Cartoons with a director

I was watching some cartoons and noticed that there is a “director”.
What does a director of cartoons do?

Let’s move this from GQ to our forum for entertainment, Cafe Society.

General Questions Moderator

Welcome to the Straight Dope, and that is an excellent question!

They do pretty much everything that a director of a live action show does.

A director has much more of a job than just yelling cut at the end of a live take.

They oversee everything, the storyboard, the animation, even the color palette and the drawing style.

They also are involved with the voice actors. Voice acting and directing is really just as involved and demanding as live action acting. Sometimes there is a separate voice acting director, especially if an animation is translated into other languages, but that director would still be responsive to the main director, following their lead in the way the story is told.

Pretty much the only difference between them and the director of a live action show would be instead of working with live actors on a set, they are working with animators and voice actors to make the characters portray the story the director is telling.

Probably sits on a high folding chair with a megaphone. Just kidding. Good question.

This was not a big deal, but it’s been bothering me for awhile.

People ask “What does a cartoon director do? say ‘Take it from the top, Bugs’? Hah -ha-ha”. I try to talk to these people as little as possible. – Joe Adamson, noted cartoon historian.

as has already been observed, the director is pretty much in charge of everything. In an animated cartoon, that’s an awful lot, because nothing happens by chance in an animated cartoon. It has to be drawn, which means somebody had to think about it. The color of a character’s eyes (if they have a color) is probably not completely random in a cartoon.

The director affects the overall tone of the cartoon, and the way characters move (“A cartoon character doesn’t just walk from one side of the screen to the other. If he does, the director has abandoned him” – Adamson, again). I can tell a Chuck Jones cartoon from another cartoon by the way he structures things and the way his characters behave. A Chuck Jones Road Runner cartoon is very different from one of the made-for-TV Roadrunner cartoons Friz Freleng did. Or one of the more recent Road Runner cartoons made by newer directors. Tex Avery had a craziness to his characters, whether Warner Brothers or MGM, that was very different from Jones’ more cerebral, detail-noticing style. And Bob Clampett’s style was crazy in a completely different way than Avery’s.

In the WB days, animation directors did much of the character design as well. You can tell a Chuck Jones character (or version of a character) just from the shape of the mouth.

And the fact one character often does a “looks at camera and shrugs shoulders” thing. That’s how I knew before I could read that Chuck Jones directed the Grinch. :slight_smile:

Obligatory A Star Is Bored link.

At WB – at least – the director does not only does all the directorial stuff mentioned in Cal’s post and character design in Elmer’s but also drew the key frames of the work. When Bugs pulls a big mallet out of his hammerspace, raises it over his head in a two-handed grip, and brings it down to flatten Yosemite Sam’s head, it’s Chuck Jones or Bob McKimson who draws that pause at the top and the finish at the end of the stroke. Other artists, the inbetweeners, draw the frames (duh) in between, the majority of the drawings.

The above is why Miyazaki keeps trying to retire. When he directs a movie, he creates literally thousands of individual drawings capturing key layouts, transition points in motion, critical character emotions, and so on. These are then interpreted and, as you say, “in-betweened” by other animators. For certain very important moments in the movie, Miyazaki may essentially become the lead artist, animating a few seconds of action himself. This is, obviously, a ton of work, and Miyazaki has earned a rest. But he’s also compulsively creative and keeps coming back with one more idea.

(Footnote: Just for clarity, “in-betweening” has a technical meaning in Western animation. If the film runs at 24 frames a second, and the conventional Western approach animates 12 of these, leaving alternating frames static, you will have a lead animator who draws 6 or 4 or 3 of these frames, with “in-betweening” animators who draw the transition frames between the lead’s drawings. By contrast, Miyazaki as director is doing less work than a classic lead animator, even accounting for the fact that Japanese animation includes noticeably fewer frames of movement than Western films. Even so, Miyazaki is still drawing a lot of frames, which means the other animators are drawing more “in-between” frames.)

(Second footnote, going off on a tangent: A very few Western movies include animation at the full 24 frames. One of the best examples is Who Framed Roger Rabbit, in order to better blend with the live-action footage filmed at 24 frames. If you have the opportunity to look at this movie in very slow motion, frame by frame, I strongly recommend it. Your mind will be blown at the amount of work that was done to sustain the illusion of real people blended with 'toons. Whatever else you think of it, the level of craft evidenced by that film is absolutely unreal.)

How much of this can be assisted by CGI these days?

I know in some anime, the use of CGI is pretty heavy and can be a bit glaring, but is there any use to it to interpolate between key frames, or does each frame still need to be drawn by hand?

This is what I was convinced was going to be the future of animation – computers would be able to fill in the “in betweening” that was a huge amount of the “grunt work” needed to make cartoons. It’s why the animation studios had squadrons of artists at work at low pay to generate the enormous number of drawings needed to produce all those minutely-varying drawings that were needed to produce fluid motion in cartoons. Studios like Hanna-Barbera cut down on this by making only partial drawings for many cartoons (Moving only the heads, for instance. It’s why so many of their 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s characters have collars and ties, even if they were no other clothing – it lets them have a place where they can join the head and the body), or using a drawing for multiple frames (which results in a jerky movement), or they re-use “cycles” of drawings over and over again to show characters walking.

Computers could eliminate that. And, to some extent, I think they did, although you didn’t hear much about it. But in the 1990s and beyond we got completely computer-animated 2D cartoons.(like the 2003 Spiderman series – Spider-Man: The New Animated Series - Wikipedia )

But Computer Animation , for the most part, went off in a completely different direction, generating “three dimensional”, fully shaded imagery. The computers could really be used for in-betweening (I remember hearing about how it was a big deal when they developed a mathematical function to describe the way a dinosaur chewed for one computer-animated project. It let them do all the in-betweening with a simple formula)

You can now buy computer animation software for the home computer that will do all this. But I think that the big studios have long ago moved beyond 2D cartoons as something the audience isn’t interested in. Disney said that Home on the Range (2004) was going to be their last 2D cartoon, until they changed their mind and made The Princess and the Frog (2009) in traditional style. But the animation was done using computer in-betweening.

Or the early days of South Park, where it was basically just construction paper cutouts.

I do remember the Hanna-Barbera cartoons, and how you could always tell where the hidden passage was, or what drawer of a dresser they were going to open, as it was a slightly different background from the rest.

Do you have an example? Not a completely disinterested question. I wouldn’t mind doing my own content creation if it doesn’t involve me having to draw a thousand frames per minute.

I guess there is the Toon Boom as indicated in the wiki page, is that pretty much what is out there? Thousand bucks isn’t too bad.

I haven’t used any of these, and can’t vouch for them. But this article is a start:

ISTR that Chuck Jones dictated the exact length of time that would elapse between the coyote realizing he was going to fall, and when he hit the bottom of the canyon.

Lots of stories about this kind of thing. Even if not exactly as you stated he probably did at least once make such a call, but the greater point to me made is that he and others did spend that kind of time and effort perfecting their art. Every little detail of timing, shades of color, relative sizes, dialogue, and any other aspect of the production was discussed, debated, and as is often the case, decided in the end by the director. Jones didn’t declare that time by fiat, he would have used his years of experience along with all those around him to discover the very best time to use.

There is some similar story about the timing of the dust cloud when the Coyote hits the bottom of the canyon and when the thump is heard. I can’t recall the details though.

Animation directors are like film directors with the exception noted previously that they work with the animators and voice artists who create the characters instead of directing real actors. Sometimes directors work on a film or TV show in a limited manner, just to get actors performances recorded. Sometimes they are involved in every aspect of production including costumes and set decoration and any technical aspect of the process. Works the same for animation directors. These days, for many animation directors it is akin to a conventional director working on a block buster special effects film because the animation has become automated in so many ways. And unlike most live action, animation directors may have to work with the ‘acting’ actually being performed in another country. I think live action directors may be jealous of this though and can’t wait for actors to be virtualized.

You can say that again. I can’t remember which Miyazaki/Ghibli feature it was but I’d read a trivia piece that there were about 80,000 drawings, a quarter by the old man.

With AI, all things are possible: