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More Mighty Principles of Animation

More animation tech talk from Gene Deitch. The technology of animation has changed somewhat over the past 35,000 years, when cavemen first attempted it, but the basics remain. Here they are in specifics.

An excerpt from Gene Deitchs How To Succeed In Animation (Dont Let A Little Thing Like Failure Stop You!).

Read the first installment of The Mighty Principles of Animation.

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 hadnt 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 didnt 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 couldnt animate in a realistic way. In those days, each of the major animation studios had their own house style. It was jokingly said that if you worked at Disneys, all you needed was a quarter and two dimes, so you could use them to help you draw Mickey Mouse. An animator at Disneys had to adapt to the Disney house style. If the animator moved to the Warner Bros. 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.

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?

Whether we call it film, movies, cinema, video or whatever, it is my feeling that root idea for a dramatic sound and light presentation in a darkened room goes all the way back to our human beginnings; that it actually fulfills humankinds earliest artistic and storytelling cravings. I have a friend, Alexander Marshack, who once was a photographer for LIFE Magazine, and then an early TV director, who has become a foremost expert on beginnings of human art and graphic communication... He traces art back at least 35,000 years. His story was told in National Geographic.

What interests me greatly about his work is what he has discovered and postulated about the cave paintings of Europe. First of all he reminds us of the weird feeling we have when inside a cave... If youve ever been inside a large cave, youll know this feeling. And if youve ever been deep inside a cave and turned off your light, you will know what dark is! It is a total blackness and quiet we can experience in no other way, especially with the deathly feeling of being under tons of rock.

OK. Now Alex Marshack points out that all those beautiful paintings we know of have been made maybe a half-mile deep inside the caves. Why did those early artists do that when it must have been enormously difficult for them? It certainly proves that they were able to produce light. Hollowed stones have been found inside the caves, which were probably oil lamps. They also had to be able to bring in drawing and painting utensils, to make scaffolding and to mix colors on the spot.

Flattened areas of stone have been found with enough residue to indicate they were used as palettes. But it can be assumed that they did not drag all those animals in there to use as models! Yet these paintings are marvelous examples of drawing skill by any standard. These were trained artists! What is especially fascinating to an animator is seeing that many of the drawings were attempts to convey an image of motion!

But this was a time of primitive and exceedingly difficult life, when just staying alive and hunting for food was the predominate need. But yet they felt it necessary to support professional artists! From this we have to assume that these so-called cavemen had a more advanced social organization than we might have thought, and that they were able to bring in a surplus of food, and that not every man or woman had to spend full time scrabbling for existence that the society 35,000 years ago could support and train artists!!! Again why? All of these deductions by Alexander Marshack got me to thinking that these people had a culture and a lore they wished to preserve, to pass on a need to tell stories!

It struck me: What more imprinting way could there have been for those people to inculcate their youth with the legends and lore of the community than to lead them into the icy vast darkness of a cave, to a deep, forbidding gallery, always the one that was the most sound resonant, (cave-age Dolby surround sound?), and in flickering oil lamp light, illuminating wondrous images, tell the tribal tales, in an atmosphere of guaranteed attention. The first animated movie presentation!

So we can see that though the technology of animation has changed a bit in the last 35,000 years, the aim is the same: to tell stories in the most dramatic, riveting and attention-holding way we can. Technical advancements come thick and fast in our times, but we mustnt let them rule our work as a thing unto themselves. Technology is an ever-evolving tool, but our use of it must always be the same: to tell our story!

If you learn anything, learn to keep the clarity of what you are saying, or the gag you are presenting. Dont fall victim to the mannerisms of the moment and let the technique smother your story!

In our art/craft of animation, in order to truly win our audiences hearts, we should aim not just to make our characters move, but to make them live or certainly seem to live to project an inner life, that motivates their actions and make those actions plausible. I wish I could say that I ever truly accomplished that... but I was a UPA man at heart. I have always valued strong stories and humanity, but in animation, I had other goals, guided by graphics, symbols and stylization. That has its place, and my successes nicely balanced my failures... but I have grown in my understanding of what animation is all about. Our audience is made up of humans, and we must respond to human expectations.

When I first became a director, and even up to this day, whenever I enter a studio engaged in producing films under my direction, I cant escape a certain moment of panic. My God! All these people are working on something that is my conception! What if Im wrong? They are all trusting their livelihood to the notion that I know what Im doing! Well of course, I must know what Im doing. What does a director do? If youve sat through the end credits of an animated feature film, you know that what we do is a (large) group effort.

Sure, you would love to think up, write, design, animate, paint, voice, shoot, computerize and edit your own film... Great! Maybe you will win a major prize in a major festival... That is, after four to six years of work, possibly being financed by a grant, but more likely from your career as a McDonalds fry cook. But if you actually want to earn a living in animation, you will have to find your place in a studio, and your place in the complex interplay of many talents.

A good animated film IS a deft amalgam of many talents and crafts. But a good animated film must LOOK like the work of one hand. And that is what a director does. The director is the one with the responsibility for the overall vision, and he or she is the one who must know what goes in, and what is discarded, the one who holds the production to a straight line. Without a directors clear vision and firm hand, the movie will wander all over the lot.

A good animation director should basically know how to do, or at least understand the place, of all the elements of the movie, and strive to keep them all in balance, not letting any one thing dominate, and have his or her eye and ear at all times centered on the story being told, the premise being proved and the point being made.

How to gain the confidence, the support, satisfy the egos of many diverse talents, and draw from them their best work, integrating it all into a seamless unity, is the constant endeavor and challenge of an animation director.

Though Ive tried to provide some guidance here for wannabe animators, theres a great new book that lays out exactly how to do it, The Animators Survival Kit by Richard Williams. Richard is a master animator himself, and more than that, he was able to bring into his studio the surviving great old masters, who actually developed the basic principles and techniques of animation, as we know it. The great animators from the original Disney studio, Warners, MGM and others came to teach Richard, and now Richard is passing it on to us. In his book Richard has laid out in practical detail all of the tricks and methods, step-by-step, of how to create convincing and living animation.

His book is as close as youre ever going to get to those old masters. Its all there everything you need to know to become a great animator yourself! If you just havent got the talent, drawing and acting skills, perseverance and willingness to work hard, you might as well go into another line of work, but hey, even if youve got just a modicum of those things, The Animators Survival Kit, will notch you up to a higher level than you would otherwise not be able to reach. Study it and grow!

To read more about how Gene Deitch animates, visit his online book.

Gene Deitch is one of the last surviving members of the original Hollywood UPA studio of 1946 and the instigator of the CBS-Terrytoon renaissance of 1956-1958. He was also: animation department chief of the Detroit Jam Handy Organization; 1949-1951, creative chief of UPA-New York, 1951-1954; director at John Hubleys Storyboard, Inc., New York, 1955; president of Gene Deitch Associates, Inc., New York, 1958-1960; creative director for Rembrandt Films, 1960-1968; and star director for Weston Woods Studios, Inc., Weston, Connecticut, 1968-1993. He has worked for more than 40 years with the Prague animation studio, Bratri v Triku.