Floriane Place-Verghnes examines the work of this great American animator. Focusing primarily on four facets of Avery’s work, the author first concentrates on Avery’s ability to depict the American attempt both to retrieve the past nostalgically and to catch the Zeitgeist of 1940s America, which confronts the questions of violence and survival. She also analyzes issues of sex and gender and the crucial role Hollywood played in reshaping the image of womanhood, reducing it to a bipolar opposition. Thirdly, she examines the comic language developed by Avery which, although drawing on the work of the Marx Brothers and Chaplin (among others), transcended their conventions. Finally, Place-Verghnes considers Avery’s place in the history of cartoon-making technique.
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About the Author
Floriane Place-Verghnes teaches in the School of Languages, Linguistics and Cultures at the University of Manchester.
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Tex Avery: A Unique Legacy (1992-1955)
By Floriane Place-Verghnes
John Libbey Publishing Ltd.Copyright © 2016 John Libbey Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved.
The Cartoon-Making Technique
Provided that you have seen a few cartoons and you are rather curious, you must have wondered "How did they do that?" The magic atmosphere that pervades cartoons actually conceals a more practical side; that of the various techniques employed in order to achieve a maximum impact on the audience by constantly flirting with reality, without anyone noticing the amount of pain taken in timing the whole thing precisely. Five weeks of intense work, 8,640 frames and no less than 1,300 metres of film are required to create a six-minute cartoon. Cartoons in the 1940s had to be six minutes long, not more, not less, both for obvious financial reasons and because of their status of film preview: the duration of a cartoon, a set of commercials, a newsreel, and a film had to be precisely two hours long.
I now propose to follow the birth of a cartoon from its conception to the final result, by examining all the different departments that deal with its creation.
1. The story-board
The very first thing you need to make a cartoon is obviously a screenplay. The script-writer (or storyman) is therefore the first person to put his shoulder to the wheel. Not only does he write the dialogue (unless a dialogue-man is appointed for this part of the process), but he is also responsible for the whole atmosphere of the cartoon through his detailed description of the characters, places, and forces at work in the story. He then works closely with the director to produce characters and situations that will work together visually. His role will be to translate the story in a limited number of sketches (from 50 and 150 for a six-minute cartoon), and to pair it with a few lines of dialogue, in order to see if the combination is effective. The drawings are very rough, not refined, and only depict extreme positions, behaviours, or physical expressions. "Extreme", because knowing that a character, object, or landscape will gradually change (at a rhythm of 24 frames per second) between a period X and a period Y, the story-artist will not take the time (or the financial risk) to draw all the pictures between X and Y, but will merely sketch out the two extremesX and Y. The resulting story-board, which looks like a huge comic-strip, will then be pinned onto a cork panel so that the whole team (animators, model-makers, scene painters, etc.) can discuss potential modifications. The technique of the storyboard has been used since the 1920s, but was significantly developed by Walt Disney.
2. The model-sheet
"Attitude is everything". Chuck Jones
You "must feel the characters from inside out. You have to get attitudes that express the character."
Roger Allers, storyboard artist at Disney's
In other words, since each character has his own way of running, walking, bouncing, etc., his personality must come first, long before pictorial representation. Some cartoonists working on animal characters concentrate on comparative anatomy (i.e. analysis of the similarities rather than the differences between animals and human beings) in order to understand movement. Such a study proves very helpful if you wish to retain the animal characteristics of a protagonist. However, for the same reason that he rejected three-dimensional drawing, Tex Avery was not particularly interested in comparative anatomy; this reveals another side of the problem. Since Droopy could not possibly be a normal dog, Tex Avery had to discover his own dynamics. "No, Bugs Bunny does not exist. But he lives." This is why the director and his main, or chief, animators need to study the characterisation of the protagonists before drawing a large and detailed range of physical characteristics and facial expressions for each of them (anger, madness, joy, sadness, etc.). The model-sheet thus produced will serve as a landmark for further animation, just like the plan of an essay. Each time an artist is unsure of what he is doing, he must refer to the model-sheet. A similar device exists for the plot. The outline describes the plot sequence after sequence, thus preventing the artists from drifting away from the original idea. Such devices are absolutely essential, since you have to bear in mind that when watching a cartoon by Tex Avery, you are actually watching a cartoon produced by a whole team. In other words, Droopy or the wolf are not the product of one man, but of several artists who had to work with the same character, so that no difference could be seen between one drawing and the next. The purpose of the model-sheet is to remind the team precisely of what the character should look like throughout the cartoon. Given that the model-sheet would prove much easier an enterprise if the protagonists were human, one may wonder what the point is of using an animal character at all. As with other fabulists, such as Æsop or La Fontaine, Tex Avery used animals to highlight human moral qualities, because staging real people would have proved too risky an experiment in the eyes of the censorship authority (as we shall see in the section dedicated to sex and gender). Besides, if in a cartoon reality can only be touched without being grasped, it is probably better to change the conventions radically since
we are far too close to other human beings; we are surrounded by human beings; we are subconsciously and consciously critical of other human beings according to how they deviate from our own behavior or from standards of behavior we approve of.
3. The lay-out
Each sequence, or theme (e.g. the chase, the fight, the rescue, etc.), is divided into several scenes (a scene being defined as a change of angle). The lay-out man's job is to decide what the camera will film. He works in close relation with the director (who is the handy-man of the team, since he co-ordinates all the departments) and sketches out in black and white the basic composition of each sequence according to the movements of the characters. He must also give all the directions related to the movements of the camera (such as close-ups, longshots, pannings, rotations, etc.), as well as lighting; all of which he enters into a lay-out workbook. The lay-out (a sort of technical version of the storyboard) is then passed on to the scene-painters, whose task it will be to draw the settings according to this technical frame. The lay-out is seldom a single piece of work, but rather a composium of several sheets that can therefore be used as a basis for the characters to evolve around, thus creating an impression of depth. However, Tex Avery did not use the technique of the lay-out to its fullest potential (as Walt Disney did), since his purpose was not to approach reality, but on the contrary (as we shall see later on) to remind the audience of the unreality of the cartoon. Tex Avery was therefore not interested in three-dimensional drawings, which is why one may sense a feeling of flatness whilst watching his cartoons.
"I've always felt that what you did with a character was even more important than the character itself."
People generally think that voices are adapted to animation; in fact, it is just the opposite. Even before animation starts, the actors' voices must be recorded so that the animation team can have a precise idea of the timing of each action in a sequence (e.g. how much time, and accordingly, how many frames do they need for a character to utter three sentences?). On a general basis, a variety of voices complete characterisation: for instance, a sweet high soprano or tenor voice for the hero as opposed to a low-pitched and resonant voice for the villain. Once again, Tex Avery stands apart. He has a knack of fooling the audience when they expect it least, notably by assigning the voices at random.
The same device is used with sounds. Most of the time, they are totally untrustworthy (i.e. not in keeping with the action which is taking place) and illogical. For instance, in Half-Pint Pygmy (1948), Junior's face hits the ground repeatedly, each time producing a ludicrous sound such as that of a horn, or musical notes, etc. Another recurring use of preposterous sounds may be found in Batty Baseball (1944), or in Red Hot Riding Hood (1943) when a character breaks into pieces with the sound of broken china. This burlesque device creates a comic effect often verging on the surreal (a notion which will be further commented in the fourth section of this book). In this light, it is to be noted that Tex Avery paid particular attention to the sound effects ("Tex Avery was a sound maniac", Heck Allen, one of his storymen, recalls) and that nothing is left to chance regarding their use. Just like voices, sounds come prior to animation and are discussed in depth before the editor gives the animators a detailed breakdown of sounds and dialogues. Consonant and vowel sounds – as well as the length of time they are to last – are entered on an exposure sheet (or X-sheet for short) thus simplifying the sound reading. The goal is the same as for dialogues: the X-sheet enables the animation department to gain a precise idea of how many drawings they will need to accompany the production of a sound, so that the soundtrack and the film match exactly. Alternatively, the effect artists may use the Foley process (from the name of its creator), which consists in recording the sounds simultaneously to the screening of the cartoon.
Most of the time, music was played by a full orchestra, which obviously created a financial issue. At the end of 1954, due to budget cuts, UPA (United Productions of America) decided to reduce its use drastically. Such a measure could hardly upset Tex Avery who firstly was at the end of his career, and secondly had never used music to Walt Disney's extent in his cartoons (the final instance of this being Fantasia).
Terry Porter, a mixer for Walt Disney's studios qualifies it as follows: "mixing together the sound ingredients until it tastes just right". The dubbing consists of combining and editing
so as to produce the final soundtrack. Three "mixers" (one for each element of the soundtrack) manipulate and adjust the quality and volume of each sound.
"I think that most people who go into animation ... are born actors."
The term "animation" is a pitfall when it comes to definition. If one looks at the etymology of this word in a dictionary, one understands the purpose of an animation department better. "Animation" finds its roots in Latin (anima – breath, life), and it can best be defined as "to impart life to/ to inspire with energy or action/ to enliven" (Oxford). The animator's job is precisely to blow the breath of soul into his characters. However, many people misuse the word "animation" as a synonym for "cartoon", even though cartoons are but one form of animation. Let us take for instance Tim Burton's Vincent, or The Nightmare Before Christmas ; they are not cartoons, yet they are animated movies. Norman Mc Laren's definition of the term "animation" is certainly the most comprehensive one:
Animation is not the art of drawings that move, but the art of movements that are drawn. What happens between each frame is more important than what exists on each frame. Animation is therefore the art of manipulating the invisible interstices that lie between frames.
In other words, the language of animation conveys a message of its own. Technical devices do not bear a meaning as such, but they are necessary tools to support the said message. What remains to define is the nature of the message.
Animation, like film, is an art of images: moving, profound, hyperbolic, or just funny, they are images that hopefully express something about their creator's insides, about the conflict inherent in the story, or about life on this particular planet.
Animation, like any other form of art, is tightly linked to its author's message. By adopting a particular testimonial stance on the world that surrounds him, the animator leaves a genuine and deep signature. The particular characteristics of the message conveyed through the cartoons will be further developed in Section 2.
The historical background is also a key-factor in understanding why Tex Avery was lucky enough to get the best "life-blowers" or "witnesses" of the labour market. After the Depression, the only cartoon-maker with some money left was probably Walt Disney. He trained his animators himself by paying for their tuition fees at the famous Chouinard Art Institute, LA (where Chuck Jones himself studied) and later on, opened his own school of art (Disney Art School, 1932). He then had the monopoly on cartoon production. There was not one animator left on the labour market who had not been trained by Walt Disney. However, such a technical training proved to be the best and the most comprehensive available at the time. So when a few animators, including Preston Blair, displeased with Walt Disney's attitude, deserted him, Tex Avery was only too happy to find alternative employment for this small elite. The technique they were to use under Tex Avery's supervision did not differ from their previous employer's, just as it has not much changed today.
Chief and Assistant Animators
The animation department is divided into several teams.
The chief animator reworks the extreme positions or movements of the characters. But he is responsible for no more than 30 per cent of the final result; there are still a great number of gaps to be filled. The assistant animators (once called in-betweeners) draw all the different frames contained between the extremes X and Y, thus completing the animation. This process is known as pose-to-pose animation, and was first used by Winsor McCay as early as 1914 (in Gertie the [Trained] Dinosaur), while the notions "extremes" and "in-betweens" were coined by Walt Disney. These different pictures – 24 for each second of a cartoon – are called breakdowns, since they segment the continuity of a sequence. In-betweeners are obviously subject to important timing requirements, which are clarified in a timingchart. Animators work with the help of a disc (supplied with pegs so as to tie several leaves together) which enables them to move the drawings (called animation papers at this point of the process) around in order to reach various angles. They use one hand to draw, and can flip quickly from one page to another with the other hand to check the effectiveness of the animation (a process you can experience at home with a child's flipbook).
The clean-up artist then makes new drawings (known as keys) on top of the rough ones he has received from the animation department. His work is far more refined, precise and clean (hence his title) than that of the in-betweeners. As a matter of fact, many people rely on him as regards details (often forgotten in the previous process). The function of the clean-up artist is thus crucial since he does not only ensure that nothing is missing, but is also the main co-ordinator of the artistic process. His drawings being the final ones, they must give the impression that they have sprung from the hand of one person alone – which, as enlightened cartoon-watchers, we know not to be true. At least thirty people are responsible for the creation of one character, which is why many characters have several "fathers" (cf. Bugs Bunny, attributed in turn to Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett, and of whom many others have claimed paternity). This illustrates the statement by Charles Solomon, according to whom "animation is a collective art".
6. The Colouring, the Scenery, and the Shooting
Once the director has checked the quality of the animation, the pen drawings are tidied up and inked or phototransfered onto transparent sheets called rhodoids or celluloid (cels for short). The artists then create a variety of models, or colour-keys, so as to get an idea about the colours to be used for each character according to the general atmosphere of the cartoon. These colours, once chosen, are hand-applied onto the backs of the cels with acrylic paint. Next, each cel is given a number and carefully stocked before the final shooting. Though the size of the cels can vary, the MGM studios have always stuck to the 12 inch format (26.7 × 31.7 cm).
Excerpted from Tex Avery: A Unique Legacy (1992-1955) by Floriane Place-Verghnes. Copyright © 2016 John Libbey Publishing Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of John Libbey Publishing Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
SECTION 1 – A FOREWORD ON THE GENERIC CONTEXT, 7,
Chapter I The Cartoon-Making Technique, 9,
Chapter II The Cartoon Before Tex, 19,
SECTION 2 – THE UNIQUENESS OF TEX AVERY'S TESTIMONY 35,
Chapter III Tex Avery's Americanness: An Attempt to Retrieve the Past, 39,
Chapter IV Facing Contemporary Politics, 51,
Chapter V Tex Avery's Unique Viewpoint on Good, Evil, and Morality, 69,
SECTION 3 – ON SEX AND GENDER, 89,
Chapter VI Freudian Pansexualism: Concepts of Activity/Passivity, 93,
Chapter VII Reduction of Womanhood Into Two Types: The Destructive Power of Women, 103,
Chapter VIII Oedipal Relationships and Their Consequences, 119,
SECTION 4 – TEX AVERY'S UNIQUE COMIC STRATEGIES, 129,
Chapter IX The Burlesque Heritage, 131,
Chapter X Towards a Pragmatic Relation With the Audience, 145,
Chapter XI The Provisional Nature of the Averyan Universe, 163,
Filmography – Tex Avery's Cartoons: The MGM Years (1942–1955), 185,
Bibliography/Further reading, 201,