The unusually high profile animation has been enjoying in the past decade has cast a spotlight on many animators, making them more visible than ever. Still, even more artists go virtually unrecognized for their vital contributions to an animated film.
“There’s a ton of people who affect animators who hardly get boo in the publicity,” says Disney Feature animator/director Eric Goldberg. Among the least heralded, in Goldberg’s view, are the animators whose duties fall under the broad heading “cleanup.”
Cleanup covers a broad range of titles, from assistant animator to lead key assistant to character lead, but the function is largely the same: to redraw the animators’ rough, often sketchy drawings in order to produce finished, clean ones for inking and painting, either on cel or in the computer. It is actually the handiwork of the cleanup artists and not the key animators that is seen on the screen.
“Cleanup is a bit misleading, because animation is done in two stages,” explains Brian Clift, character lead for Moses in DreamWorks’ debut animated feature, “The Prince of Egypt.”
“The animator obviously does all the primary stuff in the rough, and there are a large number of animators who work on a character, but they all draw it differently. (Cleanup) means taking an animator’s roughs and trying to think and understand how he acted it out, what that character is doing in an action way and, plus that, make it look consistent with all the other animators, so Moses always looks like Moses up on screen, and not like a very large family of brothers,” Clift says.
Just as drawing styles might vary from animator to animator, so does the accuracy to the character models, which are the detailed design “blueprints” for each character. “Some animators get it 95% of the way, some 90%, 80%, 60%, 50%, but whatever that gap is from 100%, that’s what you’re supposed to fill in,” Clift says.
In some cases, that might mean adding to or refining the character’s mouth movements in dialogue scenes, or it might mean the movements of hair or clothing in the wind. Since the key animators are primarily responsible for getting a character’s performance, and the emotion it involves, on paper, they are allowed to be looser in their draftsmanship. Time is also a factor in an animator’s attention to detail.
The function of cleanup has become even more important in the era of digital ink-and-paint, since all lines defining the character must be closed for the paint function to work.
“You’ve got to be very precise and close off all of the color shapes so that there aren’t (color) leaks,” Clift says. “(Digital ink-and-paint) has the advantage of speed, but it doesn’t think, so you have to be very careful how you draw the drawings.”
The overall importance of key assistant animators was proven years ago during an incident at the Walt Disney Studios, when rebellion in the ranks robbed the studio of much of its new talent.
“The story goes that when the (Don) Bluth group quit Disney in 1979, the majority of the people who left were the young animators who had been trained by the Nine Old Men (Disney’s legendary veteran animators),” recounts Tom Sito, president of Cartoonists Local 839 and an industry historian.
“So the studio’s strategy was to depend more on their senior assistants who hadn’t left. They promoted a new batch of young artists to be animators, but they worked very roughly, and the veteran assistants, the sergeant majors of the production, helped carry the day.”