I thought it’d be interesting to do a comparison between the stills from the Italian gas commercial in the previous post and the stills from this Sohio-Boron gas commercial posted above. While the Italian spots have some slick color and generally solid styling, I’d wager that this Sohio commercial is far superior in the animation department.
One of the hardest things to get across when discussing animation design is that it’s not just about character designers, layout artists and background painters. The animator is a critical member of the design team. In this case, the animator—Bill Littlejohn (b. 1914)—was a master of his craft and somebody who was completely in tune with Modern design values. I’ve seen a lot of his commercial work so I have a fairly good sense of how he’d move these characters, but even if you haven’t seen a lot of his work, it’s easy to appreciate the animation genius contained within these stills.
Littlejohn delivers the elements of design that can only be added by the animator. For example, in the first still look at how he draws the front view of the man in the car. Animators of the 1950s often avoided the front view when animating large-nosed characters because it requires a certain amount of effort to make it work well. Case in point: there isn’t a single front view in any of the Italian commercial stills. Littlejohn, however, has no problem tackling the straight-ahead view. He manages to put in an elegant asymmetrical shape in the straight-ahead complete with opposing angles in the head shape and the tilt of his hat. He also finds a creative way of making the eyes fit onto the head which is not an easy thing to do with this design.
The next two drawings are even more exciting. The man and the car are designed as one so that the man’s head and arms flow into his car-body. Littlejohn takes superb advantage of this idea and creates some super-stylized lines of action that incorporate the whole design. Take a look at those rhythmic s-curves in the bottom still; it begins from the tip of man’s hat and carries through to the front of the car. Beautiful! This line-of-action concept is evident somewhat in the Italian spots, but it’s not near as inventively executed as this Sohio spot. Even more importantly, Littlejohn pays careful attention to the overall shapes in his drawings. Creating appealing abstract shapes in a still drawing is difficult enough; creating appealing abstract shapes in constant movement with considerations like direction, tension and anticipation requires true skill. In the image below I’ve highlighted the silhouettes to show the large shapes that he drew.
These three stills have an endless wealth of animation design knowledge. For example, notice how in the second still, Littlejohn gives the gas station attendant an underbite even though that’s a feature the character doesn’t have in the earlier still. Not only does the underbite help to create volume in a relatively flat design, but it also serves a functional purpose by breaking up the clunky line that would have otherwise gone straight from the bottom of his nose into his arm and hands.
The primary reason, in my opinion, that so much of today’s stylized animation rings hollow is because nobody ever follows through on the animation. Regardless of whether a show is animated traditionally overseas or if it’s done in Flash, most contemporary TV series creators think their job is done once they’ve created a pretty model sheet and slapped on a bit of color styling. These few stills illustrate however that model sheets are often the least important aspect of stylized animation—what the animator does with those designs is what truly counts. I’ll try to post some actual examples of Littlejohn’s animation soon.