Saturday, July 03, 2010

Complex Characters

In comments to my post on Toy Story 3, Daniel Caylor asked, "Can you give me some examples of rich characters from animation that have set the bar for you personally?"

While animation people are constantly yelling, "story, story story," I think that they have a very limited understanding of certain aspects of it. They understand plot and they understand personality, but I think that animation's understanding of character is pretty perfunctory.

Character in animation tends to be linear and go from A to B. Grumpy hates women and ends up loving Snow White. Pinocchio is irresponsible and then he's responsible. The plot moves these characters from one emotional place to another, but their growth is uncomplicated and easy. They don't have to struggle with their emotions in order to grow and don't have to give up anything along the way. It's no sacrifice for Pinocchio to stop being irresponsible. In fact, it's been nothing but a disaster for him.

Pixar has done better than average with their characters. In the original Toy Story, Woody has to give up his position in the toy social world and Andy's affections in order to grow. Buzz has to give up his illusion that he's a space ranger and not a collection of plastic parts. Giving up these things is painful but necessary.

However, in Toy Story 2, Woody has to give up something he never had: the adulation of crowds of children visiting him in a museum. Jessie has to give up her mistrust of people in order to be emotionally alive again, something that may take effort but is hardly much of a loss. In Toy Story 3, Andy is going to go to college whether his toys are in the attic, donated to the daycare or bestowed by him as a gift. While his choice represents his maturity, it isn't necessary for him to grow in life.

For this reason, I still feel that the original Toy Story is the best film of the three. It's the only one where the character growth has real costs .

One of my favorite scenes in The Incredibles is when Bob is leaving to go on a mission while pretending to be going to a business conference. His wife Helen is there to say goodbye. The dialogue is totally innocuous but the subtext is illuminating. At this point in the film, Bob's family takes second place to his egotistical need to be a hero. Helen believes he is having an affair. While she is wrong, the scene does show the the emotional gulf between them and their lack of communication. It's perhaps the most realistic portrayal of a marriage in any animated film.

Complex characters come from the script, not from the animation, which is why "story, story, story" rings so hollow to me. Look at two live action classics that I hope everyone has seen: Casablanca and The Searchers. In Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart has to give up his romance with Ingrid Bergman in order to grow as a character. However, there's another level present here that's missing in animated films and that's ambiguity. Over the course of the film, the audience learns of Bogart's strong feelings for Bergman but also learns of his hatred of fascism. Bogart rigs a roulette game so that a young wife doesn't have to sleep with a government official in order to buy an exit visa. He approves of the playing of La Marseilles in the presence of Nazi officers. Until the end of the film, the audience is not sure what Bogart will do. There are several possible endings and all of them are believable based on the events of the film.

In The Searchers, the John Wayne character is both attached to his brother's family (in particular his brother's wife) and has a maniacal hatred of Comanches. When his brother's family is murdered, the women raped and his young niece abducted, he spends 10 years searching for her. The audience is not sure what he will do when he finds her. Will he rescue her or kill her for having been "defiled" by living with Comanches?

Animated films tend to be plot heavy and because they are generally family friendly, the endings can be taken for granted. Suspense lies in how the characters will reach the happy ending more than how the characters will grow. Plot dominates character, where in the best live action films, character dominates plot. Indeed, plot should be growing out of what characters want. In too many animated films, the characters are initially passive and simply respond to events the plot sets in motion. That's the case in all the Toy Story films.

11 comments:

Daniel Caylor said...

It seems both of your examples tap into the exact same concept I've been studying in my own articles (1, 2, 3, 4). I've been studying villains, and I keep coming back to the unknown being the most interesting character aspect, that is, when you have no idea what the villain will do next, it makes for a better and more interesting villain. This may seem obvious, but I can see based on your examples that it can be used for every character to some degree to further engage an audience in a story.

Eric Noble said...

Brilliant article. I will have to watch those films you cited. Why aren't you giving lectures at Disney, Pixar, and the other animated studios? Obviously they could use your insight. I hope I can help improve this. I want to make those kind of films you cited.

Pete Emslie said...

Mark, Although I agree with much of what you say generally in regard to character in animated films, I am going to give you some argument on Grumpy. I think you've dismissed his character as being too simplistic when I find him one of the more complex and interesting characters in Disney history. Here's why.

Most people who watch Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs will likely agree that Grumpy's changing feelings first become apparent in the scene when the Dwarfs are all heading off to work and leaving Snow White by herself at the cottage. Grumpy's warning to her not to let any strangers in, followed by his mock struggle while she kisses his head, culminating in his marching away and crumbling softheartedly once he thinks he's out of her view - this is where most viewers think that the evidence of Grumpy's love for her first arises. But what if I were to tell you that Grumpy is actually smitten with Snow White from the first moment he lays eyes on her ?

Think about the scene at the wash tub where all the Dwarfs except for Grumpy follow Doc's instructions on washing themselves clean to please the princess. If Grumpy were truly averse to the idea and determined to show up just as filthy for dinner, why does he stick around? I believe that only superficially does he remain on the scene to taunt and ridicule the other Dwarfs. Yes, he gets some pleasure out of heckling them, but when he finally says "I'd like to see anybody make me wash, if I didn't wanna!", he's really issuing them a challenge that he hopes they'll take him up on.

Grumpy knows exactly what he's doing when he lets the others surround him, ambush him, and drag him off kicking and screaming to the wash tub to give him a proper scrub. He wanted this all along, as it allows him to maintain his reputation as a stubborn old goat who marches to the beat of his own drum, while also ending up looking his best for Snow White. Of course later in the film it's Grumpy who really takes charge instead of the supposed leader, Doc, rallying the Dwarfs on the rescue mission to save Snow White from the witch. This, plus Grumpy's emotional breakdown at Snow White's casket seemingly being the most poignant scene of all, really makes me believe that Grumpy was in love with her all along, making the character for me, as complex a character as I've ever witnessed in animation. If subtext is what helps to show real character as opposed to just superficial personality traits, then I'd argue that Grumpy is animation's answer to the poignancy and pathos of Chaplin's little tramp or Laughton's Quasimodo.

Keith Lango said...

+1

Bookmarked for future reference. You did a great job of boiling it down and this will be on my mind for anything I do in the future. Excellent stuff.

Patrick said...

Great stuff! However, I do think you're being a little unfair in your analysis of Toy Story 2 & 3.

In TS 2, I don't think it is a matter of Jessie having to give up mistrust. Because her heart was so broken by Emily, she's had to move on and construct barriers around her heart that keep her emotionally safe. That safety is what she gives up, which I see as a huge loss. Of course, it works out for her, but only for a little while. For both her and Woody, the museum in Japan represents a lifetime of being loved without having to love back, and therefore being guarded from the pain of loss.

For TS 3, I don't think it's supposed to be about Andy's growth, as he is barely in the film. Ultimately, what I think Woody has to do is give up Andy, which I see as a huge loss for him.

John Celestri said...

Mark, I agree with Mr. Emslie's comments regarding Grumpy. I can only add that it took the gigantic talent of Bill Tytla to be able to provide that performance through his animation and guidance of the other animators on his team (including Frank Thomas, who I believe animated Grumpy's emotional breakdown at Snow White's casket).

Matt said...

I guess it all comes down to how you cut your slice of analytical cake for each character. People obviously make different connections and interoperate things differently.

However, your key points about what makes a character complex and the difference between character and personality are put forward very well. Thank you for taking the time to do so.

Mark Mayerson said...

Peter, I agree that Grumpy is "one of the more complex and interesting characters in Disney history." I disagree with your interpretation of the washing scene, though.

Patrick, I'll give you Jessie for Toy Story 2, but in TS3, ultimately it's Andy's decision as to what happens to Woody, not Woody's. The choice that Woody has to make is to separate himself from the other toys because it's Andy's wish.

John, there's no question that Tytla's animation of Grumpy is a milestone. No criticism was aimed at the animator, but as to how the character was conceived. It's our loss that Tytla didn't get more complex characters to animate. I feel certain he was capable of it.

Mitch K said...

Yes Mark, you are right!

The style of storytelling in feature animation is completely outdated, and completely flat.

Early Disney features used a very linear method of storytelling, which seems to me to be a simplified version of the Hollywood style of storytelling at the time. Of course Disney did this because they had to coordinate many other things in addition to story while building this art form of Feature Animation.

Live action films, although good then, have since then grown in every direction possible, and SO HAS THE AUDIENCE. (good) Films now are complex in emotion and relationships, creating "plots" or "stories" that are woven deeply and displayed intelligently -- and the audience understands it!

Feature Animation, on the other hand, is plot A to B (like you said). It has no character texture, no story texture, no relationship textures, and certainly no emotional texture! Nothing is woven! The layers of the story are thin and close to the surface. The characters follow their checklist, and there's always those extremely evident (and uncomfortably false) "pathos" scenes. Live-action doesn't have pathos scenes -- they instead BUILD emotion, piling it on top of itself and the situations the characters face and create.

Live-action brings these textured emotions to a boiling point, and then sets them off! leaving the characters to BREAK their own character, re-evaluate themselves, sacrifice something (you said it!), and then grow as a result. You get none of this in most feature animation, and even the best stuff still doesn't stack up to live-action. Feature animation is flat, it's not engaging. It insults the intelligence, the filmic intelligence, and emotional intelligence of the audience by being so blatant.

Whenever I hear "story story story," I think of bad dialogue, and "pathos." I'm turned off completely. Of course we can't be as experimental in animation as someone like Wong Kar-Wai is in live-action, as he searches for his frame and his emotional story. Animation has its own set of rules, and it is much more controlled, but! animation is crafted always, and it can do so many things that live-action cannot do. It just needs to learn how to tell a story properly, and then it will be an unbeatable film form.

OR it could just go back to making CARTOONS. I wouldn't mind that one bit!

(as an additional note-- rant: Another thing feature animation is guilty of doing is using UNNECESSARY DIALOGUE. It is either used as a handicap of exposition, or it's used ignorantly and crushes genuine moments which are already better expressed by mise-en-scene, music, and the challenges in characters' relationships. Your comment about ambiguity reminded me of this.)

(PS sorry if this is a jumbled comment -- this is the first time I've put these thoughts to words).

Mitch K said...

Yes Mark, you are right!

The style of storytelling in feature animation is completely outdated, and completely flat.

Early Disney features used a very linear method of storytelling, which seems to me to be a simplified version of the Hollywood style of storytelling at the time. Of course Disney did this because they had to coordinate many other things in addition to story while building this art form of Feature Animation.

Live action films, although good then, have since then grown in every direction possible, and SO HAS THE AUDIENCE. (good) Films now are complex in emotion and relationships, creating "plots" or "stories" that are woven deeply and displayed intelligently -- and the audience understands it!

Feature Animation, on the other hand, is plot A to B (like you said). It has no character texture, no story texture, no relationship textures, and certainly no emotional texture! Nothing is woven! The layers of the story are thin and close to the surface. The characters follow their checklist, and there's always those extremely evident (and uncomfortably false) "pathos" scenes. Live-action doesn't have pathos scenes -- they instead BUILD emotion, piling it on top of itself and the situations the characters face and create.

Live-action brings these textured emotions to a boiling point, and then sets them off! leaving the characters to BREAK their own character, re-evaluate themselves, sacrifice something (you said it!), and then grow as a result. You get none of this in most feature animation, and even the best stuff still doesn't stack up to live-action. Feature animation is flat, it's not engaging. It insults the intelligence, the filmic intelligence, and emotional intelligence of the audience by being so blatant.

Mitch K said...

[continued]

Whenever I hear "story story story," I think of bad dialogue, and "pathos." I'm turned off completely. Of course we can't be as experimental in animation as someone like Wong Kar-Wai is in live-action, as he searches for his frame and his emotional story. Animation has its own set of rules, and it is much more controlled, but! animation is crafted always, and it can do so many things that live-action cannot do. It just needs to learn how to tell a story properly, and then it will be an unbeatable film form.

OR it could just go back to making CARTOONS. I wouldn't mind that one bit!

(as an additional note-- rant: Another thing feature animation is guilty of doing is using UNNECESSARY DIALOGUE. It is either used as a handicap of exposition, or it's used ignorantly and crushes genuine moments which are already better expressed by mise-en-scene, music, and the challenges in characters' relationships. Your comment about ambiguity reminded me of this.)

(PS sorry if this is a jumbled comment -- this is the first time I've put these thoughts to words).