Here's how they make a cartoon

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When we last left Arnold, he was getting ready to be shipped to South Korea. Arnold the cartoon character, that is - the star of Nickelodeon's "Hey Arnold!" show. For three months, workers at an animation studio in Seoul will work on the cartoon episode begun in Burbank, Calif. And when it comes back to America, it'll be time to make some music - and noise.

In last Tuesday's Kidspace (Nov. 2), we told you how a cartoon begins with an idea. Writers turn the idea into a script. The script is recorded by "voice-over" actors. Cartoonists listen to the recording and decide what the characters will look like and do. Artists make lots of sketches, called poses, of the action.

The poses are tacked on a wall and presented at a storyboard meeting. Then it's time to refine the black-and-white sketches and get them ready for their trip overseas.

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In Korea, the poses are colored in, either by hand or by computer. Artists there also draw and color the frames in between one pose and the next. (Remember: It takes 16 pictures to make one second of an animated TV cartoon. That's 5,720 images in an 11-minute cartoon.)

The animators don't redraw everything for every frame. Instead, each frame is built from layers of drawings. The bottom layer is the background. (Background paintings may be saved and reused in other episodes.) The cartoon characters are drawn on clear film, so the background shows through.

The part of the character that is moving - the mouth, the arms - may also be drawn as a separate layer. Other things that move (a basketball, a baby carriage, or a boomerang, perhaps) may be additional layers.

A 6,000-mile journey takes some preparation

Back in Burbank, Nickelodeon artists figured out what the characters' mouths should look like in each frame to make it look as though they are speaking their lines.. Artists assign a letter code to each frame. The letter corresponds to a particular mouth position.

How do the artists know how quickly a basketball should bounce, how slowly Helga should walk, or how to make sure the episode is exactly 11 minutes long? Each cartoon is carefully plotted out by a timer before it goes to Korea. (We won't try to explain it here. Cartoonists go to graduate school to learn how.)

So when the Korean artists get the "Hey Arnold!" episode from Nickelodeon, they know exactly what to do: how many frames to draw between each frame, what each frame should look like, even the exact color everything should be.

The frames, formerly called "cells," are still hand-drawn. The backgrounds are hand-drawn and hand-painted. But the characters and other movable items (props) are colored by computer.

"It used to be a bunch of people sitting around painting cells," says Ryan Slater. He's the production manager for the show. "Now they sit around clicking mouses at computers," he says of the Korean studio. Why Korea? Drawing cartoons is labor-intensive. Labor is cheaper in South Korea. (This is a common practice for cartoons. Watch the credits at the end of "The Simpsons" sometime.)

Why not use a computer to do all the coloring? Hand-painting gives scenes a different look, Mr. Slater says. Hand-painted backgrounds have a "deeper texture," he says.

The completed frames used to be photographed with a special movie camera. Now they are scanned into a computer. The finished cartoon is a digital tape that is the equivalent of 1,200 feet of film. It takes the Korean studio about three months to do the "in-betweening" on a typical "Hey Arnold!" cartoon.

When burned toast is not burned toast

Now the episode has voices and images. The final step is adding a little music and a little noise. For a cartoon like "Hey Arnold!" this is no small task.

Tim Borquez is the post-sound supervisor at Horta Editorial and Sound in Burbank. He takes cartoon music seriously. "It's not just background, elevator music," he says. The music "creates a groove and supports dramatically what is going on."

Jim Lang composes all the music for "Hey Arnold!" He plays the keyboard, uses prerecorded snippets of music, or uses live musicians to perform. (Listen for the violin music at moments when gruff Helga shows that she has a secret crush on Arnold.)

And what would a cartoon be without noise? That's where the "foley" team come in. Foley artists (named for Jack Foley, a movie sound-effects pioneer) add or create the sound effects.

When Helga throws a pie at a cafeteria bully, the foley team adds the noise you hear in the final cartoon. Some of the sounds are prerecorded. "There are classic 'library sounds' all around town," Borquez says. You can buy sound-effects CDs by mail. "But we try to stay away from those, for the most part."

Instead, Horta engineers use a library of sounds they've collected over the past 30 years. Such sounds might be traffic noises, voices on the street, dogs barking, a trash truck, or a motor scooter going by.

Other sounds are specific to each show. Footsteps and crashes are always performed and recorded by the foley team as they watch the cartoon.

The foley room is full of every soundmaking item you can imagine: pots and pans, squeaky gates, old wrenches, water tanks. Different surfaces allow technicians to record footsteps on tile floors, a loosely nailed wooden porch, a gravel driveway, dry grass, and more.

But the sounds that seem most "real" aren't always the real thing. Borquez remembers a show where he needed the sound of burned toast being scraped with a butter knife. He burned loaf after loaf of bread and scraped them all. It just didn't sound right.

"The place stank for two days" with the smell of burned toast, Borquez says. "In the end, we used pumice stone and sandpaper." It was perfect.

Borquez says he's always hearing funny noises that he wishes he could record: a backfiring lawn mower, a squeaky truck door. But the funniest sounds aren't always the real ones, either. When someone gets a pie in the face, a horn honk might be funnier than a splat.

In the end, though, one person's hilarious sound effect is another's so-so noise. Next time you watch a cartoon, listen for yourself. What do you think?

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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