Thursday, April 13, 2006

Richard Scarry: Line of Action

When I was a kid we never had any Dr. Seuss books in our house, except "Green Eggs and Ham" and "Cat in the Hat", I think. We never had Bill Peet's books either. We had a lot of books, of course, but I don't really remember much about any of them except for the ones by Richard Scarry.

I loved his books as a kid and I loved his drawings especially. They are interesting for this discussion because his characters don't tend to have a strong line-of-action. Look at this one - even in really extreme action, they tend to be straight up and down. By this period of his art, he tended to draw all of his characters that way.

It's a pretty common convention in animation that you shouldn't draw your characters straight up and down - they should always lean to a diagonal or a horizontal to break up the monotony of characters all standing upright all the time. And also in animation it's desirable to have the limbs and torso of the figure flow in and out of each other along one line of action. And you're supposed to have the hips tilt differently from the head and shoulders and add twists and turns in the figure for life and variety.

The thing is, Mr. Scarry breaks all of those rules...a lot. I always think of his stuff as a "paper doll" school of drawing, because it sometimes looks like the head and torso are one solid peice and the arms and legs are connected by brads to the shoulder and hip connections, so that they all move independently. His stuff is always very clear. A stronger pose or gesture wouldn't sell his ideas any better. The attitudes and emotions of the characters always come through loud and clear. And they have an undeniable charm. I think that has a lot to do with his poses.

This technique works particularly well for big characters, like bears. They don't look right if they have a really extreme line of action because they are big, bulky and full of muscle. They're not lithe, so they don't hit sleek and flowing gestures. If you draw a bear with balletic, graceful poses then you are saying something that doesn't feel bear-like, and you should only do that if it's your intention!

Also short characters might not have as much stretch and flexibility in their skeletons as a tall character. You might want to keep little or short characters more contained in their line-of-action. A tall character can stretch out more when they move and hit more graceful fluid poses than a little squat character can.

Some of his stuff almost has the quality of Egyptian art. The head gets turned to profile while the ahoulders, pelvis and torso face the viewer straight on. Then the feet are both turned out to profiles (see the cowboy bunny below with his hands in the air). This could easily look incredibly stiff, but the variety of his shapes and the rhythms of his lines keep his stuff very appealing and (to me, anyway) his drawings have a lot of life and personality to them.

These are from a book of his that hasn't been in print for a while (to my knowledge) called "Tinker and Tanker". It's a lot older than some of his stuff and the characters have a little more variety in their gestures. But even when firing guns and leaping into the air with alarm they stay pretty contained and straight up and down.


Anyway, I post this stuff as the couterpoint to the earlier line-of-action stuff. It manages to be very clear and energetic while breaking some generally accepting ideas about animation drawing. Obviously you could compare it to a lot of television animation where the body is reused and only the arms and legs move. Maybe Scarry was influenced by those animators or vice-versa, I don't know.

Anyway, take a look and see what you think. Even more to come on this topic!

15 comments:

Marmax said...

I dunno...it seems to me that since he is so consistent with the 'up and down' gestures, it works- like it's style. The characters have simple, appealing designs and I agree...the strong line of actions might not add to their appeal, Maybe it would be too dynamic for what it is...

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

Yeah, I love this kind of stuff. I think a lot of it is going on in the shoulders. However, I feel that even though it works perfectly for those kind of illustrations, it'd hardly work for animation... at least not nearly as well. Cause in animation you want clear contrast, it's all about showing that contrast in emotion and thought, and to make that clear, to make that communicate, you want the contrast in your poses to be as big as you can. Sometimes you'll be able to use a quick drop or lift of the shoulders to sell the change of thought, but usually, you'd want a definite change in line of action. These Scarry drawings have a lot of personality for one drawing... but once you'd turn them into sequential drawings, I think they'd lose a lot of their appeal and clarity.

Scott LeMien said...

I think you're right on Scarry's figure's working--they're strong hmm, not really silhouettes--but sorta generic graphic symbols sometimes for working, etc.. I can see the arms plainly raised in surrender, and even blackened, I'd know the pose, even if it is slightly weak. Especially because the context and attendant gear helps communicate the action of the silhouette.

It's like an animal world where all their spines fused, but they still had to get their work done, lol. I have a book of his on my bookshelf, hehe.

Jeff Pidgeon said...
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Jeff Pidgeon said...

It's amazing how much energy and charm Scarry evoked in his work. He also managed to make very detailed drawings (I loved to pore over them for hours as a kid) without losing clarity or appeal.

Dr. Seuss had a similar approach, assembling lines of action out of groups of straight lines. It was interesting to see how often he'd use diagonals for dynamic poses.

matt said...

Scarry's work is always very busy (a word he used in titles, too) which invites readers to pore over the illustrations for a long time. I think part of what allows you to pore over them, is the relative stillness and calmness of the characters. In these examples, we have a multi-car crash, a fire, and a robbery. If the characters were also in high energy poses, the illustration would probably be very loud and chaotic. His pictures always have action AND quiet.

As for applying this approach to animation and movement, it makes me think of the great Buster Keaton. Whenever he wasn't in a flurry of action, he was always very, very STILL. The chaos swirled around him, but his stillness is why you can't take your eyes off him.

Scott LeMien said...

haha, matt makes a good point, these are crazy events which Scarry is showing animal people handling super-matter-of-factly, almost like an adult lesson. Like the people sitting calmly upside-down in the middle of a car pileup.

mark kennedy said...

Wow, who knew Richard Scarry would inspire such a great discussion? Really great thoughts.

chickennuggets said...

gawd Mark finally you mention an artist i like! Who the hell is bill peet??!!

have you seen the book "I am a bunny"? it's about a bunny named nicholas and when it rains, he hides under a mushroom.

i miss pixar.

mark kennedy said...

Dear Nuggets,
Yes I have that book. It's cool. Do you have that "Art of Richard Scarry" book? It has some of his roughs in it. Cool.

I miss Pixar too. It was like summer camp for 5 hours. I was going to hide in the bathroom and stay there, but they caught me.

Steve said...

I'm so glad you posted this Mark, as I read over the material you post, as well as pouring through book after book on the subject... there is so much selfdoubt that comes with being self taught, but when I read this post it gives me hope for my own work...

I tend to have a pretty sarcastic, dry since of humor, and I also believe strongly in doing work, and telling stories I find entertaining, but my style is very much anti everything I'm trying to learn, but this post goes to show there's room for that sort of work as well =]

Thanks for the encouragement =]

mark walton said...

Yeah, yeah...I'll save my tears for those of us who haven't even been invited to spend five hours at Pixar, you bastards.:)
Dude, I loved Richard Scarry so much as a kid, no matter how much of his stuff I read, it was never enough. And looking at these pictures again makes me realize that I still love his stuff - even moreso now! I never thought of it as being like heiroglyphics, but you're exactly right! I agree with everything that was said about how the simplicity and stiffness of the poses makes the chaos of his big, detailed compositions more legible and charming - ironically giving it more personality, not less. I never noticed how even that big car pileup, when seen at thumbnail size, has a nice, simple flow to the big shapes, contrasting with all the little figures and details. And I've never seen that early book of his - wow! It's interesting to see what about his style changed and what was there early on. Those great animal characters were so simple and inviting as to be irrestible. While this spproach to illustrating characters might not work for full animation, I could definitely see it working for limited tv cartoons, and probably adding a lot of humor and charm to boards, if it worked with the style of the artist. Thanks for putting this stuff up, Mark!

Eliza said...

I'm searching for a Richard Scarry character, but he wasn't a main character. He's a little mouse in a red row boat. He's wearing a yellow raincoat and hat. I lost him and I can't remember which book he's in =(

Please see http://addtofavourites.blogspot.com for the details of my search.

Andreas said...

I always loved these books as a child, and every once in a while I pull them out to look at them. I am saddened by the fact that the books that are still in print have been editited for political correctness.

Thanks for sharing.

D said...

Marc Scarry seems to mimic child's play.
The characters are like little Lego-men. Practically still, and serene, even if engaged in wild adventures and misshaps.