Tuesday, July 22, 2014

How to Train an Animator

In 1935, Walt Disney wrote an eight page memo to art teacher Don Graham outlining his ideas for how to train an animator.

Rico Lebrun works with Eric Larson as he draws a live deer in preparation for Bambi from Eye-Likey
It's a snapshot of what Disney was thinking about the art of animation during those formative years just before Snow White and Pinocchio, and it offers some ideas that might inspire current art teachers. Here are some exerpts:

"I have often wondered why, in your life drawing class, you don't have your men look at the model and draw a caricature of the model, rather than an actual sketch. But instruct them to draw the caricature in good form, basing it on the actual model."

"In [drawing the model] lifting, for example - or other actions - we should drive at the fundamentals of the animation, and at the same time, incorporate the caricature. When someone is lifting a heavy weight, what do you feel? Do you feel that something is liable to crack at any minute and drop down? Do you feel that because of the pressure he's got, he's going to blow up, that his face is going to turn purple, that his eyes are going to bulge out of their sockets?"

Disney observed that young animators often dwelled on the individual parts of the body that they were animating instead of the expression of the overall pose. To better understand expressive poses, he suggested setting up a translucent screen with the model behind the screen, seen only by the shadow silhouette cast by a spotlight behind, which was in fact an old parlor game.

He goes on to suggest ideas for teaching about the components of facial expression, staging, music, dialog, and the understanding of what drives the movement of the figure. "The driving force behind the action is the mood, the personality, the attitude of the character - or all three. Therefore the mind is the pilot."

In this video, Disney talks about how his in-studio training program went beyond the static poses that were taught in typical art schools by focusing on the flow of movement, action, and reaction. (link to video).

Walt's interest in an in-house studio was initially inspired by animator Art Babbit, who brought his fellow artists to his home to do figure drawing. Here's more about Art Babbit's role in animation education at Disney in the 1930s.

Artist Rico Lebrun was brought into the program later in the 1930s, primarily to help with Bambi. Read about his Disney art classes here.

Further reading
Full text of Disney's letter to Don Graham
The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston
Drawn to Life: 20 Golden Years of Disney Master Classes: Volume 1: The Walt Stanchfield Lectures
The Animator's Survival Kit by Richard Williams (great book by Roger Rabbit's animation supervisor, who learned a lot from Art Babbitt and other classic animators).


Unknown said...

Hi James, I'm creating a fan commercial for Tesla where the rest of the world rides around in dinosaurs that are loud, huge, and poop. The Tesla drives around quietly and swerves to avoid the dinosaurs and poop then the voiceover says "Tesla - because everything else seems primitive."

It's tongue in cheek, but would be much easier to use Dinotopia than create our own scene and would also add recognition to the advertisement. Would you be in endorsement of this? I'm happy to explain further.

S. Stipick said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
S. Stipick said...

An incredible idea! To place the figure behind a translucent screen and light the scene from behind. What a great way emphasize the importance of large masses and etc., specifically with beginners as well as capturing the dynamic of the figure in motion\action. I can't wait to implement this.

While I know its an old illustrative trick to create compositional notes and character designs in silhouette, I have never seen this done in an academic setting with an actual model, and now I wonder...why not?

Dan said...

Thanks for posting this. What an incredible memo to have access to!

James: On a totally different subject, I have been thinking about basic drawing techniques, and I was wondering if you would share your take on something.

Some people feel that using an easel and having your drawing upright/vertical is important, especially to forming good technique. Others feel that it's fine to draw with the paper flat on a table.

Likewise, some people say (and my beginning drawing teacher in college was one) that it's critically important to learn to draw with your whole arm, without resting your wrist or elbow on the surface. But other people always draw with their wrist on the surface, and even turn the drawing constantly to achieve a better arc angle.

The "use an easel" and "draw with your whole arm (or even whole body)" techniques seem to be in some sense "old school." But then I can also see a strong rationale for having the discipline to do those things.

What's your take?


James Gurney said...

Unknown, thanks. Perhaps you can email me your proposal, (email address is at the left, bottom of the blog), and I'll forward it to my licensing agent.

Shaun, yes, I heard that this was a common Victorian parlour game. The gag was to have someone from an evening party disappear from the room and appear only in silhouette behind a sheet. The game was to guess who it was only from the silhouette. It's amazingly hard to disguise yourself to people who know you.

Dan, I'm not too dogmatic about such stuff, as I end up doing both methods, depending on circumstances. It really does help for accuracy to have the work up near the line of sight, but that's not always practical. I tend to use larger arm movements at the beginning of the drawing, and finer hand and finger movements later when I need more control. Always drawing figures big (like 20 inches tall or more) is not something that the old masters did much of. They very often worked quite small, as paper was so valuable.

Dan said...

James, thanks for the insights.


Jhhl said...

You should read the whole memo - it raises one's opinion of Disney for a little while, at least. He eventually took over the Chouinard Art Institute and turned it into Cal Arts.