Sunday, May 29, 2022

Animated Thoughts: Unexpected Treasures

I like to go to conventions, even if they're not specifically about animation.

Having collected comic books since the mid-70's and having been a gamer for almost as long, every time I see a comic book convention or a gaming convention or an anime convention, I usually take time to look at the line-up on their website or social media page. Even though I rarely attend most cons and festivals (gotta stick to that monthly budget), I find it worthwhile to keep an eye on the events just in case that rare opportunity rears its head--like the time I learned that Natasha Allegri was attending the Midwest Media Expo and giving presentations on her animated show Bee and Puppycat. Or the time that Youmacon had a panel discussing the byzantine copyright and trademark status of the King Kong intellectual property. Or when I learned that Bobby Chiu's enterprise was bringing Brenda Chapman and Kevin Lima to Toronto in order to talk about their careers.

Well one of the additional benefits of attending conventions is having the opportunity to meet some vendors that specialize in animation art. After a multi-year hiatus, I finally made it back to the Motor City Comic Con in Novi, Michigan (just outside of Detroit). And who should be there with their booth of animation production drawings and cels? Art-Toons!

I first met Daniel and Mary Anne Ergezi years ago at the Grand Rapids Comic Con and spent way too much time hanging around their booth perusing their selection. I didn't have the cash on me at the time to pick out some of the original painted animation cels from their Heavy Metal collection, but I did find a bunch of Giant Robo cels and drawings closer to my budget that made it into my personal collection of animation art.

There are other vendors out there at the cons and on eBay, but I keep coming back to Art-Toons primarily because of the breadth and the quality of their selection. On any given visit to their eBay store or their vendor's booth, I'll find cels and production drawings from both classic and more recent anime shows, American animation from movies, television, and commercials, and especially those hard-to-find animation cels from animated films geared towards adults--like Heavy Metal and Cool World. In my experience, these are some of the more difficult ones to find for an affordable price. Ralph Bakshi has his own eBay store and is selling the cels and drawings from his movies for a premium price (assuming they're from his private collection). Not that they're not worth it, mind you, but they are rather expensive. And much like Bakshi's films Cool World, Fire and Ice, and Wizards, decent production cels and production drawings from the Ivan Reitman produced film Heavy Metal are becoming harder and harder to find.

As time moved on and a lot of these older drawings and cels got bought up by private collectors, I rapidly found myself in a situation where if I really, really wanted to have an original Heavy Metal cel or drawing in my collection, I had to make a move sooner rather than later. So, when this production drawing of Taarna showed up in their selection, I nabbed it. Given that she's this strong, sexy swordswoman, Taarna is one of the more difficult characters from the movie to find in original cels or drawings. Now, don't get me wrong, you "can" find them from time to time, but they are often prohibitively expensive given her popularity and based upon the quality of the cel/drawing. And they are often smaller renderings of her--like when she's in a walk cycle scene and they're simulating a long shot through a movie camera. This makes her only two or two-and-a-half inches tall. Not a big deal if it's a painted cel against a background. Less impressive if it's just a production drawing or cel with a lot of empty space around her. As I write this, there's actually a pretty good production drawing of Taarna on eBay for $250 plus shipping and a painted cel of her for $400. But most others I've seen are in the $500 to $1500 range, especially if they have a certificate of authenticity. Ah, if money were no object. As you can see from the picture below, the production drawing of Taarna that I got was one of the better ones out there!

TAARNA production drawing
Re-grouped after her savage treatment, she is about to re-dress.
Strong lines with red wound lines, blue underlying pencil, shading.

Well anyways, while I love the visual quality of the painted cels (especially when they have backgrounds--original or reproduction), I honestly like the production drawings better. These are the items that I'm really drawn to (no pun intended). This is mainly due to the fact that through the progression of several drawings in a shot or through the production notes scribbled in the margins, you gain valuable insight into the production process that you don't get through books or videos. 'How-to' books and 'Making-of' videos rarely provide a lot of the nuances in the production process that may seem mundane to most people but in actuality convey some snippet of very important information that the animators need to see or instruct the people in the next step of production. For example, if you look at the images below (which can be viewed on the eBay auction by vendor "collect_this") you can see what I'm talking about. 

On this production drawing, Taarna is attacking with her sword. In the first image, you can see that there are good solid pencil lines defining her form as well as internal details. Additionally, we see some blue shading on the part of her hair that's going to end up being painted a bluish-gray as opposed to the rest of her hair which will be painted white. Could've been a note to the artist painting the cel. Perhaps it was the animator reminding themselves of that little detail as they worked on other frames. Now, one reason a light blue pencil was used is because when the xerography machine duplicates the drawing from paper onto a clear acetate cel, the xerography process won't pick up the blue color. So only the dark lines show up on the cel. We also see light red pencils used from time-to-time as well. Okay, back to our example: in the upper right corner, you see that the animator has redrawn Taarna's mouth at a much larger scale with instructions that there should be a gap between her upper and lower set of teeth (see enlarged photo below). That one is far more likely be a note from the animator to the cel painter or whoever was drawing the inbetweens--a good reminder to maintain consistency between frames on a small detail that could get overlooked.

As stated, these are the details in the production process that you rarely ever see in "Making of" videos or instructional books or even "Art of the movie" books. And Daniel and Mary Anne, when possible, offer packages of these production drawings grouped together when they're in the same sequence. Take a look at this series of five drawings from Giant Robo where one of the villains, Shocking Alberto, has one of the heroes, Taisou, in his grasp and is about to channel an energy blast through him.

You can clearly see on the upper right side of frame two, the animator has written a small timing chart for himself and the inbetweener to follow as this scene is drawn (it's right above the "A2").

Another good example is this series of layout drawings that I purchased from them at Motor City. These drawings illustrate a scene where Giant Robo has been damaged during an attack on the Eye of Fogler warship/mecha and the Experts of Justice don't know if they can reactivate him before he's crushed by the rapidly approaching Eye of Fogler. In the drawings, you can see the mechanized warship "Eye of Fogler" in the background (the sphere) and in the midground is Giant Robo's outstretched arm as he lays there in the rubble. The three drawings progress from rough sketch to a more refined layout to a production drawing of the Giant Robo character.

There's a lot of interesting information you can derive from these drawings, but just a few are:

  1. If you look at the top of the page, you can see holes for the registration pegs. While it varies from studio to studio, a lot of American animators are trained to load their paper where the registration pegs are at the bottom of the page, not the top. One of the reasons Jack Slutzky taught us this at R.I.T. is that when multiple pages are stacked on each other, it allows you to flip more pages with your hand and it makes the flipping easier (one point of flipping through the pages is to see the progression of motion between the keyframes and inbetweens so you get the motion right).
  2. Another interesting note is that most American animation bond is 12.5 inches by 10.5 inches. Most of the Japanese animation production drawings and cels I have seen are approximately 10.5 inches by 9.5 inches. I don't know why this is. The only other size of animation bond I've seen for sale here in the States is the standard letter size (8.5"x11"). Something to ponder. Is it a filming process issue with the cameras they use? Is it something that just became a standard from those days of animation shortly after the end of WWII when resources were scarce--they used a smaller page because it would be less resource-intensive to produce than a larger page? I think I'll ask Sami, she does a lot of work in the anime industry. If you haven't read my interview with her, I highly recommend looking it up. You can find it at: Samantha Inoue-Harte pt 1 and pt 2.
  3. I'm going to put up another video. In it, you can see some of the special effects for this episode. This is another 'oddity' as I see a lot of characters and some backgrounds for sale by vendors, but rarely do I see special effects work for sale! It's only a couple drawings but would love to take some time and examine these with my copy of Tezuka Productions' animation book where they cover hand drawn special effects ('Effects - Lightning', page 100 of Tezuka School of Animation Vol. 1 Learning the Basics).

Okay, just heard back from Sami. She's at a convention this weekend but was kind enough to take a moment to answer my question. Turns out I was close, but not enough to get the proverbial cigar. According to her, it's a fiscal decision based upon the smaller budgets that Japanese productions have when compared to American productions. Apparently the larger-sized cels "are" available in Japan, however, the smaller cels allow the studios to save a couple pennies per cel when compared to the larger sized ones--meaning, when you're buying hundreds of cels, the smaller, less expensive cels would be a better fit within some production studios' budgets. And the money saved could be allocated somewhere else on the production. Hrm. Makes sense.

To work out a hypothetical example: has a 100 sheet pack of blank 12f (10.5"x12.5") clear cels for sale at $99.99. Considering that an average feature-length animated film could end up using tens of thousands of cels, that number clearly adds up quickly. Now, obviously, a production studio is going to be buying in bulk so the price per 100 cels is going to be lower--volume pricing and all that--but we'll keep it as simple as possible. Consider the following example:

You're making a short 2d hand drawn animated film of five minutes in duration.
  • There are 60 seconds per minute (5 minutes x 60 seconds = 300 seconds).
  • You're filming at 24 frames-per-second (24 fps x 300 seconds = 7200 frames).
  • If you're shooting your animation on 3's--meaning every drawing is filmed three times. That's eight individual drawings per second or a total of 2400 drawings (7200 frames / 3 = 2400 drawings).

Now, you've decided to draw the characters for each scene on one production drawing, therefore you're using one page of animation bond. And you're going to use one animation cel placed over a single background painting when you film each frame. You're going to need 2400 clear acetate animation cels (assuming no mistakes were made requiring the cel to be thrown out). If you buy your cels at $99.99 per 100 cels, it's going to cost you $2,399.76 (plus tax and shipping). That's a good chunk of your budget for ink-and-paint. And we haven't even gotten into the costs of paint, paintbrushes, xerography transfer from the production drawing to the cel, and the cost of labor to do both xerography and cel painting.

If we extrapolate using the example above from a five-minute short film to a 75-minute animated feature (using the same specs just to keep the math simple), you're looking at $35,996.40 just to cover the costs of the animation cels. And that doesn't factor in mistakes during production or the fact that many features have multiple layers of characters and props and foreground elements all layered one-on-top of each other per shot! So, as the numbers add up for the cost of production materials, you can see how a couple pennies saved per cel, by using a smaller cel according to Sami, could help keep a film within budget. And you can see why some American studios in the past used to hire people to wash the acetate cels clean so they could be reused for other animated films.

Well, before I go any further down the rabbit hole of animation production minutiae, let's get back to the point of all this: that I encourage people to build professional relationships with vendors--especially if you're an animator (or future animator) who is serious about your craft. Even if you don't buy something every time you see them, it really pays dividends to maintain those relationships. I like to buy from Daniel and Mary Anne. They sell a quality product, they're very knowledgeable about their product line, and I feel very comfortable purchasing animation memorabilia from them--knowing that I'm getting an original product, not a knock-off. I'm not sure how prevalent counterfeit items are in the "animation art" industry, but on more than one occasion I've backed off from an eBay sale when I read the fine print and saw the words "serigraph" or "reproduction" in the description when the image and title were billed as if it were an animation production cel. And don't get me started about counterfeit products in the Japanese animation scene! One of the things that the now defunct ShutoCon did right was that they wouldn't allow vendors to sell counterfeit merch at their convention and they had presentations that taught fans how to recognize a counterfeit product. Now, let's be clear: I'm not knocking actual promotional art items, like serigraphs and lithographs--I actually have a couple in my collection from movie premieres and animation festivals. But it you're looking for an "actual" production drawing or cel that was used in the film, it pays to keep your eyes open so you know exactly what you're buying. Working with people who have a proven track record of trustworthiness makes this easier. 

Disney was giving out these lithographs at the OIAF one year

Another bonus is that when they know your buying habits, they'll keep an eye out for some of the more unique items -- like the set of layout designs from the Giant Robo OVA series (shown previously). Even though I only see them every couple of years, Daniel knows what I like and is able to guide me to the latest Giant Robo or Ghost in the Shell product that he's added to his store as well as to more mature animation production drawings and cels--what I mean is, animation that's geared to a more mature, adult audience (stuff in the PG-13 to R range), shows with more mature stories and storytelling, like the SimpsonsAeon FluxGhost in the Shell or the various films of Ralph Bakshi.

As the industry continues to move away from a physical media "drawing and ink-and-paint" model to mostly digital, you're just not going to see much of this kind of animation memorabilia with newer productions. A lot of the "hand-drawn" animation here in the States is done digitally using software like ToonBoom or OpenToonz or something programmed in-house. In Japan, Retas Pro and OpenToonz are two of the programs used by studios. TVPaint is used all around the world. And then there are those studios and independents who use Adobe Creative Cloud. 

The water spirit from Rocks in my Pockets

Still, there are people working in the realm of 2d hand drawn animation with paper and pencil: like indie animators Bill Plympton and Signe Baumane. However, with their more recent feature films, they've been moving to a digital ink-and-paint model. Bill's 2013 film Cheatin' was the first feature where he used a digital ink-and-paint system to support his hand-drawn animation. And on her first feature film, Rocks in my Pockets, Signe also drew her characters by hand, then scanned them into Photoshop for digital clean-up and coloring before digitally compositing them with photos of her live model 3d set backgrounds.

Is the day approaching where the only animation memorabilia worth framing that we'll be able to purchase from newer films are these mass-produced serigraphs or lithographs printed from a specific shot in the movie? I would argue that if we're not already there, then the day isn't too far off in the future. And given how physical media deteriorates over time, it becomes more important to preserve these animation treasures from days long gone. For a reasonable price, I can own and preserve one of those rare moments of animation history where almost everything was done by hand using physical media. Unless they create a film by themselves, drawn, inked and painted by hand, most of the kids who are studying to be animators today will never know this experience: one where the film is in the can and there's a box of drawings and cels in the closet and they are secure in the knowledge that if the hard drive got corrupted or a software upgrade was incompatible with their old files, they could still recreate their entire film if they had to. Or maybe just make a couple bucks on the side from selling a part of their film in order to fund the next.

Single hand-drawn and colored frame from Joanna Priestley

* * *

NOTE: While the cels, lithographs, and production drawings displayed in this blog post are my personal property (unless where otherwise noted), the images and animations are being provided here for informational and educational purposes. Any intellectual property, copyrights, and/or trademarks remain with their respective owners.

NOTE #2: The production drawing of Taarna charging forward with her sword drawn... the one being sold by eBay vendor "collect_this"? Yeah, I was the one who bought that drawing after this blog entry was posted. I'm now looking at having both Taarna production drawings framed. Editor's note 06/13/2022