Friday, August 18, 2017

Animation's Lack of Consequences

I recently read Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You: The Shadow Cinema of the American '70s by Charles Taylor.  The following quote from the introduction struck me for how it relates to animated features, though Taylor ignores animation entirely.
"The best genre movies, no matter how rooted in the conventions of Westerns, detective stories, adventure stories or noir, have always involved adult emotions: temptation, guilt, sexual desire, the pull of responsibility.  The violence in those films is wrought and suffered on a scale far more direct than the explosions and anonymous mass killings of today's big-budget action spectaculars.  In the best genre films, we're immersed in a world where decisions have to be made and consequences have to be endured."
Family films are also a genre.  And they're defined, in large part, by the lack of consequences that have to be endured.  It is this lack of consequences that ultimately make family films so lightweight.  No matter what danger the characters are exposed to, in the end there are no consequences.  Since the majority of animated features are family films, they are caught in this trap.

This isn't true of every animated feature.  Bambi, Princess Mononoke, Pom Poko, The Wind Rises, Princess Kaguya (sense a pattern here?) don't conform.  Some Pixar films develop consequences early (Finding Nemo's death of the family, Up's death of Ellie) but they occur so early in the film, they're more inciting incidents that consequences that must endured.  By the time the films end, the survivors have triumphed and all's right with the world.

Audiences are happy with the genre as it is.  It's light entertainment, safe for the kids.  Executives are happy with the status quo as the films are lucrative.  So animation artists are stuck honing their craft rather than expanding their content.  While people change intellectually and emotionally as they age, animation artists have to put their evolving perspectives on life on the shelf.  They have to deny their own experience and manufacture fictions where truth may seep into the cracks but can't be central to the stories they tell.

It's hard for me to stay an animation fan as I age.  I want entertainment that speaks to my experience of life, not the experiences of a child.  For me, craft is not enough.  Yes, I can admire the design, the direction, and the animation.  I can admire the construction of a story (though not often enough these days), but the story itself fails to connect to me.

Not every genre is for everyone, but the family film starts out excluding adult concerns.  Charles Taylor thinks that the modern tentpole blockbuster has done the same, so maybe the family film is just being pulled along with the general drift.  While cable and streaming TV have created drama series that have captured large audiences and critical acclaim, TV animation hasn't even dipped a toe into that water. 

Young animation artists are happy to create work similar to the work they loved growing up.  But as they age, there's nowhere for them to grow in their medium.  I don't see that changing, though I wish it would.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Studio Ghibli's Toshio Suzuki


NHK World has posted a video interview with Studio Ghibli's producer Toshio Suzuki.  The interview is only available until August 15, so don't dally.

I was deeply impressed with Suzuki after seeing the documentary The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, which I reviewed here.  The NHK piece has more on Suzuki's background in publishing and how he and Miyazaki established their relationship.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Oskar Fischinger's 117th Birthday

While there's nothing particularly special about the number 117 when celebrating events, Google has taken the opportunity of abstract animator Oskar Fischinger's 117th birthday to honour him with an interactive Google doodle.  By clicking and dragging your mouse, you can quickly create a faux-Fischinger animation.  It's nowhere near as good as Fischinger's own work, but it's fun.

If you are interested in some of the real article, here's an excerpt from Studie Number 8, set to the music of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice."  As Fischinger spent a short time at the Disney studio and contributed to Fantasia, perhaps this is his answer to Disney's lack of comfort with abstraction.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

My Life as a Courgette

For me, the most interesting animated features being made today are not from North America.  Europe has come on strong, both in terms of subject matter and technique.  Drawn animation is still alive there and now there is an excellent stop motion film called My Life as a Courgette (the French word for zucchini).

This film has racked up awards, including an Oscar nomination, and fully deserves whatever praise it's received.  The story is about a group of children who are victims of neglect or tragedy living in a state-run institution.  While the subject matter sounds depressing, the film avoids being dreary or maudlin.  This is not a story by Charles Dickens.  The institution is a haven from their former lives, and while the children are marked by their experiences, they don't dwell on them.  They go on being children who laugh, play, learn, fight, question and who are eager to experience new things.

The script, based on a novel by Gilles Paris with the screenplay by Celine Sciammo, Germano Zullo, Claude Barras and Morgan Navarro, and the direction by Barras are perfect, maintaining a balance between the emotions of the children's pasts and their present.  The stop motion puppets are not as flexible as those made by Mackinnon and Saunders for films like The Corpse Bride, but the animators evoke a wide range of emotions with them, helped enormously by the tasteful script and direction.  The film successfully develops the characters and their relationships.  The events grow out of the dynamics of the group and are never less than believable.

There are no big set pieces as there typically are in North American films.  It is not anywhere near as elaborate as Laika's work, but I found it to be far more satisfying.  The characters simply try to live their lives and it is surprisingly interesting to watch.

I caught the film at the TIFF Kids International Film Festival.  So far, the film has not received a release in Canada, though it opened in the U.S. in February.  I don't know where Canadians will next have an opportunity to see this film, but don't miss it when it becomes available. 

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Toronto Screening of The Animation Show of Shows


The 18th Annual Animation Show of Shows Trailer - Coming Soon from Acme Filmworks on Vimeo.

The 18th annual Animation Show of Shows will be screening at the Carlton Cinema, 20 Carlton Street, from March 31 to April 6.  The films are:
Stems - Ainslie Hendersen (Scotland)
Shift - Cecilia Puglesi & Yijun Liu (U.S.)
Pearl - Patrick Osborne (U.S.)
Crin-crin - Iris Alexandre (Belgium)
Mirror - Chris Ware, John Kuramoto, Ira Glass (U.S.)
Last summer in the garden - bekky O¹Neil (Canada)
Waiting for the New Year - Vladimir Leschiov (Latvia)
Piper - Alan Barillaro (U.S.)
Bøygen - Kristian Pedersen (Norway)
Afternoon Class - Seoro Oh (Korea)
About a Mother - Dina Velikovskaya (Russia)
Exploozy - Joshua Gunn, Trevor Piecham, & John McGowan (U.S.)
Inner Workings - Leo Matsuda (U.S.)
CORPUS - Marc Héricher (France)
BLUE - Daniela Sherer (Israel)
MANOMAN - Simon Cartwright (England)
ALL THEIR SHADES - Chloé Alliez (Belgium)

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Toronto Screenings of My Life as a Courgette

My Life as a Courgette (aka My Life as a Zucchini) is a Swiss-French stop motion feature that was nominated for an Oscar and has won prizes at festivals all over the world.

While it is playing in theatres in the U.S. and Canada, it has no release date for a run in Toronto.  However, it will screen twice at the TIFF Kids International Film Festival, once on April 9 at 10:45 a.m. and once on April 17 at 3:45 p.m.

Information about the film can be found here and information about the festival is here.

Friday, March 03, 2017

Laika Speculation

I am thousands of miles from Laika's studio and have no inside information.  However, I've been interested in following the company's fortunes as it is one of the few companies making stop motion features.

Travis Knight, CEO, animator and director, is going to direct a Transformers spinoff for Paramount.

This is unexpected and raises many questions about the future of Laika.  It's clear from the budgets and grosses of Laika's films that the company is not self-supporting.  I've always thought that it has survived because Travis Knight wanted it to, and because his father, Phil Knight of Nike, was willing to financially support the company on his son's behalf.

What does Travis Knight's latest move mean?  Is he just looking for a change of pace with the intention of returning to Laika?  Was there an understanding between father and son that Laika had to become profitable after some amount of time or number of films, and if it didn't the subsidy would end?

Travis Knight is the reason that Laika exists.  Without him, there is no reason for Phil Knight to finance a money-losing company.  Perhaps this is nothing more than an opportunity that popped up and was hard to resist, but Travis Knight's plans and the box office success of the Transformer's spinoff could have a major impact on the continued existence of Laika.