Friday, November 20, 2009

Patterns of Motion

I've always been fascinated by Disney's Woodland Cafe (1937) and this scene in particular. Like Mother Goose Goes Hollywood a year later, this cartoon looks both forward and backward in its animation style. There are some scenes that could have been done as early as 1933 or '34 and others, like the above, that point towards the 1940s. The cartoon concludes with an upbeat jazz number, "Everybody's Truckin,'" played by a band of grasshoppers who are drawn to resemble the black jazz bands of the time. The shot above is from the song.

This shot has always been the highlight of the film for me. While the surrounding animation is full of energy, this shot just explodes off the screen. This shot is animated by Ward Kimball and I thank David Nethery (see comment below) for confirming that.

I wanted to know why this shot stands out for me, so I took a closer look. You can click the images below to enlarge them.

The shot is 56 frames long, entirely on ones. That's three and a half feet of 35mm film, or two and a third seconds. Given how short the shot is, the animator could have gotten away with a cycle, but there are no repeat drawings in this shot.

After the first slap, which we pick up in progress, everything is animated on a 7 beat, meaning that every 7 frames, the bass gets slapped. The spacing between the sixth and seventh drawings in the pattern (for instance frames 5 and 6 or 12 and 13) is wide, resulting in an accent where the bass gets slapped hard. The right hand and arm are foreshortened and exaggerated in their slapping motion.

There are major and minor slaps alternating, mirroring the ONE two THREE four of the musical rhythm. The right arm, the tapping right foot and the bouncing body are all in synch, which is no surprise. What is a surprise is that the character's head and the bass, while still on a 7 beat, are actually delayed 2 frames. So the hand slaps the base on frame 20 but the head and the bass don't hit their extreme drawings until frame 22.

This is something that probably shouldn't work. It's out of synch! And yet, besides the fact that it does work, it actually adds energy and interest to the shot by breaking up the rhythm so that not everything is hitting the beat at the same time. How did the animator figure this out? Had the character been broken into levels (or if it was done today with cgi), it would be easy to experiment by shifting some elements forward or backward in time, but the character is done as a single drawing, so this delay had to be thought out in advance. This knowledge may have been commonplace at Disney at the time, as they had animated so much to music, but it's hardly common knowledge today.

There's still more movement, as the character tilts towards screen right until frame 27 and then starts tilting back towards screen left. It's this tilt that prevents the possibility of using any cycles in this shot, as the character is never in the same position twice. Nothing on the character ever stops moving and the background adds more optical excitement by changing colours.

In many ways, this shot is optical overload, but it is justified by the tempo of the music and the shot's placement at the climax of the cartoon. It points to possibilities that were later explored by animators like Rod Scribner.

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