INNOVATIONS: Animating Politics

Article by cartoonist Dan Murphy

When it comes to animating political cartoons, no one has done it more precociously than Kevin "Kal" Kallaugher.  He has teamed with legendary animator Richard Williams to bring British parliamentarians to life -- and afterlife -- in an award-winning ad  that would have Gillray cheering.  He's produced animated bits for PBS, ABC and CNN; donned a bulb-studded action-capture suit to play both sides of aClinton/Obama debate.  And, back in the bulb-suit -- in a Pygmalion-like act of artistic bravado -- taken aGeorge Bush caricature on the road to banter live with Second City actors from a giant screen.

Political cartoons have reached out beyond the newsprint before.  Gerald Scarfe, following Daumier's lead, yanked his inspired creations into three dimensions and onto Time magazine covers and Pink Floyd concert stages.

Fluck and Law’s Spitting Images added voices to the incisive mix and barged on to television.

 So you'd think the advent of the internet -- and newspapers' challenge of further engaging readership through it -- would inspire a comparable flurry of inventiveness and animating frenzy among political cartoonists, breaking out of their ed-page frames and reaching out from web pages to harangue the powerful (or, in some cases, stroke the status quo).

So far, however, there are only two prominent North American dailies -- The Washington Post and The San Francisco Chronicle -- employing cartoonists to produce web cartoons exclusively.  Ann Telnaes at the Post, who marries Chuck Jones' slapstick with Herblock's unerring sense for the political jugular, produces several animations a week at the Post.  The Chronicle's Mark Fiore does an animated think piece for his paper's Wednesday webpage, exploring weighty issues through characters like Snuggly the Security Bear and Buster Bunker, the Friendly Nuke.

"Newspapers are missing an opportunity to take advantage of the technology to engage their audiences, especially the younger one," says Telnaes.  "Regardless if it's a print or an online version, editorial cartoons have always been very popular with readers . . . There's already a glut of words online: visual commentary is the way to attract people to your particular website.

"That's what I find so inspiring about the Internet: a cartoonist has the ability to reach a wide international audience they've never been able to before."

Jim Morin at the Miami Herald has been animating for his paper since 2009 -- while doing five cartoons a week for the ed-page.

Also animating for their papers' websites on a regular basis: Rocco Fazzari at The Sydney Morning HeraldMorten Morland for The Times in London, Steve Brodner at The Washington Spectator, and, from 2001 until at least 2010, Shujaat Ali  for Al Jazeera.

To date, worldwide, just a handful. But that may be changing.

The Pulitzer Prize Committee acknowledged the importance of the form by giving its 2010 award for editorial cartooning -- for the first time -- to a submission of web animations from the Chronicle's Fiore. And The New York Times has been welcoming video Op-Docs  by a wonderfully diverse stable of artists, including animators like Drew Christie.

Presently Adobe Flash is the go-to software for most of the animating ed-cartoonists.  As of May, 2013, Adobe took Flash -- along with suite-mates including Photoshop, Illustrator, and After Effects -- into itsCreative Cloud, offering access through monthly and yearly subscription.  Short term, this is cheaper than shelling out for Flash -- and allows you to go from Photoshop to Flash to After Effects under one umbrella, as well as keeps you up-to-date on Adobe's software upgrades and innovations.

[Cartoonist Rights Network and I don't get any freebies or special consideration from any of the software companies mentioned here.]

Adobe offers a free one-month trial of Flash and Creative Cloud before you have to commit to the cloud and, along with Adobe's tutorials, there are a lovely free whack of them from the great folks to get you up to speed before you hit that one-month stopwatch.

Jim Morin used Tune Boom's Animate Pro, his software of choice, to get a passel of politicians into Beach Boy harmony for this cartoon:


"The software I use has bells and whistles (called 'puppets') that makes the process less labor-intensive but I hate digital animation and refuse to use it," Morin says.  "I use 24 frames per second but usually assign two frames and sometimes more per drawing.  Over time I've discovered shortcuts using copy-and-paste, onion skin, transforming and layering tools that have sped up the process considerably but always using hand-drawn techniques."

The Flash-like freeware out there includes pencil, which JakPayback demos .

And Jl and L. Sepulveda show you what the Synfig Studio freeware can do.


Ed-cartoonists with Photoshop CS5 or CS6 don’t need Flash to fashion an animation like this tribute to Canadian PM Stephen Harper, which pulls video onto a layer and opens the animation window to get quick animation with very little animating.

Another animation shortcut: Reallusion's Crazy Talk 7 (Standard version -- US $29.99; Pro -- US $149.95 list). It's limited, but in the right circumstances will fit the ticket.  When a senator was in the hot seat in Canada for funding irregularities, I was able to slap his mug on appropriate currency and get him to expound on his motives, using Adobe Photoshop to fashion and lay a foreground and background for the bill, CrazyTalk7 Pro to animate the head on green background, and then Adobe After Effects for its greenscreen capabilities to join the head to the mix.

The Miami Herald's Jim Morin: "I would hope animations will become more commonplace on newspaper web pages.  They're a lot of work but totally worth exploring.  You can do things with a panel cartoon that you can't do with an animation but the opposite is also the case.

"You have the added advantage of using music, sound effects, voices, and movement that really give the cartoons impact that print cartoons can't touch."