By Loryn Stone
I’ll be completely honest here – My personal experience in the animation industry is limited, to say the least. All I’ve got under my belt is a little bit of voice acting for one friend’s animatic, and I helped another friend develop a show idea that’s currently in the storyboard stage with Cartoon Network. That said, there’s a very special and very vocal Storyboard Director in my life. I even made people with him.
So, needless to say, the topic of cartoons comes up in my life often, both in the realm of fandom and from a technical standpoint. In fact, many of our friends are directors, animators, artists, and even show runners/creators for major network cartoons. For the sake of anonymity, their names won’t be published on this blog.
One time, while a few of us were enjoying some adult beverages together, I was compelled to ask my friends: What are the biggest things cartoon fans get wrong about the work you do, and the shows you help get on the air? And you better believe they had plenty to say on the topic.
In an angry torrid of drunken rage, and a cacophony of shouting, these were some of the stand-out answers I managed to collect:
The Work Environment
Before I get started on some of the questions and answers I discussed with my friends in the animation industry, I want to start with the number one request that people have asked of me. On more than one occasion I’ve had people beg me to ask my Special Director Friend give them a studio tour. Any studio, whichever one he’s housed in for whatever project he’s working on. And believe me, local cartoonists have typically worked in all of them.
Regardless of which cartoon house he’s in at the moment, some fans have this convoluted idea that animation studios are like Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, the Double Dare obstacle course, or even the Universal Studios tram-ride (damn you, The Wizard, with your convoluted studio and video game expectations!) And while there’s no denying that the lobby of some of the cartoon studios are dolled up for visitors (seriously, Nickelodeon- you’ve gone crazy), once you enter the actual work chambers it really looks like any other office cubical with a better coffee machine.
Like seriously, that’s where the budget goes, because those coffee machines are bitchin’ good.
My friends all had this similar thing to say: Like most jobs, making cartoons is a difficult gig with lots of milestones to hit. Most days have long hours and is more tiring than fun. It is incorrectly assumed that making cartoons is like being in one- a party 24/7.
2. The Idea of “The Committee”
According to my industry professionals, this is a notion among some cartoon fans that there’s a big board room in the sky where cartoons are hand crafted and created for the public. The idea is that all creative ideas are handed down by an omniscient room of higher ups and lawyers that make all the decisions.
The truth is there’s a heavily layered creative process where various people have input. Board artists, directors, writers, and it changes along the way through the hands of people involved. Scripts are revised, gags are added, things are edited in and others taken out. The process is more hands-on and organic than fans realize, and contrary to some beliefs, there’s no room of executives placing a fast food order of bullet points to hit.
One of my sources seems to think that the committee misconception might have come from a butt hurt artist that didn’t get his way on his own project. Or perhaps created by fans that felt their precious show went in a direction they didn’t like. This ties with the ideas that shows are made to order, which unless they’re based off a corresponding toy line, they’re not.
3. The ANIMATE Button, aka, The Computer Does All the Work.
“Ever since board artists and animators stopped using physical paper and celluloid, some people seem to think that the drawing process has stopped,” one of my sources said, wiping the beer that dribbled out of his mouth and down his shirt during this interview. “The truth is that every single frame is still drawn and animated. It’s just done on a computer. Traditional 2D animation is still traditional. Just because there’s a digitalized model doesn’t mean that artists can rig it to move. The work is still the same. And It takes a long time to make a single episode.”
Another one of my sources elaborates: “When word got out that South Park, if necessary, can produce an episode in a week (for especially relevant pop culture or political occasions), people started to think that these shows are cranked and blasted out. It can take well over a year from conception to completion for a single episode of a series to finally air on TV.”
And it’s true- a general breakdown of the process is like this:
The writer pitches an episode idea. The pitch is approved. The writer hands in an outline. The outline is approved. The writer has a few weeks to hand in a script. The script is heavily edited, altered, and goes through drafts. The draft is locked and the script is officially done.
The voice actors are given the script, and record it. The recorded version and the paper script is given to the storyboard director. He or she divides the work amongst their team. The board artist reads/listens to the script and decides how all the shots are going to look. The work is re-done/corrected/or given notes by the director.
Sometimes the script is still re-written at this stage, and the artists have to record what’s called scratch, a term for voice work he/she records in order to stage a shot correctly. If the scratch gets approval by the show runners, they will have the voice actors come back in to re-record.
After the storyboards are pitched to the producers/upper management, they are approved and locked. The boards are sent to animation. Animation eventually comes back to the animation director. The director goes through it, makes notes, and sends it back to the animators if needed. The final product is still up for revisions and scrutiny at this point before its finally ready for TV.
And really, this is just the very brief, outsider-looking-in overview of the process, which doesn’t take any production schedules into account.
4. The Voice Actors’ Contribution
The biggest question my friends tend to get in regard to their jobs typically involves the voice actors. People are fascinated by the voice actors. And it makes sense- while the artist chooses the shots and body language that defines the character, the voice actor is the one that brings them to life. But the fact of it is, voice actors and animators rarely mingle with each other unless they’ve built a friendship on their own time. There’s really almost no communication on the job. Sometimes the directors sit in on voice record sessions, but there’s a great divide.
Ever since Robin Williams stood at a table full of props and made the Genie come out of his face, there’s been a misinterpretation about the voice actors’ role in the creation of the cartoon. Fans mistakenly think that the voice actors improvise regularly or are somehow involved in the lore/extended universe of the show. The truth is, they come in, read their lines, and go home. Then they come back to re-record lines if the joke or script was changed.
Personally, just having grown up in Los Angeles, I’ve met plenty of celebrities of different flavors. And the only one I’ve ever lost it for was Gene Simmons. Like, ugly-cry lost it.
But I’m going to share this anecdote, because it was a completely eye-opening experience for me. The voice actor/artistic contribution misconception became most obvious to me when my husband and friends and I went to Rob Paulsen’s live podcast in 2012 at the (then) Jon Lovitz Comedy Club in Universal City’s CityWalk in Los Angeles. It was a reunion of the four voice actors who voiced the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the 80s.
While it was fun to see the faces of the dudes who did the voices, some of the questions from the audience were mind bogglingly ignorant. Some asked about the psychology of the turtles. Others asked about the intentions of the characters. They wanted to know what the turtles were thinking when X, Y, and Z happened. It got to the point where one of the actors (politely) clarified that it was a job, and he just went in a booth, made some sounds, and went home. Fans sometimes forget that they need to leave the extended universe and lore questions for the writers and artists- they’re the ones making these shows tick. Lest we forget that a voice actor’s contribution is vital and never discounted, but they’re not the ones in charge. People get confused, again, probably because of the slim number of creators who do voice on their own shows, such as Trey Parker and Matt Stone from South Park, or Justin Roiland from Rick and Morty.
5. Cartoons Didn’t Get Bad – You Just Grew Up
Cracking open a fresh beer, my friend wanted to remind some people this: Working in animation is a career, one that can span anywhere from 10-50 years. It’s a tight knit, small community and the people who worked on the shows you loved as a kid are very likely now working on the shows you hate today.
For example, one of my good friends is a man who worked on a very popular Filmation show in the 1980s (I’ll give you a hint, it was She-Ra). Today he’s still working in animation as a director, working on a variety of projects from domestic to Chinese.
If you’re anywhere in your 30s or older, you might remember shows like Galaxy High from the 80s. Next time you see those old cartoons, pay attent. You might recognize the name John Kricfalusi, the man who went on to make Ren and Stimpy in the 90s.
And PS: None of the follow were ever good. Those nostalgia goggles are poisoning your head.
And look at the credits in Cartoon Networks shows, from ones as recently as ten years ago. Did you love “real” cartoons like Fosters Home for Imaginary Friends but hate those damned Teen Titans? Check the credits. Those guys are still working on cartoons today.
6. The Studios Aren’t Against Each Other
My cartoon buddies think that you might assume the studios are against each other. That couldn’t be further from the truth. In actuality, studios in bed with each other. Like a relationship straight out of a Twilight novel, studios want to know what each other are doing. All the time. And as I mentioned earlier, many artist have worked in every studio. Many shows are project based, and once their part is done they go and find work somewhere else. Few artists are hired on to work in a studio long term. This goes for some of the executives as well.
I’ll share another anecdote about my brief personal stint in animation. One time I developed and pitched a show idea to two major cartoon studios. One asked for additional notes and information; the other was about to pass on it. But when I told them I’d done re-writes for the other studio, low and behold, they put their pass on hold and asked to see those re-writes. I bought time before my idea was officially passed on. But it was fun while it lasted.
7. Why Did My Favorite Show Disappear?
According to my sources, this one is one of the biggest fan misconceptions: People think studios cancelled “Show A” to make “Show B”. But the truth is this- No studio would ever cancel a successful show in order to make room for an unknown property. Shows are cancelled because they’re unsuccessful.
“Now, this can mean a number of things from low ratings, to unsuccessful/not possible for merchandizing, etc.”, my source declares, casually pouring a shot of whiskey. “Hell, some studios even have a strict two season or four season policy and that’s it. The show ends. But no show that makes money is canned for one that doesn’t exist yet. This is Tumblr propaganda, simply hate-bait based on nothing but misinformation and a bad game of internet telephone.”
So, take it from this unknown and ultimately irrelevant writer, because I’m about to put the nail in the coffin for you.
No one cancelled Young Justice to make way for Teen Titians Go.
8. How Cartoons are made
Sometimes you’ll see a show that’s so violently hideous, you assume everyone in the drawing room is an unskilled, lazy prick. Low budgets = Lazy Artists, right? The truth is, according to my inebriated friends, is that you work harder on a low budget show than a high budget show. When they budget is high, you have more time to complete your task. Everyone has his or her prescribed job and role. On a low-budget show, not only is the artist stretched thin and taking on many roles (that may or may not be covered by their union if applicable) but they don’t have the time and resources to go back and make it better.
But it’s important to remember that it’s not a one-man band. Walt Disney didn’t make his old shorts by himself. Nor does one person make an episode of Family Guy. And no, your animator friend will not make you a show about you lifting weights and fighting kangaroos in a hot air balloon.
True story: A buddy of mine went to a bar once, and the gentleman at the bar next to him struck up conversation and asked my friend what he did. Turns out, my friend is an animation director on a very popular show. That’s when the floodgates of bad pitches inevitably open, almost every time. “Can you work for free? Can you make me into a cartoon? Can you put a cartoon on tv about a guy who goes to the gym?”
“News for you dude,” states the surly animator, “No one wants to see that.”
9. Who These People Are
Last but not least, who are the jerks who have been screaming all these cartoon facts at me to write down for your enjoyment? Better yet, who are these people that make our favorite animated shows? Well, most of them are your average, albeit somewhat nerdy people that made a choice to go to art school. Some single, some family oriented, some anime fans, and some who are really into video games and Transformers.
Truth be told, many of them don’t even watch modern cartoons, save for the one he or she works on. Look at scenes in shows where there’s a random crowd of people standing around. That’s probably where a lot of the crew are hiding themselves, as little Easter Eggs stuck in time. It’s been said that there’s a misconception that artist and cartoonists are high or drunk all the time.
They’re not- but if you see a dick anywhere in the show, you best believe it was intentional.
Loryn will interview you for beers or write your cartoon for you on Twitter.
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