Lecture 17: "SCENE 09" ~ Gertie bites man...

Title: Dinosaur Bite

Original inspiration: The animation process, as we know it today, never really established itself until well into Twentieth Century. Various technical advancements were taking place at the time that made the often unpredictable and demanding process of animation more controllable. However, with filmic "tricks" being the main focus of the filmmakers at the time, drawing skills and fine artistry were very much on the back burner. This changed however when the famous comic strip artist, Winsor McCay, entered into the animation arena. 

McCay was the finest master comic strip artist of the time… his most famous strip creation being ‘Little Nemo’, a surreal and wildly imaginative creation that still remains fresh and inspiring today. He first hinted at his interest and understanding in the animation process when creating a series of moving positions in a comic strip that could be cut out, harnessed with a rubber band and then flipped to create the illusion of movement. The uniqueness of this idea however is underlined by the fact that there had never been "flipbooks" before this moment in time, so the notion of drawing successively individual frames, then rapidly flipping them in sequence to create movement in this way was till an innovation. 

Consequently, McCay later claimed that he invented the process that was ultimately to be called "animation". The real animation breakthrough came however when, as part of his hugely successful Vaudeville act, he took on a bet that would basically enable a drawn dinosaur to come alive on stage and obey McCay’s instructions as they appeared before a live audience. The artist used over ten thousand drawings to create the illusion and win the bet. The result of his creative showmanship being the existence of one of the most admired animated films ever, "Gertie the Dinosaur". 

As indicated, prior to "Gertie" Winsor McCay had already established himself as one of the world’s finest illustrators and comic strip artist. However, after ‘Gertie’, McCay was revered as the unchallenged "animation king" of the time and, years later, was to be an inspiration for another great in the industry, Walt Disney! For all these reasons "Gertie the Dinosaur" became the inspiration for this scene in "Endangered Species".

How it was done traditionally: "Cel" animation, as traditional hand-drawn (2) animation ultimately became known as, had not been discovered at this point. The use of "cels" (transparent acetate that the animation drawings were ultimately traced and painted onto) was patented in 1914 by Earl Hurd, so Winsor McCay essentially used pen & ink drawings on solid white drawing boards to create his action on a frame by frame basis.

Of course, there were no "keys", "inbetweens", or "peg bars" in those days, so he worked entirely "straight ahead" like Emile Cohl. The drawings were "registered" for continuity by him devising a kind of wooden frame structure that showed where the corners of his identically-sized animation boards were to be positioned for filming. A fixed camera would then shoot the boards, one-by-one, until the entire sequence was complete. A little later in his career, when animating his own "Little Nemo" character in 1911, McCay did hand color his celluloid based artwork to give him colors that corresponded to those in his original comic strip. However, for the bulk of his lifetime’s work, he worked exclusively in black & white.

How it was re-created digitally: Reproducing the Winsor McCay style was reasonably simple to do. When I say "simple" I don't mean that his ability was easy to match. It was not. His work was, and is, some of the most incredible ever created. But what I do mean is that once he has established something it is pretty easy to replicate it with the tools we have today. To do this I took a single frame image from his "Gertie the Dinosaur" film and copied it. I modified it slightly, to match the screen format I adopted for my whole "Endangered Species" production - which is "HD1080". I also had to redesign the characters in the scene, based on the "yellow man" style used throughout. I did this both for the man and the dinosaur.

With the layout and the designs resolve, I separated the two elements onto different levels - the background on one and the dinosaur on the other.

The animation of Gertie (left) was created using "Photoshop" and "Premiere" in a bitmap style, whereas the hand/pencil animation (right) was created in a vector environment using "ToonBoom Studio".

To get the organic "boiling" effect that McCay’s, drawings had in the original film, I loosely "traced-back" the background image times. (i.e. I traced 6 versions of it, where the line was almost identical, but not quite. I assigned each a separate number from 1 - 6.) Next I filmed them in a random order. I didn't repeat the drawings in the same order as I knew that this would give it a predictably repeating cycle of boiling. Instead, after the first cycle of ‘1-6’, I shot them randomly - say ‘1’, ‘4’, ‘6’, ‘2’, ‘3’, ‘5’, ‘1’, ‘3’, ‘2’, ‘6’, ‘4’, ‘5’, ‘2’, etc. This gave it a much more unpredictable boiling effect. You can see from this following zoomed-in close-up view that Gertie's line seems to shimmer - technically termed "boiling" - to keep the line alive, even when it is not technically moving...

Lastly I "cleaned-up" in black and white, using Indian Ink on regular animation paper, prior to scanning. With the clean-up completed I finally scanned all the animation elements and combined them (on ‘2’s’) in "Photoshop".

(Note: After I created the animation artwork for this scene, I did actually chance on an original frame from McCay’s original film, via the Library of Congress website in Washington, DC. I was immediately amazed at the superior quality the artwork had - far and away superior to anything that is seen when viewing McCay’s film. Clearly the poor film stock quality of the time showed scant respect to the fineness of his art. I was immediately humbled by the beauty and delicacy of the artist’s original pen and ink line style and wished that I could go back and re-work my scene again, to reflect this. However time, money and personal energy was against me in the final analysis. So my original, yet significantly rougher, cleaned-up version had to remain as it was unfortunately.)

Special animation techniques of noteThe really tricky part of this whole sequence was the illusion of the dinosaur biting off the end of the baby’s pencil. All the re-created "historic" film sequences in "Endangered Species" were bitmap-based sequences, created in "Photoshop" and/or ‘Premiere". All the "animator at the desk" sequences on the other hand, from baby to old man, are vector-based and were created in "ToonBoom Studio". So mixing the two was a slight challenge.

All the yellow-character scenes were created in the vector-based "ToonBoom Studio" software environment.

I also had the bigger problem of matching the hand action from the previous "Emile Cohl" scene to this one, making it a seamless bridge between the two when the dinosaur bit. The reason it was a problem was because when I animated the dinosaur I had no way of knowing where it's precise bite would be in the screen. So I decided to treat the two scenes as totally separate entities and link them together, manually, at the post production stage.

Consequently, with the dinosaur scene I animated it with "bite" point on the screen in mind. The action required that he reaches forward, opens his mount and bites the end of the pencil off that the character outside the screen is holding. At the point of the bit I added a little of the bitten-off pencil in the dinosaur’s mouth.

Open mouthed Gertie.

For the animation of the hand holding the pencil I have it reach forward to an imagined "hit" point and then remove the tip from pencil after the bite has taken place. However, neither the hand and pencil or the moving dinosaur meet at the same place in the way they were animated. To make them meet up at the point of the bite I imported the dinosaur footage into the background using my "ToonBoom Studio" software, with the hand/pencil animation placed on a layer above it. I then synced-up the two bite positions by adjusting the position of the hand/pencil animation on the top layer so that the pencil and the dinosaur's mouth were in perfect alignment.

At first the vector "hand" level was out of alignment with the "Gertie" level, so it had to be re-positioned to match the mouth.

From this point on it was pretty easy to render the scene as a final movie scene, where the whole illusion worked out perfectly.