Sunday, February 27, 2011

False Comparisons

Michael Barrier was interviewed in the Huffington Post for an article entitled "Animated Man: Cartoon Expert Michael Barrier Decries Pixar, Computers." This article already has multiple comments about Barrier's views and the article was linked to on Cartoon Brew, where there are yet more comments.

Two quotes caught my eye.
"What I'd call the direct connection between the animator and the character that you have when the animator is drawing the character with a pencil on a sheet of paper, it simply doesn't have an equivalent as far as I'm aware, or if it has an equivalent, it's much harder to establish."
I've already attempted to debunk this based on the techniques of both drawn and computer animation. My opinion hasn't changed. It's not the technique, it's how the production is organized. Should a cgi feature want a strong connection between animator and character, there is no technical reason why it couldn't be accomplished.

There are other reasons, salaries being one, that are incentives to prevent it. The more animators remain anonymous and the less distinctive their work, the harder it will be for an animator to demand a higher wage. As it is unlikely that an animator's name will ever increase the box office gross the same way a star voice does, why create star animators who will only drive up the budget?

The other quote is this one:
"If you look back, we've had computer animated features for 16 years going back to 'Toy Story,' and we've had computer animated characters before that, I have not seen the kind of evolution of those characters anything like the extremely compressed and dramatic evolution of the hand drawn characters in the 30s. When you think about how Disney went from 'Steamboat Willie' in 1928 to 'Snow White' less than ten years later, I think that's an extremely compressed [growth] that I don't think computer animation has nearly approached. What you have instead in computer animation is a continuing elaboration on texture and surfaces and three dimensional space without anything comparable for characters."
I am at a loss to understand why the development of one medium is being measured against the development of another. It assumes that both media exist in a vacuum, not part of larger forces such as the Hollywood industrial model of the time, the availability of media to the public, the prevailing popular culture and the world economy. The conditions that existed when Walt Disney grew from Steamboat Willie to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs are wholly different than those that exist today.

Let's examine what Walt Disney actually did. If you look at the Oswald cartoons, made immediately before Steamboat Willie, you see films that are ten or more years behind the times compared to live action films. The films are shorts instead of features and at the level of story, characterization and acting, they are not as accomplished as Chaplin's The Immigrant of 1917. Compare the Oswalds to the best live action of the time (The Big Parade, The General, The Gold Rush, Sunrise, Seventh Heaven, The Crowd, Underworld, etc.) and you see a medium that cannot compete as an equal. Except for its use of sound, Steamboat Willie was no better.

What Disney was able to do in ten years was bring animation up to the level of live action films. Snow White and the films that followed were taken as seriously by film professionals, critics and audiences as the live action films of the time.

While computer animation struggled mightily against its technical limitations in the '80s and '90s (and I know because I was there), the advances made by Disney were taken for granted. The techniques developed at the studio were codified to the point where they could be taught in a classroom to 18 year olds at Cal Arts, including John Lasseter, and put between book covers by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. Computer animation's problem wasn't knowing what was needed, which was often the case in the '30s, it was figuring out how to make characters flexible enough via software. Which is to say that computer animation didn't start as crudely as Disney animation did and had less far to go to get up to the level of live action films.

And the state of live action films is a key point. Disney did not exceed the expectations of what a live action film was supposed to be in his time and computer animation is not exceeding it today. I can make an economic and cultural argument that computer animation is more successful than Walt Disney ever was in that cgi films have been nominated for Best Picture, are more numerous and have been more profitable on a consistent basis than the features Disney made himself.

You can't criticize computer animation without looking at the bigger picture. This article in GQ, entitled "The Day the Movies Died," is subtitled "No, Hollywood films aren't going to get better anytime soon." Computer animated films exist in the same economic structure and cultural zeitgeist as live action films and aren't going to escape the problems that plague the larger industry.

I'm not defending the current state of computer animated features. I just saw a preview of Rango, directed by Gore Verbinski, and while the people at ILM have done a great job on the technical side, the film itself is thoroughly mediocre. It's emotional tone is all over the map; sometimes it's a parody and sometimes it wants to be taken seriously. Its references to other films only reminded me that it's inferior to the films it's quoting. And it is a perfect example of Barrier's observation that "computer animation is a continuing elaboration on texture and surfaces and three dimensional space without anything comparable for characters."

But I insist that it's not the medium. It's the structure of Hollywood and its economic model and it's what the public expects from movies. If computer animation sucks (and it often does), there are many more reasons than technology that are the cause. Furthermore, I don't think comparing it to Disney in the '30s is a valid or useful comparison.

17 comments:

Michael Sporn said...

I agree with you that one year can't be compared with another. However, in the thirties Disney did bring animation up to the state of live action films of the time. The character animation was extraordinary while the technical growth was enormous. Snow White compares favorably to The Wizard of Oz; Bambi compares well to The Grapes of Wrath, though it couldn't have the thesis of a single director.

And therein lies a problem of animation today. Most of the films have two directors so that the studios can control them and play one off the other. Rarely does a duo work as a single head - a single thought. (The Coens are sometimes the exception.)

The corporate (read Hollywood) animated films of today could never match live action. The animators are all caught up in clichés and obvious acting shtick. However a single director such as Brad Bird brings the level of his animators and his films up. And a Sylvain Chomet brings The Illusionist equal to almost any live action film done this year.

Another problem of cgi is that Disney trained his people to produce brilliant character acting while growing the medium technically. Today they are satisfied with the acting they have (totally dependent on star voices) and worry only about technical growth.

You're right it isn't the medium, it's the perpetrators.

Jim Turner said...

I think you'd have to agree with Barrier's comment that Pixar often manipulates their audience emotionally. I don't think enough has been said about this. I hope this will soon be addressed within the studio. Part of the problem may be the fact that they are trying to emotionally influence both children and adults. But the two groups operate differently emotionally, and something that may be an appropriate scenario for one group may leave the other one feeling completely alienated or even "taken advantage of" emotionally.

Erik Robinson said...

Wow! A lot to think about. I wish I could phrase my thoughts with such eloquence. And Mr. Sporn's comments are worth a post all their own! When I first read the Barrier article what I agreed most with was that 3D tends to focus on rendering and emotional cheap shots. As with most people, I really disagreed with the bit about comparing apples to oranges.

Mark Mayerson said...

Michael, I don't think it's as simple as one or two directors. There are many bad animated features with a single director and you have How to Train Your Dragon with two.

Jim, all movies manipulate emotions. It's the reason we go see them. A person going to a horror film wants to feel scared. A person going to a comedy wants to laugh. Those emotional responses are the result of manipulation. The question is whether a person resents the manipulation or not.

Eric Noble said...

Very interesting posts. The article you shared reminds me why I don't go to the movies anymore. All of the good ones don't come out until the year is nearly over.

Really thinking it over now, you're making a whole lot of sense. Computer animation can be as great of a storytelling tool as anything else, but the atmosphere is not allowing for that kind of experimentation because it involves risk. Hell, hand-drawn animation is the same way. I had had a hard time believing animation could tell an adult story that was truly moving until I saw The Illusionist. Now I know it can be done. Filmmakers just have to fight for the right to tell those kind of stories.

Thad said...

While I've grown bored with the whole discussion and am generally dismissive of CGI as a whole, one film that can bolster Mark's argument is The Incredibles. In creating a Hollywood action/adventure film that actually demands to be taken seriously (as Hitchcock did with North By Northwest), Brad Bird also transcended the barrier between animation and live-action. So it can be done. But the real question, as it has always been with all animation, do people really want to? The answer is usually no, unfortunately.

Two things you've said I feel compelled to reply or add to. For one, the comparison of the Disney cartoons of the 1920s to the live-action films in general. I get what you're saying, Mark, but this is also an example of what you've labeled false comparisons. The animated shorts were almost always confined to genre of comedy, so faulting Plane Crazy for not being on the same level as Docks of New York is completely unfair. Confining the comparisons to the same genre is much more useful - with that alone your argument that the Disney cartoons were not in any shape to compete with live-action is more than apt. But I will say that I find Messmer's Felix to have many of the same engaging traits found in the silent comedians. And later, the contest of who was more successful between the Warner cartoon directors and those of live-action comedy in the 1940s is nonexistent (and practically nonexistent for decades to come). Outside of laugh-making, Heavy Traffic (as patchy as it is) compares favorably with the kind of gritty films being made in the era.

Secondly,

All movies manipulate emotions. It's the reason we go see them. A person going to a horror film wants to feel scared. A person going to a comedy wants to laugh. Those emotional responses are the result of manipulation. The question is whether a person resents the manipulation or not.

Yes, but does the manipulation allow the audience to reach that conclusion - being compelled to laugh, cry, or shriek - on their own, or strong-arm them with loud noises, farts, gore, or blatant 'poignancy'? There's good and bad manipulation, the difference between great filmmaking and bad filmmaking, with the middle appropriately representing bourgeois filmmaking (where Pixar's output largely belongs).

Granted, you did qualify it with "whether a person resents the manipulation or not." What I personally resent is the Herd Instinct amongst the Cult of Pixar, and the violent attacks against those who find the studio's output to be unremarkable. More than any strong-arming in the films anyway.

chris said...

Mark:

Your blogs are terrific.

Chris

Best animation programs said...

i agree with Barrier

warren said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
warren said...

(edited for spelling, woops)

As far as the GQ article goes, I found this studio head's quote particularly revealing:

"Fear has descended," says James Schamus, the screenwriter-producer who also heads the profitable indie company Focus Features, "and nobody in Hollywood wants to be the person who green-lit a movie that not only crashes but about which you can't protect yourself by saying, 'But at least it was based on a comic book!' "

I was privy to the meetings with Focus Features when we were storyboarding on the movie '9'.

This quote belies the fact that Focus Features themselves were too chicken to make a horror/sci-fi film that happened to be animated and based on an original idea from a relatively unknown director. They wouldn't even trust Tim Burton's taste when it came down to the moment of truth, but tried to capitulate to it with the final cut. The result of that thinking is what made the film what it is.

The fear he's talking about had set in 4 years ago.

So, Mark, you are correct sir. There is a very direct correlation to this notion.

Good thing the cheques don't bounce. Often.

Anonymous said...

"The more animators remain anonymous and the less distinctive their work..."

Distinctive as a CHARACTER is one thing...and s hard enough in any medium. Distinctive as animated by a particular artist is masturbation. The "character" is the thing, not the animator.

As far as Pixar's films being "manipulative," well, manipulation is what film making is all about Whether or not emotions are earned by the characters is another thing, and Pixar often does this as well, and sometimes better, than anyone else.

A weak film like The Illusionist, caught up in it's preciousness, is emotionally bland as the director chose "style" over substance.

I have no problem with barrier being called an animation "historian." But to call him an animation "expert" is ridiculous. He's a well versed fanboy whose opinions expose the limitations of his emotional and critical depths.

Anonymous said...

Very intersting post. I've only been recently introduced as a professional animator to the animation industry and I can say that when I visited an animation studio well over ten years ago, it seemed much more enthralling and appealing then than it does now. I agree with Micheal Barrier on this one. Except for this, digital animation can produce the quality work of a hand drawn films. But my question is why would any arist want to, I got in the buisiness for drawing not to become a programmer. Most jobs today in animation are just that, texturer, compositor, character rigging etc... Now I'm forced to click a mouse all day and then go home and to do what I love draw my animation. It seems unfair to me. People say that's how the buisiness works and find the idea of hand drawn making a come back laughable. Personaly I find that crude and unjustifiable. I don't feel like giving up on paper.

I truly beleive the only thing the executives find appealing about digital animation is the oppurtunity to cut costs and shorten deadlines while arguably maintaining a reasonable quality.

I think Barrier is right, it's not a progressive industry anymore.

He has the right to compare animation today with animation from the 30's at disney's. What Disney did was seize oppurtunaties and try to find ways to transcend live action film. Still today they are unforgetable works of art and young animators are looking for studios who will offer them those same oppurtunaties. I highly doubt people will be praising Toy Story 3 decades from now.

I know of many young animators who are not looking to get rich, they just want to draw cartoons and make decent wages out of doing what they love, it's an artform first and foremost then a buisiness.

I think many peple out there are trying to blame digital animation so they have a reason to bring hand drawn animation back, I say the solution is more simple, do what you love and pick up a pencil and inspire a come back.

Thank you for your post Mr. Mayerson

David Nethery said...

I'm an advocate of hand-drawn animation. It kills me to see hand-drawn marginalized as some "quaint" old-fashioned technique only to pulled out from time to time for a kids film ("Winnie the Pooh") or an art film ("My Dog Tulip" , "The Illusionist") , but I don't get the backlash against Pixar. I think Pixar makes good movies. Some recent remarks from none other than Sylvain Chomet:

""Both CGI and hand-drawn animation are achievements in art," says Chomet, noting that "Illusionist" employs some 3-D effects for cars, smoke and rain. "Comparing them is like comparing a drawing and a photograph. ... They shouldn't be compared -- they are different kinds of animation."

Chomet, as it turns out, is an enthusiastic fan of "Toy Story 3." "I've been watching it over and over and know every single scene -- I love it," pronounces Chomet, a 47-year-old father who has two young children. "I love the character of Big Baby."

Plus, "It's a very touching thing," Chomet says of the Pixar film's mix of joy and poignancy. "They have a lot of great ideas, and you know these people have fun when they do it. They're not trying to sell -- they're trying to make a great film and are really focused on the film."



.

Anonymous said...

"I truly beleive the only thing the executives find appealing about digital animation is the oppurtunity to cut costs and shorten deadlines while arguably maintaining a reasonable quality"

But...it's not cheaper and doesn't shorten deadlines. And it's just as hard and artistic as hand drawn animation--only the focus is now on great film making rather than masturbatory animation.

Martin Juneau said...

CGI and modern animated features simply monopolise the brains' mass audiences to the last 25 years without identify the true actors of this pictures: Their animators and instead, you see the big stars names cast in each of this films posters. It's inevitable that computer-animated has a deficiency to play down with the characters' emotions which it actually works in 2D animation as long the animators does carefully their job. I rarely see animated features in theaters (Except The Incredibles and Hoodwinked which i both liked naively.) and your comment about Rango perplex me. Did you think Rango rank like a adult and edgy animated features who beats today's animated standards?

Anonymous said...

Does anybody apply the same standards to stop-motion?

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