Saturday, January 26, 2008

Developmental Death

Development. Let's talk about it. For some, it's that uncomfortable time in one's life when there are changes physically. Your voice drops down low, you develop breasts, etc. Well, I feel confident that I can talk about this, because my voice dropped down low right around the time I developed breasts, so development is my thing.

And it's the same for cartoons in the television world.

When you get an idea, the best thing to do is to let it grow organically. This is where Clampett's 'no-no' session ( later to be re-dubbed by Chuck Jones as a 'yes' session ) came from. The idea is simple. If you say 'yes' to an idea in it's infancy, it can and will grow if you guide it. But if you say 'no' to an idea without allowing it to bear fruit, you're cutting yourself off from a garden of possibilities.

A Concrete No can kill a Light Stringy Yes instantly.

Now, modern animation is sometimes criticized for being bland. This is particularly true of television animation, which is under constant scrutiny by a brave band of Yes Men who spend all day saying No. For any number of bland-looking cartoons out there ( we won't talk about the story or joke subject matter; another post, perhaps ), at least a third of them took a journey where several animators and designers made fun sketches that were slapped with the 'too stylish' edict and ended up having all the fun and originality snipped off them like a pair of nuts from a pup.

No doubt, this is a lofty and critical opinion, but I wish to present it as fact. Case studies: CLERKS THE CARTOON and AQUA TEEN HUNGER FORCE.

Before we get into the dissection of these shows visually, in an effort to curtail the comments a little bit, I should say that I am a fan of both shows, solely as 'funny shows'. In fact, I think written as they are, they'd be funnier if they were live action. To see these guys playing hockey on the roof every week? Golly. And I'd love to see a costumed Master Shake. But I digress...

Both of these shows look pretty bland and inconsistent in the case of AQUA TEEN, although I like the color scheme on CLERKS. But if you look at the development sketches for both of these shows, you feel cheated. Honest, you would. I did. Look, I'll show you.


First, let's meet the cast. We'll avoid the additional characters created just for the show and focus solely on the main four from the movie: Dante, Randal, Jay and Silent Bob.

Well, the first thing to remember, I guess, is that this was a movie that was successful to a unique audience, and the only people who would watch it deliberately would be said audience ( an audience to which I am an unabashed member.... I mean, fuck, Kevin Smith's on my Myspace friends page for chrissakes ). Bearing that fact in mind plays a heavy role in the amount of fun you can have with the cartoon.

But because it's a movie, there's a frame of reference that the core audience is loyal to; namely, the actors who portray the main characters...

Brian O'Halloran as Dante.

Jeff Anderson as Randal.

Jason Mewes as Jay.

Kevin Smith as Silent Bob ( who actually had some dialogue, true to form and despite the name ).

But as we're all aware, that's no excuse for making bland-looking characters. If you want interesting looking characters based on real people, one need look no further than...

For the look of the production, Kevin and his producers hired Chris Bailey who submitted, along with a slew of other animators and designers, a series of sketches suggesting looks for the characters. These went from looking sweet to the final bland.

We're going to examine the characters one at a time, and I'll start by showing you the finished look of the character first. First up, Dante.

So his head's basically a rectangle and his body is fundamentally a monolith. But below are some great attempts to make him look cartoony and fun. They weren't picked because Bailey said he needed it to be easy to draw... whatever that's about.

Before we move on to the rest of the characters, let's talk about simplicity of design. Simple has never meant easy, and a simple design, some think, should be easy to approximate on paper. Now, I guess in today's 'everybody with a PC can be an artist' mentality, ( not demeaning the idea; Matthew's an amazing artist who works on a crappy PC.... the only difference, he'd still be able to wow you without it ) having the design be something that a skater can draw on the back of his notebook has something to do with the selling of the idea to executives.

But when you're talking about REAL cartoons and cartoony principles, you take that approach and it's considered severely lowering the grade curve.... some would say.

In fact, when an animator designs something an exec could draw, the animator becomes the exec. Don't believe me? Two words: Seth McFarlane.

Anyway, back to the character development of CLERKS. Here's some great sketches by artists being artists before the execs start making notes to suggest a different direction ( Matthew accurately calls this 'playing guessing games' and it's one of his biggest pet peeves..... I know, because he yelled at me about it once ).

Alright, next up: Randal.

You'll notice on some of these drawings ( AQUA TEEN too ) there will be notes that say things like "you're on the right track" or "this is the right idea" and they're attached to drawings that look NOTHING like the final product. Executives aren't creative, remember, they just work in a creative industry.

The executive notes ( which included notes from my boys Kevin and Mos ) for Randal are similar, but one thing they hit on that was a good character trait was the posture of a slacker, yet one with a high upper chest which somehow evokes confidence..... even if it's stupid confidence.

But all these pictures are great, and you can see the individual artists' style coming through. It's basically the same with Jay and Bob, as it was with Dante, there's a lot of good ideas not being explored and said 'no' to here.

Every one of the following sketches is different than the one before it, except that it is either of Jay and Bob, or Dante and Randal. Oh, that and they're all imaginative and evidence of lost talent.

Now, the thing I don't understand about the next example, AQUA TEEN HUNGER FORCE, is that it is and always was going to be an [adult swim] production, produced in a few of the spare offices ( Williams Street ) at Turner Broadcasting's Cartoon Network wing.

No one ever thought for a second there'd be a budget for the show worthy of real animation.... so why all this innovation in the sketches?


This is what Frylock looks like now, but it wasn't always so. Consider:


Once the creativity is sucked out in consideration of the miniscule budget, this is the Shake we are left with. Look where he came from:


Here's a character that you would think would be an animator's dream, in that he can morph into any shape and be anything. Well, the animators saw that and drew these drawings which were, for the most part, ignored.

Wild Hare Animation Studios ( named, presumably, after Tex Avery's definitive hunter and rabbit picture ) are the guys that drew all of these.

Clay Martin Croker ( does the voice of Zorak in the new Space Ghost shows ) designed the most playful, free and fun designs. He signs the drawings CMC, and I enjoy his drawings the best.

But again, what I don't understand is, since everyone involved, Clay included, knew the cartoon wasn't going to have the budget to support those designs, why submit them in the first place ( besides the fact that drawing those was probably a lot of fun )?

Any of you animators out there have an idea as to why?

- Trevor Thompson.


PowerRangerYELLOW said...

Those designs for the clerks cartoon are great.

You would have thought that they would make the designs look it's best when it the final design are picked.

even aqua teens had some neat designs in there.

If those executives were actually creative and could draw themselves they would have been better at giving notes and the final result would have looked better than the old character designs all together.

It sucks that the designs gotten dumbed down.

Just picture all the silly drawings and animation they could have used in the episode that was completed by the Korean animators.

and even if clerks were live action only animation could do that big american party any justice.

This behind the scenes stuff is just very interesting.

Booo Tooons Ltd. said...

"and even if clerks were live action only animation could do that big american party any justice."

Bob knows you're right, and I was going to include that, but the post is already super long.

- trevor.

Jennifer B. said...

That is a crazy in-depth post! Nice. I'll be sure to return often.

I see you visited the TADA blog recently, and here's my reply to you:

Hello Mr. Thompson!
Thanks for checking out our blog.

This link should help you figure out the team members thing:

As I recall, there's some way to invite individual members to contribute.

These particular prints are screen prints (aka serigraphs). I actually work at a t-shirt screenprinting studio, and am able to take advantage of the equipment there. These two prints are made with a water-based ink; on t-shirts we use an ink that is basically like plastic. If you're unfamiliar with the process, there's a great explanation with pictures here:

So glad I could provide some inspiration, if only a teeny tiny bit.


pappy d said...

Thanks for the glimpse of entertainment that never was.

Doug Wildey (Jonny Quest, etc.) used to have a story on this subject. He'd just finished a pitch to a network executive who he knew pretty well. He'd brought full-color comic-book quality artwork with him to sell the show depicting the sort of exciting action-adventures the characters would have. He said, "You know, it's never gonna look like this on TV." The exec pondered a moment & then said: "Enh!...Keep jerkin' me off."

David Germain said...

Actually, a similar thing happened to the Scooby Doo gang. The original concept drawings of Fred, Shaggy, Daphnie, Velma, and Scooby done by Iwao Takamoto were chockfull of playfulness and appeal. You could easily tell he had been trained well by Milt Kahl. But, like most TV shows, that kids were all toned down into the empty shells that dominated Saturday Morning for 17 years.

Colin said...

Great post. Like you, I'm a fan of both shows, but I know that the animation is beyond terrible.

I remember seeing those sketches on the DVD extras and just loving them more than the finished products.

Of course, with Clerks it wouldn't have mattered anyway because the damn show was cancelled after 2 episodes.

Clay said...

Thanks for the comments, Trevor -
I tell ya why the funnier drawings...
Part of it, as was suggested, is we knew the characters would never ultimately come off as cool as we could draw them up front with the budget we had to work with - but we wanted to see how far we could push it anyway... The other part is that there's always the chance that if you can provide something that the client "can't live without" then you might be able to push the project down a cooler path than had been originally envisioned.
(That route has worked for me time and again by the way)
A lot of the drawings I did were done over a 3 or 4 hour period when I met show creators Dave and Matt over at the Highland Tap one rainy Sunday afternoon in April 1999. We drank pitcher after pitcher - they told me what they wanted and I drew about 10-12 pages of designs while we talked. (Some of those drawings were actually incorrectly reffered to as Wild Hare Studios art in this article -- But they ain't.)
So alcohol no doubt enhanced the overall "carefree" drawing approach to some of those.
But I ask ya - doesn't every animator wanna work on a show that's fun to draw? (and closer to their own style?)