Wednesday, May 07, 2008

The Lure of Live Action

Two things arrived in my email this morning that are separate but related. The first is that Teletoon, a Canadian animation cable channel, will start running live-action programming. The second is that AWN reports that Chris Wedge, co-director of Ice Age and Robots, will be directing the live action film version of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, based on the book by Brian Selznick.

It's easy to understand why Teletoon is doing this. The TV winds are all blowing the Disney Channel's way, with live action tween fare pulling in the ratings. The corporate commitment to anything only lasts as long as it is profitable. If animation ratings are down, animation is not the business to be in.

The Cartoon Network has already gone this route and is reportedly upset that their name is so explicitly tied to animation. Teletoon has the same problem and one more. It is chartered by the government and its mandate is to be an animation channel. The following quote comes from an email newsletter I get from Here's how Teletoon will be positioning their live action content so as not to get in trouble with the government:
"We don't have to air just animation; we will do fully live-action series. It would be really interesting to hear more pitches on things like that," says Teletoon's director of programming Caroline Tyre, outlining a new drive to think outside the box.

"She points out, however, that there still must be a connection to animation, whether it is a toon/live-action hybrid or simply based on a concept that comes from the world of animation, such as a graphic novel or a pre-existing cartoon property."
So the purpose of Teletoon isn't to broadcast cartoons, it's to broadcast programming based on cartoons. See? That was easy!

There are reasons why an animation feature director would try out live action. First, there are just more live directing gigs, which means that someone with a successful box office track record has a good chance of landing a project. Brad Bird will be directing a live action film called 1906 and Rob Minkoff has helmed several live films such as Stuart Little. Even Frederik Du Chau, whose animation track record is hardly stellar, has managed to carve out a place for himself in live action.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a good book with the potential to make a good film. However, it's nothing like the films that Wedge has co-directed at Blue Sky. That's another reason why live action is attractive: a greater range of subject matter.

That might be the most pertinent issue. As much as we want to believe that animation is a medium and not a genre, maybe everybody outgrows it after a while. Which isn't to say that animation isn't capable of more than it's currently doing, but looking at what's out there now, it's not hard to sympathize with directors who want to try something new.


Steve Schnier said...

Hi Mark, interesting post. Insofar as broadcasters changing their mandate - they're in a battle for 'eyes' and have to do whatever they can to keep the ratings up. Business is, unfortunately, business.

About directors, filmmakers, etc., branching out into live action - as artists, they'd naturally want to expand and explore the medium. There's no reason they or anyone else should limit themselves to animation (or watercolour painting for that matter).

Secondly, present day film technology has blurred the lines between live action and animation. Many films that are considered live action have major animation components to them (Return of the Jedi). There's no reason for an artist not to jump back and forth between live and animation.

I'm just wrapping my film (live action). My next movie will be live action - with an animation component. The one after that will be animated.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Steve Schnier about the ability of directors to go back and forth between animation and live action. Animation filmmakers have migrated to live action since Gregory LaCava, who animated for Hearst and Bray in the silent days, then directed such films as My Man Godfrey. More recently, abetted by motion capture, live action directors have started going the other way: e.g., George Miller who went from the Mad Max films to Happy Feet.

Anonymous said...

Considering the abundance of crap that's shown on both networks, does it really matter what they show.

At least by showing live-action, they won't be embarrassing animation anymore.

Anonymous said...

"That's another reason why live action is attractive: a greater range of subject matter.

What?!? How can you have a greater range of subject matter in live action? Maybe in some people's minds, but this is not the case.

In animation, anything is possible, and the directors you have mentioned know this. I don't think they are turning to live action because they feel animation is limiting. I would guess that the opportunity has presented itself, and they decided to do it for the sake of doing it. It will be interesting to see a llive action film from a filmmaker with a background in animation. You may just get a better story as a result.

That being said, I would still ike to see these directors continue to work in animation. I don't think either medium is an exclusive one.

Anonymous said...

Hey Mark,

Its an interesting and timely view on the entertainment world, but it also fails to take into consideration live action directors crossing over to the animation side. One highly notable example is Wes Anderson with his upcoming Fantastic Mr. Fox. The screenplay was written by Anderson and his frequent collaborator Noah Baumbach - - also new to the animation. To add to this you still have Tim Burton (no stranger to any medium) putting a lot of faith in Shane Acker’s upcoming animated feature 9. I think things shake up and change in trends but if we truly recognize animation as a medium and not a genre - - which i do - - we can’t be surprised when directors do different things. It should be no less surprising then an artist switching from oils to watercolors, or from painting to photography.

Always worth laughing about is the ignorance of short-sighted executives when they blame a film or tv show’s failure to attract an audience not by merit alone but with what it was painted. Imagine coming to the same general conclusion on a daily basis: “You know, our gauche painting wouldn’t be so damn sucky had it been done up in acrylics like the others! Acrylics are what they want! Give me more acrylics!” While artists and directors will always desire to switch it up, the humorous follies behind business decisions is the one thing that never seems to change.

(also posted as a comment on cartoon brew)

Anonymous said...

Everyone is making excellent points and I agree with Finn and his reference to "ignorance of short-sighted executives".

This is like a flocking principal where one network is doing something that works for a short period and everyone follows.

I can't help but to think another reason for the need to direct live action films is public notoriety and fame.

david said...

live action pays more. people take you more seriously if you work in in. a bunch of pathetic executives are "stuck" working on cartoons instead of living their dreams working some michael bay film dealing with talent or being on set.

These people obviously don't care about animation. Maybe if they just made some sacrifices and busted their balls something would happen, but since they feel so goddamn guilty working on cartoons maybe its better they switch to live action.

leave cartoons to cartoonist. leaving shitty animated programs to executives and shitty live action teen shows to ex animation directors.

it will all work out.

Charles K. said...

Hi Mark,

I enjoyed reading this post. It's a real shame that companies can't stick to their beliefs. I understand that they need to have good business and search out new, profitable markets, but c'mon, if you're the Cartoon Network, showing anything else confuses customers (advertisers), and confusion makes them nervous. That's not normally a good thing.

david said...

sorry about the typos. its upsetting to see this type of mentality in animation/cartoons though.

Anonymous said...

I also think the TV trend can be attributed to the fact networks (at least the major U.S. networks) have stopped making family sitcoms, leaving a huge market available to kids cable nets like Disney Channel. 20-30 years ago we watched our Saturday morning cartoons and then watched The Cosby Show or Facts of Life or whatever during primetime. Kids today like their corny laugh track sitcoms just as much as we did, but instead of Different Strokes they're watching Hannah Montana. Why wouldn't Cartoon Network or Teletoon want to jump on this bandwagon as well? This doesn't mean audiences don't like cartoons or that cartoons are fading away - if anything, this week's Seth McFarlane deal points to the fact that animation is anything but the bastard stepchild.

Anonymous said...

The problem is that the use of flash and 3D animation is less of hands on craft than hand drawn animation, not to say that you can't do amazing things with them. But everyone I know presonaly know feel that 3D and live action is starting to look pretty much the same. But drawing an animation was something magical, painting every drawing by hand gave it a substance that was natural looking.

The problem is that animators began seeing it as a buisiness themselves, as a typical job. But it's no more of a buisiness than painting or sculpting, it's an artform first and foremost. Classical animation takes a great deal of time to produce and a lot of commitment, something networks don't want to invest in. Cartoons today don't have that magic and don't pull in the ratings. Directors now have to make an animation in same amount of time as a live action film, it's impossible to compete with since animation should take about four times as long because of its complex artistic approach. They want to be creative and they just can't do that in animation anymore. Animation has been branded, censored and undermined over the last decades.

Unless animators find an independant way like music and returns to its natural artistic root it will most likely disappear in no time at all. There is no doubt there is talent out there, there just isn't the investement and I can't blame Brad Bird for his new pursuit for live action
(And I personaly don't think he has quit animation).

Animation needs to find its roots and it won't find it with a buisiness whose only intention is to make money, it has to have an artistic purspose and let the artists take over, it needs to trust them into all aspects of the production. The buisiness has become too involved with the poduct, their job should solely be once they have the product to find a way to market it regardless of content.

Anonymous said...

I feel that the reason why animation is failing is because they really have lost the two important things that made Golden Age animation (and some of television animation) great: an appeal to all ages to all ages and imagination and intelligence. In the United States, the film and television industry has become utterly obsessed with the belief that their product must appeal to a certain demographic, and this has extended to animation. While that isn't wrong in itself; the problem lies in the fact that it must appeal ONLY to that demographic.

Case in point: the animation today made for adults and the animation made for children. Entertainment for adults is meant to be written at a sophisticated level, with situations that aren't just plain dumb (like the stories in Mickey Mouse Clubhouse), and well-written characters. Today however, the requirement of sophistication is mistaken as as excuse for crassness. I find this in "Family Guy", where I can't watch a single episode without having my intelligence insulted by such disgusting jokes. I feel they could get their jokes across in a less explicit manner. SO WHY IS THIS SO? A thought (from where is a mystery) has penetrated the country that says that a film that appeals to kids as well as adults is much too tame for them, especially if they do not have children; it is basically a "one-drop rule" for animation and films in general. Thus, they make animation meant for adults aggressively unsuitable for anyone but adults. This is sad, because what would be a shining diamond is hidden in a sea of refuse.

At the same time, animation for children is incredibly shallow. With its amateurish animation, childish plots, and underdeveloped characters, it drives many adult viewers away. This is because it is thought that since it's for children, they can make it at an embarrassingly low quality and the children will gobble it up. Unfortunately, in most cases that is true, and it is to animation's detriment, because it drives in the wedge between children and adults all the more.

Besides all that, there isn't much imagination going into it anymore. With only a few exceptions, there aren't as many entertaining ideas out there anymore. Most of the animation is either too dumb or too offensive, and none of it really makes you think. That is where the Golden Age cartoon succeeded: they appealed to all ages, they were imaginative, and they sometimes could be very deep, all while making us laugh. I'm sure that if today's animation had that, we wouldn't have to be resorting to 3D animation to give it an extra punch, and (who knows) maybe we wouldn't be so reliant on live-action