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How To Succeed in Animation

Chapter 4: Animation Tech-Talk

The technology of animation has changed somewhat over the past 35,000 years, when it was first attempted by cave men, but the basics remain. Here they are in specifics:

Technically, the production method of film animation remained basically unchanged since Raoul Barre patented peg-holes, and pegs to fit into them. In the same year pioneer animator,J ohn Bray first used transparent cels.

It was1914, ten years before I was born. Basically the same methods were used for nearly 80 years, until the advent of computer animation, when scanning, coloring, and digital compositing became the norm. We were still producing our little animation movies on Bray's cellulose-acetate sheets until the end of the 20thcentury, and were still using Raoul Barre's peg holes with drawn animation on paper until the end of our production careers! 

However whichever way it was done, is done, or will be done technically, the principles of cinematic animation remain the same. 12 principles were developed and codified in one incredibly explosive decade, between 1930 and 1940 at the Walt Disney Studios on Hyperion Boulevard in Hollywood.

Whatever we may think of the artistic taste of Disney, we cannot discount the incredible advances of animation technique that evolved during that golden decade in his studio; hardly surpassed to this day. The 1930s brought animation from the crude STEAMBOAT WILLIE to the highly polished FANTASIA!  How much better is character animation today?

Every animated film made today uses those same basic animation principles, no matter which technology is used. They may be difficult to understand without demonstration, but they were all printed and explained in Frank Thomas' and Ollie Johnston's landmark book, “Disney Animation, The Illusion of Life." 

Here they are:

1. Squash and Stretch. (Shape distortion to accentuate movement)

2. Anticipation. (A reverse movement to accent a forward movement)

3. Staging. (The camera viewpoint to best show the action)

4. Straight-ahead vs. Pose-to-pose action. (Two basic procedures)

5. Follow-through and Overlapping action. (Nothing stops abruptly!)

6. Slow-in and Slow-out. (Smoothing starts and stops by spacing)

7. Arcs. (Planning the path of actions)

8. Secondary Actions. (A head might wag while the legs walk!)

9. Timing. (Time relations within actions for the illusion of life!)

10. Exaggeration.(Caricature of actions and timing, for comic or dramatic effect)

11. Skillful drawing. (Learn good drawing to be a good animator!)

12. Appeal. (If our characters are not appealing, then all is lost!)

If I may quibble, I would add:

13. Mass and weight. (preserve volume!)

14. Character acting. (Thinking of the character as a real actor)

It's not my purpose to explain or illustrate these principles here, that's all in Frank and Ollie's book. I only want to make the point that though we have an art here, we also have a craft, and that there are basic laws and principles that guide us, just as we have the laws of gravity and motion. Within these laws, there is room for infinite variation and invention. That's where the creativity comes in. Those rules apply mainly to character animation. Graphics animation is unlimited; in that area virtually anything goes, though it doesn't hurt to keep the principles of arcs and timing in mind!

Up to the time I was sent to Prague in 1959, I assumed that American cartoon animation was the only kind that really 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 exactly 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 justfigures. 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. Realism 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 day Czech Republic. So there was this ancient tradition of puppetry that carried over into cinema animation in the country. The Czech 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 upending the American 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.

A central idea at 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 over35,000 years ago?

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

What interested me greatly about his work was what he discovered and postulated about the cave paintings of Europe. First of all he reminded us of the weird feeling we have when inside a cave... If you've ever been inside a large cave, you'll know this feeling. And if you've 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.

Alex Marshack pointed out that most of those beautiful cave paintings 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 tools, to make scaffolding, and to mix colors from ground minerals and animal oils.

Flattened areas of stone have been found with enough residues to indicate they were used as palettes. But it can be assumed that they did not drag all those animals into the caves 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 images of motion!

But this was a time of primitive and exceedingly difficult life, when just staying alive and hunting for food were the priority needs.  But yet the tribes felt it necessary to support "professional" artists! From this we have to assume that these so-called cave men 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 society 35,000 years ago could support and train artists!!! Why?  Those deductions by Alexander Marshack got me thinking that these people had a culture and 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 infuse 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, 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 mustn't let technology rule our work as a thing unto itself. 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. Don't fall victim to the mannerisms of the moment and let the technique smother your story!

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