Sunday, January 18, 2015

Editorial: CG, Traditional, Animation Today

Tom Moore, the visionary director of The Secret of Kells and his latest film Song of the Sea, weighed in on how to "reinvent" traditional animation, CGI, and other things when being interviewed by Cartoon Brew...

A lot of what he had to say somewhat lines up with something I've been thinking when it comes to today's mainstream, big screen animated films.

Of course, around a massive chunk of the wide-release American animated films released over the last decade were done in computer animation. Many of the CG flicks also happened to have a naturalistic style that Pixar climbed towards since their feature film beginnings. For some people, that style might be too close to live-action and in many ways, it is. The backgrounds, the art direction, it looks very photo-real.

Not too long ago, I was too much of a defender of American CG feature animation's common look. I still see the films made today - the films from the big studios - as an extension of what Walt Disney was trying to achieve with the medium back during the Golden Age. He pushed for naturalism, but the results weren't films that looked like real life... Instead they "felt" real, his films hit that fine line between being too real and being too unreal. The unreal quality was there in the art direction: Bambi's forest setting, and Pinocchio's village and other settings were hand-drawn and/or hand-painted. But the backgrounds felt real thanks to the careful work, the attention to detail, and the artwork's ability to immerse you into the story...

Floyd Norman himself also recently spoke about the current era of animation, this particular statement is one I really agree with...

"While it’s true in the old days a creator named Walt Disney pushed for more “realism” in his animated motion pictures. The Old Maestro wanted more life-like performances from his animators because he knew his characters had to be believable. This believability was necessary for Walt’s stories to work."

I've seen some argue that Lady and the Tramp is perhaps the closest thing the Burbank animation studio created to live-action, with its very realistic backgrounds and the dogs moving like real dogs. It's also not very fantastical, no magic or anything out of the ordinary other than the animals talking - and even then the animal talk was their own language. They didn't talk to the humans! It was essentially the Bambi of 50s Disney animated features. Yet it still, to my eyes, felt unreal given the medium that was used to create such backgrounds and to create such animal characters. Life-like, and you could feel it, but it didn't closely resemble life.

Computer animation is admittedly different. Given what CGI can do, and how it's being used to make hyperrealistic special effects for live-action films, the work comes out very realistic-looking. Perhaps too realistic-looking. Again, I can see where the criticism comes from...

As much as I loved this year's The Lego Movie, How To Train Your Dragon 2, and Big Hero 6, they looked pretty damn realistic. But yet I still saw an unreal quality in them, but not as much as in something like The Book of Life, which to me pushes the boundaries for CGI and shows that CGI can certainly create a less realistic-looking world that feels alive and real. Blue Sky's The Peanuts Movie's visuals are similar, and they are a breath of fresh air to me. Sony Animation looks to be doing this with their Popeye film as well, which visually seems like an extension of what we saw in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and Hotel Transylvania. To say nothing of Disney Animation's experiments with traditional animation and CG, hopefully the tech that brought us Feast and Paperman can give us a feature-length film.

Moore doesn't dismiss CGI, though he does personally feel that the more realistic kind (much like Pixar, DreamWorks, Disney, etc.) "gets into the territory of live-action; it uses the same language and characters are specifically somebody". He goes on to explain...

"If I watch a movie with Tom Cruise, I’m very aware it is Tom Cruise. But when I watch animated films—particularly Japanese films, where characters are simple and environments are lush—the characters are avatars you can project yourself into. They’re so simplified that they are not specific; they represent swaths of humanity. That is what’s special about animation: It can tell stories in ways that allow kids to project themselves into them in a more visceral way than a live-action movie. Live-action films can be oddly over there, whereas animated films, at least for me, can be immersive."

Personally, I feel any medium can be immersive, though I think that animation possesses a quality that live-action simply can't have. I get what he's saying here, my personal belief is that there is simply too much of that kind of CGI dominating the American feature animation scene.

I have nothing against the visual style of those films, I admired the visuals in all of the recent CG films. However, I think there should be more variety. We've gotten to a point now where there's really too much of it. It's good that the studios - sans DreamWorks, Blue Sky, and Sony - have their own house styles so the trained eye can tell who made what, but they all have that naturalistic feel.

Moore is advocating the more unreal side of animation, which is good, because we need a lot of that to balance out the more realistic work. He also suggests that filmmakers should "reinvent" 2D, rather than pursue the Disney/Pixar/DreamWorks brand of realism for that medium.

Floyd Norman also writes...

"However, Disney’s artists were limited by what they could create on paper and restricted by the five levels of the animation camera. Yet, that very limitation enabled them to become incredibly creative and they were continually pushed to come up with unexpected and amazing solutions to problems simply because they had to. They were limited by the technology of the day. Yet, that very limitation enabled them to become enormously creative. I’m not knocking the amazing technical achievements we’ve made over the last two decades in the cartoon business. However, I am concerned we’ve become too focused on the wrong things."

I feel that is so, Mr. Norman. Animation is limitless, there's so much to be explored and unlocked...

Computer animation essentially needs a UPA of sorts. (Coincidentally, Gene Deitch did films for the UPA, and recently gave his take on today's animation - which was similar to Moore and Norman's.) Traditional, even during the Golden Age, had different styles. Disney and MGM did the very high-end work, the Fleischers had their quirky style, Warner Bros. didn't aim for Disney's naturalism, to say nothing of the UPA! The UPA's animation style clashed heavily with Disney's, going away from the naturalism and being overtly unreal. Flat, abstract, limited, not afraid to say "we're drawings, we're cartoons!" This even lead some people to prefer the UPA style over Disney's. Animation historian Charles Solomon singled out a particular review of a UPA cartoon in his 1989 book Enchanted Drawings: The History of Animation, and noted how comparing UPA to Disney was like comparing Picasso to Rembrandt.

Gerald McBoing-Boing (1950)

That's a perfect way to describe the two visions. Traditional animation had their Picasso in the form of the UPA during the 1940s and 1950s, and would continue to have those types. CGI now needs its Picasso or UPA, and I see films like The Book of Life and The Peanuts Movie slowly edging towards this sort of movement. Maybe somewhere down the line, less realistic CG films with varied art styles will be more commonplace. As for Disney's experiments, it seems like they are trying to combine both their classic hand-drawn style (in terms of how they want it to look, not what they want it to look like) with CG to create a groundbreaking blend that is sure to be exciting when used for a feature-length event. Pixar even seems to be looking into it...

Personally, I am a bit tired of the overall look of a lot of today's CG films myself, but I admire the work in them nonetheless. All those films look fantastic, and the artists are amazing for making them look so good! The Lego Movie, Dragon 2, and Big Hero 6 really popped for me. Eye candy all around! However, The Book of Life is something new and exciting, ditto The Peanuts Movie. It's like having years of 2D films copying the Disney style, then something resembling Song of the Sea comes out of nowhere and is a complete surprise to the eyes. I'm not dismissing realistic CGI, there is certainly a place for it in feature animation... I just wish to see more off-the-wall experiments and films that are decidedly less realistic.

Maybe going this route for all 2D could possibly save it, too. Moore says that filmmakers should essentially do things with 2D that only 2D can do.

"But I think today 2D animation has a responsibility, much like painters had after photography was invented, to reinvent what it is. It can’t go after realism, because there is no point; it has to do something only 2D can do. In painting, we got Expressionism, Impressionism, Cubism and other modern movements because of photography. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya and other Ghibli films point the way that 2D has to keep going to reinvent itself. In the whole history of visual arts, there is still so much that we can explore."

Go against realism and create something cool, something fresh. Creating such a naturalistic 2D film costs quite a lot, and here - to me - a fine example of that. A Disney film, no less!
The Princess and the Frog was a modest success, but it was a big film that cost a good $105 million, and I'm sure Disney expected it to make more than $267 million given the fact that it was a return to the Renaissance-style musical that was so loved back in the 1990s. Marketing woes and general public disinterest aside, what if The Princess and the Frog didn't go for the typical Disney style? What if it instead cost around $50 million to make, and used that Art Deco style used for the 'Almost There' sequence? A whole film done in that style...

I think audiences could take well to a film like that, as long as it looks good to them - story and content-wise. You never know with audiences. Do American audiences want "real-looking" animation because they've been accustomed to it? Or will they be open to something more abstract and less realistic?

(On a side note, I'm aware Disney Animation's Winnie the Pooh cost very little... But Disney for some reason dumped the film and put little marketing effort into it. Hearsay and theories aside, this film doing well could've helped 2D in some way.)

I say one of the big studios try this: Make a 2D film that doesn't cost anymore than, say, $70 million. Illumination usually makes lower budget films than the heavies, maybe they should try this. Heck, how about LAIKA? They can get away with making more quirky stop-motion films, and they've expressed interest in doing a traditionally animated film, so maybe they could break the ice and make a 2D film. One that is lower budget and doesn't copy Disney's naturalistic style, instead going for a different style and aesthetic.

At the same time, the American animation industry has a few obstacles to overcome. The stigma that's been glued to 2D, and that pesky "conventional wisdom". The bigwigs may say that 2D isn't viable, but they don't seem to consider the bigger picture. They don't seem to understand why numerous 2D animated features suffered at the beginning of the millennium, financially. It seems they haven't researched this or have done their history, unlike us animation fanatics who know why 2D was sent packing here. Disney is now in a state where they just stop making a certain kind of film altogether if one film doesn't go over at the box office. DreamWorks is apparently going to relaunch their 2D/CG hybrid Me and My Shadow for a release some time after 2017. Other than that, the future seems uncertain for these kinds of films.

First of all, conventional wisdom... You know, they said pirate movies were dead after 1995's Cutthroat Island bombed. No pirate movies, they said. Disney took a massive risk making Pirates of the Caribbean, but in the end they kind of didn't... They made a good, exciting movie. Not a risk at all! It was a huge hit, because it looked awesome to the public. Disney wanted to jettison fairy tales after Princess and the Frog underperformed. Tangled was waist-deep in production at the time and they were going to force Disney Animation to call it quits after that. No Snow Queen/Frozen, no Jack and the Beanstalk movie, nothing! No more! Fairy tales are passe! Oh whoops, Tangled was a hit. Then came Frozen... Yeah, fairy tales are passe all right.

But here's the thing... If something like Tangled or Frozen was 2D - same story, same script, same shots, same everything - it would've done just as well. I really think so. It's not the medium, it's the content. The Princess and the Frog only grossed so little at the box office because it had a terrible opening. But after that opening, it hung on. Legs and multipliers speak volumes for these kinds of films, and the frog flick made over 4.4x its opening weekend gross. That's not an easy multiplier to achieve in this day and age of short theatrical runs. The movie is out for x amount of months and then it's on Blu-ray and digital before you know it! Frog fought rough competition too (Avatar, Sherlock Holmes, Alvin and the Chipmunks), it was able to do so well despite everything in its way.

Why is that?

Audiences liked the film. Audiences don't care whether it's 2D or CG or stop-motion, the content itself has to look good to them before the movie opens. The Princess and the Frog, despite what I may think about the marketing, just didn't appeal. Neither did something like Treasure Planet back in 2002. You have to convince audiences long before the movie comes out that it's going to be good. If it doesn't look good to them - and they are unpredictable - they won't go. They'll only go if someone else they know goes and tells them, "You have to see it! It's really good!"

Unfortunately, Frog was no huge blockbuster so Disney's executives see no use for 2D. Sad fact. The other big studios avoid it too, they see the huge grosses CG films pull in today and have pulled in over the last decade and they say "yes!" to that. To quote the Kano look-alike in Wreck-It Ralph: "You can't mess with the program, Ralph!" They all just assume that CG will bring the big bucks, not 2D. Those are problems the American animation industry has to solve, and it's going to take a successful 2D film to do that... If one ever gets green lit. The studio system is quite rough.

Animation has come a long way from the rather rough days from four decades ago, or better yet the mid 2000s where it seemed like everything was trying to rip off Pixar and/or DreamWorks. It's at a very healthy state, films left and right are making good money, it's something people really want to invest in, adult audiences eat up many animated films, it's become more and more "okay" for people to want to see these films, many studios are successful. However, we can have so much more. The medium is limitless, there is so much more to explore...

We can get there by telling different kinds of stories, but also by exploring different kinds of looks. Other studios from around the world are doing it, the big studios on American soil should look into it as well.

1 comment:

  1. Do you plan on going to the D23 Expo next year?