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The Tactile, Physical Labor of Classic Cartoonmaking

Here’s a fantastic treasure trove of images from the Golden Age MGM animation studio, the studio that produced Tom & Jerry and Droopy shorts.

The thing that I love most about these photos—and what makes them so different from any modern form of 2D animation production—is the tactility of the work. The energy of classic Hollywood cartoons originated firstly with the intense manual labor required to produce the films.

Every step of animation production required some level of physical exertion or interaction with a physical object, from jumping on a desk to act out a scene and mixing paints with a blender to searching through boxes of sound effects and making facial expressions at a desk.

As more and more of these processes gravitate behind the slick surface of the screen, we no longer have access to the immediacy and intimacy of this earlier hands-on mode of production. And there are, perhaps, valid arguments for why digital production methods are superior to these classical methods. Yet, even if we can no longer return to this era, the glimpses here serve as a reminder that there’s more than one way to create animation besides the current methods employed, and sometimes those other methods can produce wonderful results.

  • JeanbearTheImmasculator

    Is the book in print still?

  • Riu Tinubu

    “…from jumping on a desk to act out a scene… to making facial expressions at a desk” ???

    We still can, and do, do those things.

    Though I’m quite thankful I won’t have to paint a cell any time in my working life… Though the studios photographed here look wonderful.

  • is it really possible to make a film as intricate and culled from so many sources as FRANK FILM (1973) or Jim Blashfield’s SUSPICIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES (1981)?

  • vince

    Agreed. I find the tablet commercial out right now with the little girl “painting” depressing also. What would be wrong with still giving the child an easel and real paints and pencils to play with. It seems like just giving a kid a tablet to do art on means they are losing out on something special in the learning process.

  • Marvin

    That is Irv Spence looking in the mirror. All of the photos on Michael Sporn’s blog referenced here were taken at the MGM Cartoon Department in Culver City, Ca during the golden age of 2D animation. They are from one chapter on animation production in Gene Byrnes’ “The Complete Guide to Cartooning,” a long out-of-print book. Unfortunately, that article and these photos marked just about the sole occasion in print wherein the MGM animation department got any serious insider press. Thank heavens that Mr. Sporn has a copy and runs such a widely-read animation blog.

  • pencil&paperNerd

    While animating in Toonboom on my Cintiq right beside my big animation desk I still find the process just as exhilarating and physically taxing. I do miss the feel of that 100% cotton paper though, and the feel of the colerase blue sliding across the surface. Very cool images here! Just look at all that gear…

  • I’m similarly skeptical of just about every move to “put computers in the classroom.” We seem to regard our children as most deficient at the three Rs but I have yet to see how computer presentation aids those.

  • Tim Drage

    Stop motion is still pretty tactile :)

  • TStevens

    I grew up in a studio and I was helping out on camera when I was in highschool. I still have boxes of old cells that have the scent of film cleaner and xerox in them. I was a lousy painter though. I just remember hating the smell of cartoon color (was it the greens or the vermillions that smelled the worst???). If you never worked on camera or with cells you can’t fully approeciate how easy it is to produce animation these days. More than ever it is about creativity and less about who has the resources.

    As for drawing, I just finshed animating a spot yesterday that was done on paper (though it was scanned and then composited in After Effects). I’m still a big fan of paper and pencil though, I do almost all of my 2D effects animation paperless.