Friday, June 15, 2007

Six Authors In Search of a Character: Part 9A, An Example

This clip from Ratatouille fortuitously arrived online. It's a clear demonstration of what I've been talking about in my thesis/MRP. Note how many acting decisions have been made before the animators start work. I'm not talking about script issues, which are going to be common to any film or play. I'm talking about things specific to the process of acting in animated films.

The voices have been cast. Their sound, their emotional delivery, and their timing have been nailed down by the voice actors and the director. The character designs have determined audience perceptions about the characters' personalities. The storyboard process blocked out the action in terms of the characters' physical attitudes. The layout process further refined the characters' behaviour. It's only after these stages that the animators start to work.

In many ways, it doesn't matter if the animators are cast by character or by shot, because in either case so much of the performance has already been nailed down.

Obviously, this system can be made to work from the standpoint of entertaining audiences. It's been working since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and certainly Pixar knows how to make it work well. But it is manifestly clear to me that even animators working on high budget features don't have nearly the freedom that live actors have to shape a performance. Is it possible in this system for an animator to create a performance or merely complete it? Is there anyone who believes that under this system animators are contributing all they are capable of to the performances in a film?


Edward Hegstrom said...

But isn't that the nature of any collaborative art form? An individual actor in a play may have a bit more freedom to interpret a character than any animator, but their job is still to serve the text, to be one part of a greater whole. And the author, after all, has already made most of the choices about a character before an actor comes on board, so in that sense, every actor is merely "completing" a characterization.

Mark Mayerson said...

Edward, everything you say is true, but for me the "bit more freedom to interpret a character than any animator" is the crux of the issue. I don't think that it's a "bit" more but a substantial amount more.

We're living with a production model that's 75 years old. That model works for efficiency and can, in the right hands, work for entertainment. I question, though, whether it's the only possible model or the best possible model.

Michael Sporn said...

I don't think it's the only possible model. It's a model that works for control by the people at the top.

John Hubley (though a smaller studio, obviously, than Pixar or Disney) gave loose layouts to the animators and offered them the opportunity of doing as much as they wanted.

Some animators wanted to make as much money as they could - knocking out footage - so they asked for the usual prep with detailed layouts & planning. These were the animators that were used for filling in gaps and were not given big seqeunces.
Others like Bill Littlejohn, Tissa David, and Barry Nelson thrived well under Hubley's method.

I've tried to operate under the same formula and find the same attitude from animators I've worked with. Those you give the least preproduction to, do the best work. Those whose prep-work is overly detailed do boring work.

As such I've wondered a lot whether such a system could work in a big studio environment, and I think it could. It would take a mighty attitude adjustment from the people at the top.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Extremely good point Mark! I'm really happy to see this in print! I agree 1,000% though there are exceptions as you said! And what Michael said about this rings true! We have to get more spontenaity into what we do!

Anonymous said...

I understand the point that you're trying to make, however I think the premise is flawed by, what sounds like, a fundamental lack of understanding on how the process works. All the facts you listed are true in terms of having prerecorded dialog, basic timing from editorial, and performance notes from the director. What I think you fail to factor into your theory is how much freedom an animator actually has within those limitations. You can hand out a shot with the same parameters to 10 different animators and you will see 10 different shots. Live action actors are given strict guidelines yet can still work with the director to explore character and spontaneity. Animators, in my experience have the same freedom so long as they have the convictions and confidence to work with the director. Limitation can be one of the best fuels for creativity. When you're limited by technology and funds, you can focus on the story of farm boy, a princess, a rogue, and an empire. When you have every resource available to you and pose no limitations on yourself, you get a screen cluttered with everything but the kitchen sink....and **&$#ing JarJar Binks. I appreciate your concern for the animator, but I'm not feeling all that oppressed.

Mark Mayerson said...

Adam, you and anybody else are free to disagree with me, but I think I know how the process works. I worked as an animator for decades on commercials, TV specials and TV series. I've also worked as a writer and director in animated TV.

If you're not feeling oppressed, I'm genuinely happy for you.

Anonymous said...

Hi Mark, thanks for writing this interesting entry. I remembered watching the making of Spirited Away, Miyazaki's work, and they had a reverse process. Their animators would full animate the scenes first, acting, mouth movement, and all the required emotions, and then, they get the actors in to match the animation performance. Without knowing the difference, I find Studio Ghibli's work still enjoyable. (Miyazaki's Studio). I am quite surprise to find out they had a reverse process and was witnessing how it worked out. They had their finished animation played on the projector screen in a sound and viewing room, and the director would work with the actors to act out the emotions already made on screen.

Raúl Marco said...

I'm not sure at all, but I think that probably it would be better to give more freedom to animators, but not much more. I have the impression, for example, that in the sixties and seventies in Disney, animators had too much influence in the films, and the results are not very good. I know I'm simplifying, but I feel a lack of story and too much "author animation".