Monday, July 30, 2007

Kevin Langley breaks down Dan Backslide

The wonderful Goobersleave blog has a fantastic post today- Kevin does some slow-motion presentation of a few Dan Backslide moments (animated by Bobe Cannon) from Chuck Jones’ seminal short The Dover Boys.

I’m always surprised when people say this is an early example of ‘limited animation’. On the contrary I’ve always thought “The Dover Boys” represented a wonderful expression of what full animation could bring to the table. There is no pretense of literalism in this film- it is utterly, fully animated. The things that are done here could only ever be done in a fully animated world. An animator employing what is typically called ‘full animation’ (let’s say a Disney animator from the same time period) would have Dan Backslide walk from the passenger side of the car and go around the car and get in and sit down in the driver’s seat in literal movements and steps. The animator would proceed based roughly on how a person might literally accomplish the same movement. The good animator would bring a sense of entertainment, music, rhythm, life, charm and expression to this. But in the end the scene would require maybe 80-100 drawings to complete (give or take). In “The Dover Boys” Bobe Cannon manages to accomplish the same action in 4 or 5 drawings. The way he does it is, in my opinion, one of the greatest expressions of full animation that has ever been done on planet earth. The solution to the challenge wasn’t to pick 5 milepost drawings out of the 80 that the full animator would use. That’s usually how limited animation has been done, often with less than inspiring results. But this- this is something altogether different. This instead is the act of taking multiple drawings and combining them into a single one that is all about perception and flow in movement. It’s a masterful expression of what it means to understand how animation functions on the atomic level.

Speaking as a teacher of animators I think we now we labor under the opposite problem- too many drawings without a clear understanding of how to make many (any?) of them meaningful. CG animators have no poverty of drawings to work with. We’ve got our rigged puppets, we have our timelines filled with a world of free inbetweens and we have our limitless inbetweened previewing capabilities at the push of a button or the scrub of a mouse. Thus equipped we happily press forward. Yet the price we pay for such modern conveniences is that we don’t think in terms of how images & drawings can express motion. Sure we pay some grudging tribute to the idea in our ‘blocking’ but then happily dive into the world of free inbetweens and endless scrubbing twiddles as soon as we possibly can. CG animators tend to discover their solutions as they go as a result of innumerable previews and tweaks over time. When every frame and drawing is given to you for free you don’t really understand the power of each one. Ours is a soft-minded way. Take away our ability to rip off 10, 20 or 30 playblast previews a day and some Cg animators would literally freeze up. When we learn that in the old days animators were lucky if they could pencil test their scenes once before turning them in we’re incredulous. Once? Seriously? Many of us can’t fathom such a way of working- and I think our own work suffers for it. A lot of animators who’ve only ever worked in the CG medium don’t understand the guts of how animation works well enough to know how to accomplish something like The Dover Boys. I know I didn’t when I first saw it and I was already a working professional! When I first tried to study this Dover Boys film it was like some kind of dark magic to me. — How could they do that? How would they even begin to know how to do that? And with pencils and no timeline to scrub around in? Surely this stuff must have taken months to make, right? What?! They did this at 15 feet per week?! No way! — These were the questions that echoed around my cranium when I first started analyzing this cartoon ‘lo these many years hence. It’s been a long journey for me since. Each time I’ve ever shown The Dover Boys to a group of younger CG animators (usually already working pros not many years out of school) they lose their minds in a similar sort of fashion. Like me they’re beside themselves- many had never seen anything like this. Or if they had seen it they’d never stopped and studied how it was accomplished. They could never fathom that getting from point A to point B in a scene in 5 frames was even possible, much less how to do it. This isn’t a knock on anybody- we only know what we know. We only have the experiences we have and we learn the way we’ve been taught. To this day most CG animators are still animating in some adaptation of the way computer programmers thought animation should work two decades ago. Of course the current rigid puppet rig paradigm hasn’t allowed us much freedom from this. Nor does the status quo for the technology give us a lot of room to employ this smear technique in CG. As a result some may dismiss this as an academic exercise or the grumblings of an old crank with an axe to grind with CG. “Stop harping on the past, get with the times.” That sort of rot. But remember, I am a CG animator- I really think the medium has untapped potential, and as such I think this is something worth exploring. When I initially studied The Dover Boys I experienced some of my first glimmers of understanding about what I call the ‘guts’ of animation. I began to see that one of the core secrets of excellent animation lay in the power of the drawings chosen to represent motion. Since then I have had several other major influences to thank for showing me that this is true regardless of how you make those drawings, whether you make them with a pencil or by pushing a puppet around on a computer.

But back to the cartoon- sadly the practice of employing this smear technique seems to have been mostly a one off experiment with not much further extensive use even among Golden Age cartoons. True enough it was used in spots throughout the years, but I don’t recall any single cartoon or film that embraced this technique so boldly (or to such great success). Which is too bad, really. It’s really interesting once you study it. Most big moves can be described as 3 drawings where the motion is broken out as 15% 70% 15%. Occasionally for larger moves you’ll see a four drawing move with a 10%, 40%, 40%, 10% sort of thing going on. The percentages are my loose way of defining how much of the motion for an action is represented in each specific drawing. The real genius of those ease drawings is of course in having some parts of the drawing be 95 or 98% of the way to the next pose while other parts are still dragged back at 60 or 70%, but that’s getting pretty technical. The cool thing is that even though there is a kind of motion formula at work here, all you need to do is to string a few smaller moves like this together with some stillness between them for rhythm and you can get great texture in the motion. The scenes of Dan Backslide “running” up to the cabin door to open it are fantastic examples of just how far you can push this technique and still have it hold up.


An example of 75% of the motion all wrapped up into one drawing.

A big huge thanks to Kevin for taking the time to break this down and put up examples. It’s like a clinic for free. You all should be reading his blog.

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