Sunday, February 27, 2011

False Comparisons

Michael Barrier was interviewed in the Huffington Post for an article entitled "Animated Man: Cartoon Expert Michael Barrier Decries Pixar, Computers." This article already has multiple comments about Barrier's views and the article was linked to on Cartoon Brew, where there are yet more comments.

Two quotes caught my eye.
"What I'd call the direct connection between the animator and the character that you have when the animator is drawing the character with a pencil on a sheet of paper, it simply doesn't have an equivalent as far as I'm aware, or if it has an equivalent, it's much harder to establish."
I've already attempted to debunk this based on the techniques of both drawn and computer animation. My opinion hasn't changed. It's not the technique, it's how the production is organized. Should a cgi feature want a strong connection between animator and character, there is no technical reason why it couldn't be accomplished.

There are other reasons, salaries being one, that are incentives to prevent it. The more animators remain anonymous and the less distinctive their work, the harder it will be for an animator to demand a higher wage. As it is unlikely that an animator's name will ever increase the box office gross the same way a star voice does, why create star animators who will only drive up the budget?

The other quote is this one:
"If you look back, we've had computer animated features for 16 years going back to 'Toy Story,' and we've had computer animated characters before that, I have not seen the kind of evolution of those characters anything like the extremely compressed and dramatic evolution of the hand drawn characters in the 30s. When you think about how Disney went from 'Steamboat Willie' in 1928 to 'Snow White' less than ten years later, I think that's an extremely compressed [growth] that I don't think computer animation has nearly approached. What you have instead in computer animation is a continuing elaboration on texture and surfaces and three dimensional space without anything comparable for characters."
I am at a loss to understand why the development of one medium is being measured against the development of another. It assumes that both media exist in a vacuum, not part of larger forces such as the Hollywood industrial model of the time, the availability of media to the public, the prevailing popular culture and the world economy. The conditions that existed when Walt Disney grew from Steamboat Willie to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs are wholly different than those that exist today.

Let's examine what Walt Disney actually did. If you look at the Oswald cartoons, made immediately before Steamboat Willie, you see films that are ten or more years behind the times compared to live action films. The films are shorts instead of features and at the level of story, characterization and acting, they are not as accomplished as Chaplin's The Immigrant of 1917. Compare the Oswalds to the best live action of the time (The Big Parade, The General, The Gold Rush, Sunrise, Seventh Heaven, The Crowd, Underworld, etc.) and you see a medium that cannot compete as an equal. Except for its use of sound, Steamboat Willie was no better.

What Disney was able to do in ten years was bring animation up to the level of live action films. Snow White and the films that followed were taken as seriously by film professionals, critics and audiences as the live action films of the time.

While computer animation struggled mightily against its technical limitations in the '80s and '90s (and I know because I was there), the advances made by Disney were taken for granted. The techniques developed at the studio were codified to the point where they could be taught in a classroom to 18 year olds at Cal Arts, including John Lasseter, and put between book covers by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. Computer animation's problem wasn't knowing what was needed, which was often the case in the '30s, it was figuring out how to make characters flexible enough via software. Which is to say that computer animation didn't start as crudely as Disney animation did and had less far to go to get up to the level of live action films.

And the state of live action films is a key point. Disney did not exceed the expectations of what a live action film was supposed to be in his time and computer animation is not exceeding it today. I can make an economic and cultural argument that computer animation is more successful than Walt Disney ever was in that cgi films have been nominated for Best Picture, are more numerous and have been more profitable on a consistent basis than the features Disney made himself.

You can't criticize computer animation without looking at the bigger picture. This article in GQ, entitled "The Day the Movies Died," is subtitled "No, Hollywood films aren't going to get better anytime soon." Computer animated films exist in the same economic structure and cultural zeitgeist as live action films and aren't going to escape the problems that plague the larger industry.

I'm not defending the current state of computer animated features. I just saw a preview of Rango, directed by Gore Verbinski, and while the people at ILM have done a great job on the technical side, the film itself is thoroughly mediocre. It's emotional tone is all over the map; sometimes it's a parody and sometimes it wants to be taken seriously. Its references to other films only reminded me that it's inferior to the films it's quoting. And it is a perfect example of Barrier's observation that "computer animation is a continuing elaboration on texture and surfaces and three dimensional space without anything comparable for characters."

But I insist that it's not the medium. It's the structure of Hollywood and its economic model and it's what the public expects from movies. If computer animation sucks (and it often does), there are many more reasons than technology that are the cause. Furthermore, I don't think comparing it to Disney in the '30s is a valid or useful comparison.

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