Friday, July 05, 2013

Stunted Growth

“Because there’s bad guys, and Mater, and Lightning McQueen, and SPIES!” 
- Max (age 5)

Slate recently published an article comparing how children and adults rated Pixar features.  The children focused on different things than the adults did.  The above quote refers to Cars 2, not any adult's favourite Pixar film.

The article exposes the paradox that is the family film.  It must be acceptable for small children and still keep the attention of parents.  It's a compromised enterprise from the start and I think it's the major obstacle preventing animated features from maturing.

I have nothing against children's entertainment, but imagine if every medium other than animation had to conform to the same standard.  What if every book written had to be acceptable for a five year old?  What would be the attraction for adults?

While animation fans and professionals insist that animation is a medium and not a genre, Hollywood treats it exactly like a genre.  Animated features made for the North American market are the equivalent of books read to children at bedtime.  They're all cut from the same cloth: comical fantasies suitable for young children.  They differ in terms of their characters and settings, but the content is sharply proscribed.  The majority of adults would never choose these films as entertainment for themselves; they tolerate them only because of their children.  When alone, adults are far more likely to tune in HBO than pull a Pixar film off the shelf.

For all the advances on the technical side, the computer animated features in theatres this summer would fit comfortably into the 1990s in terms of their stories.  Computer animation may have displaced drawn animation as the technique of choice, but it has fully embraced the content of animated features dating back to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Economics, as usual, control the situation.  Contemporary animated features cost anywhere from $75-200 million.  With budgets that high, nobody is willing to take a chance and so long as most of the films are profitable (and let's not forget the additional revenue from merchandise), there's no incentive to change.

Japan and Europe haven't fallen into the same trap as North America.  Their animation budgets are lower and the range of content is far wider than North America will accept.  When these films are imported, they receive critical praise but barely register at the box office.  Hollywood has trained the audience well. 

Steven Spielberg is negotiating with John Steinbeck's estate for the right to remake The Grapes of Wrath.  I'll bet that Spielberg would think it a ridiculous idea to do the remake in animation.  Most people would.  And that's the point.  If animation is a medium, it should be able to tackle any subject matter.  Animation will never develop or attract or keep great directors unless they are free to express whatever they want to, whether it's suitable for a five year old or not.

The family film will bring a lot of joy to audiences and make a lot of money for studios, but it will also keep animation a second class medium.  Pixar let Andy grow up.  Too bad the studios won't grow up themselves.


Anonymous said...

I mostly agree with you, expect are you suggesting that a G or PG rated films can't be as good as a PG-13 or R rated film?

Mark Mayerson said...

It's not a question of good (however you want to define that), it's a question of subject matter. How many winners of the Best Picture Oscar from the last 10 years are suitable for a five year old?

Pete Emslie said...

Though I share your frustration on the family audience ghettoization of animation, Mark, I seriously wonder how else it can be effectively used. If it has been limited to kid/family type films, I think it has more to to with what animation does best, which is to bring fantasy to life onscreen. Because of its ability to portray characters of any shape or size at the animator's whim, it is the perfect medium for the fairy tale genre, as it's been traditionally used. Likewise, it's still the most effective way for creating anthropomorphic animals, as you can take liberties with the design and movement of the facial features so that emotion and dialogue feel more natural - something that still looks awkward and unnatural on real life animals with computer manipulated muzzles (as in "Babe" for example).

I'm sure we both are shaking our heads at the thought of Spielberg remaking "The Grapes of Wrath", but I don't think the use of animation would create any more valid a reason for doing it. What would animation of such a story bring to the table? Would you apply a sense of caricature or stylization to the design of characters and sets to warrant its use? I personally felt that Dreamworks' "Prince of Egypt" really didn't need to be animated when the live-action DeMille film had covered the same ground so much better 40 years prior.

One of my big pet peeves with CG animation today is how it's increasingly blurring the line between animation and live-action filmmaking. With traditional hand-drawn animation of the Golden Age, there was always a clear distinction between the two approaches. If animation is to survive, I think it has to carve out its own distinct territory again, rather than try to compete with its live-action cousin. I'm not sure what the answer is, though.

Unknown said...

I have to disagree about CG looking more and more like live action. Movies like Despicable Me, Ratatouille, ect could hardly be mistaken for live action.

As for the main subject, it would be nice for an animated film to have some darkness in it like Disney's early films.

Brubaker said...

I showed your post to somebody, and he pointed out to me that comic books used to have the same problem. However, now there are more and more comics aimed at adults. Because it's cheaper to produce & print comics, this was fairly easy to do.

Maybe too easy. Comic books now have the opposite problem that animation has: it alienated the kids. Comics are now considered to be for "grown ups", somethings that kids can't get interested in.

Pete Emslie said...

Terry, though the character designs are very cartoony in those films you cite, the environments and all the surface textures have become more and more fixated on emulating the properties of live action. As an example of what I'm talking about: In a traditional drawn animated feature like "The Little Mermaid", Ariel's hair texture and its fluid movement underwater are all suggested expertly by a mere outline, with no interior surface texture necessary. Yet in any contemporary CG feature, the animators must actually show the texture of whatever surface they are depicting, whether it be hair, skin, wood, you name it. That's what I'm talking about here when I refer to "blurring the line between animation and live-action filmmaking". Also, there's an increasing reluctance to use the animation staple of Squash and Stretch. Just look at Pixar's "Cars" and see how charmless and static the vehicles are when compared to Disney's "Susie The Little Blue Coupe". From what I've seen in brief footage of Pixar's "The Blue Umbrella", I'm guessing that Squash and Stretch is not being used there either. This is all to the detriment of the art of animation, in my opinion anyway.

Unknown said...

I think Cars is a bad example. Squash and Stretch is used in the in the films I listed and a lot of others.

Anonymous said...

It's not a matter of "R" or "PG-13" or anything. It's a matter of great storytelling. Think about it---Hitchcock's "Vertigo" would barely register a "PG" rating today. Same with "Strangers on a Train." George Cukor's "Gaslight," or the original for that matter would do the same. These are incredibly fun, mature themed films that don't pander to kids. Some might say they were hampered by the Production Codes, but I'd argue that forced the film makers to be more creative about how they told their stories.

Pete Emslie said...

Terry, I realize that. I was just using "Cars" specifically as an example of another growing trend that I am wary of in animation today, that's all. I would like to see animation set itself apart from live-action by embracing Squash and Stretch, caricatured design, and all the things that it does so well. Otherwise, why bother using animation? One might as well just make a film in live action and be done with it. My argument on photo-realistic textures stands - I prefer the graphic impressionism inherent in traditionally animated features.

Pete Emslie said...

I still believe that Ralph Bakshi was on the right track with his very personal animated films of the 1970s, particularly "Heavy Traffic". As one who appreciates full personality type animation, I think Bakshi hit the right balance with his grungy, yet still exaggerated cartoon style inspired by the underground comics of the time. These films were definitely aimed at a young adult audience, not kids at all, and though they're pretty uneven, they've got a lot of integrity.

Yet I wonder if Ralph himself decided that "cartoony" was still synonymous with the kid market, as he later turned to highly naturalistic designs using rotoscoping as a crutch when he did his take on "Lord of the Rings" and later, "Fire and Ice". I must admit, he lost my interest at that point, as I wondered why he didn't just use live-action altogether since he was trying so hard to emulate it in his animation of the time.

chris said...

Let's not confuse what animation is, or can be, with what "the market" thinks it is.

For years, people have said that there needs to be a reason for a story to be produced as an animated film. Costs made it necessary that an animated film needed to differentiate itself from live action. So we got movies featuring talking animals, or settings in places where humans can't live, like underwater in "The Little Mermaid." That's one reason why animation so often dealt with fantasy.

But now one can do fantastic effects in a "live action" style. One can make animals talk (Babe) and do fantastic Harryhausen style creatures, like they did in the King Kong remake.

So if live action and CG effects can do what animation can do, why bother animating?

One of animation's overlooked strengths is how it can simplify and cut right to the emotional core. Sure, The Iron Giant could have been a live action film. But I think what makes The Iron Giant so special for audiences is that the human emotion is right there, front and center. It is simple. It is uncomplicated by having to watch a real kid act with a CG or latex robot. And that lack of complication strengthens the storytelling. It actually helps the story make its points, and be what it is really about. The Iron Giant's Hogarth is a graphic depiction of a real little boy, not photography of an actual boy pretending to be someone else. Animation is sincere and real in a way live action never could be.

Some films that have touched upon this are parts of Lilo & Stitch, some of Disney's Tarzan, The Iron Giant, Heavy Traffic, and Don Hertzfeldt's It's Such A Beautiful Day. And Belleville Tripplettes.

Another thing animation does that live action can't do as well is satire. Can you imagine a live action version of South Park or The Simpsons? They wouldn't be anywhere near as good.

So I think animation can still do things that live action can't do. The studios will keep making their kiddee movies. Animation will always appeal to kids. The studios will never innovate, and why should they?

It will be up to people like the ones who read this blog to create animation that is an alternative to what the Hollywood studios are doing. An animated movie about divorce? Great. An animated Grapes Of Wrath? Who is more sincere than Tom Joad? An animated comedy about erectile disfunction? Why not? An animated Macbeth set in a corporation? There's plenty of opportunities for animation to shine there.

We have a whole generation of adults who are more used to animation than ever before. Why not serve that audience with movies about their concerns? Sure, you can throw a talking dog into these films if you want, animation can still do that, too. But as long as animators associate their medium primarily with fantasy, we will keep getting movies about talking animals, cars, planes, monsters, dragons, insects, and toys that come to life.

chris said...

I would prefer to think that Bakshi did so much rotoscoping in his later films because he lacked budget.

As he made more "adult" films, I think he got caught up in trying to make the acting feel "real" instead of making the acting believable. So we get American Pop, with all of that rotoscoping. I would like to think that he wanted to animate like Disney, but there just wasn't the time and budget to do American Pop or Fire and Ice that way.

But where Bakshi's films falter is his lack of storytelling and writing prowess. His scripts suffer from "first draft-itis." He is such an intuitive artist, and people like that are not great on re-writing and improving.

Still, his contribution to animation is great.

Unknown said...

This whole discussion has been fascinating and has given me some inspiration with regards to figuring out how animation should move forward, especially if we want the medium to appeal to adults too.

There are so many untapped possibilities that haven't really been explored yet and we could always use more clever, witty, satirical kind of cartoons dealing with a variety of different subjects. I think people still want to see content driven by actual characters and storytelling whether or not it's animated or not.

Anonymous said...

Warner's is planning an Iron Giant live action rake.

Martin Juneau said...

Charles makes a point about comics-books which absolutely fearing me more to my status of comic-author.

The whole reason, maybe, why most of the comic-books are now aimed to adults and grown-ups is simply because the audience don't having involving. It stays to the same step than in past 40-50 years ago when (Mostly in Europpeans and Canada at my knowledge) they really having a demand. Now, most of the popular series of the past are solded to marketing appeal which the original authors don't even want to touch it. I don't ever want to touch a hand to those moderns comics (Or graphics novels) because i can easily know what dirt it can bring on.

Anonymous said...

Most comics traded maturity for bland, dull, dark, anti-audience art and stories---actually becoming more juvenile than adult. Films are trying to follow the same trajectory (especially the last horrible batman movie and that piece of crap superman movie). At least marvel movies have a sense of humor.

Torgo25 said...

I can't see animation pushing any boundaries over the next 30 years. Disney, Pixar, and Dreamworks are to animation what Microsoft is to computers. That is, they have such a stranglehold on the industry that it's hard for anyone to break through with a new idea. And mainstream audiences are likely to reject said idea.

GW said...

Hmm. The first point I'd like to make is that animation should be wary of where it gets the source of its material. I think that animation isn't all that too far removed from books in that it can easily reduce ideas into symbols. You can take just about any idea that's communicated in a sentence and communicate it through animated graphics. But animation's primary strength is also its most alienating, the ability to visually and sonically explore unfamiliar worlds.

I feel like animation needs a trope transfer from fantasy to science fiction. Take Chris's ideas for example. Each one of those could be realized through artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, or another planet/reality. It's not so much the tropes that matter as what you do with them.

I don't see why people are worried about animation becoming like live action. If somebody decides to make an animated film that looks exactly like live action and doesn't use motion capture, I've already got a term for it: simulated action.

Animation can explore reality. In fact, it can arguably explore it better than live action. I've gone over this before and brought up examples like animals that no longer exist and events of microscopic size. We all know that convincing photoreal people aren't quite here yet, but for depicting just about anything, you can get more creative control in animation than live action.

In my mind animation's too interested in depicting a reality like ours. Even in the silliest cartoons they're all operating on taking something in our reality and manipulating it. Why not go all the way and make a reality that's nothing like ours with its own unique physics? That's not for all animation but where I think that much of it should lead. Why not explore the limits of the human imagination?

Well, that's what I think.

Anonymous said...

I'll bet that Spielberg would think it a ridiculous idea to do the remake in animation. Most people would. And that's the point. If animation is a medium, it should be able to tackle any subject matter.

Quite rightly, too. Any attempt to tell adult stories in animation, just like the attempts with comic books (a perfect example, the awful Maus) has failed. It's just not suited to telling stories like that. You might as well just use live action if you're going to do something about the holocaust, or WWI or something. Waltz with Bashir? Perspolis? With those, the animation is just a cheap gimmick.

Anonymous said...

he pointed out to me that comic books used to have the same problem. However, now there are more and more comics aimed at adults. Because it's cheaper to produce & print comics, this was fairly easy to do.

I guess maybe I'd be a minority opinion, but I'm sure those comics aimed at adults have been very good. There are the usual examples. I mentioned in my previous post Maus which I hated because it being a comic book (and with animals pointlessly substitued for humans) seemed just a gimmick. Would Shindler's List have worked as an anime? No, I don't think so - it would have cheapened it. I don't know what titles you'd put on your "best" list but they would all have the same problems all comic books have which is that they can't tell us much, or do it very easily, about a character's inner life. Animation has the same problem. This is why it's best suited to stuff like Akira or the Pixar stuff, or Looney Tunes, and comic books are best suited to the mindless action of superheroes.