Further Experiments

The forest scene I produced was the first of my retro-inspired backdrops. Having experimented with lines, layers, transparency and having read further about Disney and Maurice Noble, I felt I needed to experiment more.

In ‘The Noble Approach’ (2013), Maurice Noble was recorded approaching a similar philosophy that I have grown to experiment with. “… we were trying to make a complete statement with the backgrounds and characters working in harmony. If you have characters that are primarily line and flat color, why not take the same approach with the backgrounds?”. Whilst I still aimed for a degree of separation, I wanted to try and experiment to see if the ‘roles’ of the lines and realism could be reversed with clarity and effectiveness still apparent. Lines and simplicity in the background, realism and no lines in the foreground. By concentrating on the backdrop I drew the 2 elements in isolation, not awarding much consideration to how the two elements would interact. By trying to produce as natural setting as possible I figured that prepping the scene would not be required. In a child’s bedroom the positioning of toys is not always neat and accurate (a decision I would later regret) and things go where they land, I didn’t want it to appear staged. Fig 1 shows the line drawing of the backdrop. As before, I wanted to make the planes of the image translucent and overlapping as per Icinori to add an element of disorder and activity as well as added interest. I’m pleased how this works both with and without colour. It is this overlapping that adds further interest to a naturally shallow scene where there simply isn’t much depth – such as a child’s bedroom. I also made an effort to keep elements as 2D as possible to shake the realism from the piece and to allow this overlapping to make more logical sense. I still find it a struggle to try and eliminate perspective from my layout sketches that are so common in European approaches.

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Fig. 1.

Whilst looking through other students’ blogs I came across John Berger’s ‘Ways of Seeing’ in Robin Johnston’s interesting blog post. I particularly liked the concept that perspective draws everything into your eye, but your eye can only be in one place at a time. With a flat (and overlapping) approach, this is somewhat eliminated.


One of the first problems arose when I began to place the characters into the scene. I now realise I was a little naive not purposely placing backdrop elements to allow for the character presence later. Along with many interesting elements simply being blocked completely (hippo / parrot and some of the boxes that were to make up the pirate ship), more annoyingly, the toy dagger resting on the floor appears to be held by the middle character (fig. 5.). I could maybe drop the character on the page a little to prevent this, but it highlights that I need to consider positioning and scene setting to some extent at least, especially as unlike a theatrical production, there is only one audience viewpoint. I also had to swap the character and cat on the bed and flip them horizontally as the middle boy was blocking too much of him and the crisps he is eating – thus losing all the narrative of this part.

My other issue came with adding outlines to the characters or not. It felt like they were getting too lost in the background, especially as I chose a common palette for the entire picture. I realised that further emphasis of tone and highlights was required to make them stand from the other layers a little.

One final area I am still not entirely pleased with is the rainy window. I feel it is still too realistic in relation to the rest of the scene, both in terms of the colour and the representation of the drops on the window. I decided to blur this similar to the techniques seen in Gravity Falls and The 7D. This is something I definitely need to practice to get the balance right.

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Fig. 9. Realism is not always a good thing!

Overall though, I am happy with experimentation and coming together of key elements I have studies over the recent months…


Fig. 1. John Berger, Ways of Seeing, ep. 1, 1972, viewed 30 December, <https://rcjdesignblog.wordpress.com/2015/12/09/nostalgia-hunters-in-the-snow-and-ways-of-seeing/&gt;

Figs. 2-9. Artist’s own work

Polson, T. (2013) The Noble Approach, San Francisco: Chronicle Books


Learning from the Masters

How did I not know about Disneyland?! No, not the overpriced theme park; I’ve not much desire to go there I’m afraid, but the TV show – Disneyland?

I stumbled across it via a link on the internet where I saw Walt Disney host episodes explaining the wonderful workings of how some of his animated films and shorts were made. Upon further investigation, I discovered it ran from 1954 until 2008 (albeit with a few extended breaks) yet I have never seen or heard of it before!

Most of the later episodes debut some of their animations and live-action films and also got renamed to ‘The Wonderful World of Disney’. However, it is the early episodes in the 1950’s that fascinated me the most and proved the most useful to providing me with an insight into how Disney approached their settings and backdrops. I also found really interesting the quantity  of these shows and segments that were dedicated to the importance of music within animation, whereas the mention of settings and backdrops were very limited. I am still intrigued by this comparable lack of universal credit and research.

Season 2, episode 11 ‘The Story of Animated Drawing’ showed how, during the making of ‘The Nutcracker Suite’ in Fantasia (1940), the artists wanted retain the fragile character of the inspirational pastel sketches. However, the animators’ usual approach of hard ink lines and flat opaque blocks of colour didn’t create the desired effect. It also created the obvious separation I have spoken of previously between foreground and background, when on this occasion the boundaries didn’t want to be as distinct (like I have been trying to avoid also). The scene wanted to be animated, not have superimposed characters in the scene animated. Fig. 1. highlights the harsh look that would have been achieved using their conventional methods, with fig. 2. showing the preferred look.


Transparent paints were developed to help resolve this problem. Also, a dry brush approach was also used to produce a chalk-like texture, again, reminiscent of the many backdrops I so admire of classic Disney settings. Adding to the laborious task, an airbrush was also used on each cell to add further depth and form.

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Fig. 5. The completed scene from Fantasia

The results are breathtaking. Fig. 5. shows a clip from Fantasia. The effect of losing the hard line and flat colour result in a much more harmonious effect where the obvious ‘joins’ between animated and static are lost. It fact watching these old animated films again reminded me of my fascination as a child of  working out which parts of a scene in a cartoon would move and which wouldn’t. I looked for the flat colours and bold outlines in each scene and despite being elements of the same image, I could tell that these were the bits that were to move. Fig. 6. Shows just this. The difference between the painted backdrop images and those produced on a cel to be animated is clear to see.

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Fig. 6. Guess which pipe will move?! A game I used to play with most cartoons I watched as a child…

The exclusion of the black lines on characters that I have also been experimenting with produces an added benefit. As a character moves to the distance, the lines do not get thinner, resulting in a heavily-lined, solid mass as demonstrated below in figs. 8 & 9 as Micky skips to the distance.

I also found episode 16 in season four, entitled ‘Tricks of our trade’ interesting. Once more hosted by Walt Disney, he explained the development of the multi-plane camera as a way to create even more realistic backdrops for their feature films. With it, the backdrop is split into different planes, with each one moving independently of each other to reinforce the illusion of depth when panning. So rather than simply having the foreground and background, they used four oil-painted glass planes just for the ostensibly three-dimensional backdrop.

It is this multi-layered approach that links to ‘ma’ – the spatial term often used in Japanese culture to indicate areas between layers and discussed in a previous post here. This use of numerous planes is what I have been using more of in my experiments and by giving them a translucent quality it gives it greater interest (albeit less realism). It is also likened to the printed qualities of silkscreen printing and helps utilise some of the dry brush effects previously mentioned that I enjoy so much and that gives it a retro ‘Disney’ feel.



Figs. 1-4. Disneyland 2.11, The Story of the Animated Drawing, 1955, viewed 23 December 2015, <https://goo.gl/xsZsI3&gt;

Fig. 5. Fantasia, 1940, motion picture, Walt Disney Productions, USA.

Fig. 6. Walt Disney. Pluto. The Purloined Pup, 1946, viewed 23 December 2015, <http://goo.gl/WCEx3A&gt;.

Figs. 7-12. Disneyland 3.16, Tricks of our Trade, 1957, viewed 23 December 2015, <https://goo.gl/XGRs4e&gt;



New-wave animated series success

There has been a recent wave of animated TV series’ that have achieved great success and admiration amongst both children and the illustration / art community. Quirky shows such as ‘Regular Show’, ‘Steven Universe’, ‘Regular Show’ and ‘Gravity Falls’ have brought with them a whole community of fan-art, and have gained an almost cult status. With their often warped storylines and brand of humour that appeal to adults and children alike, I was interested to see how some of these shows approached the artwork and especially the settings and backdrops.

Animated series are obviously very different to storybooks. In these shows, speed is often the order of the day and animators need to produce work quickly and using very efficient techniques. However, many of the scenes depicted are often stationary and therefore the backdrops can be produced without the full regard for speed of production, thus opening up a wide range of options for the artists to experiment with. Also, with so many TV cartoon series of a similar ilk, surely something different is required to enable shows to stand out from the crowd?…

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Fig. 1. Midground features in a similar style to the foreground characters in ‘Gravity Falls’

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Fig. 2. Beautiful settings portrayed in ‘Gravity Falls’

Figs. 1 & 2 show clips from ‘Gravity Falls’. From the four programmes chosen to focus on, I feel the settings are the most beautiful in this TV series. Whilst the characters are standard, black outlines, with flat block colours, the settings (often the woods and forests of the show) are beautifully represented with a range of texture and colour. Backgrounds are often blurred to add to a greater feeling of depth, whilst objects set in the midground, and animated props are of a similar style to the characters. These backgrounds have a very Disney-esque feel to them and ooze quality, adding to the show’s appeal. There is attention to detail, with tufts of grass growing from the gift shop roof in Fig. 2. and the trees fading into the distance really gives a warm, quality feel to the whole shot. This blurring effect of the background is like the depth of field effect used in photography and is not very common in illustration, but with the extensive use of computers for animation, is now quite simple. It is something I have never really experimented with but interested to see how I can use it for effect.

Another Disney cartoon series is ‘The 7D’, documenting the seven dwarfs from Snow White. The approach is very similar again to ‘Gravity Falls’ and it is clear they are from the same studio. Whilst the attention to detail may not be as prominent, the same techniques of a lack of line, blurring of the backdrops and muted colours all separate the foreground and backgrounds.

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Fig. 3. ‘The 7D’. Muted background palette draws attention to the characters.

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Fig. 4. ‘The 7D’ – blurring backdrops creates greater depth, much like field depth in photography.

Alongside new Disney shows, Cartoon Network continues to produce a range of exciting and unusual animated TV shows. ‘Regular Show’ is one of the more popular (certainly in my household!). This show has a different approach to the settings and appears a lot more simplistic. Whilst the characters still use the bright colours and black outlines reminiscent of so many animated cartoon characters, the backdrops use this technique also, giving a more ‘amateur’ feel. There is a lack of physical depth portrayed in this cartoon in comparison to the Disney shows. Backgrounds tend to be more simplistic and there certainly are not the number of planes / layers used to create the illusion of distance, and all objects feel closer to the foreground, making a much smaller and more compact world that the characters live in. Distant layers remain in focus with no real depth of field. Detail such as omitted ground shadows from the hot air balloon in Fig. 5. make for a less ‘warm’ visual and overall less interactive and believable image.

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Fig. 5. ‘Regular Show’. Showing limited depth in the backdrops.

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Fig. 6. ‘Regular Show’. Mid-grounds used a similar style to the foreground detail, creating limited depth in each shot.

Also coming from the Cartoon Network stable of popular cartoons at the moment is ‘Steven Universe’. Despite not being a big fan of the actual series, I do really like the ‘feel’ of the artwork. The backdrops especially, borrow elements from classic Disney movies. The settings are often minimal, suiting the Cartoon Network genre, yet they have been approached in an almost retro style. Whilst having been produced digitally, the have a hand-made look and backdrops of gouache and dry brush lines create the fantasy world in which Steven inhabits. The offset colour on Fig. 8. also creates a retro effect and is used over again in the series. This is in contrast to the neat, simple lines and colours of the characters, thus creating this separation, yet I still find the backdrops add a huge amount of interest despite using detail sparingly.

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Fig. 7. ‘Steven Universe’. Backdrop reminiscent of the classic Disney films circa 1950.

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Fig. 8. ‘Steven Universe’. Retro styling used to create the backdrops. Off-set colour and a dry-brush effect.

If you compare the settings and style to classic Disney artists, such as Milt Banta, Mary Blair, Jacques Rupp and Al Dempster, there are clear similarities between their styles of backdrop creation, especially with the gouache effects and bold, abstract shapes represented.


Fig. 9. Milt Banta.


Fig. 10. Jacques Rupp.

It seems clear that despite the foreground characters of all of these four shows being produced using similar techniques, the backdrops follow no common theme, but borrow aspects from photography and classic animations of the past. They still follow the aforementioned four methods to represent settings, sticking to a tried and tested formula despite pushing the boundaries with their modern, wacky approach to the story.



Figs. 1 Gravity Falls. Wierdmageddon Part 1, 2015, viewed 13 December 2015 <https://goo.gl/foAtj0&gt;

Fig. 2. Gravity Falls. Roadside Attraction, 2015, viewed 13 December 2015 <https://goo.gl/gLNBvm&gt;

Figs. 3 & 4. The 7D. Season Sneezing, 2015, viewed 13 December 2015  <https://goo.gl/prBsus&gt;

Figs. 5 & 6. Regular Show. Hot Air Balloon Crash, 2015, viewed 13 December 2015 <https://goo.gl/jKDG0q&gt;

Figs. 7 & 8. Steven Universe. When it Rains, 2015, viewed 13 December 2015 <https://goo.gl/R2u2sC&gt;

Fig. 9. Milt Banta, Yellowstone: Land of burning mountains, 1957. Available at http://miehana.blogspot.my/2008/08/gouache-almighty.html [accessed 14 December 2015]

Fig. 10. Jacques Rupp, The Brave Mice and the Vegetarian Cat, 1959. Available at https://www.pinterest.com/pin/20055160813507426/ [accessed 14 December 2015]