Rob Paterson and Don Chisholm take a biweekly deep dive on their podcast, Department of Nerdly Affairs. Their topics range from Taiwanese comics to Chinese webnovels to hero pulps to indie RPGs. Recently I guested, and we three talked about G.I. Joe history, toys, comics, and animation. Thanks, gents! Listen here.
Category Archives: Animation
“Where the Reptiles Roam,” a 1985 Sunbow/Marvel episode of G.I. Joe, is great. And silly. Which is the best thing I can say about the 1980s Sunbow/Marvel show. Teleplays balance action and a bit of drama, while characters chew scenery and veer into charming archtype. I love everything about this show. In this episode, written by Gerry Conway and Carla Conway, four Joes infiltrate a Texas dude ranch where Cobra has harnessed a space laser to destroy American cities. You remember three sentences ago when I said this show was charming, right?
(Today’s blog post is about art, not writing, but I want to toss out that although in comics Gerry Conway is best known for killing Gwen Stacy, he has a big career writing for live-action TV, and is writing some Spider–titles again.)
To repeat from an earlier blog post, animation background keys don’t appear in animation, but provide master shots for the BG artists to draw and paint specific angles within a location. Let’s do this one backwards. The last time we looked at a background key from G.I. Joe, we examined the actual painting first, and then screencaps from that scene second. But here are the screencaps. Click to embiggen, and follow along. Wild Bill leads the square dance. Pan past him from the stage and the shifty old folks, cut to our three undercover heroes. Over the shoulder from them, they see the shifty old folks leave. Cut back to a three-shot as Alpine suggests they follow. This whole thing is 20 seconds.
This scene involves seven shots. One is reused, so this scene only involves six BG paintings. All of those BGs are drawn and painted to match shots from the storyboards. And the BG key is the master shot for it all. I can’t prove this is the only key for this scene, but it’s a safe assumption. This painting is unsigned, so I don’t know who drew it and who painted it. Sadly, G.I. Joe Season 1 end credits don’t list BG artists, so we may never know. There is crossover from the talent that worked on the TV show also working on the animated movie, so perhaps of the 14 people in the BG department who are credited in the animated movie, one did this. But sorry, I don’t know. Again — one fancy painting to envision a setting for 20 seconds of a 22-minute show. That’s a lot of work!
Interesting to note how the space changes. The key makes the room feel shallow and yet horizontal. That’s what a landscape composition might do for you. But the animated scene fills this space with people, and makes the room feel quite deep. The steepness of the stairs also changes. I’ll chalk that up to a many hands working on a rush job. That’s exactly the kind of inconsistency you don’t see on a big budget feature film like, say, the 1989 Little Mermaid, (animated in America and over several years) but you do see on an ’80s TV show animated in one or two countries over several months. Additionally, the stone hearth is unseen in the animation. It might have been simplified out of the scene, or it might be in that fourth shot above, obstructed by Alpine on the right.
Whatever the case, I’m sure glad the Joes stop that space laser.
My brother always got the big Joes, the heavy machine gunners. He got Rock ‘n Roll (both!), Roadblock (both!), and later, Salvo. To my delight, I finally “called” a Joe who was beefier, and came with a big weapon — steadi-cam machine gunner, codename: Repeater. Here he is in scale, plastic glory.
But you came here for art, not well-disguised photos of my kitchen counter.
George Woodbridge, master illustrator! Did much of the ’88 turnarounds.
Mark Pennington, a big part of the Joe team at Hasbro. Did much of the ’88 accessories. And ’88 figures. (Later inked a lot of “X-Men.”)
This is fun. Characters, of course, get animation model sheets. So do costume changes for those characters, even small ones. Bart Simpson. Bart Simpson with an Isotopes baseball cap. And so do props. That baseball cap if it’s picked up. Or the hat rack, if it needs to be a discreet object, separate from the painted background.
So back to G.I. Joe, you probably recall this exciting scene.
Animation color models are made the same way production cels are. A pencil drawing on one sheet of paper is run through a photocopier loaded with blank cel sheets. Out comes that drawing, now on a transparent cel. Detail:
I didn’t light this in such a way as to really sell it, but you can see the brush strokes. From the front (the top), cel paint color appears flat, because it’s flush with the plastic sheet. On the back (the underside), it looks a bit like peanut butter spread across bread. Oh, and the white bits on the red — that’s from the cel being stored against a sheet of paper for years, and then sticking to it, and pulling some paper fibers off when I separated the two. I’ve heard that putting cels-stuck-to-paper in an anti-static bag in the refrigerator can separate them better, but I’ve not tried it.
Also, while I’m musing, I’ll point out that in the screencaps above, there’s a glow effect on the control device. (Mattes!) I doubt there’s a second color model that denotes that color effect, but if this were a modern production, I wouldn’t be surprised if such a reference existed.
I have to say, even as a kid, I could not comprehend how an 8-direction joystick with two buttons could translate into articulated movements for a bipedal human. It was one of those times where the limitations of animation or animation design shook me out of my suspension of disbelief. I’m glad that Duke escaped, though.
I never much got to know the ’82 characters. Not until later. Since my brother and I started buying the toys in ’84, we weren’t properly exposed to that first wave of action figures. Oh, we did buy a few, still hanging on pegs, and we saw them in the ’83 miniseries to be certain, but to my young eyes, all those green guys looked the same. My brother and I used that term, in fact: “Green guys.” As in “the green guys,” the 1982 G.I. Joe team that with the exception of the redhead, the black guy, and the guy in black, all looked the same. The 1982 cast was never “my” G.I. Joe. Now the flamethrower guy and the sailor with the parrot and the ninja redux with the wolf — absolutely.
So it’s with pleasure that I have gotten to know the green guys in the intervening years. And in the animated series, there are more changes and details to differentiate them, like Steeler’s two-color outfit. What stands out most, from a character standpoint, is Steeler’s pain in “Worlds Without End.” (Which I haven’t watched in fifteen years — yes, I know, that doesn’t make sense.) Actor Chris Latta’s amazing performance as him. Which started with artist Russ Heath’s wonderful model sheet. I love the thickness, the bluntness that his pencil line has accumulated over the Xerox generations here:
GI Joe Extreme gets a bad rap. That it was a replacement for A Real American Hero at a time when ARAH was aesthetically on the mend is perhaps its biggest perceived infraction. But it had its own aesthetic problems. The toys certainly visually “popped” on toy aisle shelves, but they also were strangely exaggerated. At the time, in 1996, I was partly stunned and mostly disappointed. The show lacked the personality of the ’80s Sunbow G.I. Joe animated series, and the toy looked like a misfire at a time when whatever-G.I. Joe-was-going-to-be needed to hit the bullseye. Looking back, the show ages pretty well because the writing was strong, and with a story arc over a season or two, the animated GI Joe Extreme did something no G.I. Joe show had done before. I also thought the secret identity for the villain, Iron Klaw, was a nice touch even it pushed Extreme more into the super-hero territory it was competing with.
Musings aside, here are the model sheets, front pose only, and photocopies, not originals, of Von Rani and Iron Klaw. Unsigned, so based on the show’s end credits I would attribute these to Carlos Huante, Keith Matz, or Roy Burdine. Oh, and I added the color to the teaser image above just to grab your attention.
I know you toy types want the toy dope. But I’m an animation type first, so I’m always pleased to show you something cartoon-related. Like this background key from 1987’s G.I. Joe: The Movie. Background keys are not used in the final animation. They can be without color, or fully painted, and are an overview of what a location — interior or exterior — looks like. Generally they come before the storyboarding stage, so that storyboard artists know what a location looks like before planning (and drawing) scenes and shots in and around that location. Keys are used as a reference, too, for background artists and background painters, who will fully realize in line and in color the specific backgrounds needed in every angle called for by the storyboards.
This one’s by Robert Schaefer. His credit in G.I. Joe: The Movie is “Background Art Direction.” The whole background unit on that production is one BG Supervisor, another three on BG Art Direction, one BG Designer, nine BG painters, and one BG Coordinator. Some of these folks were in the States at Marvel Productions, others were in Japan at Toei. (A few uncredited ones may have been elsewhere in Japan or Korea, subcontracted, which I would never be able to track down.) Schaefer has worked on BGs for Hanna-Barbera, Ruby-Spears, Universal, and Disney Television Animation. And, probably of most interest to readers of this blog, Marvel Productions, where he also drew and painted on G.I. Joe, Transformers, and Jem.
Here’s how this key was used — for Pythona’s infiltration of the Cobra Terror Drome — note most of all the first shot.
An additional key or two may have been painted to describe these places. And it’s worth noting that the Terror Drome, both inside and out, had already been visualized in Season 2. I don’t have information on why any of that was revised or redone for The Movie, but presumably because here Cobra HQ is bigger and more labyrinthine. But imagine a show like The Simpsons, where a key for the Simpsons’ living room reflects a “standing set” and isn’t often redone.