Little Johnny World & The Art of Backgrounds

‘With art, always with begin with truth’

When one thinks of the classics of animation, whether it be Disney’s ‘Fantasia’ 1940, ‘Pinnochio’ 1940 or the wonderfully crazy the Looney Toons shorts from the 50′s or even the Japanese Studio Gibhli films like the stunning, ‘Grave Of The Fireflies’ 1988 or ‘Spirited Away’ 2001, their success as motion pictures  is inexplicably tied to their design. There is a ‘look’ we often remember, sometimes without being able to put a finger on the precise detail. Perhaps it’s the delicate water colour backgrounds of Pinnochio or the striking angular style of the dragon in sleeping beauty, or perhaps the pastel tones so beautifully but simply rendered for the old Looney Toons cartoons or the primary colours and soft rounded character design of the Simpsons that makes them so memorable. In animation you don’t have the luxury of locations  or sets or character actors or indeed, stars. You have to build that history into every character, background and prop.

When a drawing is done poorly there is no hiding it!

Just look at the terrible Saturday morning cartoon fare currently being produced and the difference is obvious. With these churned out factory produced animated kids shows we are looking at a product made down to a price. They often rely on short cuts to hide defects and bad art. Characters are built with that ‘wacky’ look, you know, one eye is bigger than the other, mouth agape and always appear as if their heads are going to explode. The background art is way out of kilter with deliberately skewed perspectives that is supposed to infuse the image with an innate dynamism but instead, just looks drug induced and poorly drafted. To this end you often hear the excuse, “But that’s the style…” Bullshit! You can’t excuse a bad drawing!

To me it makes no sense in distorting things purely for the sake of it, otherwise it’s nothing more than arbitrary zaniness. That is imposing a ‘style’ in lieu of reason. This so called ‘style’ is now so entrenched in the world of animation it is difficult to develop anything that is contrary. To create something new in this case meant deriving the look from truth! In this case, locations Dean and I had scoured before for ‘Strange Bedfellows’ 2003, around the North Eastern Victorian towns of Yackandandah, Beechworth and Chiltern. These small picture postcard towns steeped with history and wonderful architecture embody the feeling I wanted for Gallangatta. Here are some early colour concept sketches of the town and main street.

From these we established the basic look and decided to go with digitally painted Backgrounds as opposed to computer/vector versions as they maybe infinitely scalable but too clean and simplistic for this type of setting.

I wanted a lush painterly backdrop, reminiscent of those cartoons we watched when we were children imbued with the same warmth and nostalgia. A hazy, dreamy kind of world that only exists in one’s memory of childhood.

With that said the budget allowed for a hundred or so backgrounds and it is surprising how quickly they get used up. The real trick is to stage your scenes with lots of clever reused backgrounds but laid up in such a way that it’s not too obvious.

The backgrounds are then basically broken down into three types…

1. Colour card – Which is basically a swatch or gradient used as an abstract backgound or for instances where backgound detail is uneccessary.

2. Key Art – One angle of an environment. Most locations are built up from multiple Key Art Backgrounds.

3.Pan Art -  These are used simulate a moving camera

A Layout Artist will prepare the staging of a shot in sketch form as shown below and indicate the field changes to specify the movement of the shot. In this example the shot would follow the action of Uncle Kev’s truck trundling down the road. It is an interesting example as it illustrates how the tighter framing indicated with the red borders disguises the distortion needed to sell the movement.

The Background Artist will then begin the painting process providing a full coloured, multi layered artwork that will serve as the background of a shot. Below is a lovely example of a finished background art of Little Johnny’s classroom.

And a high angle of the main street at night.

With the background art treatment established it was time to see how our characters would fit into this retro world…

Ralph Moser


Little Johnny The Movie

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