Sunday, August 06, 2006


With the discussions about how critics write about Monster House and A Scanner Darkly, I think it’s useful to spend some time to actually define what animation is. There’s a lot of confusion among critics and even some people in animation.

In live action, movement exists in real time in the real world. It’s observable without any technology. On film or on tape, live action is the re-creation of motion through the rapid display of still images. The key word there is “re-creation.” The motion already exists. It’s recorded by sampling it at a given frame rate (24, 30 or some other number of frames per second) and then when those sample images are displayed in rapid succession, our flawed eyes see them as moving.

The flaw in our eyes is referred to as persistence of vision. When an image is removed from in front of us, it remains on our retinas. Movies and TV use this flaw to replace the old image with a new one before the old one fades away. Our retinas are just not fast enough to keep up with what’s actually happening.

In the case of animation, no motion exists in the real world for recording purposes. Animation is the creation of the illusion of motion through the rapid display of still images. That’s as basic as it gets, yet it’s open enough to encompass a lot.

Chuck Jones pointed out that you don’t need a camera for animation. All you need is a stack of paper and something to mark it with. Norman McLaren did away with cameras and paper when he drew on film. Both these approaches provide a way to rapidly display still images (either by flipping or projecting them) without any recording device at all.

Beyond the basic definition, animation borrows a lot. Like live action film, it borrows narrative and character. It also borrows the use of sound, whether dialogue, sound effects or music. It borrows the use of colour. Finally, it borrows design.

None of these things is necessary to make an animated film and there are examples that lack each of the above. There are abstract films that avoid narrative and characters. The silent period did without sound and color of any kind.

Design enters the picture when somebody has to create the object or image that will be used to create the illusion of motion. All drawn and cgi animation has to be designed. Stop motion can be, but doesn’t have to be. J. S. Blackton’s The Haunted Hotel manipulates real objects a frame at a time. A more modern equivalent would be Roof Sex (parental discretion advised; sexual situations involving naked furniture). In both these films, the design isn’t created so much as borrowed. Willis O’Brien, Ray Harryhausen and Art Clokey are examples of stop motion animators who do design the objects that they manipulate.

Because so much of animation has revolved around the creation of images and objects, there’s confusion about the relationship of design to animation. Good design is a plus, but as stop motion shows, design itself is not a necessary part of our medium.

When critics talk about Monster House or A Scanner Darkly, they are confusing design (the look of cgi or drawn animation) with animation itself. As the motion in these films originates in real time in the real world, it’s not animated. The films are re-creations of movement, not creations of it.

Saying that something is not animation is not a criticism; it’s simply a statement of fact.

These days, we are getting into gray areas. If a character’s body movement has been motion captured but the face has been animated, how do you describe that character? Do we need to determine percentages before we can call a character or film animated or not? I don’t know the answer to this.

My impression of Monster House and A Scanner Darkly is that they’re both live action films that have used animation design the way the might have used costumes and make-up in the past. Nobody would claim that Bert Lahr’s cowardly lion in The Wizard of Oz was animated. If Lahr was alive today and wired up to drive a cgi character or if his image was overlaid with artwork created with digital paint software, people might be confused and call it animation, but they would be wrong. If the motion exists in the real world and the resulting images are re-creations of that motion (even if they’ve been doctored) they’re not animation.


Mark said...

I guess there is also the issue of digital effects. Take the Star Wars films as example and you see that it's as much animation as it is live action...

Britannica says that animation is the "Process of giving the illusion of movement to drawings, models, or inanimate objects."

Would live action puppets be considered a form of animation?

Mark Mayerson said...

As the motion of puppets exists in real time, I don't think that it qualifies as animation.

Mark said...

I suppose if you went with the loose definition of 'giving the illusion of movement to drawings, models or inanimate objects' then the element of 'time' is irrelevant. Puppetry is giving the illusion of movement to an inanimate object. The puppeteer animates the puppet. As you've said though, most people wouldn't consider it animation. It's semantics.

Anonymous said...

While I agree that A Scanner Darkley doesn't qualify as animation I'm not so sure about Monster House.
By your definition of animation I assume that you wouldn't call Gollum or King Kong animated characters? And as voting member of the Acaademy I argued that they couldn't put the actor up who they motion captured up for a Best Actor Award because that would've dilluted the role of all the animators that help to create that role - unless they were willing to have the actor and the charcater lead animator accept the award together. Which I'm sure would never happen.
Now that were on this very slippery slope what do you consider all the rotoscoping that Disney and others have done over the years? seems to fit closer to your definition of Monster House than true animation...

Mark Mayerson said...

I admit that in some cases there is a gray area and it may be impossible to define those cases without detailed knowledge of how the performances were created.

Looking at the character of Gulliver in the Fleischer version of Gulliver's Travels, it appears that rotoscope dominates the performance.

At Disney, things are more murky. Animators like Natwick and Babbitt have stated that they looked at the rotoscope footage as reference, but created the performance themselves. Perhaps they were exaggerating their contributions, but without a side by side comparison of the live action and their animation, it's unfair to draw any conclusions. Is there anybody here who has seen the live action footage who would care to comment?

I'm behind the curve on Andy Serkis. I'll be researching Gollum and Kong in the next few months for my Masters thesis. While I'm interested to find out what he and the animation team have to say about their relative contributions, there's always the danger that Hollywood's need for hype will distort the truth for the sake of a good story. I suspect that I'll revisit this once I've looked over the print, DVD and internet material that's available.

Nancy said...

I agree that A SCANNER DARKLY is not animated. I would describe it as a live action film with extensive modification by special effect.
An animator creates the performance of a character, whether that character is a stop motion puppet, cgi or hand drawn one. The puppet/character appears to live and move indepedently from any human agency in the finished film. The animated performance is prerecorded and constant and only exists through the medium of projection. Hand puppets and marionettes are not animated--they work in real time, are never the same twice, and are simply a different medium.

MONSTER HOUSE is a live action movie with special effects that also contains fully animated segments. One of my students was a lead on the 'house' and he assured me that they used no reference whatever for it; it was entirely keyframed. Good for him.

I don't believe Andy Serkis is an animated character. Rotoscope models aren't starred in Disney pictures, and their performances are considerably modified by the animators. I've never used it even when it was made available; the human actors were simply too earthbound.
LOTR and KING KONG simply used a modified performance of an actor who was top-billed on the film. He was no more animated than Davy Jones in DEAD MAN'S CHEST.
What this is is a merging of two media--but the basis is still live action.
The actor and not the animator creates the performance. I'd use that as a determining factor in all cases.

Anonymous said...

The one flaw in your definition, I think, is Koko the Clown. Is it animated? By any definition other than yours it is. But like A Scanner Darkly it's rotoscoped, and it closely hues to the rotoscoped drawings. It loooks like Dave Fleischer in a clown suit, flattened.
There are moments of distortion that don't exist in real life, but the same is true of A Scanner Darkly expecially those invisible suits they wore.
To me animation has to do with frame by frame manipulation. Rotoscope involves a frame by frame manipulation; I don't think motion capture does - except by choice (I'm not proficient in the medium so I can't vouch for my words).

Mark Mayerson said...

Michael, as I said there are gray areas. For me, however, when Koko is Dave Fleischer, he's not animated. When Dick Huemer or somebody else is creating the clown, Koko is animated.

Koko is just like Monster House, where real animation is combined with things that look animated but aren't. The fact that the design approach attempts to blend the two doesn't change what they are.

Anonymous said...

I think everyone can agree that A Scanner Darkly isn't animated, but after that it gets less definitive. How about Snow White...Prince Charming...Cinderella... and a host of other tightly roto-scoped Disney characters up through the most recent films?
Do these fit the vague definition of animated or do they fall into the same category as Gollum and Monster House.
Or is it because some people still believe some of the old Disney animators claims that "They were used for reference only...we only looked at them casually and never tightly roto-scoped" that those characters are more sacred then others?

Anonymous said...

I hate to say it, but I still think of Scanner Darkly as animation. However, I'm not sure MoCap fits into my definition of animation: Frame by frame manipulation.