Animating My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic in Flash was meant originally as a cost-saving measure. By doing all the character design work digitally and developing a library of pre-rendered motion assets, the animation staff could theoretically save a great deal of time and money by re-using everything from run cycles to facial expressions over and over.
What’s more, each of the Mane 6 ponies is built on exactly the same physical model—peel away their manes, tail, and distinguishing eye shapes, and they’re all identical.
How is it, then, that the show is so widely praised for its strength of characterization—the wide and believable variety in each pony’s (for lack of a better word) humanity? How is it that a cast of characters that were specifically designed to be as physically interchangeable as the plastic toys that represent them on store shelves are so vividly, unmistakably unique in all our minds?
The answer lies in what animation iconoclast John Kricfalusi calls specific acting—the careful use of custom-designed facial animation to convey individual unique personalities rather than just using stock faces from a model sheet—and in an animation team that cares enough about its subject matter to take a newly developed digital tool set and make it sing and dance, as you’ll see after the break.
An Unlikely Inspiration
John K, creator of The Ren & Stimpy Show and an outspoken proponent of classical animation techniques, has written at great length over the past several years about the concept of specific acting and how it informed both his own approach to cartoons and the Golden Age classics from Warner Brothers and Fleischer which he identifies as his biggest inspirations. A search of his long-running blog on the label “specific acting” turns up some 42 posts, all of them lavishly illustrated and aimed at animation students seeking to learn what he deems most important in making a successful, relatable, and fun cartoon.
Ren & Stimpy is, of course, a a divisive and controversial show, and there are probably as many people in FiM’s audience who despise it for its gross-out humor and its off-putting timing and directorial style as there are people who revere it and remember its appearance fondly. Whichever camp one falls into, it’s unmistakable that Ren & Stimpy was a smack to the head of the stiff, unexpressive cartoons that preceded it. The wooden, interchangeable, comic-book-borne Hanna-Barbera shows (like Josie and the Pussycats and Scooby-Doo) that infested the 1970s gave way in the 80s to more whimsical but heavily merchandise-oriented shows such as The Smurfs, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, and of course Transformers and My Little Pony. None of these developments, while they might have delighted us as toy-buying kids, would have excited a student of classic Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck cartoons.
And that’s what led John K down his career path, first teaming with Ralph Bakshi to create an edgy reboot of Mighty Mouse that prefigured Ren & Stimpy in its flamboyant animation, its loose adherence to format, and its sly adult humor. Ever since then he has sought to push the envelope of what’s acceptable in the medium, often at the expense of his own employability—Nickelodeon famously fired him from Ren & Stimpy after just a year and a half of dealing with his insubordinate and aggressive professional style, though they recognized as well as anyone did the importance of his unconventional vision in making the cartoon property he left behind valuable.
Since 2006, John K has persistently worked to promote to up-and-coming animators the techniques and cartooning sensibilities that are so innate to him and his style. His blog serves as a training ground of sorts, covering everything from background coloring and lighting to squash-and-stretch and the value of drawing off-model. And one of the most important lessons he teaches, to which he returns over and over, is that of specific acting—tailoring characters’ faces and body language to express individuality in characterization, rather than using prepared expression sheets and model poses. It’s about letting the animation itself tell the story of who each character is—rather than relying on recognizable character designs to distinguish them and facebombing the same dull, generic expressions onto everyone in the scene.
Stock faces, to John K, are the antithesis of cartoons. What’s the point, he says, of creating a cartoon character—with all that inherent expressiveness—if all you’re going to do is have it show a few basic emotions that the animator can reference off a cheat sheet? There is more to a character than “happy”, “sad”, and “angry”, after all; human beings can convey an infinite variety of emotions through the intricate musculature of our faces, and cartoons exist to exaggerate those emotions. Using stock faces is the equivalent of ancient Greek stage actors holding up “drama masks” so the people in the back row of the audience can tell when the characters are happy or sad—it’s a necessity and a shortcut in certain situations, but utterly a waste when it comes to creating cartoons.
What must John K think of ponies, then?
He has yet to weigh in on the subject of the show we all love, and I personally doubt he ever will. His attitude toward all modern cartoons is usually as dismissive as it is toward the cheap, repetitive, stock-footage-heavy shows of the 70s that he despised. His critics will be quick to note smirkingly that John K seems to believe the art of animation peaked in the 1940s and, with the exception of his own work and some of this colleagues’, shows no sign of ever aspiring again to that greatness.
But I like to think that if he were to take a critical look at My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, looking past the cynical merchandise-driven premise and the unconventional digital production methods, he’d discover a show that transcends the cost-cutting, reusability-driven shortcuts that have traditionally horrified him and admirably exemplifies some of the very lessons he’s spent the past half a decade trying to preach.
Art From Adversity
During the development of the show, Lauren Faust worked tirelessly with Jayson Thiessen and the animation team at Studio B to develop an artistic technique that would work with their budget-conscious choice of Flash—cheaply and reusably, so as to avoid all the overhead and logistical limitations of traditional ink and paint—and yet would feel lifelike and appealing in a way that Flash shows seldom do. A cartoon aimed at girls, after all, in which one of the biggest draws of the toyline on which it’s based is that the kids can style their toys’ hair, has to present that hair as being something you want to style. Thus, as Thiessen has explained in several interviews, a great deal of the up-front design work in the show went into developing manes and tails that would bounce and turn in a way that made you want to reach out and touch it. Subtle gradients and stylized contour lines give it a three-dimensional feel, and it’s constantly in motion, swaying and reacting to larger gestures. All this movement ensures that their hair looks real, even if it is pink or purple or rainbow-striped, even if it is flat and cartoony. It moves like real hair does, and every second of screen time is chock-full of little details of movement that enliven the characters in a way that no past show has deemed important enough to even attempt. Oddly, it took the show being designed as an overgrown toy commercial for such an envelope-pushing animation technique to be created.
There was a side effect of the creators designing the characters’ hair this way, though: each of the Mane 6 ponies became a stock figure, a mannequin not unlike the dress forms in Rarity’s shop. Each pony has exactly the same body model, with the same proportions, the same height, and the same pre-rendered walk and run and trot cycles (with the exception, of course, of Pinkie Pie’s signature hop).
Deconstruct the Flash files and you’ll find the ponies reduced to indistinguishable clones of each other. Without their manes, tails, eyes, and coloration to identify them, they’re all identical. They’re paper dolls built to support bouncing hair and brushable tails. They’re the digital equivalent of stock model sheets, able to be copied and pasted from one scene to another like something out of one of John K’s most tortured nightmares.
Or are they?
Of course not, we fans will say. Clearly there’s a lot more to the ponies than a bunch of interchangeable Flash assets. It might seem counterintuitive, faced with the technical realities of what underlies the Flash animation; it might seem on the face of it that with so much digital cheating built into them, the characters are bound to blend into each other. But fortunately there’s a simple test we can apply.
As Plinkett of the famous Red Letter Media Star Wars: The Phantom Menace critique might have said:
Describe the following My Little Pony character WITHOUT saying what they look like, what kind of mane or tail or cutie mark they have, or what their profession or role in the show is.
Describe this character to your friends like they ain’t never seen Ponies.
Fortunately for pony fans, this is easy.
As effortlessly as the interviewees in Plinkett’s video describe the dashing rogue Han Solo and the feisty Princess Leia, the headstrong but inexperienced idealist Luke and the larger-than-life terror of the very presence of Darth Vader, pony fans can describe the Mane 6 in great detail without once mentioning their color schemes or their cutie marks. Twilight, the bookish nerd, inexperienced in social matters and as neurotically desperate to prove worthy of her newfound friends as of the trust placed in her by Princess Celestia, rubs shoulders with the athletic, cocksure Rainbow Dash and the outgoing-to-a-fault Pinkie Pie, both of whose emotional fragility stems from traumatic past experiences that define the very realistic personalities they have become today. Applejack’s devotion to family and duty clashes with her frequently touched-upon discomfort at having to tell lies to protect others’ feelings, whereas Rarity’s self-confident social-climbing aspirations are rooted in embarrassment over her family, and Fluttershy’s cripplingly low self-esteem supports her trademark kindness and gentleness while at the same time hinting at severe emotional imbalances lurking underneath.
None of these character portraits has a thing to do with how the ponies look. In fact, they don’t even need to be ponies for the characterizations to ring true and to stand out from one another. It’s a far cry from Plinkett’s illustration that in The Phantom Menace, there’s little to distinguish the characters beyond “the Jedi with the beard” and “the kid who grows up to be Darth Vader”.
That’s right: My Little Pony knows far more about characterization than George Lucas does.
More than Masks
It’s odd, then, to think that these characters whom we have no trouble telling apart and recognizing instantly are, at the most basic level, all drawn exactly the same way, all using the same Flash templates. Are they really just paper dolls, interchangeable stand-in figures that are brought to life by skillful writing and voice acting?
They could have been. Indeed, judging by some of Faust’s comments about the development process, there were plenty of opportunities for the project to careen off the rails—whether influenced by an overbearing corporate master or stymied by budgetary or technical constraints—and head “straight to Stupidville”. It seems that Faust half expected to pour her life into the development of the show for two years only to see the final product a half-executed caricature of her vision, perhaps with smartly realized characters whose voices emanated unconvincingly from a gaggle of cheap-looking, generic Flash faces. Perhaps she, like John K, dreaded seeing those Greek masks of stock facial expressions held up over her ponies’ faces, conveying nothing more complicated or custom-tailored to a given situation than “happy”, “sad”, or the occasional “angry”.
It’s surely to no greater credit than hers that this didn’t happen after all. As we all know from all our experience watching two years’ worth of Pony episodes, there’s a tremendous amount more to each of the characters than the generic, copy-and-paste faces that we might expect to see upon first hearing, without context, that the show is “animated in Flash”.
Whether the animators at Studio B were seized with an unaccountable love for the project that inspired them all to reach beyond their immediate mission, or whether Faust and Thiessen rode herd on them relentlessly in order to score points for the viability of Flash as a technical way forward for the industry, the ponies of FiM are distinguished from one another with so much specific acting that you’d hardly guess, without watching very carefully, that they’re all basically the same model. It’s not to the same extreme level of customization as Ren & Stimpy (surely nothing ever quite will be), but it aspires in the same direction.
Viewers will notice that, in addition to the basic recurring faces that all the ponies with the same face model share, each one of the Mane 6 spends a great deal of time emoting in a way that’s customized to her specific dialogue and mood, and that fits with her unique personality. Twilight makes numerous faces—often when she’s fretting over a deadline or an unfinished checklist—that you’d simply never see on Pinkie Pie or Fluttershy. Rarity’s melodramatic overacting gives her expressions that would never fit on Rainbow Dash or Applejack. Though they all have the same heads, the animators have given them each a repertoire of expressions that are unique to each one individually.
Fan-artists teaching themselves to draw ponies like in the show (for example, in a long-running thread on our own forums) have discovered that in defiance of the ponies’ basic physical similarity, an excellent exercise is to draw one of them without her mane or tail or unique eye shape, and try to make her recognizable as a specific pony purely through the facial expression and body language. Is it Rainbow Dash? Make her look brash and arrogant, with furrowed brows and a smug smile. Pinkie Pie—how about a broad indulgent grin? For Twilight, perhaps a self-conscious, shy smile—or a twisted mask of burgeoning insanity. It’s not easy, but that’s what the show’s animators do routinely.
One has to wonder whether this kind of attention to detail on the part of the animators is subverting the whole purpose of having pre-rendered assets to begin with. If they’re going to be doing this much custom work on facial expressions, doesn’t that negate all the work the pre-rendered assets were supposed to save them? Perhaps so; perhaps the animators are going well above and beyond what they had originally expected to do, having been sold on a project where they could mix-and-match previously used faces to create new ones with hardly any work. But somewhere along the line, they seem to have made a collective decision that such shortcuts weren’t enough for this show—that they would customize every face they could get their hands on, tweak every reaction shot, pour love and detail into seldom-used features of an emotive face like ever-dilating pupils and eyebrows that rotate through three or four distinct expressions on a character who’s not even delivering a line, but just standing in the background listening to someone else talk. Whoever made this decision, it’s at the heart of what makes this show so uniquely appealing from the perspective of someone who appreciates the classical tenets of quality animation.
Not only that—the faces do their significant part in making each character who she is, but so too does their distinctive body language. Consider this frame from “Green Isn’t Your Color”:
Rarity’s and Fluttershy’s body models are identical—same proportions, same formulas, same basic building blocks—and yet look at how differently the two of them carry themselves. Rarity’s head is haughtily held high, whereas Fluttershy is hunkered down with her head out in front. There’s no interaction between the two of them to necessitate this difference in posture—they’re not arguing, they’re not disagreeing, they aren’t even talking about anything that they might have a difference in attitude about—this is just the two of them in their natural postures as they exit a relaxing spa session. It’s just how they each move.
The viewer can instantly tell what kind of character each of them is just by glancing at the silhouettes of these two figures. Rarity, walking tall, projects confidence and self-importance, whereas Fluttershy appears to be making herself as small and inconspicuous as possible, as though she regrets imposing on others’ time even when she’s paying for it. The two of them don’t have to say a word or even make a face to let us know who they are. That’s specific acting right there, the kind even John K might appreciate.
It’s even more vivid in an animated example:
How does a gesture like Rarity’s aggressively shifting stance even get animated? Who would even bother to put in the kind of work necessary to bring her to life this vividly?
There’s a bit in the DVD commentary for an early Simpsons episode, “Blood Feud”, in which the director described how he had to animate a scene himself where a gangster turned back to Mr. Smithers with a palms-out appealing shrug, impatiently yet sympathetically asking “What?” He had to draw the scene himself before shipping it off to AKOM because the Korean animators, for whom this gesture (which reads easily to English speakers) is alien, couldn’t understand what he wanted from written notes alone.
Stories like that drive home the idea that the realities of production turn a great deal of the magic of animation into a pain in the ass. Gifted artists become disillusioned through years of fighting with budgetary constraints and communication issues and office politics, and little pieces of acting like this one—where some animator went the extra mile to illustrate a character emoting and acting in a believable and yet inventive way that helps develop her personality in our minds—become harder and harder to force oneself to accomplish.
Whatever synergy is present within the Studio B team, and between them and the animators at Top Draw, it’s something special. Animation has not lost its magic for the artists making My Little Pony.
The Clone Wars
The question remains: Would MLP:FiM be even better if it hadn’t been designed with all the cost-cutting Flash pre-renderings? It takes some indulgence on the part of the viewer to imagine that the same body outlines used to depict the muscular Applejack are equally convincing on the cupcake-chugging Pinkie Pie or the willowy Fluttershy. What if the ponies weren’t all based on the same model? What if they all had their own unique body styles and designs to go with their wildly divergent personality types?
I think, oddly, that it’s the sameness of the underlying models that spurred the animators to reach to a higher standard.
There have been many shows in the past twenty years that sought to separate otherwise identical characters by giving them distinctive physical designs. Disney’s Quack Pack, for example, took Huey, Dewey, and Louie—whose decades-old running gag was that they were so indistinguishable that they finished each other’s sentences—and gave them “hip” new designs for the 90s that underscored their divergent personalities. Now, not only was there a “leader”, a “smart one”, and a “jock”, they had their own unique looks to match. Like Alvin and the Chipmunks of thirty years prior, their original conception as interchangeable ciphers had given way to a smarter, more realistic depiction of the three as unique individuals.
However, with that stylistic change came a tendency to be lazy about the characterizations—as though just because the characters looked different from one another, it meant they could get away with having much broader, cliché personalities. When you have a tall, skinny, bespectacled character designed in the mold of Simon the Chipmunk, there’s a temptation for the writers to give him a stereotypically and exaggeratedly “nerdy” persona to fit the design. The same goes for the tubby Theodore, whose every line in his 80s cartoon had something to do with food. By way of contrast, consider Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles—a contemporary property whose four protagonists were physically identical, yet had very different personalities, none of which was particularly one-note or predictable. The limitations of the medium and the budgets of the time prevented the Turtles from emoting distinctively enough that you could tell what each of them was like just from a still-frame; but it was a show that avoided taking the “easy” route to making characters stand out from each other. Their characters have remained memorable through the years despite their physical interchangeability.
(The newest reboot of the Turtles franchise, notably, will go the Quack Pack route, giving each Turtle his own distinctive body shape. If nothing else, it’s a historically popular decision.)
What I’m getting at is that if the designers of MLP:FiM had decided at the outset to give the ponies distinctive physical builds, we might have ended up with a very different show, one in which the ponies’ characterization flowed from their appearances rather than from their minds. A rotund Pinkie Pie might have been a food-obsessed, one-note caricature like Theodore. Rainbow Dash might have been a brash, thoughtless jock without any of the nuance or uncertainty or compassion she displays in “Hurricane Fluttershy” or “Sonic Rainboom”. Rarity might have been the vapid, materialistic clone of Bianca from Beverly Hills Teens that she appeared at first glance, in the pilot episodes, to be. A Fluttershy as gangly and awkward as an adult as she appeared in the flashback in “Cutie Mark Chronicles” might have been the subject of far more “clumsiness” jokes than her personality as we know it warrants. And put glasses on Twilight and she might have dutifully said “according to my calculations” at least once per episode.
This is all, of course, speculation. One of the difficulties of analyzing history is that you never get to run the same experiment twice the same way; you can’t simply vary one part of your conditions and see what changes. Every show that comes out of the entertainment industry is the product of its unique circumstances—the careers of the creative people behind it, the motivations of the companies writing the checks, the cultural and political climate of the time, and a thousand other factors that can never quite be replicated. We’ll never know which of these factors specifically led to FiM being what it is, or what it would have been like if a few of the knobs and levers had been twiddled a little differently.
What we can do, at least, is compare the show as it is to subjective standards that have been agreed upon by the animation community at large. For those who consider John K’s opinions to be worth something, and there are plenty, it’s hard to look at FiM and dismiss it as just another product of a soulless, creativity-crushing corporate entertainment landscape that has methodically squeezed the fun out of cartoons ever since the emergence of television obliterated the theatrical short.
John K might never weigh in on whether Pony meets with his approval or his standards. However, much as his achievements have earned him the right to pass judgment, it’s immaterial whether he does or not. What does matter is that untold thousands of fans have found in the show a heaping measure of the fun that he has spent the latter part of his career trying to reawaken in the world of animation. With his direct blessing or without it, Pony is following his teachings more closely than perhaps anything else that’s appeared on television since he did. ■