Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Good Ole Charle Brown...

I was just watching A Charlie Brown Christmas, like I do every year. ABC shows it more than a couple times between now and Christmas, so be sure to schedule it in at some point. I'm always awestruck by the heartfelt beauty and simplicity of the story and animation. The only problem is that you always have to hurry and change the channel before they show the awful NEW version afterwards (good grief!). Anyway, I got to thinking about the kind of animation we do at FableVision—usually symbol-based tweening that takes advantages of all the short cuts that Flash has to offer to get it done on time and on budget. There is something so incredibly charming about the limited animation in A Charlie Brown Christmas. The voices, the music, the backgrounds, and the way the characters are drawn is almost timeless because they are so embedded in our minds. Here's a little information I've heard before, and dug up again on Wikipedia that might be good to put into perspective when we think about animation:

"The production was done on a shoestring budget, resulting in a somewhat choppy animation style and, from a technical standpoint, poorly mixed sound. With the exception of the actors who voiced Charlie Brown and Lucy, Peter Robbins and Tracy Stratford, respectively, none of the children had any experience doing voice work. This was especially challenging for Kathy Steinberg, who voiced Sally: she was too young to read and needed to be cued line by line during the soundtrack recording. The technical issues are in evidence on the show's audio track, which to some may seem noticeably choppy and poorly enunciated. Melendez has said he remains somewhat embarrassed to see the show repeated every year with all its problems, but Schulz vetoed his idea of "fixing" the program years later."

From a technical perspective, not to impressive---even for it's time. Anecdotally I've heard they animated it at 8 frames a second!

"Another complaint was the absence of a laugh track, a common element of children's cartoons at the time. Schulz maintained that the audience should be able to enjoy the show at their own pace, without being cued when to laugh. (CBS did create a version of the show with the laugh track added, just in case Schulz changed his mind. This version remains unavailable.) A third complaint was the use of children to do the voice acting, instead of employing adult actors. Finally, the executives thought that the jazz soundtrack by Vince Guaraldi would not work well for a children's program. When executives saw the final product, they were horrified and believed the special would be a complete flop.

The show first aired on Thursday, December 9, 1965, preempting The Munsters and following the Gilligan's Island episode entitled Don't Bug the Mosquitos. To the surprise of the executives, it was both a critical and commercial hit. None of the special's technical problems detracted from the show's appeal; to the contrary, it is thought that these so-called quirks, along with several other choices, are what lent the show such an innovative, authentic and sincere feeling."

It goes to show how charm, wit, and originality can go a long way. Everything that worked for the original is absent from the NEW version they show afterwards to fill out the hour for advertisers. From an animation standpoint, I'd like to see us do more of this kind of animation, which I'll call "limited but with a TON of charm" than the robotic stiffness that is so easy to crank out of Flash. But I guess that would be a bigger discussion on philosophies of animation that might be better saved for another posting.


Renee Kurilla said...

For the first time in years, I intently watched just the animation of this last night, and I was completely in awe. Sure there are glitches (and inconsistencies - the tree at the end changes every time you see it), but in between, there is some downright beautiful animation. And simple... but if you watch a head turn or arm move...it's not choppy or tweeny, just a smooth, well thought out movement.
I think that's nice and we SHOULD do more of this :)

John L said...

I would like to hear from those who took animation classes in college -- did they discuss different styles? Disney vs. Warner Bros? Flintstones vs. Mister Magoo? Or about discovering your own personal style?

When we start a new project, we usually talk about the graphic style more than the style of animation, and we tend to each fall back on our own personal methods. It would be nice to start each new project by asking how can we make this one special? What's the best way to tell this story?

Bob Flynn said...

Mr. Lechner, you hit my thinking right on the head! Not only should we all have a better understanding of the history of animation, but EVERY project should begin with the discussion of what form it should take to best serve the concept. Too often we generalize stylization. I hear people throw around "cut-paper" for anything without a definitive line. That's not specific enough. After working on Powder & Glory, and traveling through different modes of animation (and having such a blast with it) I would encourage us to think outside the box more when we make decisions like this.

Many graphic styles have not been approached in animation yet, and we currently work in a VERY narrow spectrum. Style shouldn't dictated just because someone likes it---it should be intrinsic to the story and the concept.

And this is what works so well about Charlie Brown. Every element of that half hour holiday special was considered creatively, and it was the first time the comic strip was translated to animation. They had to make decisions on backgrounds, music, how the characters move, voice work...

I would love to hear from Allie, You-Jin, and potentially Dustin about what they learned in school about animation history. The approach my art school took when it came to illustration was to give us a quick history, contemporary overview, and then have us experiment with different graphic styles and mediums until we found something that appealed to us. But I find to often that people are much to conscious about their "style." Some of my favorites artists have a range of graphic avenues and are more recognizable by their conceptual identity. Or really, its more about finding a voice.

John L said...

Here's another thought, related to the Flash or No Flash discussion. I think the peculiar limits and abilities of Flash guide our animation in so many ways we don't think about. The brush tool, the digital tablet, even the tracing tool (not the same as flipping back and forth between pieces of paper) -- they all add up to a certain way of animating. I'm sure the techniques of 1965 had a big influence on Charlie Brown. The trick is to transcend the tools you have, and not be restricted by them.

Bob Flynn said...

Really good point, John. I think as an animator, you either embrace Flash or fight it. My gut it to fight the stiffness inherent in tweening and relying on the computer to move your drawings for you. So when I can afford it (and oftentimes it gets me into trouble time-wise), I do redraw to breath life into the movement. But I guess what I think we can learn from Charlie Brown is that you can keep the animation simple, do the redraw, and probably keep it all under control---with nice results.

I say we should do more of this, but most of the great films you worked on with Pete do just this. Animation is understated, but the drawing and movement are overflowing with charm---and it captivates audiences for that reason. WIth client work, we too often fall into the pattern of stiff characters with lip flap. Probably because we work from a script that doesn't really consider visual aspect of animation. I touched upon this briefly when we were watching Popeye (where storyboarding is most important). Animation can be a powerful blend of imagery and narrative with more of a balance between the visuals and voicework.

As usual, I ramble. Sounds like the key take-aways are don't get trapped in the computer (transcend your tools), keep it simple, and let the story drive the tone and style of the concept.