Articles on Animation &Commentary 30 Oct 2009 08:57 am

Live Action Directors Animate

- The New York Times reported that Jonathan Demme is planning to make an animated feature of the book, Zeitoun by Dave Eggars.

The book is about the reconstruction efforts taking place in New Orleans done since the Katrina disaster effort.

Apparently Demme was taken by the illustration on the cover of the book and immediately saw it as animation. He’s quoted as saying, “I was staring at the book, and there’s this wonderful line drawing on the cover, the character of Zeitoun in his canoe, paddling through a submerged neighborhood. And I suddenly imagined, What if we could do an animated film and visualize the experiences of the Zeitoun family and all of New Orleans?”

They haven’t decided what the style of the film will look like, but Demme favors a hand-drawn style for the film.


The New Yorker magazine has a profile of Wes Anderson. (I’ve given the link to the magazine, but it’s open only to subscribers.) Anderson is the director of Rushmore, The Royal Tenanbaums and The Darjeeling Limited. He’s also the director of the upcoming puppet film, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, which was based on the Roald Dahl book.

The article opens and closes with a couple of columns about the animated film, but primarily focuses on Anderson’s bio and career.

In reading the article, a short bit popped out at me.

    For stop-motion animation, the actors’ voices must be recorded in advance, so that the figurines’ mouths can be moved in synch with the dialogue. The recording is usually done in a sound studio. Anderson did things differently. In the fall of 2007, he took a handful of actors, including (George) Clooney and (Bill) Murray, to a friend’s farm in Connecticut. In order to make the voices and the film’s soundscape realistic, Anderson had his actors perform the motions—running, digging, and climbing—that the figurines would perform; he recorded the exterior scenes in the fields, and the interiors in the farmhouse.

    Anderson’s direction, with its protracted long takes and tight closeups, treats the figurines like actors, emphasizing their “performances.” The production designer, Nelson Lowry, told me that Anderson’s approach to animation was “very counterintuitive.” He made, Lowry added, “unconventional choices, such as keeping characters still. Usually, animators keep characters constantly in motion; if they re doing nothing, they blink.” Lowry calls Anderson’s expressive stillness a “compression of character.”

Let me repeat part of that last sentence: “Usually, animators keep characters constantly in motion; if they re doing nothing, they blink.”

This is the notion that live-action directors (probably all live action film makers) have of acting in animation. And I can’t argue too much with that. This is a good deal of acting in animated films: keep it moving, keep it moving, keep it moving regardless of the thought the characters are supposed to be having.

However, Anderson’s notion of acting, “keep it still” isn’t acting either. I remember Ralph Bakshi giving a talk after making Lord of the Rings, just prior to a screening. He said that humans stand still most of the time, but that if an animated character would sit still, it wouldn’t be acceptable. It would look like poor limited animation. It’s a problem good animators enjoy solving.

Unfortunately, what I’ve seen of The Fantastic Mr. Fox looks like poor limited animation in puppets – a bit like those old Rankin-Bass episodes of Pinocchio. The difference is that the characters, here, are covered with fur making them look more like an early Starevich film. (Regardless, I like Anderson’s films so I’m still looking forward to seeing this – however it’s animated.)


Getting back to some real animation, Hans Perk (in case you didn’t know) has been posting the drafts from Snow White. What a resource his site is! Many thanks, Hans.

11 Responses to “Live Action Directors Animate”

  1. on 30 Oct 2009 at 9:28 am 1.Elliot Cowan said …

    Michael – a few weeks back you included a quote from Wes Anderson along the lines of “If they didn’t do it my way, it wouldn’t be right” and followed it up with your own comment “Give the man an Oscar”.
    I wasn’t certain if you were being sarcastic or not and would like to know, please.

    As for Mr Fox, I don’t much like the look of it, but a number of folks I like have had very positive things to say about it.
    I’m particularly fond of his other films and that’s the reason I’ll go see thing.

  2. on 30 Oct 2009 at 10:19 am 2.Richard O'Connor said …

    My worst experience in production was with a live action director who didn’t understand the concept of a hold. He insisted that everything be moving all of the time (also a way of “getting his [meagre] money’s worth” I presume).

    While I find the leisure class stylings of Anderson’s films cloying, the experiment he’s trying here is very interesting and very outside the pop soundtrack safety of his other work.

  3. on 30 Oct 2009 at 11:24 am 3.Michael said …

    I was being sarcastic about that quote from Mr. Anderson. I am a big fan of his work and will go see it regardless of reviews of thoughts on the trailers. I KNOW for certain that the voices will be great, the script completely Wes Anderson (meaning it’ll be stronger than most animated features) and expect the images to be basically filler to work over that soundtrack. I’ll be satisfied with that (even though I actively dislike the style of the images I’ve seen to date.)

    This means, as a film maker I expect to enjoy it; as an animator I’ll have problems. But, hey, these days a Wes Anderson film is enough for me.

  4. on 30 Oct 2009 at 11:39 am 4.Hans Perk said …

    Thanks for the head-up, Michael – it doesn’t seem many have noticed my latest postings, judging from the amount of daily visitors, but I think this may pick up, we’ll see!
    Thank YOU for your consistently interesting postings!

  5. on 30 Oct 2009 at 11:48 am 5.Ken Priebe said …

    Ironically enough, I was just touching on exactly this very same subject in my stop-motion course last night, giving a lecture on facial expressions. I showed some live-action clips from ‘One Flew over the Cuckoos Nest’ and ‘LA Confidential’ where Jack Nicholson and Kevin Spacey respectively had some wonderful acting moments with their face being very still…all the while a thought process is going on, and there is overlapping action in the extremely subtle facial features. Then I showed some animated clips that show the same kind of very still, subtle acting: In ‘Toy Story 2′ when Woody is deciding if he should leave the Round Up Gang, and in ‘Chicken Run’ when Ginger realizes that Rocky has left. Then I also showed Peter Lord’s ‘Adam’ which has some great facial animation and acting. All too often, especially with students, there must be the reminder for animators to keep the character still so the audience can get inside their brain.

  6. on 30 Oct 2009 at 9:33 pm 6.Mark Mayerson said …

    I applaud Anderson for deciding to record his actors outside of a booth. I hope that he also allowed them to interact with each other rather than record them separately.

    The way most animation voices are recorded is sterile and goes against everything actors need in order to give a good performance.

  7. on 31 Oct 2009 at 1:49 am 7.Mac said …

    I find this recording technique that Anderson is using very intriguing. The standard method for recording dialogue while having its place seems like it could use some new ideas. As for the imagery, I haven’t been so impressed with it either, and the limited animation I have seen appears to be sort of amateurish, not that this is entirely bad. I almost felt like “Coraline” was TOO slick. I don’t have a problem with Anderson deciding to limit the movements, especially considering his film style, but I do hope the movements that are there are done well and timed well. I am not super excited to see this movie but I do see potential.

  8. on 31 Oct 2009 at 6:24 am 8.slowtiger said …

    I remember Bakshi’s “Ring” especially for not freezing the characters, but record all those little movements any human body does even when standing “still” (maybe with the exception of Her Majesty’s Guards). There might have been an interview about that, but I was 15 then and don’t remember more detail.

    Anime seems to have less problems with holds, but takes it to the other extreme often. I had thought about this recently and found that the hold seems to be more of a problem within a drawing style with rough or boiling lines. One solution would be to use “moving holds”, but I haven’t seen a longer film in that style yet which uses this device extensively.

    Of course puppetry doesn’t have moving holds.

  9. on 31 Oct 2009 at 10:24 pm 9.Chris said …

    In life, in professional fields, and in the world of academia, there is always the challenge of balancing the way things pedagogically “should” be done with they way the creative mind extends itself in the most open of thinkers. There is the danger of saying “This should not be done this way” for that in turn creates a sameness throughout arts, entertainment, the media, and every individual’s life.

    With every complaint that animation in America is a carbon copy, a factory designed to follow the mood of the public, it seems like here we have something very different, something that shirks the tradition: Animation through the eyes of someone not an animator.

    Will it fail as animation? Perhaps, if viewed through tradition and the technical text book of animation, 3rd edition, or if viewed else ways through one person’s acquire taste of what animation should and has to be. On the other hand, though, something daring and different can result.

    What we have here is something unique and probably not to be loved en masse but perhaps appreciated individually like a blade of grass blown forward instead of backwards with all the other blades of grass in the wind, blowing.

  10. on 01 Nov 2009 at 11:41 am 10.Michael said …

    The directors, Wes Anderson and Spike Jonze, have both introduced different ways of recording voices for their films – one animated, one puppet/cg mix. Perhaps if we wait long enough, one of them will bring something new to the visuals. Then we’ll have the blade of grass blowing backwards in the wind.

  11. on 01 Nov 2009 at 5:18 pm 11.Kellie Strøm said …

    I was surprised by just how much I enjoyed Fantastic Mr Fox, both for story and visuals. I was concerned after seeing the trailer that it would just be too smart-alecky and far from the book, but I found it to have real emotional depth. (And the noise level is so much lower than other kids’ adventure features!)

    Where I was aware of it, I liked the holds, the relaxed attitude to achieving realistic movement in every instant, and the limitations in facial expression. I came away with the impression that the film makers achieved everything they needed to tell the story in the way they wanted.

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