How To Create Animation
Interviews by John Cawley



JULY 18, 1990

Back To Contents
Back To Main Page


Darrell Van Citters has grown from animator to director for two of the key homes of animation, Disney and Warner Brothers. In his current position of Creative Director at Warners Classic Animation, his duties include overseeing almost every aspect of the classic Warners characters from the new shorts, to commercials to the comic strip and print work. The Classic Animation division is located across the street from the current Warners lot in Burbank. The hallways are large wall sized paintings of the Warners characters done by classic WB background painter Dick Thomas and current painter Alan Bodner. We interviewed Darrell in his office, which was filled with story material for the second Bugs Bunny short, BEACH BLANKET BUGS.

Q: Please give a brief description of your career including studios and projects you've worked on.
DVC: I was an art school major for the first year of college. After that I came out to California Institute of the Arts for three years. I worked one summer at Chuck Jones' studio as in- betweener/gofer. The next summer I spent as an assistant at Filmation Studios. I graduated with a B.F.A. and went straight into the animation business. The summer after that I started at Walt Disney Studio as a trainee in animation. I worked up from trainee to assistant animator, or animating assistant, and up to animator and we'll just say I ended up doing story on some TV specials which led me to directing and I've been directing since about 1981.
I was an animator on THE FOX AND THE HOUND and did story and direction on FUN WITH MR. FUTURE. It was not exclusive story credit, though. Then came development on the ill-fated WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT. Last at Disney was direction on the SPORT GOOFY film called SOCCERMANIA. I was free-lance for three years between Disney and Warner Brothers, working on a multitude of commercials. Now I'm with Warner Brothers as the creative director of their animation department.

Q: So you broke in as Chuck Jones' gofer and in-betweener?
DVC: No, I really broke in in 1974 as a cel painter at this little tiny commercial studio in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I worked as a cel painter, Xerox technician, finally doing some assistant work for one of their house free-lance animators. I tried to find out about Cal Arts and went from there. So I started right at the bottom.

Q: What does a directing animator do?
DVC: Directing animator or animation director?

Q: Both. And the difference.
DVC: A directing animator is basically a position, for example at the Disney Studio, where you're the head animator for a group of animators, on a sequence or a character or something like that. The director over at a place like Disney would supervise all the directing animators for the entire production. A director over here at Warner Brothers is a lot closer to dealing with the individual artists in that the director here will do character layouts, exposure sheet timings, and oversee the animation as it's done. I work directly with the animators to get the scenes on the screen the way they were envisioned.

Q: Would you say it is similar to what is called the "classic shorts period" in animation at Warners?
DVC: In terms of the job I do, yes. My directing is very similar to that. At Disney my understanding is that the directors don't have the time to do the actual character layouts and exposure sheets. They work directly with the animator when they hand out a scene, but they don't give the same kind of information up front. The animator will come back with that information after the fact and see if his vision jibes with the director's.

Q: How much supervision do you feel is necessary?
DVC: It depends on the staff. I try to hire the best people I can so that I don't have to be supervising them that much. Once I give them the layouts and the exposure sheet and we've talked it over, they're on their own. My job basically is not to animate for them; my job is to just guide them, make sure that the overall whole works.

Q: When do you generally get involved with a project?
DVC: At the very beginning; working on the story with the writer or the story man. That's because if the director doesn't see it, it isn't going to make it on the screen. And as a director, as well as with a producer, you see it from the very beginning to the very end. And I think when you're involved with something that long, you really want to feel like you believe in it.

Q: You work with basically all the areas: writer, voices?
DVC: All the way up through post-production.

Q: Do you cast the voices?
DVC: It's a tricky, tricky thing over at Warner Brothers. I have input on who gets cast in the voices, but I don't actually cast the voices.

Q: In other productions you've worked on?
DVC: Yes. It would be a combination of the director and producer casting the voices.

Q: What are your strongest areas in direction? Where do you feel you are a good director?
DVC: Hmm, I'd say in comedy timing and in guiding the animators so that they do things clearly and simply. Not simplistically, but simply so that they achieve clarity. And hopefully inspiring them.

Q: You mention comedy timing. What is your definition of that? Maybe an example would help.
DVC: I think comedy timing is knowing how quickly or how slowly to do something to optimize its comedic impact. Sometimes very slow timing can be considered comedy timing, and at the same time very quick timing can be considered comedy timing. That's what most people usually associate with it, but sometimes you can get a bigger laugh by a very drawn-out reaction to something. Or even no animation is a reaction to something. Does that make any sense?

Q: Yes, it does. What is your average routine on a production?
DVC: The daily routine changes the farther along you get in the picture, obviously. You're no longer doing layouts. The guys are all animating and your daily routine is different. You spend most of your time looking at tests on the video to see if the animation is working.

Q: Let's start at the beginning of production and sort of go step by step.
DVC: At the very beginning I will take the storyboards and figure out if the way we've got it staged in the storyboard is the best way to stage it. And if it can be improved upon, I'll sketch in really crude layouts in terms of perspective or angles or things like that. Next comes the character layouts on top of those. And then my background layouts, the perspective planes and things like that, will go to the background layout person or production designer and he'll work over those things to give it "the look."

Q: What is the difference between character layout and background layout?
DVC: Background layout is just the setting. The character layout is the characters themselves fitting in that setting. Once I've decided what the angle is, what the setting is going to be -- I don't worry so much about designing that, I just know where the characters will be placed within that, and I let the background layout person take care of that. With character stuff you deal with as many poses as you need in the scene to get the idea across. When you have a steady crew of animators, you can develop a shorthand where you don't have to use quite as many poses.

Q: Would that be like key animation?
DVC: Yes. You just give them the poses that tell the story. Sometimes you'll need to add a little bit more than was present in the storyboard itself. I prefer not to give them too many poses. I don't want to animate the scene for them, I'd like them to bring something to it that I can't put into it. That's part of their job. And it's expressions, it's little movements, things like that that you add just to fill out the storyboard, basically.
From there, once we have the dialogue recorded, I will take those poses and roughly expose them on an exposure sheet and show the animators where I want the timings to occur. They have a lot of flexibility in the timings and we work out the fine points once they've started animating the scene and we see it on the video. Then we can see what's working clearly, what could use more improvement in the timing, or where we could use a little more elegance in the timing.
So once I've done the character layouts, I've got the stuff on the exposure sheets, given them timings, I'll issue the scenes and we'll discuss what kind of acting we're trying for in this scene. What kind of timing we're trying for. Whether we want to push the comedy end of it or whether we don't want to push at all. We will discuss the whole scene inside and out. Then he or she will go away with the scene and do it in a very rough form and show it to me on the animation video camera. I look to see if the person's going the right direction, if they ought to continue to keep breaking it down and making the animation more fluid and timed the way we discussed it. This continues until both of us agree on the way the scene has come out. I'll tell the animator to go ahead and draw it out so it can be followed up by an assistant animator, and the process repeats itself from there.

Q: At which point it eventually goes to a pencil test.
DVC: Yes. Once we see it, roughly drawn on the video, it will go to the assistant animators and they will do the cleaned-up drawings, and then we send that out to the camera services room and get that shot on film so that we can not only double-check the animation on it, but double-check the way it was drawn, too. This is to make sure there's nothing out of the ordinary or out of arc. We're trying to eliminate glitches every step of the way. That's just another part of the fail-safe, another redundancy in the system, or whatever you want to call it. It's just a quality control step. Once you see it on film, the actual drawings, you can tell if there's going to be any problems with it projected on a large screen. That's the last chance you have to make any corrections before it goes to color. Then the corrections get expensive.

Q: How involved are you in the color process?
DVC: I'll discuss that with the production designer or background people, but I try not to get too involved with that. I try to hire people who know what they're doing in that department and let them do what they feel is appropriate. I'll just come in after they've done their work and I'll either make suggestions or okay it. Basically I don't like to tell anyone what to do on a picture. I figure I'm hiring them to do a job, and I want them to do the job they're hired to do. All I do is edit or guide.

Q: Do you go into the actual editing process at the end?
DVC: It's animation editing, so it's basically gluing scenes together. There really isn't much creativity in the editing process. You can fine-tune some of your cuts and animation -- I won't say animation, you'll fine-tune some of your actual editing by shortening scenes or things like that in the process, but basically animation picture editing is just gluing scenes together. Then I'll work with the sound effects editor, work with the mixers who mix the final soundtrack and get the levels right. But most basically, animation editing is done as you draw it.

Q: You've directed numerous films from shorts to commercials. How much freedom are you given on an average production, like a commercial?
DVC: Damn little. On a commercial a client is selling product and you're there to help sell product. So you do what he wants done on a commercial. When you're working on a theatrical production, you are still selling a product, that is the character which helps sell licensed merchandise. But you have a little more leeway. You're able to tell a story and you don't have that limitation of thirty seconds to tell the beginning, middle and end of the story.
You're given a fair amount of freedom, at least here at Warner Brothers. Of course everybody all the way up and down the ladder has input into it. We have been fortunate, here, that everybody tends to agree on the type of film we're making. Warner's is a little trickier because you have such a vast library of major history here that you're working with, which is both liberating and confining at the same time. It's liberating in that you have these characters with a lot of dimension to them; it's a wonderful precedent. Confining in that you want to bring your stamp to it too, you don't want to duplicate what the master directors have done in the past. Disney studios, I think, has probably a little less freedom on a picture, but I think you'll find that out when you talk to the Disney animators, what their feelings are like there. I generally had a fair amount of freedom there, but then I was working on projects that management really didn't care that much about, so I was not doing any high- profile projects. Features are where you have a little less freedom, I think.

Q: What project, work, film or commercial have you worked on that you really were totally satisfied with?
DVC: I probably never am totally satisfied with anything I've ever worked on. I think the short FUN WITH MR. FUTURE was a lot of fun to make because it was kind of busting loose after working on a project that was as staid as FOX AND HOUND. We kind of got a chance to play. We got to discover for ourselves comedy timing and there really weren't any rules in that picture. It was a lot of fun to do. We were just kind of let loose and we had a good time making it.

Q: On the opposite spectrum, what is a project you've been involved with that you felt failed? It may not have been a commercial failure or critical failure, but you personally felt that it didn't meet the expectations?
DVC: I have to be careful in that. I'd say a failed project was the SPORT GOOFY film. In that one you were taking a klutz, a world-renowned klutz, Goofy, and suddenly making him very good at sports. Which, as a concept, is pretty thin. And beyond that, it was started with one regime and finished under another. And we all know what happens when that occurs.

Q: Most of the "golden age" animators began working on short subjects and eventually graduated to feature work. You have done the reverse. You basically made your start in feature films and now you're working on theatrical shorts. Do you have any comment over this evolution, or de-evolution?
DVC: I can't say it's really a de-evolution. I think there's some people who feel more comfortable in one medium, whether it's features or shorts, than another. I personally wouldn't want to break it up into doing shorts or features. For me it's been an evolution in that I find shorts or, short projects rewarding because you can always try something different since every few months your desk is being cleaned off, and you can start on something fresh.
On a feature, once you commit to something, you're two or three years in the process. And even if you've got a better idea, you've got to wait until that film is done. And as a film evolves, you find out, "Well, gee, now we should go back and re- do that because I've got a better way of doing it." But you can't. You have to wait and finish the film. Whereas with a short, or the short project, your turnover is that much faster and you can take what you learned out of that one and apply it to the next one very quickly.

Q: Since you have moved up the ladder from actually cel painter to director and producer, is there a particular aspect of animation that you enjoy the most? Some task you would do for no money?
DVC: Well this is a business. (laughs) There's probably nothing I would do for no money. I enjoy what I'm doing right now. I like animating, but I enjoy doing poses for the animators and working with the animators and that in itself is fun. But I also like handing it to the animators and having them come back and surprise me with something that -- I have to be careful how I say this -- I don't like being shocked. I like when an animator *adds* something unexpected to a scene. He adds a little bit of life to it that you hadn't planned on. When I do character layouts, I'm not trying to restrict an animator's work. But there's a time and money factor when you're doing the short projects. Things have to be delineated as clearly as possible so they can go through as quickly and smoothly as possible. But within that, the animator can still manage to add a little touch, sometimes a big touch, that really makes a scene shine. I really like working with people and having them bring back something more than what I handed out. That's a real thrill, because you really feel like something's building there. I don't want people to do exactly what I say. I'm giving them guidelines and the thrill for me is seeing them come back with more. And it works real well that way. We build it as a team.

Q: How do you judge animation direction in general? What do you think is a well-directed animated film, short, or whatever?
DVC: (Laughs) You're going to get me into trouble, aren't you? I think, first of all in general terms, a lot of animated commercials are not successful in animation or film making terms because you usually have to put ten pounds of "stuff" in a five- pound bag. You've got so much information to convey in such a short amount of time and the clients want the world on the head of a pin, so you get poor staging or over-active staging. You have too many cuts in a thirty second period.
Clients tend to think that full animation is good animation. So everything is done fully, but that doesn't necessarily mean clearly. I like very cartoony animation, but by the same token I won't use it gratuitously and I won't use it for its own sake. I like restraint in my animation. Control. So that when the funny stuff, the wild stuff happens, it pays off.
Sometimes the funniest animation is no animation. I think one scene that stood out for me above all the scenes in, for example, GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE [Disney, 1986], was the scene with Ratigan when he's talking to Basil, and looking at his pocket watch. Basil replies to him. You can see that whatever Basil said to Ratigan didn't go over well. There was that pause. Just a held drawing, but you can see the wheels spin in the Ratigan's head. Then he just closes the cover of the watch. To me that was good timing and there was absolutely no motion in there, but you could see the wheels spinning in this character's head. To me that's what it's about. It's not how many drawings you use, it's which ones you use and how you use them.
I think there are some real nice moments in LITTLE MERMAID. There's a lot of clarity and good use of animation timing and camera in that film. There's not a lot of shorts going on right now so I can't really comment on that. I think when you see BOX OFFICE BUNNY you'll see that there's some wilder stuff and there's quieter stuff. I try to restrain it so that you've got someplace to go when you want to do the more outrageous things.

Q: What film do you think has bad direction?
DVC: I think it might be better to keep it general. I do have to work in this town.

Q: If you were starting today in the business or giving advice to someone who was interested in getting into animation, what would you tell them?
DVC: Well, we had Mike Maltese [key writer for Warner Brothers and Hanna-Barbera] up to Cal Arts to lecture. Somebody brought that kind of thing up to him. He said, "If my kid wanted to get into the business, first thing I'd do is break his pencil, then break his arm."
I don't know, I wouldn't know what to tell somebody how to prepare to get into this business. You better love drawing. You really better love it. To the point where even when it gets tedious, you still love it. Animation is a lot of hard work. It's not one of those professions for the misty-eyed. It's a lot of work, and even if you've got a vision, you've got to remember you're working in a commercial operation and a lot of your vision will be subordinated to support that commercial operation. But if you can handle all that, it's worth doing.
It's kind of amazing to be able to do all these funny drawings and have somebody pay you lots of money for it. And it's a lot of fun to create the illusion of life where there was none, to bring characters to life, that are really just a bunch of drawings. Go to art school, enjoy drawing, enjoy cartooning. If you're going to be in animation, I think it would be nice if you had a real understanding for drawing cartoons. And observe everything around you, constantly. Constantly. Be interested in everything around you. It all comes in handy, because animation is really just observation, both technically and artistically. It's observing the actions and attitudes and personalities around you, and commenting on those. So the observation is an extremely important part of it.

Back To Contents
Back To Main Page