Animated Video Production

Animation Techniques: The Smear

Claude Harrington 10.17.2017

High-quality animation usually means using the 12 Principles of Animation developed by Disney’s “12 Old Men.” These time-honored techniques make animation look lifelike, smooth, and compelling. And while these animation techniques are the foundation of great animation, that’s not the only way to create professional animation. Case in point: the animated “smear technique.”

In 1942, Warner Bros. released an animated short called The Dover Boys at Pimento University (or The Rivals of Roquefort Hall). Produced by Leon Schlesinger and directed by Chuck Jones, this Merrie Melodies cartoon is significant for a couple of reasons. The Dover Boys at Pimento University was one of the first animated shorts to break away from the so-called “Disney look,” but more importantly, this animation was one of the first to utilize an animation technique called the “smear.” And it was a game changer for animation in terms of look, style, and production time.

Animation Smear: The Dover Boys at Pimento University (1942)

What is an Animation Smear?

Unlike traditional movement in animation, which uses key frames (to plot beginning/ending points) and in-between-frames (to create the illusion of movement), a smear depicts one quick “blur” of motion in a single frame. Instead of drawing a perfect subject moving through an action in dozens of poses frame by frame, animation smears accomplish the illusion of motion in a single frame or a short run of frames placed in between typical key frames. The best part is that your eye doesn’t even notice the difference.

animation GIF smear

This blur creates the sensation of a sudden burst of speed that gives the animation a sense of frantic pace and action that careful key frame animation doesn’t quite match. Seriously, look at how fast this character moves with the smear technique. He’s a literal blur that the bartender’s eyes can barely follow.

Animation Smear vs. Motion Blurs

While you may “see” all 24 frames per second in a typical animation, (remember, every one second of animation is made up of 24 individual frames of animation) the human eye can’t actually register each frame as a separate thing. It’s just too fast. Instead, your brain simply stitches the frames together into a cohesive picture, creating the illusion of motion, and voila–you’ve got animation magic. But what’s even cooler is that this smear technique doesn’t just happen in cartoons. Smears happen in real life all the time.

A baseball pitch whizzing past your face. An arrow blurring toward a bullseye. Fidgeting with your pen in the air while you try to think of what to write on a birthday card. Each of these actions creates real life smears, called “motion blurs.” When an object is moving too fast, your brain can’t process every individual “frame” of motion, so just like in cartoons, it stitches the motion together into a blur of speed. It’s the exact same principle on and off the page. Now that you know what’s happening, let’s get back to the animation smear technique in practice and see how it’s used in popular animation.

The Growth & Popularity of Animated Smears

What’s interesting about the smear technique is that while it practically defines the style of classic Warner Bros. cartoons, it wasn’t always so popular. In fact, Chuck Jones’ clever time-saving animation technique was frowned upon as a “lazy way to depict movement” by the heads of the studio. According to Jones, the executives at Warner Bros. were so displeased with the his smear technique in The Dover Boys that they tried to fire him. Unable to find a replacement, however, they wound up keeping him on board, which turned out to be rather fortuitous for them and for animation fans alike.

Chuck Jones would go on to write, direct and collaborate on famous Warner Bros. cartoons including: One Froggy Evening, What’s Opera, Doc?. He also created some of the most iconic characters in the Looney Tunes universe like Marvin the Martian, Wile E. Coyote, Pepe Le Pew, and more. Jones was a pioneer of the smear technique, and thanks to his success at Warner Bros., animation smears caught on as a speedy and stylish way to create quick transitions between key frames.

animation smear

The Best Animation Smear Examples

Animation smears create an exaggerated sense of speed and movement, save time and money during the animation process, and just plain look cool. Heck, we even used the animation smear technique in our explainer video for Sevanta:

Here are some of our favorite examples of animation smear from yesterday and today.

“The Up Standing Sitter” (1948)

animation smear

“Hare Do” (1949)

animation smear

“Canned Fued” (1951)

animation smear

 

Pink Panther – “Pinkfinger” (1965)

“Odd Ant Out” (1970)

animation smear

Every Single Road Runner Episode. Ever.

animation smear

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

animation smear

The Simpsons – “Some Enchanted Evening” (1990)

smear

SpongeBob SquarePants – “No Weenies Allowed” (2002)

smear

Steven Universe “A Cry for Help” (2015)

smear animation

Animation Technique: Smear

If you’re interested in seeing more animated smear examples, check out Smears, Multiples and Other Animation Gimmicks for a comprehensive collection of great examples of this animation technique. Another great site is Animation Smears on Tumblr. And if you’re interested in seeing if animated video is right for you, download our eBook and get started today.

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