Thursday, January 07, 2010


Updated at the bottom.

(There are no spoilers below.)

I saw Avatar and quite enjoyed it. Many people have pointed out similarities to Pocahontas, Ferngully and Dances with Wolves. There are also elements of Tarzan and Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern. I'm sure that some enterprising person will set up a website showing all those references and many more. James Cameron's strong suit isn't originality; what he's best at is taking existing elements, weaving them into a solidly structured screenplay and then kicking it up a notch with his directing ability. Avatar doesn't break new ground from the standpoint of content, but it does deliver that content in a very satisfying manner.

It's basically a fish out of water story combined with a romantic vision of simpler societies. Edgar Rice Burroughs (author of the Tarzan, John Carter and Carson of Venus stories) specialized in stories like this. In Burroughs' case, there was an underlying racism; white men were always destined to rule the natives. There's no racism in Cameron's point of view in Avatar (though there is in many of the characters'), but there's still the arrogant conceit that allows the hero to admire a foreign society and then rise to the top of it. Heaven forbid that the hero could admire another society but fail to dominate it, which is much truer to the immigrant experience.

Cameron adds a strong criticism of capitalist exploitation to the mix, which has apparently raised the ire of the Fox News folks. However, given the current economy, people who have seen their jobs downsized or outsourced, who can't afford health care and who have walked away from their mortgages don't need a movie to tell them that capitalism can be brutal. In this regard, Avatar has a lot in common with Up in the Air, a low-tech film that is built around laying people off. Fox News can complain all it wants, but Hollywood follows the zeitgeist, not the other way around. And the final irony is that while one division of Fox is condemning the film, Fox itself produced it, which proves that Rupert Murdoch is only concerned with profit, not ideology.

Avatar crystallized something for me that I should have realized years ago. There has been a lot of discussion of mocap and its relationship to keyframed animation. I now realize that this is a symptom of a larger division within the film industry. When James Cameron or Peter Jackson use mocap, it's for almost-but-not-quite-human creatures that have to share the screen with human actors. The goal is for these characters to be believable within the confines of a film that has a realistic surface.

The schism isn't between mocap and keyframing; it's between realism and caricature. James Cameron's goals are very different than those of Pixar, Disney, Dreamworks or Blue Sky. Cameron's use of mocap is an attempt to extend reality. The film wants to fool us into believing what we're seeing is real. The all-cgi features have become more detailed and lush in their visuals, but looking at the characters, it's clear that they aren't real. The character designs prevent the audience from being fooled.

This presents an interesting problem. Caricature has never been taken as seriously as realism. The history of Western art, with the exception of the dark ages and the 20th century, has always been derived from realism, and the art of the dark ages probably had more to do with the loss of knowledge and craft than with a conscious artistic choice. Caricature might be seen as clever, but except for artists, nobody values caricature as more than a lightweight diversion. Disney moved more towards illustration when he went into features. The all-cgi features have pushed their visuals towards greater complexity (which sometimes clashes with their character designs). Video games have also gravitated towards realism. I believe that this has been motivated by a desire to be taken more seriously by getting closer to what Western eyes value in art.

Caricature can be serious. The early Disney features prove it and Pixar hasn't done too badly itself making that point. But there's the gravitational pull towards realism, one proven by Avatar's box office to be satisfying to audiences. The move to stereoscopic 3D is another aspect of that pull towards realism. The challenge for animation is to find the sweet spot between the realism that computers are capable of and caricature, which strips away detail to get to the essence of something. It's not a problem for comedy; if caricature is thought of as lightweight, then it's perfectly suited to getting laughs. But just as all comedians yearn to play Hamlet, all animators yearn to be taken seriously, if not in terms of subject matter then in terms of respect.

As the success of cgi features, with their greater dimensionality and visual complexity, suggested to some that drawn animation was old hat, I wonder if Avatar will suggest that caricature is fit only for children's films and comedy. Should the schism between realism and caricature be narrowed or made wider? I think the executive decisions in the wake of Avatar will have a big impact on the future of keyframing and while I admire the film, I'm afraid that its influence won't be wholly good.

Update: David Brooks has an interesting article in the N.Y. Times, referring to the story formula used in Avatar as the "White Messiah fable."

It rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic. It rests on the assumption that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades. It rests on the assumption that illiteracy is the path to grace. It also creates a sort of two-edged cultural imperialism. Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration.

His entire article can be found here.


Eric Noble said...

That's a very good point. I think this is very true in America because we want to see ourselves as artistically knowledgeable and as worldly as our European counterparts.

I agree with you that caricature can be serious and a powerful tool. Consider the early work of Ralph Bakshi, the art of Egon Schiele, or even the work of political cartoonists such as Herblock or Philip Zec. These men made serious statements using caricature as their tool.

Unknown said...

I have to say that I really loved the article as a whole, probably one of the best I´ve read if not the best.

As Latinamerican it annoys and sincerely makes me very sad to see that this movie shows a very alienated vision of the rest of the world, which is very common in the u.s. and gets unoticed by the majority of the audience both domestic and worldwide.

I think also that the idea of simplicity being considered somehow negative or inferior is a very dangerous vice in our society, even beyond art.

Bill Hillman said...

"Edgar Rice Burroughs (author of the Tarzan, John Carter and Carson of Venus stories) specialized in stories like this. In Burrough's (sic) case, there was an underlying racism; white men were always destined to rule the natives."
Please consider reading the ERB books.
Bill Hillman

Yeldarb86 said...


Avatar was the first motion-capture feature that I've actually seen, exactly because they used designs that emphasized realism without diving into uncanny valley. That was what kept me away from A Christmas Carol, besides it being the billionth incarnation, as well as Monster House and Polar Express.

Anonymous said...

First off, thanks for not including spoilers! Seems like an obvious thing, but I read another article on Avatar that decided to reveal an important plot point, inexplicably placing a spoiler tag AFTER they did. The review was critical, so perhaps they didn't believe the movie was worth guarding. Anyway...

I watched a short documentary on the making of Avatar online, in which Cameron specifically stated that Avatar was not an "animated film". I can only assume he meant it was not intended to be watched in the same way something from Pixar or Disney was.

Thanks for the brilliant article. I'm hoping to go see Avatar soon, provided I can find a theater in my parts showing it in 3D. Any film that inspires this much thought and writing intrigues me.

Keenan said...

I think you're right on about the division between realism and caricature. I wonder how does this fit into the discussion you did earlier between Miyazaki and Pixar. Miyazaki's films aren't exactly caricature but not exactly realism either, but he has earned enormous amount of respect in his own country. Since realism is a historically Western value, does this value not hold in other societies?
Also, I wanted to ask how absolute is mocap? I always thought you still need some animators to tweak the motion capture? Or is it really just plug n play?

Mark Mayerson said...

Mocap is rarely, if ever, plug and play. I've yet to read the Cinefex issue on Avatar, but I'm sure that animators touched the motion capture in various ways.

I'm no expert on Asian art, but it is far more graphic and stylized than Western art. It doesn't rely on chiaroscuro or perspective, two things that lend roundness and depth to images. It's possible that Asian societies are more in tune with a caricatured approach than Western societies.

It's interesting that the current graphic novel boom is not moving in the direction of realistic drawing, which gives me hope. Successful books like Fun Home, Persepolis, Blankets, etc. are hardly photographic.

Pete Emslie said...

I'm glad that Eric Noble brought up the example of Ralph Bakshi. Bakshi's films are rarely intended as comedic, though his best work dares to be unabashedly cartoon in its execution. There is humour, yes, but Bakshi strives more for serious social comment through sly satire. Therefore I believe that there is certainly a place today for caricatured (or cartooned) design in films other than animated family comedies. I wish that contemporary audiences were smart enough to understand that as well, but I feel that caricatured design will gradually be squeezed out altogether, and that is a tragedy.

Stephen Worth said...

Caricature is the base on which cartooning and animation is built. It has tremendous power, and only in the last decade or so has it become marginalized. Thomas Nast is the poster child for the power of cartooning. Along with other cartoonists like Herblock, Ding Darling, Paul Conrad, Rube Goldberg and Arthur Szyk, Nast changed the way people thought, and in so doing, changed the face of politics and perhaps the world.

Caricature is not undervalued in cartooning- only in animation. And that's a big reason why animation is treading the same ground over and over while other artforms grow and flourish. Cartoonists (and when I say that I mean animators too) need to know the power they hold in their pencil. To trade that power away for a half-hearted rehash of talking dogs and princesses is a crime.

Galen Fott said...

Mr. Semaj, I don't think it's fair to lump Monster House in with the other Zemeckis films; the character designs in that film were pretty far from realistic, and I thought they avoided the "uncanny valley" well.

animation course said...

well, I really like this movie.

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I liked Avatar very much. Avatar was the first motion-capture feature that I've actually seen, exactly because they used designs that emphasized realism without diving into uncanny valley.

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