Thursday, May 03, 2007

More on Brando

(If you haven't seen On the Waterfront, please don't watch the clip. See the whole film first. This scene won't have the same impact out of context and seeing this clip will ruin the experience of watching the film. If you have seen the film, click and refresh your memory.)

Marlon Brando - On the Waterfront

I've had a request to go deeper into the Brando thing, so I will. The first thing I want to say is that it takes more than acting chops to produce a result a great as Brando produces. The role has to be crafted a certain way.

There are three types of conflict: character vs. character, character vs. circumstances and character vs. self. The first is the most obvious and it's where most animated films live. It's just good guys and bad guys. These characters may be very entertaining, but unless there's also the other kinds of conflict, they remain shallow. Cruella de Vil is beautifully designed and animated, but she's a flamboyant piece of cardboard. There is nothing complex about the character. She has attitude and nothing else. The same is true for characters like Shere Khan and Capt. Hook. All these characters have one track minds and the writing and acting challenge is to find a way to make them interesting to watch. It's not easy and I'm not minimizing the creativity and effort that goes into these characters, but ultimately they are simplistic.

The above Brando scene, on the surface, is also character vs. character. Rod Steiger wants Brando do something and Brando isn't sure what he wants to do. Steiger decides to let Brando go rather than force the issue. But the scene is far richer because it is also character vs. situation and most importantly, character vs. self. Steiger can't acknowledge that he sacrificed Brando's career for profit. Steiger pulls a gun on Brando even though he loves him. Ultimately, he can't go through with using force and lets Brando get away. Steiger is balanced between loving Brando and manipulating him and the scene revolves around what Steiger will do.

Brando is torn between what Steiger wants him to do and what he dimly perceives is right. He knows that Steiger has betrayed him in the past and caused him great pain, but he still loves Steiger. His position leaves him with no self-respect and he senses that he's got to change if he's going to survive, but he knows that changing is going to be painful and dangerous.

It's not simply who's stronger or more clever. Each character has to make decisions that define who he is and each knows it. Each decision has a huge moral implication. Is there a scene anywhere in animation that is as complex as this one? That's not a rhetorical question. If there is, I'd love to know about it.

Many actors would have played this scene less effectively than Brando and Steiger, but at least they would have had something to work with. Brando was in many films where the writing couldn't support his abilities and the results are not effective. There has to be a well-developed role before an actor can do his or her best work. Being Brando or as good as Brando isn't sufficient.

In animation, there are two things working against the possibility of a scene like this. The first is that the writing isn't ambitious enough. I'm not saying that every animated film has to aspire to the power of this scene, but not enough of them do. Children's entertainment has been dumbed down and made morally simplistic. Family films are more complex, but because children are part of the audience, the film makers are afraid to upset children or present characters who are beyond a child's understanding. The cost of animated features is a powerful incentive to not offend or confuse potential customers.

(In animation's defense, large budget live action films have fallen into the same trap. The live films that have avoided this are lower budget and released in time for Oscar consideration. They're delicacies that are only in season for a few months a year.)

The second problem is that even when animators are cast by character, they're still sharing the character and so developing a complex personality is next to impossible. That's one reason why voice actors are so important in holding a performance together. Brando was unique, as are all good actors. It's impossible for several animators to be unique in the same way. Instead, their uniqueness has to be sanded down into something closer to average so that their scenes can fit together.

Are there animators who are capable of a performance like Brando's? Perhaps. But the story material isn't there and the industry isn't structured to give animators the chance. In essence, we've limited the writing possibilities and put animators on a short leash, so it's no wonder that the gap between animated and live acting is so wide. And to be clear, I'm not arguing for animation that imitates Brando's acting. What I'm looking for is animated acting that creates the same powerful effect on audiences as Brando's.

I mentioned Gollum because the character was conceived with the same level of complexity as those played by Brando and Steiger. Gollum is also torn between choices that have moral implications. Anyone familiar with Tolkien's books knows how the film will end, but Gollum's success on film comes from how convincingly the character wrestles with his choices.

For Peter Jackson and Andy Serkis, this type of character is part and parcel of what they do. Serkis has played Shakespeare, who fills his plays with characters of this type. Hamlet, MacBeth and Othello all have to make morally difficult choices that determine their fates. For animation, this kind of character is rare or non-existent. A character's choices are usually unambiguously good or evil.

There is room for all kinds of animation and all kinds of animated content. I'm not arguing for a single standard. But what future does a medium have when it voluntarily abandons the aspiration to create work that compares with the best of other art forms? That's what animation has done and it's why there's no animated equivalent of Brando.

10 comments:

Benjamin said...

Wonderful Wonderful post.

Pete Emslie said...

At the risk of sounding like I'm playing devil's advocate here, Mark, I think that Gollum may be an unfortunate example. Remember, you've already questioned not long ago whether Mo-Cap characters really qualify as animation. While technically they may, the animator's role is pretty much limited to that of make-up artist, with the performance being largely controlled by the actor.

Yes, Gollum is a conflicted character and Andy Sirkis infuses his performance with much emotional turmoil to show his good vs. evil personalities fighting for control within him. How much of that performance is contributed by the animator? Frankly, I don't really know, but I would guess that it is minimal.

Are there conflicted characters in the animated features? I would argue yes, but they are painted with broader strokes. Sebastian ultimately decides to help Ariel achieve her dream of remaining human, though it goes completely against his better judgement and means he will have to answer for his actions and face the wrath of King Triton. Jiminy Cricket and Bagheera are similarly conflicted in their respective films. Again, I'm not suggesting the acting is on a par with Brando's Terry in "On the Waterfront", but quite honestly, do you really believe that would be possible or even desirable in an animated feature? I remain dubious.

Cooked Art said...

Brad Bird has long complained about this phenomenon. And anyone arguing against an adult market for animation need only look at the audiences of animated television shows such as Family Guy and the Simpsons. This is definitely an older demographic than Saturday morning cartoons. Also, while the market here is relatively untested, animation from everywhere outside of North America (Europe, Asia) is doing animation catering to all sorts of age demographics.

Again, this seems to be mainly gatekeepers thinking that the market is too risky to even test out the waters. If a big budget, more adult themed, animated film was released in as wide a release as Ratatouille is getting, with as good of a marketing campaign, would it really flop? I guess we probably won't find out anytime soon.

Pete talks about exaggerated movement and caricature being not only a staple, but a requirement of good animation. I also believe this to be true but I think that we can still have challenging, moral, ethical, and even religious dilemmas going on in the characters - this is a story problem, not so much an acting problem. I think the medium can definitely support this kind of story, I guess it only comes down to whether or not someone is brave enough to gamble with this in the North American market.

I guess this topic also raises the dilemma of whether or not an animated performance/actor is as good as a live action actor. There are definitely differences, but is a good animated performance of the Milt Kahls and the Frank Thomases any less believable than the Marlon Brandos and the Laurence Oliviers? I for one never stopped believing that Sher Khan was a in fact, a tiger, not a moving drawing with calculated strobing lines. I felt it was simply a living, moving being capable of thought, action, and reaction. I definitely don't think that there's been any acting opportunities in animation that challenges a character morally like we see in live action, but right back to my former argument, I don't think I've seen the range of animated film like we see in live action. Both of them are mediums, and I think they can both do the same things - just that animation is freer to do anything that a person can imagine.

My (long) two cents.

Benjamin said...

You don't have to be a great actor to do a believable performance. You have to be a great actor to deliver a great, unique performance.

And I completely agree that our medium can support any type of film. Of course, you shouldn't do animation that could almost be rotoscope of a scene like this one with Brando. You should USE caricature etc to make these types of acting choices work in animation. It would be tough, and it would require a lot of skill and thought, but is it impossible or undesirable? I don't think so.

jason said...

hey pete,

actually, gollum was heavily influenced by the animators who worked on him. Andy was used for reference for a lot of the work, but there was just as much which was developed and performed straight from the animator's hands.

Ali said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Billy Bob said...

One major thing to think about is style and content. Animation can create fantasy beyond our wildest dreams. However, does that mean that we shoul shy away from telling realistic stories? I read back in the day in the field of comics, there were much more genres in the mainstream eye. Romance, Western, Crime, Horror. Animation can tell any type of story wiether it's realistic or fantasty like. What is important is that we utilize the techniques of animation to provide a visual stimmulus/experience to tell stories that live action cannot.

S. Stephani Soejono said...

Also, while the market here is relatively untested, animation from everywhere outside of North America (Europe, Asia) is doing animation catering to all sorts of age demographics.

...just wanted to correct that. Most Asian animation are still pretty kiddy-oriented. You might want to say Japan instead. I was interning back home and most of our producer thinks its the kids stuff that sells. And China is still looking to producing kiddy cartoons as well. Aside from Wonderful Days, the Koreans seem to stick with kiddy stuff as well.

B_Steelo said...

Honestly I don't know of an animated scene that would have the same resonance, but you're more likely to have something like that happen in a Japanese market.

Films that come to mind are:

Perfect Blue - Satoshi Kon
Tokyo Godfathers - Satoshi Kon
Ghost in the Shell
Neon Genisis Evangeleon
Cowboy Bebop

I don't know specifics, it'll take a little research, but the sensibility for such a scene seems to be more present.

Out of all the American animation to come out, Brad Bird's films also have that potential. For the kid markets Incredibles and Iron Giant also have the potential for that level of exposition.

Mark Mayerson said...

I don't claim to be any kind of expert on anime, so if I'm out of line here, call me on it. But I think that Japanese animation may fulfill the writing side of creating great performances, but they fail at the performances themselves. By contrast, American animation consistently fails on the writing side but is good at the performance side. If we could combine the best of both, we'd really have something.