April 26, 2006

Cartoon cost cutting

So one unsurprising side effect of having small children is that I end up watching a lot of cartoons. There's good news and bad news about this: the good news is that some of them are little gems; early Tom and Jerry cartoons are miniature masterpieces of beautiful fluid animation, matched perfectly to a bespoke orchestral score, with backgrounds which are sometimes glowing, luminous works of art in their own right. Bugs Bunny and the other Warner Bros cartoons are like the best screwball comedies of the same era but compressed into five minutes. Pink Panther cartoons flew the flag for surrealism, and Road Runner cartoons are like perfectly formed haikus in cartoon form, endlessly the same, endlessly different.

And the bad news? Well, there just aren't as many of them as I thought I remembered from my childhood. Within a month of my son discovering Tom and Jerry, we'd seen every episode, many of them more than once. But the really soul destroying thing is that for all the great cartoons that I've mentioned, by the mid sixties through to the early seventies, cartoons had entered... what's the opposite of a golden age? A golden trough? A plastic age? Originality, wit, artistry and creativity had all been sacrificed in favour of cost. The really galling thing about this is that my son, currently at least, prefers the low cost stuff churned out in this period – Scooby Doo, Hong Kong Phooey, Wacky Races et al – to the better stuff that came before it. And truth be told, I can't really blame him, because I have a terrible feeling that when I was his age, I did too.

So to amuse myself through this endless parade of mediocrity, I've started trying to spot the many and various ways in which you can cut costs if your goal is to make a cartoon for the smallest possible amount of money. Here's what I've spotted so far:-

  • Backgrounds which repeat. Even very young children quickly spot this one. Isn't that the same clump of trees that they're driving past again and again in Wacky Races?
  • Background which can be reused. The very best example of this is the Stop the Pigeon cartoon where the background is pretty much always blue sky with the occasional cloud and thus new backdrops hardly ever need to be drawn.
  • Quality of backdrops. Compare the paintings of the house and the garden in early Tom and Jerry to the backgrounds in Wacky Races, which aren't so much painted as scribbled.
  • Cutting away from the crash. Once you realise this is happening, you see it everywhere. It'd be time consuming and expensive to draw the detail of what happens when five cars all crash into each other, so a cheaper alternative is to cut to Muttley watching the crash; he covers his eyes, he winces, we hear the crash, but nobody had too draw anything too complicated.
  • If you don't have a bystander you can cut to, the next cheapest way to show a crash is to slap a great big multi-coloured explosion or smoke cloud over the top of where the crash is happening, loop that for a few frames and then when it clears you can just have a single frame of the aftermath which you pan over for a moment.
  • Cheaper still is to show the crash not by animating anything at all but instead by shaking the camera. A one second camera shake saves you twenty four frames of animation.
  • Zooming into a scene. Any time there's a still scene which the camera moves into or across, we're saving money. Moving the camera is cheap compared with drawing different things.
  • Character animation becomes more and more minimal. If a character is talking then his or her lips move, but no other part of their body does. Nobody else in the scene will be animated at all. Characters who run move their legs but not their arms or their torso. Since we're drawn to look at peoples' faces, especially when they're talking, this is surprisingly effective, but if you consciously look at the rest of the scene other than the speaking character's face, it's astonishingly static.
  • The more you can repeat a few frames of animation, the cheaper it is. Characters who are trying to run away but whose legs spin round on the spot for a second or two before they go anywhere are very good value, and the longer you can hold them still with their legs spinning, the cheaper it is. Likewise characters who go round revolving doors not once, not twice, not three times, etc.
  • It's cheap if you can reuse a whole sequence in every single episode. Every time Hong Kong Phooey jumps into his filing cabinet and shakes it around, it's the exact same sequence, and since he does it in every episode, that's about the best value for money you could ask for. Even more irritating, some sequences are blatantly the same every time even when they're ostensibly happening in a new location. When Spot the cat slaps his hand to his eyes in disbelief at HKP's latest piece of idiocy, it's the same animation against the same background regardless of where this week's story is taking place.

I'm sure there are others which I'm temporarily forgetting. I'll return and add them later, then remove this sentence and claim perfect recall on the first try.

- 3 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. That sort of thing was pointed out to me by my dad when I was about 7 or 8 and you're right, the older cartoons seem to have more time lavished on them.

    The repeated sequence thing happens in a lot of kids TV shows, even live action ones. I think they just assume kids won't notice/care which is a shame as kids are often more anal about detail than adults.

    26 Apr 2006, 22:39

  2. Time to impart the Scooby-Doo secret.

    It's always the second person they meet!

    I don't know how true this is, as I've never m,anaged to see a whole episode since I found this out.

    26 Apr 2006, 23:25

  3. Reasons why I appreciate Trapdoor even more. :)

    27 Apr 2006, 00:51

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