Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Six Authors in Search of a Character: Part 14, Conclusion

Animators had more control of their characters’ behaviour and fewer collaborators in the silent era than at any time since, but they didn’t know what to do with that control. Their backgrounds as cartoonists did not provide them with direct contact with an audience, so their understanding of an audience’s expectations was limited. They also had no experience fashioning characters in narratives longer than a comic strip. The struggle to develop animation technology at the same time they were turning out large amounts of animation overshadowed any thought about one animator controlling a single character. Animators’ physical isolation in New York from the mainstream film business in California and their lack of affiliation with live action studios during the silent era insulated them in a ghetto-like situation where they developed at their own provincial pace.

Disney altered the landscape significantly but didn’t change it in fundamental ways. The assembly line that had been developed in the silent era was not thrown away, only modified. The result was a double-edged sword for animators. The newer system freed animators from the concerns of doing finished-quality drawings and provided them with enough assistance so they could concentrate on communicating a character’s thoughts and emotions to the audience. However, their control of timing was taken by directors, their control of style was taken by character designers, and their control of emotion was taken by voice actors. Control of a great deal of a character’s physical behaviour migrated upstream to the story artists.

In the TV era, the same structure remained in place though the need to output animation grew exponentially. These conditions defeated the best aspects of the Disney system but allowed the worst aspects to survive. Animators had no more control than they had on theatrical shorts or features while the need for productivity prevented them from the level of refinement the system formerly allowed.

With motion capture becoming increasingly common as an effect in live action films and with the creation of films that appear to be animated but are motion-captured imitations, the importance of the animator is further reduced. Live action directors don’t understand the animation process and are not shy about praising actors at the expense of animators. Here’s Gore Verbinski, director of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest reflecting on Bill Nighy’s motion-captured performance of Davy Jones.
"There's a point in the process where things have to be singular, they have to be from one person's point of view. I think you get that from an actor's performance, and not with a committee of animators and animation directors and even from myself. It's just too much to go through to say, 'Let's create nuance from scratch.' You need somebody to start it. We're always going to need great acting" (Cohen 1).
In these films, directors see animators purely as technicians; they are considered special effects artists not people capable of defining a character’s behaviour. In animation terms, the animator is used more like an assistant animator. Someone else has created the movement and the assistant animator’s job is to refine it into a satisfactory shape.

Actor Andy Serkis has experienced how it feels to create a motion-captured performance and interact with animator collaborators.
“Animators are actors in the sense that they draw from their own life experience and emotions and bring that to a character. They even use their own facial expressions to convey a feeling by acting into a mirror. However, if there are 40 animators working on individual segments of Gollum, the string that holds the pearls on the necklace, so to speak, could be missing, and given that the character has such a complex psychological and emotional journey, he could take on 40 different personalities! But here there was a very different agenda. Instead of looking into mirrors, the animators would be using the performance of a single actor, and sticking closely to the footage we had shot on location and in motion capture, and that would be the emotional string that would hold it together” (95).
Serkis can be forgiven for not knowing that even in completely animated films, there must be that string. It’s usually supplied by the director, using the voice track, the timing, the storyboard and the character layouts. It may be supplied by a lead animator on a character. Glen Keane was the lead on the titular Aladdin character in the Disney feature.
“Animation is such a team effort no one man can take credit for a character. In the Aladdin unit, I have a great team of animators working with me doing vital acting moments in the film. The challenge is for all of us to think as one. The lead animator sets the pace for the character in the film. That’s why each of the animators in my unit checks with me. Besides [directors] Ron [Clements] and John [Musker], the lead animator is the only one who sees everybody’s work and knows if somebody’s heading off in this direction or that direction.

“He becomes the conscience of that character throughout the film. If one of Aladdin’s personality traits are violated, I have to speak up in Aladdin’s behalf in the film, and raise my hand and say, ‘Hey, that’s not me, that’s not me – I wouldn’t do that’” (John Culhane 71-72).
Serkis and Keane hold roughly equivalent positions, though they use different techniques. Each of them collaborates with others in creating a character’s behaviour, setting the tone and editing the contributions of their collaborators. Serkis, by supplying his character’s voice, has an advantage over Keane.

Animators, due to the assembly line nature of production, are always forced to rely on somebody else’s string while they supply the pearls. This is my crux of disagreement with Michael Barrier. He feels that casting animators by character allows for more unified behaviour; animators supplying their own string as it were.
“Animation of the kind that Walt Disney had begun cultivating in the middle thirties – and that had flowered in Tytla’s scenes of the dwarfs – was powerful because its cartoon exaggeration could reveal so fully the emotional life of its characters. When an animator immersed himself in that emotional life, the bond between character and animator could be as strong as any bond between character and actor on the stage” (Hollywood 313).
My point is that truly animator-centric characters cannot exist in the current production structure. Even if one animator contributes all of a character’s scenes, the pre-production decisions that are handed to the animator, most especially the voice track, make the character’s behaviour collaborative. Tytla may have been sympathetic to Grumpy’s voice track, performed by Pinto Colvig, but because the audience would hear Colvig’s reading, where it would be ignorant of storyboard and layout drawings supplied to Tytla, Tytla had no choice but to take Colvig’s reading into account in his animation.

Here is animator Tony White on the centrality of the voice track to animated behaviour.
“It is impossible to produce good and convincing dialogue [animation] without first listening intently to what has been recorded and getting under the skin of its meaning and impetus. On one level, it is just words. On another level, it is a succession of accents and pauses and breaths, and even emotion, that makes up every single line of dialogue. Only by listening intently and frequently will you begin to feel what is really being said in a delivery (not just the sound of the words), and then begin to get a sense of how the character looks, how the character needs to stand, how the character needs to emphasize the words they are saying. Only then, when you are actually under the skin of the dialogue, should you pick up a pencil and draw.” (249)
The voice-body split that became the norm in animation at the start of the sound era was something new. It did not exist in theatre. Dubbing in live action film was certainly not the norm. It did not even exist in puppetry. It only existed in animation due to something close to an original sin: the decision in the silent era to divide a film by sequence instead of by character. Once the gulf between animator and character was opened, it continued to get wider. Disney attempted to close it by casting by character, but at the same time he did that he was pulling more control of the characters away from animators into pre-production for the sake of efficiency. To his credit, he didn’t do it for financial reasons; he did it to gain greater artistic control over the films he was producing.

While some animators under certain conditions may approach the kind of actor-character identification that is possible with live acting, those cases are rare due to the realities of the animation industry. Barrier feels that this identification is what animation should aspire to. I agree with him, but I don’t think that casting by character is sufficient to achieve it. There are too many other variables.

Story artist Bill Peet felt that he was the prime contributor to One Hundred and One Dalmatians and that others simply enhanced his contributions.
“The public probably thinks the animator sits down and starts doing it from scratch. I did storyboards, thousands of them, and character design; I would direct the voice recordings.

“Then guys like Marc Davis, Ken Anderson, and Woolie Reitherman would take credit for my Cruella De Vil and all of the personalities. Those personalities were delineated in drawings, and believe me; I can draw them as well or better than any of them” (Province 163).
The above not only exposes the tension over credit, it also shows that the artists themselves can’t agree on where control of a character lies. Peet wrote the script and did the storyboard for One Hundred and One Dalmatians, based on the book by Dodie Smith. Marc Davis, cast by character as Barrier would prefer, animated Cruella De Vil. Live action reference footage of actress Mary Wickes was shot for the role of Cruella (Frank Thomas 320). Betty Lou Gerson recorded Cruella’s voice track. Does this character represent any one contributor’s point of view? Can any of the above people claim the same level of control that an actor routinely has over a character?

Helene Stanley (left) and Mary Wickes act out a scene as reference for Disney animators for One Hundred and One Dalmatians. From Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston.

In researching and writing this MRP, I am left with the question of whether casting by character makes a significant difference, given how collaborative the creation of an animated character’s behaviour is. In the case of a single animator per character, the pre-production work gets passed through that animator’s sensibility; in that sense the animator may function more as a synthesizer than as a creator, though the animator unquestionably makes a contribution. While within the industry animators are routinely compared to actors, perhaps a better analogy is to musicians in a symphony orchestra. Such musicians are responsible for playing the notes on the page while filtering them through the interpretation of the conductor. Within the ensemble, how much room is there for musicians to assert themselves?

While casting animators by scene or sequence might dilute a character’s behaviour due to too many authors, it might also salvage a character’s behaviour by averaging out the ability of the contributing animators. Casting an animator with a talent for comedy on certain scenes and for pathos on others might allow those scenes to work where a single animator might not be versatile enough to meet the challenges required of a character.

Casting by character has been used in the recent past at Disney, resulting in films that have proven popular and received critical approval. The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King were all cast by character. By contrast, Pixar has always cast by scene. Toy Story, Finding Nemo and The Incredibles have earned the same box office success and critical kudos as the aforementioned Disney films.

Is one form of casting inherently superior? The industry has clearly not settled on one approach. Audiences and mainstream critics seem unaware of the difference. The existence of supervising animators may render the debate moot, as there has never been a feature where each character was animated by a single artist.

In live action terms, we can point to films that are dominated by producers, by directors, by writers and by performers. There is nothing inherently superior about one more than another; the quality of a film doesn’t rest on who dominates but on whether the film’s elements cohere into a satisfying whole. The elements that make up an animated film differ from live action, but they must also cohere if a film is to be successful.

If the creation of animated behaviour is characterized more by synthesizing than by creating, does it matter if the synthesizer is the director, the voice actor or the animator? Each of them will be forced to incorporate contributions by people working on other parts of the process. Should the animator inherently be more privileged than other contributors?

If you believe that the animator should dominate -- that the animator should have the opportunity to bring a unique sensibility to a character -- then my conclusion is that the current production structure needs to be reworked, as its current incarnation intentionally removes control from animators for the sake of efficiency. The current approach attempts to create coherence in pre-production before the animators begin and then impose the coherence on them.

I don’t know what an animator-centric production would look like. At the very least, it would require the voice cast be assembled to rehearse together, with the director and animators present to shape their performances. Then the director and animators would work on staging, eliminating the storyboard artists and layout artists. Following this, the animators would bring their characters to life.

This is still more collaborative than live acting; each role would still be split between voice actor and animator. Unless a production was willing to use the animators’ voices, I can’t see a way of making animated characters less collaborative than this. It’s possible that this approach would be impractical from the standpoint of budget and schedule. It’s such a radical break with current procedures that it might take several films for the animators to adjust and before the results were worth watching.

The one animator in mainstream films who managed to maintain control of his characters and avoid the use of a voice track was Ray Harryhausen. In features, Harryhausen added stop-motion puppets to live action films, always working on fantastic creatures that live action couldn’t manage. He rose to the position of associate producer or producer on his films after 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts, certainly a rarity for an animator still doing frame by frame work on a film. Harryhausen’s only attempt at lip synch was a test for an unrealized project based on Baron Munchausen. “It was the first time that I experimented with animation and dialogue, and because of the time and effort, it was the last” (Harryhausen 286). Harryhausen’s characters may emit sounds, but never dialogue.

Harryhausen was inspired by the 1933 version of King Kong and later worked with Kong’s effects supervisor and animator Willis O’Brien on the film Mighty Joe Young. As Gary Giddins points out,
“Harryhausen shunned sentimentality after that – no easy feat as he was forced to tailor most of his work to children. Indeed, for all his devotion to Kong, he never animated creatures that were quite as sympathetic or anthropomorphic (beyond his penchant for manly musculature) as Kong” (125-26).
This raises an issue that so far has been ignored. While I admire Harryhausen’s imagination and craft, I prefer the behaviour of O’Brien’s creatures. If a film is structured so that it is cast by character, we are left with the ability of a specific animator when judging what’s on screen. Bad casting and acting are common in live action films and in theatre. There’s no reason why animation should escape similar problems.

Harryhausen is one of a kind. He built a production structure to suit himself and it hasn’t been imitated by anyone for major productions. The only other area that approaches Harryhausen’s level of control is independent animation. It’s only on short projects that animators have the freedom to control a character without having to collaborate, but just as silent animators were limited by their backgrounds as cartoonists, many independent animators are limited by their backgrounds in fine arts. They prize the image over believable characters. Norman McLaren is an example of an independent animator who controlled his films but was more interested in design and the formal aspects of the animation process than he was in creating characters.

Those independent animators who are concerned with characters, such as Borge Ring (Anna and Bella), work alone or in small teams. As a result, their films are short and are produced infrequently. Prior to the creation of internet sites like iFilm and YouTube, the market for short films was small, so these film makers did not get much exposure outside of festivals. This limited their influence on the animation industry.

I don’t know if animator-centered films are possible from large studios. There is no incentive to destroy the production structure that’s proven profitable and functioned for nearly a century. When new technologies are introduced, it’s easier to adjust the production structure rather than replace it.

However, between the budget and schedule demands of TV, the geographical and cultural separation of animators from TV pre-production, and the rising use of motion capture in features, animators are being increasingly marginalized. Perhaps fashions will change as media and technology evolve or perhaps animation needs a manifesto similar to Dogme, challenging artists to work in different ways.

In any case, the structure of production has unquestionably forced animators into sharing control, with repercussions for both animated characters and criticism. I hope that this MRP has clarified the nature of the collaboration’s historical roots and how it functions in an industrial setting.


Benjamin De Schrijver said...

I am of the opinion that, director-wise, we should move to more of a Japanese system, where usually, the director (co-)writes, but most importantly boards the whole film himself. With this, the director has full control over his film, and is able to give acting directions and marks to his animators, as a live action director can. Then, I feel, should each character be tackled by a different (supervising) animator and a voice actor. They colaborate, and build their performance on the boards the director gave them, hopefully plussing them. If they have specific suggestions, they could turn to the director who could reboard the scene (of course, he'd be collaborating with an editor and a cinematographer too).
And I agree voice actors should rehearse and record together, not seperately.

Absolutely wonderful series. Thank you! I hope it opens some eyes.

Tara said...

Hi, sorry to post this in a comment but I couldn't find a contact button. I see you work in Tv animation and wondered if you could give me some advice please. I am a freelance graphic designer who has created some childrens characters called the Weather Pops. I have currently worked them up into a picture book format. I would like to be able to approach TV companies with the idea, but am not sure how to go about it. Would I need to commission and illustrator to produce one animation, could I submit the ideas as they are or should I attempt to create storyboards. I appreciate any help you can offer, thanks for your time. The characters can be seen at www.graphicdesignblog.co.uk/my-character-designs-and-attempts-to-get-published/

Keith said...

A very good read. Fascinating.

David Nethery said...

Thanks for posting this , Mark. I've been reading each installment as you post it and now I'm going to print it all out and read it from start to finish . Very well researched and cogent thoughts . Thank you again.

Mark said...

In my limited experience as a director in animation, my desire was to give the animators an opportunity to express their craft with a great deal of freedom. I used a loose board that would not dictate every single pose to the animator. I felt it was the animators job to bring a sense of performance and I hoped they would appreciate the challenge.

However, this technique of directing had several flaws.
First: budget. The animation companies were hired from abroad and communication was limited and my ability to give feedback was on a weekly or bi weekly basis. This meant that a lot of work was done before you could comment. A small budget also meant that the quality of animation was equal to what was being paid.
Second: attitude. Although I thought it would be appreciated, the animators were not used to much freedom so they actually wanted to be spoon fed (with some exeptions). Whether it was too much responsibility or a lack of talent, experience and confidence, most animators were not ready for this (or I didn't prepare them well enough).
Third: resistance. There was a lot of resistance from producers/collegues who didn't agree with this method. Some felt that the director should have one hundred percent control over the board and make it as tight as humanly possible.

I did have one show where a single animator was assigned to a single three minute show. This produced some mixed results. The strong animators produced strong episodes and the weak animators produced weak episodes. In fact, there were one or two episodes where I liked the animatic better than the episode. There was a management issue on that particular show where the animation company would resist a senior animator fixing the weak shows (don't ask me why but it became a real problem). Again, the studio was hired from abroad.

What I learned from it was very important to work in-house if you are going to work that way. Communication and daily interaction ensures that things are progressing the way you want. Also, when you're in-house, the animation directors are working for you and not for the hired animation house. This way, your needs come first.

Mark Mayerson said...

Tara, you will get all sorts of conflicting advice about trying to approach the TV biz. Some people will talk about the inability of TV executives to visualize anything, so your presentation has to be as close to finished as possible. Other people will tell you that the executives are going to want to change things to meet their perceived needs, so the less nailed-down your idea is, the easier it is for them to work their "magic." (Sorry, I can't contain my sarcasm.)

The animation cable channels (Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, Disney Channel) all have executives whose job is to look at pitches. I suggest you contact these people and ask them what they want to see. The answers will vary and will undoubtedly change over time. You are trying to hit a moving target.

Unfortunately, there's no tried and true method for what you want to accomplish. The only thing you can do is to start approaching people and make decisions as you go. Good luck to you.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Mark: Congratulations for a job well done! It's such a pity that animators are effectively locked out of the creative end of their own industry. Something needs to be done about it!

Did you read the Grim Natwick article on Michael Sporn's site yesterday? Near the start of the article Grim says animators used to collaborate with story guys in a two-man crew. Boy, have we come a long way from that!

Liimlsan said...

George Griffin kept his films as simple as possible just for that control... personally, my directorial projects I basically completed in storyboard form and full visual script before I started other work. I'm convinced that model (which was used by Miyazaki and Peet) has good potential...and hopefully it says something.

You want an animator-driven film? Aside from late-period Woolie Reithermann, try Raggedy Ann And Andy. That one had pathetic directorial input and a fragmented story sense...the animators had a TON of decisions. The film is leaden and bloated because none of the animation was short enough to work when cut into the others. It was described as a jazz supergroup with the rhythm section in two different towns.
William's policy was to lock the animators in a room by themselves and let them do their thing, and it suffered...then Potterton was brought on and all vision was lost.

(Like Don Bluth (for whom it's the fragmented story), Williams' best films work AROUND his weak spot (of bloated animation)... Roger Rabbit and Christmas Carol were too expensive to waste footage on; Thief was so atmospheric and pretentious that the leaden pacing improves it; Little Island was too carefully planned; the rest had too small budgets because of Thief.

(Don Bluth's best films all share one of three things: They're picaresque and don't need strong structure (Land, Tail, Banjo), they're too atmospheric to complain (All Dogs, Titan), or they're based off of a previous and specific story that's already been told (NIMH, Anastasia). All the rest suffer from the lack.