Monday, December 26, 2011

The Artist, Perception and Animation

Can this film tell us something about animation?

I recently saw The Artist, the new silent film that has been picking up awards at festivals and is in the running for the major awards this season. It's clear that the film's creators have a genuine fondness for silent Hollywood cinema and I found it to be a very enjoyable experience. I recommend it.

The film is silent, black and white and with a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, taking on all the trappings of films of the silent era. It occurred to me, though, that at this point in time, it's all an affectation.

Silent black and white films existed due to technological obstacles. Early sound and colour systems were unreliable, producing results that clearly failed to meet the audience's standard. Without sound and colour, films compensated with the use of orchestral scores in the larger cities, increasingly sophisticated photography and a style of directing, acting and editing that communicated characters' thoughts clearly to international audiences. Silent film makers like Griffith, Murnau, Lubitsch Vidor, Ford, Borzage, Chaplin, Keaton, etc. made films that can still move audiences (when given the chance) even though audiences are no longer accustomed to the limitations of silent films. The Artist certainly proves that silent film can still be a potent experience.

But it is now an artificial experience. A silent film of the 1920s was as advanced as the technology would allow. The Artist is a conscious decision to go backwards in both time and technology. In its way, it depends as much on novelty as Avatar did with its use of 3D. However, I would be surprised if The Artist was the first of a new wave of silent features.

Audiences embraced sound and colour because it brought film closer to their own perception of the world. Sound became omnipresent in film by 1930. Colour, due to cost, took considerably longer. Black and white films were still being made into the 1960s, some even in Cinemascope.

(What I think sounded the death knell for black and white film was color TV. So long as people were watching black and white at home, they would accept it in films. Once color TV was widespread, a black and white film somehow seemed cheap. And truthfully, the majority of black and white films in the 1960s lacked color due to budget restrictions.)

The Artist got me thinking about the transition from drawn to computer animated features. Perhaps our view was influenced by the weak drawn features that were competing against better computer animated films. Certainly, that's the line that many in the industry and fans took, blaming the films rather than the medium.

While the quality of the films was an undeniable issue, perhaps it hid something larger. Perhaps our own biases in favour of drawing prevented us from seeing things from the audience's point of view. Throughout the 1930s, there was a strong movement to bring animation closer to the audience's perception of the real world. Animation embraced sound and colour early. There were also experiments of various kinds to give animation a greater illusion of depth. In Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Disney was attempting to give a greater impression of depth both with cel painting techniques and the multiplane camera. It was cost that forced him to back away from these techniques and so that in the '60s you have films like 101 Dalmatians, where the linear quality of the animation drawings is extended to the backgrounds and there is no attempt at spatial depth through the use of the camera.

When computer animation came along, it increased the image's verisimilitude to how the audience perceived the world. Light striking the characters provided a more accurate feeling of solidity and shadow. The computer allowed for a greater use of texture and, unlike drawn animation, allowed that texture to move with the characters. The virtual space had depth and perspective similar to the world the audience lived in and the camera had the freedom to move through it. Computer animation succeeded the same way Disney did in Snow White in making the image closer to the audience's experience.

At this point in time, drawn animated features may be seen as a throwback, much as The Artist is, as they deprive the audience of some of their perceptual experience of the world. Of course, just as silent films had qualities that are emotionally powerful, so, too, do drawn features. Much was lost with the death of silent and of black and white films, but those things were developed to compensate for shortcomings. Similarly, much is being lost with the death of drawn animated features, but again, many of these things were developed as a means of compensation.

Furthermore, live action directors who started in silent film (Ford and Hitchcock as an example) continued to use silent film techniques in their sound films. Both directors have long passages driven purely by the visual. Similarly, animation directors such as John Lasseter and Brad Bird have brought drawn animation techniques into computer animation, such as animated acting techniques and the ability to design the on-screen world from scratch.

Every artist knows that limitations are often a blessing, forcing solutions that are more creative than would otherwise be arrived at. But as movies are a mass medium, depending on a world-wide audience in order generate a profit, the artistic love of drawing and understanding of limitations is up against the audience's preference for a world on screen that matches its real world perceptions. It isn't a question of one group being right and the other being wrong. It is simply a question of competing preferences, and as the audience is footing the bill, it wins.

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