Thursday, June 15, 2006

Swallowing Our Tails

Brad Bird says that animation is a medium, not a genre. He's right in principle, but the animated family film is most definitely a genre the same way that teen comedies and thrillers are. Here's just a few elements that are common to just about every animated feature released in North America:

1. Fantasy elements.
2. Children as prominent characters.
3. Songs (either sung by characters or on the soundtrack).
4. Celebrity voices.
5. Villains or their sidekicks played for comedy.
6. Burp and/or fart gags.
7. Feel-good themes.
8. Happy endings.

Feel free to add to the list.

There's a new trailer for The Ant Bully online. I'm not going to comment on the trailer one way or the other, but I am going to point out the presence of an exterminator as a villain. I just saw an exterminator as a villain in Over the Hedge.

The films are starting to blend together. Two recent features both used the hoary old gag of a character being mistaken for a god. Was it The Wild and Ice Age 2? I swear I can't remember.

We had A Bug's Life and Antz and now The Ant Bully. We had Finding Nemo and Shark Tale. We had Madagascar and The Wild. And we're due for a plague of rats. There's Ratatouille, Flushed Away, Rats Amore and One Rat Short.

When you take the genre conventions and add settings or subject matter that have already been done, you're in danger of boring the audience.

Something very interesting happened in the comics field that may relate to what's going on in animation. From the 1960's onwards, comics fans argued for longer, more serious works. While Marvel and DC, the two main companies, did adapt to a degree, they stuck with superheroes and continued to market to their established fan base.

Cartoonists finally took matters into their own hands and started doing personal work that broke out of genre conventions. Between the importation of Manga and mainstream publisher interest in the graphic novel, Marvel and DC have been reduced to minor players in terms of sales and artistic importance.

There are big economic differences between the comics and animation fields, but with the increase in distribution outlets available, there's a chance that the studios producing animated features might find themselves in the same situation as Marvel and DC. They'll continue to be profitable, but the real action will be elsewhere. If the animation industry continues to make cookie cutter movies, they're just inviting it to happen.

23 comments:

Anonymous said...

I agree with you on your main point-- that animation really needs to bust out of its conventions, though the current economic constraints make it hard to do so.

However, I wish you wouldn't use Shark Tale versus Finding Nemo as one of your comparisons. It's too facile, and quite frankly, it's false. Have you actually seen both of those movies? They have almost nothing in common-- just that they're both set underwater, and both feature a vegetarian shark (a very unfortunate overlap, it's true.) But they're totally different genres: One is a tongue-in-cheek mafia satire set in a fantasy fish-world meant to mirror our own, whereas the other is a heartfelt and earnest family adventure set in the real world of the ocean.

Comparing those two movies weakens your argument. It makes you look desperate for material, which is unnecessary, because there's plenty of other material out there, as you've already cited.

Just my two cents.

K McLeod said...

You make a very vaid point, it's this idea that cartoons are for families and at times nothing more than a 80 minute comercile for the toys later has hurt the medium of animation to tell complelling and entertaining movies. Thats why I'm glad to see directors like Brad Bird and John Lassiter looking at the story first and then choosing to film it using animation. I myself enjoy coming to your blog for your experiance in animation, I myself a recent grad of animation and working on my own storys. Thanks
Kevin

Anonymous said...

I agree with your post, but I think element #7 - the "feel good" theme – is the biggest problem. I find almost all animated films have the same basic story:

a child protagonist has a “quirk” that makes him/her/it an outsider to society.

He/she/it goes through a series of trials testing the quirk, and finds fellow quirky characters along the way.

Through this band of misfits, the child finds the inner strength to accept the “quirk” and become accepted in society.

Nothing wrong with this theme per se. Some wonderful films have been done with it. But I’d go one step further and argue that what is making animated films stale and predictable is the treatment of the character, the quirk, and the acceptance.

Since the protagonist is essentially an innocent child. He/she/it makes mistakes out of naivety, not out of a deeper and more dramatically interesting character flaw.

The child protagonist (be it a robot, animal or person) essentially lives in a comfortable, middle class world (even though it may be an animal or outer space setting).

Even though this world has variety, it is essentially homogenous. (i.e., the band of characters may be a variety of animals, but they all act and think like pets)

The child protagonist’s “quirk” is never anything truly threatening to the animated middle-class world. The character never faces the type of intolerance that no matter how strong and good he/she/it becomes, social acceptance will never come.

And the payoff for these characters is a return to society, not doing the right thing or growing as a character.

Maybe this is too much to expect from family films, and my critique is certainly left-wing. But family films don’t have to be predictable, and this common treatment risks throwing all of animated films into genre ghetto like the western with good guys in white hats, bad guys in black.

The only feature-length exceptions that come to mind are the Incredibles and Wallace and Grommit– although I’d be happy to be shown other exceptions.

Ming said...

American animation is boring. Why Cars' story is so similar to Ed Hollywood?

Gabriel said...

So basically we have a medium with a great potential, but everyone chooses to work in the same genre. If you don't care for that genre, you have nothing else to watch. Now I realize why CG equals to nothing in my head.

Adam Levin said...

"Between the importation of Manga and mainstream publisher interest in the graphic novel, Marvel and DC have been reduced to minor players in terms of sales and artistic importance."

I wish this was true, but I find it hard to believe. From my own visits to comic shops, superhero related books are 90% of what is available.

From Diamond comics (which has a monopoly on distributing comic books to retailers), DC and Marvel made up 80.01% of all sales. Tokyopop, a popular anime publisher made up 0.83% and Oni Press, my favorite independent publisher made up 0.20%.

From talking to comic book creators at conventions, although their interests may lie in areas other than superheroes, that's where the money is, so because they don't want to starve, they usually put their own work to the back-burner.

intergalactic said...

Hi I just got done reading the post on www.cartoonbrew.com in regaurds to your blog posting.

At the time I didn't realize that Amid had quoted your blog so I wanted to share with you what I had sent over to him and would love to hear more from you on this topic.

"Marvel and DC have been reduced to minor players in terms of sales and artistic importance."

Man do you really think so? I have a hard time buying that statement, I've collected Marvel, DC and other titles for almost 15yrs. As an artist and someone who works in the animation industry I've always seen Marvel and DC as the cream of the crop. Most other "Creator Owned" companies really haven't had the same success in my opinion. I mean I don't have the numbers in front of me but to say that Marvel and DC are "minor players" in regards to their sales or artistic importance seems a little off base.

Both companies have survived on characters created in the "Golden Age" but at the same time it's really what the artists and writers have been able to do with those characters that has continued to breath life into both companies.

Take for example Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev who just finished up an amazing run on DareDevil. Now although Bendis was spotted for his writing talents as an independent he was pulled into Marvel because he loves the characters that they've created. I still believe that Marvel and DC will always be the leaders in both sales and artistic importance and influence.

This might just be a difference in opinion but I would really like to hear more if there are actual facts that would sway my opinion towards the independent creators having more success or more artistic merit one way or another?

...i

Anonymous said...

hey Mark
give me a shout
Chuck G

Cooked Art said...

Hey Mark,

I totally agree with this. I posted a while back on my own blog about the lack of innovation is story nowadays, especially with respect to the summer movies within the past few years. Comic book movies and adaptations are essentially the biggest things to come out for the rest of the summer and none of them are original screenplays, which I find disheartening.

I think it's a similar brain-drain with animated films - and as you said, it's happened since A Bug's Life and Antz, but with more studios popping its happening more and more. The only studio that I'm firmly convinced is really free from this is Pixar, who seem to be the innovators while the rest frantically rush to copy some of the magic that's in their films.

That's my rant for today. Keep on' postin!

Okama_King said...

Hi, you've nailed it right on the head with the repetition of these same themes.
I'd like to add that for all the novelty, originality and artistic nobility we'd like to bestow on our animated movies - it is, after all, an industry.
The same problem occurs in all other forms of media - including television (how many CSI's are we up to now?) and video games (first person shooters).
Hollywood will continue to rehash these ideas so long as they make money.
You also mention the economic differences between comics and film - production wise we're talking about whole teams and crews (animation) versus a small handful of people (comics).
I think the hope you hold out on starts now - in it's infancy with off the shelf publishing. There are many cases of people working independantly or in small teams producing shorts with any number of readily available programs. As the software becomes more accessible and the artists more empowered and skilled - to a professional quality - thats when our hope for animation will be realized.

cheers

Ian Copeland said...

I was somewhat concerned when I saw the teaser trailer for "Ant Bully", the one that featured various insects trying out for roles in the film. I thought then that "The Ant Bully" would be a variation of "Antz", itself an artless variation of "A Bug's Life". Seeing the new trailer, I'm more optismistic. The film has a few things going for it: first, great source material, John Nickle's children's book; second, DNA productions, the Texas based animation studio responsible for "Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius"; and, finally, first-rate voice actors.

Is there a lot of recycling going on in animation these days? Sure. Has it always been that way? Sure. Anything popular is cloned. How many classic animation characters were cloned from Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton? Are the Honey-mousers and Fred and Barney equivalent?

The Jams wrote in "The Manual: How to Have a Number 1 the Easy Way" that what an artist chooses to steal says more about them as an artist than anything they could possibly invent. Brian Eno observed that innovation comes about when an artist tries to imitate something and gets it wrong. So, yeah, we may have to suffer through a plague of rat films, but someone is going to get it wrong and in so doing get it right.

Firoz said...

I completely agree that there isn't enough variety in the both the types of story being told and the visual styles of animated films. Even Pixar (this will sound blasphemous) takes a very textbook approach to storytelling with their highly structured beginning, middle and end acts.

I also think that part of the problem is the budgets of these films - they are in the region of $50 million and upwards (and that excludes the marketing budget). Such high budgets always seem to preclude more adventurous or unusual films.

Let's face it, if you're looking for variety, experimentation and diversity, you'll find it in the short film sector, not feature length. Will this always be the case? Is it possible to make feature-length films on smaller budgets? Films that surprise us; films that break all the tired conventions we see repeatedly in CG features today? I hope so, but I don't think it will come from the major animation studios.

Mark Mayerson said...

Wow. I'm away from the keyboard for a day and when I get back I find a lot of responses. I assumed I hit a nerve, but then I learned that Amid had linked to me from Cartoon Brew. I got three times my usual number of hits today, which shows how influential Cartoon Brew is. I hope that some of the people who linked in from the Brew will continue to drop in.

So, let's get to responses.

Anonymous, I worked hard not to single out individual films or studios and maybe I failed at that. However, I think that the public, as opposed to animation professionals or fans, looks at a trailer and has a general reaction. In Shark Tale's case, I think it was "more talking fish." I have no idea how Open Season will do, and I hope that it's wildly successful, but I'm afraid that the average person is going to say "more talking animals who don't know how to exist in nature like Madagascar" or "more talking animals in conflict with people like Over the Hedge."

My fear is that we're getting too in-bred and soon our creative children will all have two heads and nobody will want to be seen with them in public. It's happened to animated features before. I just hope we're smart enough to avoid that.

Kevin, keep working on your own stuff and figure out ways to get it directly to an audience, no matter how small. You'll learn more from an audience than you'll ever learn from an industry executive.

Anonymous2, I wonder if it would be possible to make Bambi today. I'm talking about the content, not the art. Ditto for Old Yeller. And forget about anybody in North America trying something like Grave of the Fireflies. I don't think that family films need deaths, but I do think that today's children's films are often superficial.

Adam and Intergalactic, get out of the comic shops and the conventions. Walk into a chain bookstore and see what's on the shelves. In Toronto, Chapters/Indigo easily devotes 50% of their graphic novel shelf space to manga. They don't carry much independent work, but it's far more than the superhero work they carry. Also check out what's being reviewed in the mainstream press like the N.Y. Times, Time, etc. They're talking about Chris Ware, Jessica Abel, David B, and Marjane Satrapi, all of whom have never worked for Marvel or DC. Those companies are missing the wave because they think of comics in such narrow terms. My fear is that animation studios will make the same mistake.

Chuck G, your wish is my command. I'll attempt to phone you on Monday.

Cooked Art and Okama_king, there are strong economic reasons for the world being the way it is. I do not envy the people who put their jobs and companies on the line when they invest millions in an animated feature. They are desperate not to screw up and that often causes them to play it safe. I believe that we need a different economic model if we're going to see more creativity. I don't know what that economic model is (or I'd be looking for investors!), but I'm confident that somebody is going to figure it out. My question is whether the large studios are thinking outside the box or not.

Ian, I would rather have a hundred artists trying a hundred different things than a hundred artists all trying the same thing. I'm betting the first way would produce more interesting work.

Firoz, if you've waded through all my comments so far, you'll see that I agree with you.

Thanks to everybody for their comments.

Mr. Semaj said...

A pretty valid observation.

I always hate when small studios opt to copy the bigger studios, whether or not the leader happens to be Disney. Therefore, I don't plan on seeing Ant Bully, and there's no reason to not suspect that it's going to fail.

Nickelodeon's own CG film, Barnyard, doesn't sound very promising at all. Not only is the animation and designs god-awful, but they seem to be riding on Dreamworks' "smart-alecky animals" fad.

Kevin Koch said...

I think several studios have tried to avoid the "Children as prominent characters" (which one Anonymous responder expands to "child protagonist with a quirk"). Both DreamWorks and Fox (in their 2D days, now with BlueSky in CG) have avoided child protagonists completely, and focused on young and even middle aged adult characters.

And, frankly, avoiding some of the other traits you identify would be sure box office death. Try skipping a feel-good theme or a happy ending with an animated film and see how well you do.

The celebrity voices thing goes way back, and complaining about that is almost like complaining about 'celebrity actors' in live action. Somehow it only becomes an issue if we don't happen to like a particular voice or actor.

Villians/sidekicks played for laughs? Maybe that's because pretty much all the successful animated films have been comedies. The few serious animated features released here have sank like rocks. Doesn't mean it can't be done, or shouldn't be tried again, but you'll be bucking a strong public bias (an unfair bias, but a bias nonetheless, which is a major reason I think avoiding a feel-good theme or a happy ending would be business suicide).

I think the bigger problem, which you identify seperately from your list, is the stunning, numbing similarity of so many of these films. That IS a problem, a huge one.

The comics industry analogy is interesting, but the biggest difference is that an individual artist can publish their own comic in very limited numbers and (barely) survive doing it. It's possible to do niche comics, though Marvel and DC can't really afford to do the same except on a limited basis. Can the big studios survive doing niche feature films? I'm not sure.

Paul Denton said...

I agree with your main point, but I think this section is a bit of wishful thinking coupled with inadequate research:

In Toronto, Chapters/Indigo easily devotes 50% of their graphic novel shelf space to manga. They don't carry much independent work, but it's far more than the superhero work they carry.

Perhaps - and true throughout the country, not just Toronto - but that's making a very big assumption: that big-chain bookstores are selling the majority of graphic novels, comics, manga, and related genres, and therefore that Chapters is representative of the industry, rather than just the particular upper-middle-class slice of the market it aims to capture. I don't buy a lot of comics, but it seems to me that they're catering to the audience least likely to want to go to the traditional comic shop: i.e., everyone but male geeks aged 10-30. If that's the case, then of course their selection is going to be skewed away from DC and Marvel...

Put another way: Chapters also carries a large selection of gift boxes, candles, and other assorted upscale stationery products. From an aesthetic perspective, the letter-writing materials you can buy there are certainly superior to a ream of plain old white bond paper from Staples, but that certainly doesn't mean Domtar or Hammermill have been "reduced to minor players" in the paper industry just because your personal preference is for a higher-quality product.

Mark Mayerson said...

"Can the big studios survive doing niche feature films? I'm not sure." I'm not sure either, Kevin. But I'm also not sure they can survive doing what they're currently doing.

If the audience gets bored and stays home, the big studios are going to struggle to find something that works. Some of them may drop out. It's happened before.

There have been times in the past when nobody besides Disney cared about animated features. In the '80's, we had toy companies fill the vacuum. I'd hate to see that scenario repeat itself.

As to subject matter, I've always felt that children's literature had a much wider emotional range than animated family films. I don't see why animation couldn't expand to include some of that range. At this point in time, it seems that animated features are bent on becoming a monoculture when they should be trying to develop more diversity.

* * * *

Paul, I can assure you that there's no "wishful thinking" involved with my evaluation of the comics business. My emotional attachment to comics ended decades ago. And yes, Chapters is catering to the market least likely to go into comic shops for a very good reason: it's gigantic. If comics shops cater to men between the ages of 10 and 30, then they're ignoring the entire female population in addition to men outside that age range.

In big box retail, there's enormous pressure to maximize income per square foot. I can assure you that Chapters would not be selling candles or manga if those things did not produce profits relative to the large amount of display space they're given.

Companies like Marvel and DC are making far more money on movie revenues and licensing than they are on comics. That's the economic model they're built on. In terms of gross dollars for comics sales, they've fallen behind manga and in terms of prestige, they've fallen behind independent graphic novels.

cheryl said...

One thing that is overlooked here is the simple fact that the studios or financing operations that are funding these incredibly expensive CGI animated films want to make a profit. The story and film in progress are subjected to rounds of notes by mid-level executives who don't have a creative bone in their body. Multiple test screenings of the film in progress are shown to representative audiences which result in multiple rounds of modifications to the story. Pixar's films are the cream of the crop in part because they have internal funding, indredibly talented creative people in control, and the freedom and budget to spend 4 years making a film.
Yes, many of new CGI feature stories are lame, a rehash of other successful films; but before you place blame for this directly on the creators remember that they are fighting for the integrity of their film against the people who hold the purse. Art vs. profit is touchy situation.
The sad state of animation is the same problem as the sad state of filmmaking in general. Executives that are determining what gets made are often souless, money grubbing, untalented people.
These funding sources are unfortunately necessary because of the extremly high cost in producing a CGI film. These films aren't made by ten guys in a garage. On top of that if a CGI film is made low budget something suffers. Hoodwinked is a perfect example. Those guys pulled off an amazing feat just by getting that film done but all the animation community could see and comment on was the less than stellar production value.
It's a catch 22 for animation producer/directors to get funding they often have to give up elements of their true vision to make the film more "marketable." It would be nice if the animation community would take note of this reality before they label animation film makers as complete hacks.

Mark Mayerson said...

Cheryl, I didn't label anybody a hack. Furthermore, I didn't single out anybody, especially creators, for blame. As someone who created a TV series and watched it get bent out of shape by broadcasters and production partners, I'm painfully aware of the business influence on creative content.

I singled out creators in the comics because they're the ones who forced audience perceptions to shift. It certainly wasn't the superhero companies. My point is that business people are unlikely to change and that any shift is most likely to come from creative people.

The biggest point I'd like to make here is that an animated feature doesn't have to cost over $50 million and doesn't have to stick to family film conventions. There will be filmmakers and small companies that will attempt to beat the system because they are motivated to do something different. When one of them succeeds, the large companies will jump on the bandwagon and imitate it to death. That's the nature of pop culture.

If somebody doesn't break the mold, the audience will get bored and go elsewhere. It's happened before. It's in the long term interest of the big companies to figure out a way to innovate (or let others innovate) in the animated feature business so that the audience sticks around.

cheryl said...

I'm sorry I didn't mean to imply that you did call anyone a hack...I was referring to other instances on the web. The animation community can be brutal.

As for breaking the mold you are correct and yes animated films can be made for 50 million....but what investor wants to hand out 50 million dollars and pull out all the tricks that will bring him profit. I have to add here that I'm playing devils advocate because I would personally like to see a more intelligent animated film myself.

Jenny said...

"....Dreamworks' "smart-alecky animals" fad."

Semaj, please don't, as they say, "go there"(of course you can and you did, but I wish you wouldn't). ; )

Animals as characters is hardly a "fad"--at Dreamworks or anywhere else. Heard of Aesop?

As a story artist I personally like and depending upon the options, often prefer "talking animals" to humans in animated films. They've worked-and been "smart alecky"-since Brer Rabbit and Bugs Bunny, et al and imho they'll continue to offer rich possibilities for storytelling.

I'm still waiting for the film that really exploits the possibilities in domestic pets, myself; there's all kinds of gold to be mined there in the world of plain old cats and dogs(may sound dull, but it's all in how you treat it, and who's in it)....and yes, sometimes(from my perspective more often in liveaction CG animal stories, "Racing Stripes" that sort of thing) the snarkiness gets tiresome, not because they're animal characters, but because the thinking and writing isn't good enough.
I worry that 3D animation will become more and more "realistic", in the sense of animating people with stories that are now perfectly suited to liveaction.

Sorry--that just touched a current nerve. : )
I also simply have to agree, yet again, with my union president and say that no one--including me---can really make a sensible argument against comedies right now...the proof's there. That's NOT saying that an animated feature can't have any depth of felling--I've touted several, most recently "Incredibles", as having both belly laughs and genuine scares and pathos. These films are expensive, everyone wants them to succeed, and succeed big. To do that, it'd seem to make sense to aim for something more than frothiness when you're spending hundre's of millions. But it's always, always got to be genuine material, not contrived.

cobweb said...

Mark,

You referenced the title of our recently completed animated short "One Rat Short" in your blog and I am pleased that you are aware of it. We stayed away from the list of common animated feature elements that you desribed in your commentary and I think if you see the film you will agree. I would like to send you a copy of the film, if you are interested please send me an e-mail.
Chris@charlex.com

Best,
Chris

Oliver_Coombes said...

"I wonder if it would be possible to make Bambi today."

Heck, I wonder if it would even be possible to make The Lion King today -- witness how quickly Finding Nemo brushed the mother's death under the carpet (or should that be coral?).