Maurice Noble and The Art of the Pan: Rhythm

This week, we’re excited to have Tod Polson guest posting on the blog. Tod first studied design at Otis/Parsons, and animation at CalArts before apprenticing under pioneering animation designer Maurice Noble. Since then, he has worked extensively as a filmmaker, designer, and teacher. He is the author of The Noble Approach: Maurice Noble and the Zen of Animation Design.

Get 30% off and free US ground shipping when you order the book here with promo code NOBLE this month.

A simple pan from Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century (1952)

Even if you have never heard the name of Maurice Noble, chances are you’ve been touched by the man’s work. Dumbo, Bambi, Bugs Bunny, Road Runner, and The Grinch all owe a debt of gratitude to his keen design sensibilities. George Lucas freely admitted that Maurice’s background designs for Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century (1952) were a great influence on his “Star Wars” films. With over one hundred animated films to his credit, including several Oscar nominated, and winning productions, Maurice is something of a legend in the animation industry.

(Maurice would have giggled at this introduction! In spite of his legendary status, he didn’t take himself all that seriously.)

Though he was able to poke fun at himself, Maurice was quite sober about the art of animation design. One of the lessons he taught us was how to properly design a pan.

A pan is not only something you cook with, it also describes a long piece of background art that moves in front of an animation camera, giving a panoramic effect. When planning a pan Maurice considered not only the length of the art and speed of the shot, but also its rhythmic nature.

A Bug’s Bunny pan from What’s Opera, Doc? (1957)

Major and minor elements in a pan all go towards creating a visual rhythm.

Chuck Jones planned all his films to a musical rhythm. He planned all the cutting, and major character poses to a specific musical beat. These beats were written down on a piece of paper called an exposure sheet (sometimes called a dope sheet.) This exposure sheet was the blueprint from which the entire crew would build a cartoon. As a musician, Maurice also thought of design in musical terms. An element, such as a rock or a tree, would be considered a beat as it flashed by the camera. Using the exposure sheet as a guide, Maurice could plan major and minor beats, and major and minor elements to get the effect he wanted. By planning open and closed spaces in his pans—that is contrasting areas of little detail with areas of more detail—he could plan the overall rhythm of a scene.

Bug’s Bunny scrambled a lot in What’s Opera, Doc?

In a 1971 interview with Joe Adamson, Maurice explained: “…When you’re on a panoramic shot also, your overall total has to balance out to be an interesting eye experience: your large areas and small areas are exhibited to the eye as the pan goes along, and the spaces and rhythms of this whole thing. This total, overall, is a visual composition in motion. And this is purely done by the use of color and space relationships, and accents in patterns of forms, and so forth.”

Element spacing examples.

Most contemporary cartoon directors and designers don’t seem to care (or know) much about visual rhythm. There is a reason why the classic films of Warner Bros., M.G.M., and almost every other studio during animation’s golden age have a certain easy flow that can’t be found in most newer cartoons. Some have argued that classic theatrical cartoons were based on a musical soundtrack and thus had to hit a certain musical beat. Maurice argued that ALL animation has (or should have) a rhythm to it… no matter its genre. He challenged us to explore rhythm in our own design work. Teaching us to plan for a beat rather than be loosey goosey, and try to feel for something that may or may not be there. Reminding us that a single shot in a film, much like a single note in music, is simply a small part of a larger composition; and must work with the whole.

A pan with evenly spaced elements from Robin Hood Daffy (1958)

Here Chuck and Maurice have designed trees to pan by the camera at a steady rate. By doing so they build a predictable visual rhythm of elements. In the next shot, Daffy hits a rock on an off beat, thus breaking the set rhythm. Hitting the gag on the off beat catches the audience (and Daffy) by surprise, and makes the hit seem harder.

A pan from Nelly’s Folly (1961)

Even in a slow pan like this from Nelly’s Folly, Maurice planned visual guide posts to pull the eye through the composition, and give a rhythm that supported the story.

The lines of rhythm lead the eye to and from camera in this medium speed pan from It’s Everybody’s Business. (1954)

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