If you didn’t know me before I started blogging, you’d probably think I’d gone a bit nuts on the animation front. This sort of thing is nothing new for me. It’s more a case of coming back around to revisit that which has always inspired me. It would never have worked out for me professionally, and I know that, but back in college I delighted in my studies in art and animation. The early to mid ’90s were a wonderful time study such things too, because both Disney and Warner Brothers were at the very top of their games, and they demonstrated it week after week on television. In the days the internet and on-demand weren’t yet a thing, this was the closest thing to instant access an eager art student could get to lessons from the masters. Both studios had an entire catalog of shows that bombarded my senses, but each studio had one series that, to this day, I still hold up as the shining pinnacles of animated storytelling above and beyond all others. These shows inspired me then, and they’ve continued to inspire me since. What I learned from them helped to inform me on what I was seeing from every age, from the great Disney animated feature films to the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoon shorts.
For WB Animation, the top of the list for me was Batman: The Animated Series.
I was already a Batman fan at this point and on the cusp of rediscovering the greater DC Universe when this series hit airwaves. Week after week I was gobsmacked at the sheer level of voice talent this series managed to incorporate, all the while applauding the fact that somebody understood how to tell Batman stories. To this day, every single time WB cranks out another live action Batman movie, I point back to this series as the reason why I’m, shall we say, spoiled against the big screen interpretations. More than that, as an animation enthusiast, the drawing style and animation process gave me something new to investigate. This series had a deceptively simple character design style that made it easy to animate and lent itself to the idea of the “dark deco” look of the 20s and 30s that gave it a noir vibe.
The series was inspired by the Fleischer Studios’ Superman animated shorts of the early 40s, which is still considered to be a milestone of animation to this day, and a personal inspiration of mine growing up.
With connective threads and top quality like this, it’s easy to see why I became so enamored with the animated Batman.
As I say, WB wasn’t the only one knocking things out of the park at that point. Amidst Disney’s offerings was, for me, the series that just kept on giving — and competing with Batman on nearly every level: Gargoyles.
Gargoyles is one of those underappreciated shows that it seems like virtually nobody watched, and I really cannot understand why. It hit me at every level. It successfully combined my love of monsters, medieval fantasy, science fiction, serialized world building and character development, and top shelf Disney animation while introducing me to Shakespeare in a way that inspired me to actually start reading the Bard and proving to me that the actors from Star Trek: The Next Generation were also excellent voice actors.
If you ever want to know why I can’t respect anime and all of the production shortcuts they take (don’t even get me started), this series is why. Fact is, this series spoiled me for a great many things in its short but impactful run.
When I was in art school, it didn’t seem to matter what I was learning or how, it was Batman and Gargoyles that pushed me to develop further. When I put down the pencil and started looking at computer animation, everything I learned from those examples were still sitting at the back of my mind.
I’ve mentioned recently that my deep explorations into Disney’s animation catalog has inspired something of a personal renaissance for me on the artistic front, which is to say I’ve decided to relearn those skills that have since atrophied from neglect. I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to reignite those skills. Obviously, the best way to do that is to reignite the passion by revisiting the influences, and that means learning the same way I learned back in the day.
For me, character is everything. It’s what put Disney at the forefront, and it’s what drives the field of animation on all fronts. The foundation for learning character is the model sheet, which is thankfully something that’s readily available to find on the internet these days.
When animators talk about rendering their characters “on model,” this is what they’re referring. Model sheets inform artists at every level of production how a character is to look from every angle and with every expression and range of motion. For the budding art student, a single model sheet is a treasure trove that will push that student’s dedication and sanity to the make-or-break point of understanding or frustrated destruction of nearby furniture and equipment. Pick a character and go nuts. This is how I know I’d never make it as a professional cartoonist. Not only do these things have to be produced at exacting standards that the average viewer would never understand, they have to be delivered quickly. It’s far more difficult than it looks, hence my highest appreciation for such things.
The thing is, those looking to learn must understand that the entire point of learning is failure. If it were easy, anyone could do it. But anyone can learn to do it if they so wish. Most people look for step-by-step tutorials, and that’s an excellent place to start. But if you’re not careful, you start putting all of your energy into studying a single character with a single pose, and while you get good at the one thing, you can fool yourself into limiting your progress. Failure, on the other hand, is no bad thing. If something looks off, you know where you need to dedicate more time and attention. Before you know it, the skills are there, regardless of which character you’re drawing. The dirty little secret is that if you can draw a curved line, you can draw. A straight line is simply a line with zero curve. Everything else builds upon that one thing. From the line you build simple shapes. From simple shapes you build complex shapes. Then you combine all of these things into whatever form you wish to develop.
These Batman model sheets from animator extraordinaire Bruce Timm provide some keys to the magic for those who can’t otherwise pick the lock. The thing I’ve discovered the hard way over the years is that the more streamlined the drawing style is (i.e., the less detail there is), the more accurate the proportion needs to be. On Batman, if something is even the slightest bit “off,” it looks all kinds of wrong, and it will stand out like a sore thumb. Seriously, give it a shot for yourself and see what I mean. The foundational key is proportion. If you can crack that code, everything else falls into place a bit faster. The more detail something has, the easier it is to hide mistakes behind that. All of the character designs for Batman strip that down to basics. You can’t hide. They won’t let you hide. They force you to face your mistakes and learn from them. It’s the artistic equivalent of a martial art. And as I say, it’s no bad thing. Ultimately it’s rewarding if you see it through.
Anyway, this is where my head’s been recently, reacquainting myself with the theories of character models and cartooning. You can read all the books you want, but in the end it comes down to you and your medium of choice. Some can do this sort of thing on a computer. My foundation is good old fashioned pencil and paper. It’s a meditation of sorts, a means to unplug from the screen and take it back to basics, like they did in the good ol’ days.