weak. A misstep in any one of the above areas will sink the short/film no matter how good or tight the story may be.

The Conflict:

Here we begin to integrate the content of the past columns. The conflict must be entertaining, balanced, and worthy of a story.

The Setting:

Where the cartoon takes place.  Jungle? City? Desert? Alien world? Setting impacts story: Try putting a Road Runner cartoon in the settings used in Akira.

The Pacing:

The sequence of action and the speed (or deliberate lack of) that runs through the cartoon.

The Gags:

Not appropriate for all cartoons, but found in most. Must be funny, well-timed, whether expected or unexpected. (More on gags in an upcoming installment).

Daisy's Dance of the Seven Veils shows how timing is key to getting laughs.

There are more factors to consider, but let's take a cursory glance at a well-directed cartoon and see how these elements mesh under competent direction. Consider the Disney short film A Good Time for a Dime (1941, Dick Lundy, director).  I am not nominating this for one of Disney's greatest shorts, nor do I consider Lundy as a top-tier director. I choose this cartoon as an example of how directing works when it is done well.

The cartoon opens with iris in on an animatronic clown hawking a penny arcade. A happy Donald Duck saunters in and enters a room filled with nickelodeons.  Donald disdains boring titles such as "Home Life of the Ant" but sees "The Dance of the Seven Veils" (1:08). The scene pans to the right to show the next machine (significantly, it's called "Over the Andes" and features phallic peaks, a well-timed reference to Donald's impending passion). There is a rapid pan back to the "Seven Veils", and we see Donald mount the step in smear animation, Lundy's shorthand for Donald's hurry to see the show.

The Dance of the Seven veils is performed by Daisy Duck. One would have predicted a human female, but it is part of the charm of this cartoon that Donald sees one of his own species. Donald watches the salacious show from  1:15 through 2:03. During this time, Lundy manages to pace Donald watching the slides upside down (they are messed up in the nickelodeon), Donald's shadow sprouting devil horns (1:46: very significant; this not only represents Donald's lust, but also foreshadows the carnage the duck will attempt to wreak on the arcade), a second glitch that results in the machine being pummeled, and Donald tripping over the step and recovering just in time to miss the penultimate veil (2:04)."I've been robbed!" yells the angry duck, leading to a left-right wipe at 2:11)

It takes a fine sense of timing to pull all this off : In less than one minute we see  Donald's  lust, temper, and a foreshadowing of Donald's future experiences in the arcade and reactions for the rest of the short. So, Lundy has nailed down setting, character, pacing, conflict, and gags early in the cartoon.

An attempt to snag a camera in the iron claw machine (2:21 – 2:44) leaves Donald pelted with gumballs. He curses the machine as a "mechanical horse thief", tries again, and is splattered by an ink bottle (3:08). Donald swears revenge and this time pummels the machine into relinquishing every prize. (3:28 – 3: 59)

An interesting note: at 3:48 Donald appears to be violently humping the machine, possibly a tie in to the duck's frustrated sexuality from the previous scene.  If so, this is an example of directing at its finest!)

The last prize in the machine is a perfume atomizer, which the claw discharges up Donald's nose. His mighty sneeze blows every prize back into the machine (4:18). By now we can sense that the machines themselves have taken up the fight against the duck. By setting this possibility up, Lundy adds to the power of the next scene, in which we find this to be true. The scene ends with an arch wipe at 4:23, making a point about pacing: Scenes one and two were exactly equal in length. Not only is Lundy's pacing spot on, but enough time is left to set up the third and penultimate scene, Donald's utter defeat.

The character direction to the mechanical plane sequence highlights how a director sets up material.

Donald next straps himself into a 1940s version of a flight simulator, which is actually fun for few moments until the time expires.  (4:24 – 5:12). Even while enjoying the "flight" in the mechanical plane, Donald finds a way to display aggression, imagining himself as a fighter pilot. Lundy's grip on the character remains solid. When prompted for another dime (5:16), Donald accuses the little plane of being a "Doggone robber!" and tears out the control stick, telling the ride "Don't argue with me!" Donald gets his ride, which the plane ensures is a terrifying, vertiginous ordeal.

At 5:48 Lundy begins playing with perspective. This begins with the plane dumping the duck over and then charging back up at him in a rapid POV down shot (5:58). He lands backwards on the fuselage but the plane tips him back towards the propeller. Just as his tail is about to be chewed off, Donald spins his endangered butt into a rival propeller (6:29) but this only saves him for a few seconds. His tail is shaved, the plane bucks him back into the seat, and from 6:36  -6:39 there is a spectacular POV circular pan shot at terrific speed from ceiling to floor and back again as Donald hangs on for his life. Again, this sequence was likely storyboarded, but it was Lundy who paced it to take up 48 frames. From 6:40 to 6:45 the plane contorts, spins and rolls in a dizzying descent that crashes the duck to the ground. The fastest actions in the entire short thus takes place in a total of eight seconds, and we feel as disoriented as poor Donald.

6:46 – 6:53 sees Donald's eyes rolling back and forth in the aftermath of the ride (This actually appears to be re-used animation from the previous year's Donald Duck short Window Cleaners). Interestingly enough, this gag goes on for eight seconds, counterbalancing the frantic action that climaxes Donald's battle with the plane. Donald, now green with nausea, staggers out of the arcade at 7:15, ending the short. This was the longest scene at three minutes, ten seconds, but since it contained Donald's comeuppance, it likely had to contain more action.

It's difficult to imagine this short done any better. Lundy's solid handling of a character whose nature had been established seven years beforehand cannot be faulted. The pace of the cartoon is well-handled and the gags are timed to near-perfection. The setting, with its potential for malfunction and frustration, is a good one for the character. The short portrays constant conflict with only brief moments of happiness for the Donald, which is pretty much how his life goes anyway.

Donald always gets frustrated and explodes, so it takes great direction to help make it fresh.

The danger of making Donald Duck cartoons during the 1940s lay in the fact that they could seem very similar in content and execution: Put the character in a situation where he is continually frustrated, let him explode, and then show the consequences of such responses. With stale gags, slow timing, and inadequate conflict, that might easily happen. The task issued to the director: make this short look fresh. As good as the storyboard or script may have been, Lundy's job was to direct the action in such a way that audiences' expectations were both fulfilled and challenged, while making them laugh at the same time.

Lundy succeeded on all counts. Donald displayed not only his famous temper, but also lust, greed, impatience, and vindictiveness. He did so to such a degree that inanimate objects became imbued with supernatural intelligence in order to exact revenge on the duck. A Good Time for a Dime is a lesson in how an eye is taken for an eye.

How different from Goofy, who might be smacked with a board simply because he did not know how to nail it correctly, or tortured by exercise equipment through clumsiness rather than malice. Mickey Mouse, a far more deliberate character than Donald, could not have starred in this short: Mickey was unsuited to florid displays of emotion or direction utilizing breakneck speed.

Again, A Good Time for a Dime was simply another short turned out by the studio in 1941, one of eighteen produced that year. Jack King, who also directed a number of Donald's shorts in the early forties, might have done equally well, but this triumph belongs to Dick Lundy, who serves as an example of how to successfully direct a cartoon short.

You there, in the third row with your hand up…you have a question? What does a poorly directed animated short look like? I'm glad you asked, because that will be covered in part two of this discussion. We will examine a very bad short that was made, incredibly enough, by one of the greatest directors in animation history. Class dis-missed.

Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.