The Life & Times of an Auteur.

Commentary on Pop Culture, and maybe creating some of my own.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Animation Realities 101

So, I wrote this up almost two years ago. It was after "The Spectacular Spider-Man" premiered on KidsWB, and when people were complaining about the animation. Every now and then, I find myself having to repost it, so I think I'll keep it here too.

Mostly because I am tired of having to constantly type and re-type this in various threads. I have studied the animation industry for some time, and more than that, I have contacts in the industry who have been working there for decades. Writers, producers, story board artists and even voice actors. I don't work there myself, but I consider myself as much of an expert as one can be without actually working in it, though I hope that eventually changes.

Why does "The Spectacular Spider-Man" look the way it does? Why are the models so streamlined and stylized when we grew up with cartoons where the character models were very detailed?

The answer is this, it is easier to animate and to animate well. To those who keep on citing shows like "G.I. Joe", "He-Man", and other shows from that era, take off the nostalgia tinted glasses and go back and actually look at them. The character models look good when they are static, but the animation is really slow and lousy.

When Bruce Timm first set out to produce "Batman: The Animated Series", people complained about his streamlined character models, I know it might not seem like it considering how universally praised he is today, but it was not the case. Why did he do that? Because he knew you got better animation out of it. Less lines to draw means less lines to animate, especially on a TV budget.

If you want those detailed models and good animation, you need the budget of a feature length Disney movie, and even then it's still not a good idea.

When "Gargoyles" was in production, the character models were a lot more detailed. Frank Paur came in and streamlined them with artists in Japan, and the result was something beautiful. But, to those who still complain about "The Spectacular Spider-Man" not looking like this, I can guarantee you that "Gargoyles" had a much higher budget than "Spidey" does. Hell, look what happened in the third season when the budget was slashed, the models were the same, but the animation was painfully ugly to watch.

Now, Spider-Man is a character that moves. The fights are fast paced, the web slinging is fast paced, and the animation on this show is just fluid, fast and gorgeous. The aerial battle with the Vulture was breathtaking, especially for TV. Now, some will point out the Fox Kids series, but, well, honestly, look at it again. It was not all that well animated. It was full of bad CGI backgrounds, the color palette was not working, and the show was mostly stock footage. It just did not look good.

When you draw a comic book, you are drawing still images that don't have to move. You can add all the detail you want, as long as you meet your deadline. Animation doesn't have that luxury. Thousands of cels go into animating a twenty-two minute production. It is a long and grueling process, and the schedule is very tight.

It is easy to be an arm chair animation producer. Just because you watch a lot of it doesn't make you an expert. I've seen so many statements made on animation and "today's technology" coming from people who just don't know what they're talking about. It's not about being lazy. It's not about dumbing animation down. It's about producing the best animation they possibly can on a budget.


  1. A-men.

    The counter argument that usualy get brought up when I see this discussion happen is "But anime is really detailed, so it's really just that American animators are lazy." Putting aside that not many shows are actually animated in the US anymore, there is a trade-off in a lot of anime too. If you look at a show like Naruto, sure, you'll get some great, well animated, dynamic fight scenes where there's tons going on and the camera move all over the place and everything still stays consistent. But before and after that fight scene, you get several minutes - somethimes even whole episodes - of characters standing perfectly still with only their mouths moving or their eyes twitching as the camera slowly pans or zooms in. As with American TV animation, there are exceptions where you get quality animation the whole way through. But in most cases, budget doesn't allow for that level of action all the time. SO you end up with a lot of down time.

  2. Great point. It's kind of like the uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics; you can have detailed models, or you can have lots of movement, but it's very difficult to have both. American animation has traditionally skewed towards movement - look at the old Disney and Warner Brothers offerings. Japan often leans towards detail, but then look at how many tricks they use to avoid having it move around? Long panning shots, still frames with just a flapping mouth, and frequently recycled clips are all par for the course. I don't mind either style, but producers need to pick a style and stick with it, rather than trying to have it all. Thankfully, more and more cartoons today are; Gargoyles and Spiderman and Transformers Animated are all great examples of that. The 80s style of trying to have it all just resulted in getting none of it well.