Here's How They Make a Cartoon

Cartoonmakers live in a world of pencils and sketch pads, computers and comfy chairs. Toy animals surround their work stations. Some cubicles are stacked with little jars of paint. They meet to review dozens of silly drawings tacked to the wall and eat in lunchrooms where "Scooby Doo" is on TV.

It takes a long time to make a cartoon - about a year, including a long side trip overseas. It's a lot of work, but it's fun, too. Ask Craig Bartlett. He's the creator of Nickelodeon's "Hey Arnold!" cartoon, which has been running for five years now. He let us spend the day at Nickelodeon's studios in Burbank, Calif.

"I thought I'd be a painter, in the 19th-century sense," Mr. Bartlett says. But on a trip to Italy after art school he saw some short animated films. He was hooked. Now his job is to oversee the production of his cartoon about fourth-graders at a city school.

Step 1: Write the script

Every cartoon starts with a script. Every script starts with an idea. First, one of the four writers for "Hey Arnold!" comes up with an idea and writes a rough script. Then all four writers get together at a "table read." They make suggestions to improve the script. Revisions follow. It takes about eight weeks to produce a final draft.

Step 2: Record the voices

Now they're ready to record the script. That's right: Before any pictures are drawn, the voices are recorded. You don't "dub" the voices onto a cartoon the way a foreign film is dubbed into English. You make the pictures match the voices.

For "Hey Arnold," the sound is recorded at Horta Editorial and Sound, just up the street. People who do the voices for Arnold, Helga, Gerald, and the other characters record their lines one person at a time.

"Voiceover is a lot of fun," says Franny Smith. (See photo, far left, with lines from the script.) She's been the voice of Helga since "Hey Arnold!" began. "You have the possibility to do things that you wouldn't do in real life."

Recording the voices takes only a day or two. Bartlett is there, too, in the sound booth. (Photo at left.) Editing takes another two weeks.

Step 3: Add the images

Now Bartlett and his crew are ready to start bringing the story to life with pictures.

They sit in overstuffed purple armchairs in a "handout meeting" and listen to the final version of the recorded script. (Top photo.) Then they discuss what the characters will look like and what they might do in each scene.

In this case, the new episode is called "Simmons's Documentary." In it, a film director decides to make a movie about Arnold's class. His teacher is worried about what might be captured on film, so he plans out everything the students will do or say.

Bartlett, wearing tennis shoes and shorts, laughs as he listens to the tape. Everyone makes suggestions for characters and scenes.

Clint Bond, one of the artists, holds up a rough sketch of the film director. Bartlett laughs. "Was that one of your professors?" he asks. The artist nods and smiles.

Many of the ideas for how a character looks are based on real-life people from the artists' childhoods. And story plots often mimic experiences of the writers.

"A lot of the characters are an amalgam" - a mix - "of people I knew when I was a kid," Bartlett says. "The girls in 'Hey Arnold!' are girls that either liked or didn't like me when I was in school."

Sometimes Bartlett will ask children what they think of an idea for a script. "But I'm always digging back into what it's like to be a kid," he says. He made the first episode of "Hey Arnold!" in his living room. He showed it to Nickelodeon in 1993, and they took it a year later. Now they've made almost 100 episodes.

After the handout meeting, the artists get to work

Two weeks later, designers and artists present a "storyboard pitch." (Storyboard director Tim Parsons, above left, works on a three-panel page that will be cut up.) Hundreds of sketches are tacked to the walls of a special room. The sketches are the key scenes, or "poses."

Bartlett reviews the poses one by one and draws the changes he wants on yellow Post-It notes.

Artists make the changes. Later, "cleanup" artists will do just that. They will clean up the drawings of the poses, and prepare them for their long trip to South Korea.

Tune in next week to find out why!

*Next week: An Asian studio goes to work, and the Foley artists have their fun.

What goes into every show

*It takes from nine months to a year to finish one 22-minute 'Hey Arnold!' show. Credits and commercials use up another 8 minutes to make a 30-minute episode.

*It takes 16 pictures to create one second of an animated cartoon. For an 11-minute cartoon (there are two per 'Hey Arnold!' show), that's 5,720 pictures.

*Fifty people - not counting the animators overseas - work on each cartoon.

*There can be up to 20 episodes of 'Hey Arnold!' in different stages of production in the studio at any given time.

*Cartoon pictures are hand-drawn, then scanned into a computer, where color may be added. The finished cartoon is not a film, but a digital computer tape.

*Actors who speak the dialogue for cartoons record each line three times. The best one, the 'circle take,' is used.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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