Commentary 05 Jul 2008 08:33 am

more or less – 1

- Animation has completely done a big turnaround in the past 10 or so years. The medium has evolved so drastically into something else that I’ve come to feel that a lot of the past has become or is getting lost.

Yes, this is going to be one of my usual rants, but I think I have something that’s worth going on about. Maybe a good long conversation can start. I don’t really want to talk about how we got here, but I do want to talk about where we are.

Live action movies aren’t live action anymore. Go to Indiana Jones 4 or Hancock or The Hulk or Journey to the Center of the Earth or most other fare at the local theater, and you maybe get the idea.

In 1979, the Museum of Modern Art had a special exhibit complete with chat and Q&A from Peter Ellenshaw.
A lot of his matte paintings were displayed, and he talked in front of a projected screening of shots he worked on from many of the films. Mary Poppins, Treasure Island and Polyanna were discussed.
I was struck with how impressionist the paintings were up close, yet on screen they looked so absolutely real. I asked about this, and he said that he found that the paintings had to feel a bit ____________________What’s real?
out of focus to achieve the effect
of reality. When he painted in a very realistic mode, the paintings didn’t work.

His glass paintings, which were painted on glass, originally sat between the camera and the scene. They were designed to add to the background being filmed. Ships in a harbor were painted or a skyline was altered to more closely match the historic film being shot; these were painted on glass and matted out things in reality. These glass mattes eventually were just matted into the scenes optically, though Ellenshaw didn’t change his process.

The paintings were a bit more impressionist than the reality on the screen, but since it was only about a third of the image, we bought it.

Today these paintings, of course, are painted on computer. Paul Lasaine beautifully details this process on his blog. The matte paintings have, in many films, superceded the reality being photographed. That “impressionism” has come to overwhelm the images we’re watching. When George Lucas talks about having his actors act against a blue screen with all the world being painted in by artists and animators, the film has become something else.

You can see this in the Indiana Jones films. The first had a tactile approach to the effects and the world of Indy. It DID resemble the cheap “B” movie serials it was imitating. Indiana Jones 4 completely lost that with this painted world. There are scenes where the actors are so obviously not in a real world on a real set. They’re acting against a blue screen. The scene in the grave of the aliens, where the 13 skeletons sit above them, is so obviously painted. The actors have no connection to humans in a cave or a grave; they’re not. It’s completely fake and feels it. This is one of the problems with the entire film. There’s no reality; nothing we can touch.

Every film, from Adam Sandler’s Zohan to Get Smart depends too much on the computer and robs the films of interacting humans on screen. They’re not in reality; we can’t buy or accept or understand their situations?

The Harryhausen effects were not real, but the tactile nature of his puppets allowed us, at least, to feel them. To know that something REAL was on the screen. Compare the original Yoda, the Frank Oz voiced puppet, with the digital thing of later films. One felt real, and it wasn’t the digital version of the character. Life for Lucas was made easier, a new animated world opened to him, but the experience for filmgoers was diminished. There was no there there. The real effects of the earlier film allowed us to stay in the film; the fake effects of the new film doesn’t even allow the actors in.

The computer has also changed animation. Obviously, when you have those 13 skeletons animated by computer in Indiana Jones 4, or any of the Harry Potter films or The Hulk,
and when that looks not too different from the animation from the latest Pixar film, what is the difference? Wall-E‘s reality had nothing to do with me. It was a robot/compacter and another egg shaped robot (that I had even less connection to) interacting. I never entered the film; it had no relation to my life. I watched filmmaking choices, scene cuts and storytelling. I caught all the obvious and pedestrian biblical references, all the intended “depth,” and felt the film go completely haywire once it left what was supposed to be earth. (Why didn’t they just stay on earth and let all the fat humans come to Wall-E so that we could watch them try to rebuild? This is the real story isn’t it? Not the running back and forth throughout the spaceship.)

The film felt too connected to all the other films I see on the screen these days, films that I cannot connect to. This is pretty much all I feel for most other computer animated films.

Kung Fu Panda is filled with beautifully drawn and painted backgrounds, much more pleasing than Wall-E. But the little viewmaster-puppet-characters are constantly moving in clichéd poses and actions. (Does every scene have to end with the some character arching their eyebrows?) I know this is a parody of Kung Fu movies, but who cares? What does it have to do with REAL human experience?

I also feel that every character moves identically to others. Tex Avery gave us snap animation, and Bob Clampett gave us blurred positions from A to B, but that doesn’t mean every film and every character has to imitate this. (I saw one page on Cartoon Brew from Eric Goldberg‘s new book Crash Course in Animation. It advises young animators to use this blurring technique! Not good advice in my mind. I’ll have to see the book to decide if that’s the norm.)

I haven’t seen Horton yet, but at least that LOOKS different than other computer animated films. The Jim Carrey voice over kept me away, but I’ll watch it eventually. I like some of Blue Sky’s work and still hope for the best.

To be concluded tomorrow.

21 Responses to “more or less – 1”

  1. on 05 Jul 2008 at 12:14 pm 1.Eddie Fitzgerald said …

    Fascinating! I agree, the acting in 3D movies is usually terribly cliched. I don’t know whether that comes about because of the difficulty of moving 3D characters, or because 3D animators aren’t interested in the subject.

  2. on 05 Jul 2008 at 12:27 pm 2.Michael said …

    Is it possible that CGI animators have no real relation to 2D animators? The computer guys are animating skeletons not characters. The flesh, bones and lighting is added by someone else. On top of that, even the most assiduous animator allows the computer to do parts of the movement. How many actually work on every frame of the scenes they do? Or are they just approving the computer’s moves?

    I’d guess the director is more in control of scenes by asking animators to rework the animation.

    Of course, I’m talking through my hat since I really know nothing about cgi or its programs.

  3. on 05 Jul 2008 at 5:54 pm 3.Tim Rauch said …

    A thought provoking post, thanks for braving the inevitable backlash by putting your thoughts out there.

    When I worked on a computer-animated show, the lack of control over anything other than the motion of the rig was a source of temptation to over-animate: if you’re going to avoid boredom in producing the performance, having a lot of “swing” to track keeps you awake and makes it look like you did something. I don’t mean to suggest that these are the motivations of any other animators, but it is the trap I found myself slipping into as a computer animator.

    As for the “cliches”, like arching an eyebrow in every shot, I think that’s been going on in a lot of big-budget animation, hand-drawn included, for several years now. Scripts with weak characters don’t help and an industry whose artists seem focused on repeating the idioms of the American tradition sure doesn’t help.

    As for the ability to “relate” to a CG character, I think that comes down to the degree to which the CG elements merge with the photographic ones in terms of movement, color, design and performance. Sure, the CG Yoda never stacks up against the Frank Oz Yoda: it was poorly done, animated as if it were controlled by an equation instead of a thought process. But I’ve found many modern CG performances perfectly convincing when they are done well. I haven’t seen the Wall-E movie, but those clips are fine pieces of character animation in my book.

  4. on 05 Jul 2008 at 8:28 pm 4.rafianimates said …

    Great post Michael. I find myself nodding along to every point you’ve made here. The disconnect between the audience and the on-screen characters has never felt greater than in the majority of the blue-screen / CG heavy films we get now. Fortunately there’s much more to the global film industry than the blockbusters.

    Cheers for the inspiring posts, keem ‘em coming.

  5. on 05 Jul 2008 at 9:54 pm 5.Six said …

    Just a note, I think you mean Indiana Jones 4.

  6. on 06 Jul 2008 at 6:10 am 6.Kellie Strøm said …

    I strongly sympathise with your yearning for some sense of reality on screen to identify with. Film design work has only been an occasional sideline for me, but I’ve often found the unreality of the process allied with the unreality of the subject matter to be rather overwhelming. A few years ago I had a couple of weeks development work for an outfit in London, and what kept me level was a season of Cassavetes films that was playing in town at the time. What a pleasurable relief to escape to that world of gritty chaos after toiling in derivative fantasy all day!

    What’s missing is hair in the grate, the stone in the shoe, the wind in our hair and sand in our eyes!

  7. on 06 Jul 2008 at 6:13 am 7.Kellie Strøm said …

    Sorry, I meant gate, not grate.

  8. on 06 Jul 2008 at 8:17 am 8.Michael said …

    “Six,” you’re right. I forgot about The Last Cusade. The current film is Indiana Jones 4. I’ve changed it within the body of the post.

  9. on 07 Jul 2008 at 6:31 am 9.Nick said …

    I can’t remember the last major live action film that was released that didn’t use the blue screen technique or CGI. While the skill of the guys working on these films is undeniable, I’ve always been far more impressed by real sets and props in which the actors actually interact. Even some of the lamest films of the past, like “Barbarella” have some really gorgeous settings, whereas the lamest films today don’t have much to go on other than the CGI effects.

  10. on 07 Jul 2008 at 10:40 pm 10.catherwood said …

    I watched Star Wars IV (A New Hope, the first one) on tv this weekend, and an early scene felt “off” to me. This post and these comments help me grasp what it is. The scene is our heroes riding into town to hire a pilot, and there are people on the streets riding large beasts. The animals are alien, but they have no emotional connection to either the audience or the characters on screen, they move far too much to be believed, and they do not integrate very well into the atmosphere around them or the dusty ground beneath. They are obviously placed there for no plot-driven reason, but merely to impress us. And it makes me wish I could get the original theatrical release again, but we’re doomed to forever watch the director’s vision.

  11. on 08 Jul 2008 at 11:13 pm 11.Floyd Norman said …

    So, it’s not just me.

    I was very excited about the new technology when it first began appearing in films. Now, I long for a movie without CGI effects.

    Brilliant, it may be — but it leaves me cold.

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