Friday, July 25, 2008

Babies and Bathwater

While I'm not surprised that Michael Barrier and Michael Sporn found this summer's animated features lacking, I am surprised by some of the comments about computer animation. For instance, Barrier says this:
What's clear from WALL•E and Kung Fu Panda , as never before, is that computer animation is a dead end, a form of puppetry even more limited than stop motion. There's no reason to believe that its characters will ever live on the screen as the characters do in the best hand-drawn films; given the way that computer-animated films must be made, the vital connection between artist and character simply can't be strong enough.
And Sporn says this:

When I first saw Toy Story, I realized that the possibility of computer animation replacing traditional animation might actually exist. Nothing prior to that point led me to think that. What I didn’t expect was that I was watching the high point of the medium.

People concentrated on animating grass (A Bug’s Life), hair (Monsters Inc.), water (Finding Nemo) and, now, machines (Wall-E). Essentially, they were concerned with moving the technical capability of the medium forward and ignored the very real need of moving the characters with any REAL depth. Pixar and Dreamworks gerry-rigged stories around the capabilities of the new medium and animated around those problems. They’ve gotten to the point where they can successfully impersonate the things of real life.

However, if a well rigged commercial can feature computer animation that equals or betters something in Pixar’s best, or a live-action/computer-effx feature (such as Spiderman 2, which has a story almost identical in parts to The Incredibles, or The Dark Knight, which has superior performances to anything in Pixar) works better than the best feature animation scene, what’s the point?

My disagreement isn't with their views on particular films, but I think that their generalizations are far too broad. Barrier not only writes off cgi, but stop-motion as well. Sporn says that because commercials or effects for live action are capable of matching the technical sophistication of a Pixar film, somehow that makes Pixar superfluous.

Barrier believes that in computer animation, the "vital connection between artist and character simply can't be strong enough." I disagree. For one thing, I've written extensively on how tenuous the link between animator and character is in drawn animation. The process of animating cgi characters is different in the details, but the system is an extension of what was used in drawn animation. If the connection between artist and character is possible in drawn animation, it is every bit as possible in cgi.

I resolutely believe that no animator can be held accountable for what's on screen, and that's true of classic Disney films as much as it is for recent cgi efforts. This industry is and always has been filled with talent, but that talent requires the right type of producers, directors and writers to let the talent shine. Take Bill Tytla out of Disney and Tytla becomes average. I would bet that there are animators capable of great things currently working, but who are not given material with depth or that plays to their strengths. Condemn the industry and the production system if you like, but they are not the medium or the technology.

Barrier's mention of stop motion makes me wonder if drawings are a prerequisite, in his view, for good character animation. I hope not. There are performances in stop motion that touch me deeply, whether dramatic or comic. Jiri Trnka's The Hand is a great film, one where the main character's face never changes expression, yet his feelings are crystal clear. It's a great performance, one that contributes to a film with a strong political point of view. Tim Burton's The Corpse Bride contains moments of achingly beautiful character animation, though the film as a whole has problems. Nick Park's The Wrong Trousers is a small masterpiece, one that I would hold up as comparable to shorts by Keaton or Laurel and Hardy.

I have enormous respect for Sporn's historical knowledge, but I would point out that the sins he accuses Pixar and DreamWorks of can also be aimed at the Disney studio in the 1930s. Disney was fixated on effects and technology. Disney "gerry-rigged" stories around animation's capabilities, avoiding human characters for years as well as sticking to low comedy. Barrier, in Hollywood Cartoons, talks about how Disney seemed to abandon his advances in character animation after Snow White in order to pursue other goals.

Artists, regardless of their medium, tend to be seduced by surfaces. It was true of Disney in Fantasia and Sleeping Beauty and it's certainly true of recent cgi films. The problem with Hollywood animation across the board is that it aspires to be slicker, not deeper. Another problem is that animated feature directors seem to do their best work early in their careers: Walt Disney, Don Bluth, Ralph Bakshi, Musker and Clements, Trousdale and Wise, and now, unfortunately, John Lasseter. With only two features he's directed, I don't know if the same is true of Andrew Stanton, but it's possible.

Barrier points to Brad Bird and Stanton gravitating to live action and it's because animated features are exhausting. Combine that with having a limited number of things to say, the seduction of slicker surfaces, the excitement of new technology, and the pressures of the marketplace, and you're left with animation directors who either don't think deeply enough about their stories and characters or who are prevented from doing so by commercial considerations. The people making animated films are either not smart enough or are being constrained. Both are likely true, as much as artists prefer to place the blame elsewhere.

The problems and failures of industry animation are far bigger than whatever technique is chosen. Just as we believe that animation is capable of expressing the entire range of human experience, I believe that every technology is equally capable. Artists and business people make choices and some of them are bad ones. To paraphrase Shakespeare, the fault, dear Michaels, lies not in our technologies, but in ourselves.

No comments:

Post a Comment