Brief overview of the American animation system for anime fans

So I’m gonna begin writing entries for camonte about non-Japanese animators/directors. I’ve always wanted to do this but the lack of a comparable fan infrastructure dissuaded me. Now that animator showreels are being uploaded to YouTube and people are adding western stuff to the booru it feels feasible. Since American animation will probably hog most of the attention initially, I thought I’d write down a brief overview of what makes the American system different from the Japanese. I’m just a fan with no working experience in either industry so I recommend doing further research on your own (and if any American animators reading this notice any mistakes please point them out). My sources for this are mostly comments/interviews from Golden Age animators, parts of Richard Williams’ book, and Peter Chung’s posts on the Anipages forum.

Traditional American animation (that is full animation “on the 1s”) is generally restricted to two formats: the theatrical short and the Disney film (and their derivatives). Theatrical shorts are cartoons about seven minutes long that would play before feature films as a bonus. Fleischer, Warner Brothers, Walter Lantz, MGM, and Disney before they committed to feature filmmaking were big names in the genre. Though most of the common techniques and practices of full animation apply to them as well, in general theatrical shorts were more experimental in their use of animation and had a tendency towards “auteur” directors (Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett) that Disney and Disney-esque films didn’t have.

Full animation is organized into a system of key animation and in-betweens like anime but with a significantly greater workload given the increased drawing count. A 7 minute Warner Brothers cartoon could take months to produce. One of the major differences between the Disney system and the Japanese system grew out of this: animators at Disney weren’t assigned scenes but individual characters. They would have an animator or small team of animators working on a single character throughout the film to guarantee perfect consistency. An animator working on drawing Dumbo wouldn’t have to worry about drawing the fire effects or any other character in frame, just Dumbo. This is why in Disney films you’ll see more stylistic diversity between characters than between scenes – the realistic Snow White and the cartoony Seven Dwarves look like they came from different universes (although strangely it was a very cartoony animator, Grim Natwick, who did most of Snow White). The animation workflow for Disney style animation is far more convoluted and complex as a result, with different animation directors/supervising animators for each character and an extensive clean-up process. Again, theatrical shorts are the exception here as animators could do entire scenes because 100% perfect consistency in character animation wasn’t a priority for slapstick comedy.

Storyboarding is also quite different between US and Japan. Storyboards in American animation aren’t nearly as detailed as Japanese storyboards and often undergo significant changes during production. In Japan the storyboard is law. The storyboard must be completed before production on a project begins and can’t be altered except with express permission from the storyboarder or director. I believe it was Peter Chung who compared the Japanese process to Hitchcock’s storyboards, where the storyboard is the essence of the film and the actual filming/animating is just the process of rendering it into reality. In America the storyboard goes through intermediate stages like animatics and decisions are frequently subject to committee. Most Disney films don’t really have a director in the conventional sense. Their aesthetic, one born out of the norms of classical Hollywood filmmaking that emphasizes clear and consistent blocking like a stage play, necessarily relies on detailed character acting and mise en scene more than cinematography.

In a theoretical sense American animation privileges believable character animation above all. The ideal in American animation is to bring a character to life, not to produce a series of interesting drawings. Disney standards demand that the audience never look at a film and “see” the drawings either. Style shifts are bad because they foreground the element that animators are trying to hide, their own hand. Disney animation is supposed to create an illusion of reality even if the scenarios and designs are fantastical in nature. There’s also a strong emphasis on draftsmanship; Milt Kahl believed you couldn’t be a good animator until you mastered classical drawing skills and many of the major Golden Age animators had conventional art school training. This is part of the reason for Disney’s success – the characters seem to exist as independent personalities outside of their material construction. This is also the reason for the occasional snobbishness from American animation fans over anime. It’s easy to pick out the keys in anime, and things considered critical for the central “illusion” of traditional animation like good lip sync and facial animation are regarded as incidental or unimportant. This is also why Americans embraced CG so readily – CG characters can get the job done with a less restrictive margin for error (in fact, many of Pixar’s top animators have training in classical 2D animation). Strangely the effects animation in Disney films tended to skew towards impressionism. Compare the water in most Ghibli films to Pinocchio and the latter looks way more stylized.

It’s easy to laugh at these Golden Age animators, most of whose work was exclusively on kitschy Disney pap with minimal artistic value, turning up their nose at Japanese and European animation when the latter have far more variety and nuance than what the Golden Age produced, but it’s important to remember that American animators don’t animate ‘scenes’ like Japanese animators do. Japanese animators are filmmakers first and foremost while American animators are more similar to actors, with the added narrowness that distinction implies. Imagine professional Hollywood actors with immense range and experience going to see an arthouse film where the major roles are played by random dudes taken off the street. They might like the film overall, but they’ll never recommend it for the acting. By the standards of classical animation even if the drawings are interesting, Japanese animation fails as animation. I suspect too that this obsession with draftsmanship has to do with legitimizing animation as an artform, that animation is the “next level” of traditional art (Chung hypothesized this has to do with the Western art historical tradition of naturalism/perspective vs the Japanese lineage of impressionistic art). Japan has a different view, perhaps one that is more medium specific. You learn how to animate mainly by animating a lot, not by mastering a completely different medium and applying those principles to animation. While classic Disney was organized in a rigid hierarchy that could take ages to advance to the position of key animator, it’s relatively painless to go from inbetweens to keys in Japan. The average Golden Age key animator is more skilled than the average Japanese key animator, but there were far fewer of the former so the results are somewhat skewed. On the other hand, despite the freedom key animators are afforded on anime productions, the entire Japanese system seems designed around minimizing the influence of actual KA by relying on good storyboards and layouts (the famous anecdote of a Disney animator applying to Ghibli getting rejected when he refused to draw his own layouts) as well as the animation director ensuring a consistent visual style via removing specific key animator idiosyncrasies (most Japanese key animators aren’t Ohira or Yuasa, their ‘idiosyncrasies’ are usually just lazy drawing habits). Anime is based around synchronizing all its elements into a single cohesive whole. For American animators accustomed to the idea that the character animator is the only thing that matters in animation, the Japanese system must seem barbaric (this is where Japanese anime is decidedly not medium specific, with several artists moving between directorial and animation duties).

Both viewpoints have their merits and though limited is ultimately the more practical of the two I would hate to see full animation die off. Even if the films themselves might be manipulative and cheap, the animation surely isn’t. Many Golden Age animators are worthy of study and when the vision guiding full animation is as imaginative as it was in The Thief and the Cobbler, the results are entrancing. But Disney’s monopoly on what animated filmmaking entails for America prevented that movie (and no doubt many others like it) from being fully realized. This is the genius of Osamu Tezuka, who was willing to take the quality loss of television as long as it meant diversifying animation’s appeal. Tezuka focused on teaching cinematography and good filmmaking techniques to his directors over pure drawing skill. By creating a market for different genres like sports drama, romance, scifi, etc you create the possibility for lavishly animated adult feature films down the line. Though not animated on the 1s, films like Patlabor and Only Yesterday are the ultimate realization of that ambition. I should also stress that not all full animators are closed-minded either. When Miyazaki showed some of his work (iirc Cagliostro) to famed Disney animators Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas, they were legitimately impressed. In an ideal world there’d be a niche for interesting full animation. While Disney-level features in that style might be inobtainable, theatrical shorts or OVAs done in full probably aren’t an impossibility.

Still, full animation purism is an absurdity, well-intentioned or not. Skill obviously has a lot to do with what Disney’s Nine Old Men & co accomplished but so does production context. Disney animators had much better schedules, tons of reference material including custom 3D models and scenes filmed with real actors, top notch in-betweeners and subordinant key animators, and the requirement to focus only on a single character rather than everything in-frame. There’s also the reality that animation on the 1s will look smoother just by virtue of being on the 1s (there’s a bunch of bad full animation that still looks super smooth). To suggest that no Japanese animator could ever draw good animation on the 1s is dumb. You need to triple or quadruple the drawing count in one of Toshiyuki Inoue’s scenes before you can begin to make comparisons. This isn’t even considering the significantly greater stylistic diversity in Japanese animation which, skillfully drawn or not, can’t be discounted as part of the artistic whole.

I should also highlight that TV works a lot differently from what I hear. American TV has had a few examples of dynamic animation over the years (Superjail S1 and Motorcity are recent standouts) but the vast majority of it is either outsourced or ugly flash puppet rigging with insipid motion and designs. This probably explains why Americans hate limited so much; all the prominent American examples like Hanna-Barbera and Filmation suck and the anime that gets the most attention overseas (like Sailor Moon or Naruto) are usually unimpressive in their motion. I remember seeing John K, arch defender of the traditional system and hater of anime, praising a clip of Tatsuyuki Tanaka’s scenes from the Download OVA on his blog’s comments section so maybe the issue is more a lack of exposure to good limited animation than it is full animators snorting at Space Dandy before turning back to their desks to perfect the timing for Hercules’s douche smirk.

About tamerlane

World animation guy for Wave Motion Cannon. Not a professional animator or involved in the business in any way. All of my research comes from secondary sources so if you notice a mistake, please let me know.
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5 Responses to Brief overview of the American animation system for anime fans

  1. shergal says:

    I think a lot of the ideas we have today about full animation and the Western market for it stem from what Disney was doing, logically because he was the most successful and his studio got to command huge budgets. There is more to Golden Age animation than the extreme cleanliness of Disney, although I don’t think any of the major studios deviated too much from ‘illusion of life’ principles. But it’s impossible to find an animator as inventive and unhinged as Rod Scribner on a classical Disney film, and that kind of creativity certainly wasn’t promoted by the upper echelons of the production the same way it was in WB, where Clampett would keep getting crazier and the studio execs wanted the other directors to be like him because his shorts were the most fun (and the most successful with the audiences); or even Fleischer, where you would see stuff like this – – from time to time. These dudes didn’t necessarily animate by character either- it’s common to identify WB animators within one short by how they draw the same characters in differently, even changing from one cut to the other.

    It’s also worth noting that while a lot of Disney was aimed primarily at kids, or at least at the family, WB were much keener about pleasing the adult audience with cultural references or witty banter and wordplay that a kid wouldn’t get. It was slapstick, but slapstick aimed at adults, ideally with a concept behind the gags. Here’s an example of something clearly made for adults (the short is infamous -and was banned- for the casual racism typical of its era and one aggressive nationalist gag, but also because they go all out in every section, from sound to animation:

    Liked by 2 people

    • camonte says:

      100% agreed. Scribner/Gould on Clampett’s films and Grim Natwick’s contributions to the Fleischer films are top tier full animation. Disney films have sequences I can really appreciate (particularly those by Bill Tytla, Milt Kahl, Woolie Reitherman, and a few others), but it’s the theatrical short format that holds up the best creatively imo. Jonathan Rosenbaum once noted how all the characters in WB shorts are adults, even if they’re stylized as animals. You also have the pre-Hays Code Fleischer films crossing the line in terms of sexual mores too so it’s not like it’s impossible to find good full animation for adults. It’s just that once the theatrical short format died out there wasn’t much left.

      On the subject of Clampett, while the Coal Black film is dynamic and wild (despite its regrettable racism) I find the late late Clampett stuff to be the best. Robert McKimson had a moderating effect on the Scribner/Gould/Melendez team and the last five films where he’s gone are quite possibly the best things WB has ever produced, better than Chuck Jones’ best films. There’s even a style shift in Bacall to Arms where the fake noir film is done in a ruffled yet realistic style that I’ve never seen in full (albeit just to contrast with the ridiculous gags). It’s also worth noting that the Fleischer/WB shorts had distinctive storyboarding, creative effects animation, and occasional instances of background animation, which is why I felt it was worth separating the format from Disney at the beginning. At the same time you had overlap between the format like with Natwick doing Snow White so there’s still something of a continuum.

      Liked by 1 person

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  3. ibcf says:

    Great summary of American vs. Japanese animation! I’d like to add that Americans pioneered limited animation in the 40’s and 50’s as a way of rebelling against the Disney style. Chuck Jones, the UPA studio, and even Disney itself (via Ward Kimball) tried to take animation down a new path, with stylized movement and films with an intellectual bent. Sadly this never really panned out; they only ended up paving the way for the insipid 60’s TV dreck that dominated American animation for decades.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Pingback: Animación americana vs anime | Sobre animadores y sakuga

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