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.


David Nethery said...

It's Kimball's animation according to John Canemaker's book "Walt Disney's Nine Old Men and the Art of Animation" page 99.

Here's a scan of some of the drawings:

Ward Kimball Woodland Cafe drawings



Mark Mayerson said...

Thanks David. I've made the correction above. I have Canemaker's book, but didn't remember that material being in it.

Molasses said...

Great post!

Is this an extension or excerpt from your lectures on musical timing? Wish I could of attended them.

For those looking for the shot in context it's at about the 7:10 mark of the short.

Hope you will do more of these Mark.


David Nethery said...

Yeah, and by the way I forgot to mention the first time: great post ! A short scene, but well worth the frame-by-frame analysis.

This ability to animate to music in this way seems to be a lost art. I'm sure it helped that Kimball was a talented musician himself and appreciated the rhythms of jazz/swing , but I think you are correct : this sort of animation to music was much more commonplace knowledge at that time and we've lost it.

jriggity said...



Michael Sporn said...

Your analysis, as usual, is a gem. Thanks for all the effort; it was a treat going through it. It's amazing how important that slower rocking from side-to-side is. It made for more drawings, but it solidified the scene so that there was something to hold focus. I assume today there'd be little body movement and reused arms motion.

Weirdo said...

Fantastic post. I love "Woodland Cafe". I thought it was one of the stronger Silly Symphonies. Excellent example of musical timing. That aspect of animation should not be underestimated.

Nora Lumiere said...

Stunning animation. Just breathtaking.
Thank you for the post. There will be some musical animation in PRINCESS AND THE FROG, let's hope it compares.

Peter said...

David's scans cast some more light on the beat issue.

The drawings shown, Kimball's 1,2,3,4,5 & 9, correspond to frames 0,1,2,3,4 & 8 of the final shot, the first frame having been cut in the edit.

Kimball's drawings 2, 5 and 9 have breakdown keys, indicating they are extremes - of the bass squash & stretch and the head roll. Since 2 and 9 are also the point at which the slappng hand is about to pull the strings it may be that these were the 'beat' points that Kimball was working to, and the flex of the body followed by the slap of the hand were merely pre-beat 'driving' actions to get the hand to hit on the 'beat' point.

I think it was common practice, at least in the 30s, for Disney animators to play with the sync of their tests themselves, moving the picture back and forth against the track to fix the point where it actually "looked" in sync.

Peter said...

Looking back at the screen grabs and your analysis I realise my last post is well off the mark.

The breakdown key on drawing 2 is actually labelled "double bass" and only applies to the bass action - presumably passed to an assistant. From the frames it is of course obvious that the 'hand hit' is the beat, as it is also, as you point out, the extreme drawing where the body drops and flexes.

It is, however, interesting that bass strings lag behind the hand action. Had the bass been keyed originally with the hand slap and the the string i/b'd to fit the brushing hand action, but then deliberately shifted a drawing later to increase the sense of overlap? Or was it accidental, the animation roughs of the character being traced (in red) on the wrong drawings? Presumably the former. The bass certainly seems to have been completed first, as the strings have been rubbed out where the hand overlaps. The exuberant head flip is just follow-through from the body action, which makes sense, but the bass action, while, as you say, breaking up what might otherwise have been too mechanical a relationship between player and instrument, doesn't actually seem to me to be very meaningful in the scene.

Sketchees said...

Good observation and post.

Ward Kimball was one of the greatest at Disney.

This shot couldn't have been done as a cycle because the character is swaying from one side to the other. Even if Ward was to cycle this, he wouldn't have because it is such a short scene.

Besides, cycling things make things look repetative. Good for Ward to animate this thru-out.