Thursday, May 26, 2005

That Poor Misunderstood Sack of Flour

Almost anyone who has ever taken a course in animation formally in a classroom or on-line has probably encountered the "Half-Filled Sack of Flour" exercise. To the best of my knowledge this poor misunderstood little fellow originated from training that was developed at the Disney Studios. It was written about and popularized in the classic book The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation
written by
Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston.

I refer to it as that poor misunderstood sack of flour because the exercise has been passed down so many times by so many different sources and reinterpreted so many times that the poor little guy often doesn't get treated very nicely. The flour sack is perhaps one of the animator's best friends and learning exercises and one of my personal favorites so I want to try to take this discussion back as close to the original context as I can, and perhaps shed some new light on an old friend.

In the 1930’s, the artists at the Disney Studios were encouraged to explore and discover this new art of animation. And from a practical point of view, they began to codify their discoveries until they had evolved into accepted “rules of the trade” often referred to today as the fundamental principals of animation.

One of their most important discoveries evolved into the principle named Squash and Stretch. When things move in the real world, unless they are rigid objects and not organic, they tend to deform. The terms coined to describe naturally occurring shape deformations were squash and stretch. And just as you would have expected, having made these observations, the early Disney artists really pushed the envelope in exploring how they could squash and stretch everything.

What I find to be often misunderstood about this naturally occurring deformation is that it really is just another way of describing how a body actually moves, the expansion and contraction of muscles, skin and tissues. Essentially, natural distortion and deformation is bounded by the physical causes of those deformations, muscles, skin and tissues have limits. You can’t just deform a shape without some connection to the underlying forces and physical limits associated with natural movement. Some license for exaggeration is appropriate in cartooning but particularly when an artist is first learning to animate they need to be grounded in the rules before they totally break them.

But trying to learn and practice natural movement without having to deal with the extreme complexities of a person or an animal required a surrogate. A rubber ball really wasn’t organic enough, so somewhere along the way; some animation pioneer stumbled on to the half-filled sack of flour. It may have had its origins in life drawing as an analogy to the twisting human torso or perhaps it was just a close approximation to a single muscle. The key point being that it deforms naturally like an organic shape and it maintains a constant volume which provides a natural limitation to the distortions and deformations. With a little imagination the end tabs of the flour sack could be manipulated to act like the little guy's limbs.

So the primary reason for the half-filled flour sack is as a simplified learning platform for understanding natural deformations in movement and dealing with the inherent limitations. The additional imparting of character, personality and emotions to the flour sack is a secondary part of the exercise that evolved later. All too often animation students are introduced to this exercise as a lesson in learning to develop and show character and emotions in a simple object and don’t truly understand the primary value of the exercise. The poor misunderstood little flour sack gets a quick pass as a simple and pathetic little character and is often overlooked as a real training ground for understanding forces, deformation, and fundamental organic movement.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Living in Hollywood's Cartoon Golden Age

I recently finished reading a fascinating new book called Living Life Inside the Lines, Tales from the Golden Age of Animation by Martha Sigall (University Press of Mississippi) . This is an autobiographical account written by a wonderful lady who had the glorious fortune to play a significant role in the animation industry during its Golden Years.

Imagine being 14 years old and living practically next door to Pacific Title and Art Studio which eventually evolved into Leon Schlesinger Productions the birthplace of the Merrie Melodies and the Looney Tunes cartoons. Leon Schlesinger hires you at 17, fresh out of high school, to work on those cartoons where you spend the next 50 plus years at the heart of the Hollywood cartoon business working with literally all of the great writers, animators, and directors at Warner Bros. and MGM, and Hanna Barbera and on and on. You're on a first name basis with Chuck Jones , Friz Freleng, Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, Bob McKimson, Michael Maltese, Frank Tashlin, Tedd Pierce, and so many more of the legendary figures of Hollywood's Cartoon Golden Age. That's Martha's story.

Martha Goldman Sigall started painting cels at Schlesinger Productions in 1936 and by 1941 she was inking some of histories funniest Toons. I could write pages about this book, but you don't need me to do that, because you can read the entire account for yourself. If you have read all the great histories and interviews from this period, you are going to love Martha's book. There is no ego to get in the way. She was a worker in the trenches of animation and she remembers how it really was from a totally fresh point of view. This isn't a "how to" book, although I bet Martha could write a great one of those too, this is living history. Thankfully, Martha was passionate enough to remember and record so much. She saved tons of memorabilia and additionally she became an amateur historian after she retired and continues to work to preserve the history of the period on film.

I highly recommend that if you have an interest in animation's history that you get your hands on a copy of this book. There are hundreds of inside behind the scenes stories that Martha tells, one of my favorites is about Ken Harris, who is acknowledged as one of the all time greatest animators, known as Mr. Bugs Bunny. Ken Harris actually had to pay the studios to let him work when he first started. You might have thought they would have let him hang around and just do stuff for free. Brings a whole new meaning to being an intern.

It's all there in Martha's book. You'll enjoy it as much as I did.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Standing In The Tall Grass

Nothing is more frightening than a blank sheet of paper, but eventually if I'm ever going to get this blog started, I have to write something. This is usually not a problem for me, in fact just the opposite, I normally have too much to say.

This blog initially is being created to provide a platform for communicating behind the scenes information about our cartoon studio and to talk about our current or upcoming media projects. It also will include posts talking about all aspects of cartoon creation and production in general. We hope to share tips and techniques and occasionally provide tutorial links as well as links to more in-depth articles or useful resources related to cartoons. We also will take the opportunity to point to and share any entertaining toons we encounter from time to time, as we are fans as well as creators.

Like any creative work in process, we expect this blog to evolve and grow in scope. My co-workers assure me that due to the abundance of fertilizer related content associated with my usual writing and conversation, which is to say they think that the bull in the pasture and I are usually full of the same stuff, this blog will have plenty of natural plant food so organic growth should be expected.

This first post is probably going to be one of my shorter entries but as always there is more to come.