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Chapter 4. 2-D Animation > Classic Animation

Classic Animation

Cartoons include the classic cel animation of the great cel animation artists, such as Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnson, Friz Freleng, Tex Avery, and Chuck Jones, and studios such as Disney and Warner Bros., as well as the simpler, made-for-TV animation of Hanna-Barbera. As discussed in the previous chapter, these animators and studios developed a legacy of technique and stylistic rules that has persisted into the modern world of computer graphics.

Although this chapter covers some of the technical procedures for creating traditional-style 2-D animation, particularly as the techniques are adapted to the computer, many fine books about the art form have already been written, by artists and animators who have many years of firsthand cartoon experience. I suggest further study if you're interested in learning the art of doing things the old way. (Please see Appendix A, the Bibliography, for suggested reading.)

At Work with a Master

While working at Hypergolic Studios on a project to reconstruct and animate the famous Civil War iron-clad ships the U.S.S. Monitor and the C.S.S. Virginia (a.k.a. Merrimac), I had the good fortune to work with legendary newspaper-cartoon-artist-turned-film-designer Ron Cobb. Over time, it became clear to me that the art of character and cinematic design transcended the limitations of the computer. Everything Cobb worked on quickly took on the convincing appearance of another world, be it Virginia in 1862 or outer space in 2200. Cobb had adapted to using Photoshop not long before I met him, and his knowledge of the program at the time incorporated only about 10 percent of what it could do. But a lesser artist with total mastery of Photoshop couldn't come close to what he did with only a basic understanding of the software's paintbrushes, layers, and color palettes.

Nevertheless, with a roomful of computers (and their creative operators) to massage his art into animation, Cobb's designs seemed somehow to come to life. Although Cobb's computer skills wouldn't win him any consulting jobs, his art, which he has successfully adapted to the computer, continues to make his work highly sought after in Hollywood. And characters that he has designed, including E.T., have been animated into movie legend.

If you want to become a good animator, understanding cartoon art is far more important than understanding cartoon science.


Few highly skilled "old school" cel animators have adapted their talents to the Web. Many do not feel that the Internet, with its low bandwidth and other limitations, is a suitable medium for cinematic-quality cel animation. Following is an excerpt from my correspondence with Jan-Eric Nystrom, an award-winning film animator in Helsinki, Finland, who has worked for Disney Studios and who also created the ANIMAC pencil-test system for importing hand-drawn animation drawings into Macintosh computers:

Unfortunately, IMO, the Web's speed is not good enough to present "proper" animation. That's why I've had to make the ANIMAC demo a downloadable file that must be run independent of a browser. Animated GIFs don't give the speed, either, if the size is even reasonably big, and the vector-based animation plug-ins really don't work with character animation—so my feeling is that the Web is not a venue for character-based cel animation.

Nystrom is right, as far as today's Web is concerned. On the other hand, not everyone has such a short-term view of the Web, and some character animators, particularly younger ones without the background or financial backing to go straight to film or video, are pushing the format over the Internet.

Given what I've seen on the Web in the past year alone—including one full-blown animation festival, the RealFlash Animation Festival, hosted by Real Networks (http://www.real.com)—it's only a matter of time before the Internet hosts animation festivals that will reach a far wider audience than the art films that play in scattered movie houses (almost exclusively in big cities and rarely more than once or twice a year). In the meantime, animators have plenty of low-bandwidth ways to stretch their wings.

Consider the rapid move toward exponentially faster Internet connections via technologies such as cable modems and ADSL, streaming-animation formats such as RealMedia and QuickTime, and advanced vector-based compression schemes; and I'm inclined to believe that this is only the dawn of animation on the Web. At the least, now is certainly a fine time to begin learning the craft.

The cel animation process was fairly well defined in the first half of this century. Computers provide many new tools to work with, but some of them are designed simply to make it easier to do things that have been done on a fairly steady basis for at least 70 years.

Few Web animators duplicate the entire traditional cel animation process. On the other hand, all the parts of the traditional process may be necessary at some point during a Web animation career, and understanding the traditional process will certainly aid your efforts on the computer.

Creation of cel animation can be broken down into eight overlapping stages:

  • Storyboard (scripting).

  • Soundtrack.

  • Exposure sheet.

  • Background painting.

  • Drawing.

  • Pencil testing.

  • Inking and coloring.

  • Compositing.

  • Creative Edge
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