[Ed. note: Academy Award-winning animator John Canemaker will be writing a monthly column about animation for Print. This is his first entry.]
I met master cartoonist Jeff Smith last November when he attended my lecture on Winsor McCay at the Wexner Art Center in Columbus, Ohio, where he lives and works. After the talk, Jeff gave me a complete 1,332-page volume of the cartoon epic Bone, the extraordinarily successful graphic novel that he drew, wrote, and independently published from 1991 to 2004. (Millions of Bone books have been printed in nine languages in 25 countries by Smith’s Cartoon Books and Scholastic.) Over the next few weeks, I savored it slowly.
The character-driven, Tolkien-esque narrative reveals itself through witty and dramatic draftsmanship, particularly the way Smith interweaves cinematic techniques throughout his visualizations, especially animation. For six years, Smith was an animator at Character Builders, a Columbus studio he co-founded, and it shows. He once said, “Comics have more in common with film than paintings,” and among his top graphic influences are three cartoonists with animation experience: Walt Kelly, Carl Barks, and Jules Feiffer.
For more than 10 years, Hollywood has been interested in putting Smith’s entertaining epic on the big screen. At one point, Nickelodeon Movies and Paramount held an option. In 2008, Warner Bros. acquired the rights for producer Dan Lin (Sherlock Holmes). Animal Logic, the Australian visual effects company (The Matrix, Happy Feet, 300) will turn Smith’s drawings into CGI. Despite a recent kerfuffle with Warner—a potential train wreck that instead became “one of those fires that gets put out”—Bone, the movie, is on track and a director will soon be announced. Smith is the film’s executive producer. And although he is not writing the screenplay, all quality control decisions pass through him. “I’ve seen everything,” he says. “It’s their project. But they’ve been very good about keeping me in the loop and showing me everything and it’s pretty exciting so far.” He admits that he is “kind of stubborn when it comes to Bone and animation.”
In my opinion, Bone’s Chapter Five, “Eyes of the Storm” is one the greatest 20 pages of cinematic storytelling in the history of comics, thanks to Smith’s “micromanagement of reader’s eyeballs,” as Scott McCloud put it. How does he blend animation into his comics so well? Subtle sequential imagery, dramatic “camera” angles, chiaroscuro lighting, succinct pacing, minimal dialogue, and maximal pantomimic gestures and facial expressions, acted by visually appealing characters, all point to Smith’s keen animation know-how. “I start with thumbnail sketches, exactly as you do in animation for storyboarding,” he says. “Comics are storyboards.” For “Eyes of the Storm,” Jeff attempted (and succeeded) to “make this comic work in real time. It’s a thunderstorm and the characters are being chased from one end of a nightmare forest to the other for 20 pages. And the amount of time it takes you to read a comic, like ten minutes, that’s how long they’re actually in the woods. It’s an alchemy—how do you navigate the reader through the panels in the correct amount of time?”
He explained the different ways he manipulates the reader. “I don’t have motion at my control like I would in film. I have to slow you down, so if someone talks, you will read that, which takes time.” He can speed the reader up, too. “If I want a character to run, jump and land in as few panels as possible, I spend a short amount of time—one panel—on him in the air. And I would not put a lot of detail in it. Wouldn’t want a lot of things to dry your eye out! That’s an animation technique.”
His streamlined characters come from his experience at Character Builders, where his staff of animators complained about his over-designed characters full of fussy details. “I was taught by my animators to make it simpler. Just get the barest amount of stuff in there to make it an easier design for everybody. Another technique I learned from film and animation is cutting on action. Especially if you flip the 180 degree rule completely around where one person stands on the left, one on the right, and I switch them. You can pull that off if you cut on action to give the person following the switch something to keep their eye on.”
When he starts painting black ink into the line drawings, they “get more solid and slow down. That happens in animation, too. In animation pencil tests, something really flies, looks lively and has a lot of energy. As soon as you color it and it becomes solid, your eye has something to grab onto and the action slows down a lot. So I find something that works great in pencil, I have to alter as I ink, take backgrounds out, do something to change the speed.” The large amount of drawings necessary for traditional animation also helped Jeff’s comic career. “We’d make twelve drawings per second [of film footage]. Having to draw that much really improved my construction. I mean vastly! My drawing ability went up many, many notches.”
So how does he feels about having his beautiful line drawings become CGI? “Well, the movie isn’t my art,” Smith answers. “It’s someone else’s, whether it’s hand-drawn or not. So if a talented company like Animal Logic wants to make a Bone film in CGI, then I’m open to it. The important thing to me,” he continues, “is that the film up on the screen feels and smells like Bone. This might sound weird, but I don’t see my comics as drawings. I hardly even see the lines! I see them as images with volume. The lines are simply my way to contain the shape. If the CGI can present the shape in a satisfying way, and the animators are talented, then I think the world of Bone can brought to life just fine.”
The film will use motion capture, an Animal Logic specialty, although Smith hasn’t seen any for Bone just yet. “So I don’t know how that’s going to come out,” he admits. “Also, I know next to nothing about the technical aspects of motion capture as it relates to animating.” But Smith reiterates that the film’s producers want him to be happy. “I know these characters and so far they’ve taken all my advice. Ask me after the movie comes out if I still think that,” he said laughing. “Until then I won’t know.”