Commentary 25 Jul 2008 08:22 am

More on Wall-E

Michael Barrier hit on something with his reviews of Wall-E and Kung Fu Panda. I’ve been thinking about it for quite some time, but I never really plunged into the thought. Two lines of his review stood out for me:

    “The animation of machines is effects animation, and that’s really all we see in the first part of WALL•E.”

    “What’s clear from WALL•E and Kung Fu Panda , as never before, is that computer animation is a dead end, a form of puppetry even more limited than stop motion.”

When I first saw Toy Story, I realized that the possibility of computer animation replacing traditional animation might actually exist. Nothing prior to that point led me to think that. What I didn’t expect was that I was watching the high point of the medium.

People concentrated on animating grass (A Bug’s Life), hair (Monsters Inc.), water (Finding Nemo) and, now, machines (Wall-E). Essentially, they were concerned with moving the technical capability of the medium forward and ignored the very real need of moving the characters with any REAL depth. Pixar and Dreamworks gerry-rigged stories around the capabilities of the new medium and animated around those problems. They’ve gotten to the point where they can successfully impersonate the things of real life.

However, if a well rigged commercial can feature computer animation that equals or betters something in Pixar’s best, or a live-action/computer-effx feature (such as Spiderman 2, which has a story almost identical in parts to The Incredibles, or The Dark Knight, which has superior performances to anything in Pixar) works better than the best feature animation scene, what’s the point?

They are animating Special Effects. The animated “Effx” in The Dark Knight are good enough to be invisible as animation. In Spiderman 2 it all looked animated, and I wondered if they were going to try to horn in on the Oscar’s Best Animated Feature category.

Mike Barrier should have gone further in his statement. All computer animation has become Special Effects. Someone moves the skeleton; someone adds the flesh; someone adds textures; someone adds lighting. Who’s responsible? It may as well be a car driving through a rain storm that turns into a desert. Oh wait, was that Cars?

The animation of Kung Fu Panda is closer to what I think animation is, but the movement of the characters has little to do with the actual characters. It’s just fast or slow and derived from the clichés of Kung Fu movies. There’s no character development that the voice over actors haven’t given it. It becomes a lot of little dolls zipping around beautiful backgrounds. Some scenes and animation from Mulan have it all over this feature.

The director is undoubtedly the “auteur” and when you have a Brad Bird who keeps challenging the movement to be more “human” it can work. His films work well, and he seemed to be onto something after The Incredibles. If he ever gets back to animation, perhaps he’ll help advance this medium. At the moment, for me, I don’t see much of a future here. It hasn’t moved beyond Toy Story other than technically speaking.

I’ve seen some recent grumbling about Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, but I think that film was light years beyond anything yet done in computer generated animation. Perhaps, it’s just my own sensibilities and taste boiling over. I’ve watched the Emperor in his new clothes for the past fifteen years. All I’m saying is we’re all getting cold.

The medium is floundering. When you get to see the Honda guy knocking on the glass screen of the TV and are pleased because it’s, at least, animated. No Flash fakery. It’s real animation. It’s alive.


Mark Mayerson has an excellent response to my negative comments on his blog with Babies and Bathwater.

10 Responses to “More on Wall-E”

  1. on 25 Jul 2008 at 3:26 pm 1.Thad said …

    The Disney studio evolved from its crudest Alice and Julius shorts to Snow White in fifteen years. It’s been twelve years since the first Toy Story… where’s the evolution, other than technically? And why would I rather watch those crude cartoons rather than these features? Baffling.

  2. on 25 Jul 2008 at 5:17 pm 2.Thad said …

    My comment isn’t that clear (as usual) upon rereading. It should read “And why do I find that I would rather watch those crude cartoons than these features?”

  3. on 25 Jul 2008 at 5:45 pm 3.Michael said …

    Your comment was clear, Thad, and I’m embarrassed to say that I share your preference. Watching any animation lately has become a chore; it’s so infrequent that it soars.

  4. on 26 Jul 2008 at 8:31 pm 4.Kellie Strøm said …

    I had in mind a longer comment in agreement with your feelings on this, Michael, where I wanted to explore why we have this response – but I haven’t had time to organise my thoughts! This post by David Apatoff seemed relevant however. In it he compares the highly rendered caricatures of Arthur Szyk with the bold drawings of Mort Drucker, and though he loves both, he finds Drucker more engaging.

  5. on 26 Jul 2008 at 10:01 pm 5.David Nethery said …

    Kellie, thank you for the link to the post by David Apatoff.

    In his post he quotes illustrator Austin Briggs who offered the following wisdom about the benefits of working with the restrictions imposed by line:

    “Line … is the most limited medium…. [I]t’s necessary to know the limitation one is dealing with in order to use its positive qualities to the fullest advantage….[O]nce we know what drawing cannot do, we are on the way toward expressing [a subject] in the marvelously simple way a line can function….[I]ts real shape reveals itself because we must speak with such limited means.”

    This expresses exactly why I love hand-drawn animation and always will.

    On the other hand I disagree with the idea that “the animation of machines is only special effects animation” as applied to films like Wall-E . I thought the character animation in Wall-E was excellent. I have some problems with the overall story structure, but let’s not dump on the great animators at Pixar who are excellent at bringing all kinds of characters and objects to life.

  6. on 28 Jul 2008 at 6:06 am 6.Ricky said …

    You all sound so tired. Don’t just say Toy Story is better than Wall E. Say WHY you think it is.

    Personally I find that Pixar is pushing Animation far beyond what has been achieved in the past. Sure the old Disney films are beautiful, but the medium has clearly peaked. It’s a shame yes, but look what is now growing from it’s strong foundations. I don’t talk about other studios, but Pixar is always trying new things. It seems highly unfair to bitch about this not being as good as 2d. That’s YOUR personal preference. What Pixar is doing is pushing the medium forwards and trying new ways of telling stories. They know their limitations and each film cleverly tackles what would have been impossible before. How is this any different to Disney and his team inventing new techniques such as the Multiplane Camera, Xeroxing, or using Rotoscoping? Without the Multiplane Camera we would never have seen the fantastic opening sequence from Pinocchio – and without the aid of the Computer we would have never had the rich insight into the world of Scary Monsters in Monsters Inc.

  7. on 28 Jul 2008 at 8:03 am 7.Michael said …

    Ricky, if you read carefully, I said that Pixar is pushing the technology beyond anyone’s expectations. What they aren’t pushing is good acting. The characters don’t act as well as past 2D animation did; they move smoothly.

  8. on 29 Jul 2008 at 12:09 pm 8.Daryl said …

    It’s not only the acting but, also the stories that either are not analyzed completed or rejected outright at the beginning as derivative.

    I get bored when I realize that I’ve seen this before either in a Star Wars flick or something like Spiderman. The Incredibles comes to mind as one Pixar film that does this.

    With a team of highly talented minds, such as those at Pixar, shouldn’t we be seeing not only technical advancement but, also stories that expand the medium?

    Animation whether drawn or computer generated is a fantastic medium for the imagination of the artist. I don’t see any limitations! Yet, most of what reaches my local theater screens often disappoints me.

  9. on 30 Jul 2008 at 1:08 am 9.Ricardo Cantoral said …

    I agree with Thad on this one. Pixar’s only innovations have been in technical aspects. I think the closest thing Pixar has done with developing more complex characters was THE INCREDIBLES, the main villian having fairly dark and vengeful motivations and the protagonist character struggling to conform to society. Maybe it wasn’t a phenomenal character piece but it was some glimmer of hope of better things to come. Unfortunetly after that film, Pixar has fallen into cliches and WALL-E is how low they have gotten. They have the talent, they just need to apply themselves.

  10. on 30 Jul 2008 at 2:32 am 10.Ricardo Cantoral said …

    As for CGI in general, it has a long way to go. The only thing that has improved was how much detail you can make in an enviroment of character, neither seems organic. I find it to be more like animatronic puppetry done on computers.

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