Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Where's Our Brando?

Eva Marie Saint and Marlon Brando
in On the Waterfront

Turner Classic Movies ran part 1 of a documentary on Marlon Brando last night, along with several of Brando's films. Part 2 of the documentary airs tonight followed by more Brando films.

Watching the clips, I asked myself if anyone in animation was the equivalent of Brando. Maybe Bill Tytla or Glen Keane, but in each case, they weren't served particularly well by the industry. When Tytla left Disney, he lost all chances for worthy roles. Keane had a good role with the Beast, but Alladin, Pocahontas and Tarzan are thin by comparison.

I'm very aware of the constraints placed on us by business people, though I often wonder if we haven't helped with the ropes while we were being bound. I frankly don't think that there's been an animator as good as Brando and I don't think that animators even aspire that high.

Maybe the animated character to come closest to Brando is Gollum. I think that it's significant that he was a character in a live action film and at least some of his performance came from a live actor. Animation artists just aren't thinking in these terms and it's one of the reasons we're stuck at the kiddie table.


Anonymous said...

That's an odd coincidence. Last night and tonight the Drama Society at my University did "A Streetcar Named Desire."

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

Couldn't agree more with this post. I'm always surprised how quickly some fellow students are satisfied with their acting... if it can even be called acting, which is far from always the case. If they're doing what they want do do, fine, I've got no problem with that at all... it just surprises me that they don't want to shoot for the stars.

One thing that surprises me is how many use the one pose per phrase/beat "rule". They look for phrases and then look for poses that communicate those ideas. In essence, there's nothing wrong with that, but I wonder if some aren't using that too much. It's a good tool, but to me personally, it shouldn't go farther than a tool with the more dramatic performances. I'd say, really try to act... become the role yourself, as an actor would, and then analyze that, and caricature that. Use the phrasing bit as something to look for or to use for timing purposes, but not as a "way of acting". I guess this is all a personal preference, though... but still, with caricature and impressionism being so important in animation, why don't we do that with performances on top of single poses and designs. Aiming to do with movement what Hirschfeld did with line.

Unknown said...

Hmmm... I'm an animation student, with a background in live theatre. You just threw down a career-spanning challenge, and I'm going to take it. I'll be in touch.

bclark said...

Great post, I am interested in reading an expanded thought on the last bit of this post.. "Maybe the animated character to come closest to Brando is Gollum."

I am sure you have more to post on this, but you left me wanting to more and see where your going with the thought.

Anonymous said...

Again, I may be the voice of dissent on this topic. What would the animated equivalent of a Brando be and is it something we'd really want? What I'm saying essentially is that what makes an actor like Marlon Brando, Spencer Tracy, Alec Guinness or any of the great actors in film what they are is the fact that live actors can say so much through the subtlest of nuances. An emotion may be shown through a slight flicker in the eyes or a minute movement at the corners of the mouth, speaking volumes about what the character is thinking and feeling.

My argument is that animation, even in the hands of the most brilliant animators we've seen thus far, like Tytla or Kahl, is not really capable of such subtleties. I believe that animation at its most effective is much closer to the art of the theatre with actors on stage caricaturing their body language and expression in order to project their feelings to those sitting in the back rows. Not that I'm suggesting that everything must be overdone, but rather, that even movements we consider subtle need to be pushed a bit more in animation in order to register clearly with the viewer.

What I enjoy most in animation are not so much scenes of great acting per se, as they are scenes of great performance. A scene I particularly appreciate for the acting is that of Shere Khan and Kaa in "The Jungle Book". Through Milt Kahl's incredible animation we see two characters that, on the surface, are speaking like two friendly neighbours over the backyard fence, while under that surface we know these two rascals are seething with longtime intense dislike of each other, using their polite pleasantries to play a dangerous game of "cat and mouse". Kahl's handling of the facial expressions and body language might be considered "hammy" if seen on live actors on film, yet his efforts result in a very satisfying animated "performance" because of his very ability to caricature those movements.

Again, I don't think you can compare animation with live-action and expect the same criteria to determine greatness. As far as I'm concerned, Milt Kahl was indeed the "Laurence Olivier of Animation" as he's been dubbed before. He and many of his colleagues at Disney, as well as other top-flight animators at Warners and MGM were the equivalent of Hollywood's top actors, only creating performances that were more specifically geared towards the very different stage they occupied in the animated film.

Anonymous said...

Hear, hear, Pete. I was a little surprised to see Mark ask this question, in light of his writings on the animation/acting analogy in the past.

I'd add only two observations:

Animation is almost always far too collaborative an art for anyone to "own" a character the way Brando could. First and foremost, there's the voice track, providing 100% of the vocal nuance and determining much of the physical timing as well. In the post preceding this one, Mark analyzes the drafts for Pinocchio, and it seems there are many questions about who actually did what. And regardless of what the drafts say, they don't account for, say, an animator being stuck on an assigned scene, and Freddy Moore wandering by and giving him a couple of poses that totally make the scene. Who's the Brando there? And how can we ever really know?

And secondly, of course Brando never thought "I'll make a minute movement at the corners of my mouth to show what my character is feeling." He just felt it and did it, and it was done with absolute in-the-moment spontaneity. Contrast that to animation, where every 24th of a second is planned and dissected and premeditated.

I feel the animation/acting analogy can be useful, but as you say, it has its limits.

Al Cima said...

The problem with animation lies in the very first image that pops into one's head at the very mention of the word 'animation.' That exaggerated squashy, stretchy, boingy, zappy, goofy, micky mousey, disneyfied stupidity that we are so conditioned to think of as animation. Until animators stop worshiping the art of animation as practiced 70 years ago, there will be no Brando of animation. A Brando of animation will not work for Disney. Will not appear on Cartoon Network. Will not put up a web site with samples of his/her work in hopes of working for an ad agency. Will not ever ever ever do something involving Mario or any other video game character. Will watch 'Spirited Away' and see a complete absence of imagination. It is hero-worship that kills Brandos. And the animation world is full of hero-worship. Bill Plympton is not funny. Disney's Snow White is a crashing bore. Fantasia is the worst animated movie ever made. Pixar is a bunch of pasty guys who should write software. Guys who paint or scratch celluloid are wasting their time. Film festivals are a rip off. Balls that squash and then stretch when they bounce signify nothing and are not inherently more funny than a bowling ball. There is no difference at all between hand-drawn animation and computer animation. If you agree with at least some of these, you have a sliver of a chance of being the Brando of animation. Or maybe the Marilyn Monroe of animation. If these things make you angry, you have no chance at all.

By the way, I think the closest thing so far to a Brando of animation is that Norstein guy who spends 25 years making something just because he wants to.