Commentary 04 May 2007 08:01 am

Brando-style Acting Animated

(Note: I wrote this piece based on Mark Mayerson’s initial comments about acting, and I’m responding to what I read there. He has expounded on those thoughts, and I should react. But I think I’ll let this post sit as it is.)

Mark Mayerson, on his blog, offered enormous and deserved praise for Marlon Brando‘s acting. He then compared it to animation suggesting that no animator has touched the surface of Brando’s work (my phrasing – not Mark’s). This commentary had me mulling about anima-tion and animation acting for the next day or so, and I thought I should comment.

Since I’m prone to ramble, I decided not to overwork Mark’s site with my words and to post it here. Consequently, I think that you might want to read Mark’s not-very-long commentary if you want to continue; go here.

To start with, Mark ends his piece by suggesting that Gollum, the character, is probably the closest that animation has to Brando. This I have to push away from my table with one big stroke.
I don’t understand how a character could be the equivalent of Brando. Even if I thought Gollum were well animated (and I don’t even consider it animation – the way I consider Tytla’s work animation), I would have to compare it to one of Brando’s characters – Stanley, in Streetcar, perhaps.
Perhaps I misunderstand Mark’s thought here.

Years ago I was exiting the premiere of Errol Morris‘ first documentary feature, Gates of Heaven. I was shaken, disturbed and said so to my companion. The documentary was an anti-New Wave film. Yet, animation hadn’t even had its own New Wave! (And still hasn’t!) What hope was there for my chosen field?

Intelligently, my companion reminded me of Yurij Norstein‘s masterpiece, Tale of Tales. I knew she was right; Norstein had pushed animation up to the equal of live action. The future was as much in my hands as documentaries were in Errol Morris‘ hands.
How many times since then have I reminded myself of Tale of Tales?

I do think there are animators who were the equivalent of Brando.
Tytla was certainly one. I think Tissa David‘s work is on a par with Brando (though I usually think of her closer to Meryl Streep – to me every bit the equal to Brando. (The divine moment in the mediocre film, Devil Wears Prada, where Streep sits in a bathrobe, with bare feet, allowing her vulnerability to escape, before hardening again, has to have been the finest acted moment in film last year.)

The fact that a handful of animators with the knowledge of their craft and the ability to use it didn’t get the work or the part is, to me, irrelevant. If Brando had only played the equivalent of Superman’s father for his entire career, we wouldn’t be talking about him. But he did play that role as well as other mediocre parts, and he played them all extremely well. He also played many masterful roles throughout his career. He gave actors a point in the sky to which they could stretch.

Tytla – there can be no doubt – was in the stratosphere. He is the one we all point to. Stromboli in Pinocchio, Chernobog in Fantasia, Dumbo under his mother’s legs, the dwarfs in Snow White. Can there be any greater acting? The fact that he was forced out of Disney’s studio to the lacking resources of Terrytoons had to affect everything he did. There was no possibility of his continuing the brilliant work. He was subjected to be Superman’s father for the rest of his career.

Tissa David is an animator who has made a career of the little human touches among those brilliantly drawn characters of hers. She has worked always on a very tight budget with high footage rates. She has had projects the equivalent of some of those Tytla Disney films, but she was always forced to the ground with their Independent budgets. She has had a couple of large budget projects that had poor stories and/or characters that she had to develop. The fact that she has not always had the great budgets to support her great characters has not hurt her work. She is still a great actress, and her characters – even on three’s – live. Unfortunately, most of her work has been done in the regional theater of animation where the audiences aren’t massive. However, she has made gold of what was handed her, and her talent and abilities are every bit the equal of Brando – and Streep.

And there is Tale of Tales. Norstein has done it many times from that truly adult film, to Hedgehog in the Fog or The Heron and The Crane. The direction is brilliant, the filmmaking superb, and the acting equal to the greatest. The unfortunate part is that he has done so little work since the fall of the USSR. (Check out the beautiful and recent Winter Days.)

Brando’s acting style came out of the Actors’ Studio which was an outgrowth of the Group Theater which grew out of Stanislavsky. I always like to think back on a comment John Hubley told me. He said that a small number of those at the Disney were ardent advocates of Stanislavsky, but the rest of the studio couldn’t spell it. Tytla was definitely one of the advocates; just take a look at Chernobog and try to argue otherwise. Tissa came out of France at just the time that the French New Wave started to spark. She went to work under the wing of Grim Natwick who was also one of the Stanislavsky devotees.

Mark is right that there are very few people who could be tagged with such greatness. Most of those I can think of are dead or are no longer working.

These days acting techniques and stylization has grown so enormously sophisticated. Animation abilities have gone in the opposite direction. Today, in animation, it’s all about the broad gesture. I don’t think there is anyone among the young stretching – or trying to stretch – to the same heights, and I’m not sure there will be any more. Though I can hope


- By the way, you should already know that Mark Mayerson has been posting enormously valuable information with his breakdowns and analysis of Pinocchio, scene for scene.
It would be wonderful if somehow Mark got this bound in a published volume. He’s just posted the seventh part of his notes on the “Mosaics” he’s been doing of this monumental film. If you have any interest in animation, you should be following these posts.

4 Responses to “Brando-style Acting Animated”

  1. on 07 May 2007 at 9:32 am 1.Mark Mayerson said …

    Hi Michael. The comment about Gollum should have been that he’s maybe the only animated character that’s a Brando-worthy role.

    I obviously respect Tytla and Tissa (and think your comment about the films that Tissa has worked on being analagous to regional theatre is a good one), but I hope that I pointed out that great acting depends as much on great writing as it does on the performer.

    My intent was not to knock animators but to point out that I think that the roles they’ve been given are shallow compared to the best live action roles and that the studio structure has prevented animators from owning roles the way a live actor can. We’ve seen cases where thin roles in live action have been made more complex because an actor has added backstory and subtext that informs the performance. An animator can’t do that because in most cases, animators don’t own roles. An animator’s conception of a character has to fit other animators’ conceptions of the same character in order to be consistent.

    The mosaic I’m doing on Pinocchio is a real eye opener to me. None of the major roles are really “owned” by anybody. Kimball did a lot less of Jiminy that I expected and I’m waiting to see if Babbitt’s claim of doing three quarters of Geppetto is accurate.

    In a nutshell, I think that the industry structure prevents animators from becoming Brando, regardless of their talent.

  2. on 07 May 2007 at 10:16 am 2.Michael said …

    In an Industrialized feature, such as the kind Disney or Dreamworks produces, there is no possibility for one animator to “own” a part. They can do the principal animation director of a character, but that’s about it. That doesn’t stop an animator such as Ward Kimball from having a personality that comes through and becomes the character. Though several animators worked on Raggedy Ann, Tissa David set the character. Only when the rules Tissa established were violated by someone like Art Babbitt does the discrepancy really shine through. Crystal Russel’s Ann felt very much like Tissa’s even though Crystal had a personality of her own.
    To be able to act like Brando takes more than a script. Tissa working on schlock like Raggedy Ann, still produces a dynamic performance.
    As for the “Gollum,” I don’t think the character is on the screen. To me it’s still in the original book. I disliked the movie and that “animation.” For the same type thing, I much preferred the character in Harry Potter & The Prisoner of – I don’t remember its name.

  3. on 08 May 2007 at 8:57 am 3.Elliot Cowan said …

    It’s the Chamber of Secrets and the character is called Dobby.
    I wish I had more to contribute to the discussion than this…

  4. on 08 May 2007 at 3:06 pm 4.Ron said …

    I think that in coming generations, due to real-time animation and the blending of genres and technologies that the next “Brando” may very well be an animator. That is: an artist who uses animation or some hybrid of artforms to create memorable characters that everyone recognizes as the work of that particular artist. Does that make sense?

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