An Animated Discussion

I’m a big fan of animation.  Let me clarify that in several ways.  First, let me get it out of the way that I do not much care for anime.  I confess I do not see the appeal, nor why so many praise it for artistic quality.  To my eyes, it’s poor.  It tends to be flat, all the characters have basically the same faces, and the animation itself is very often what’s called “limited,” a term best applied to the Hannah-Barbera works of the 50s and 60s.  I’m just not impressed.

I assume that much of the appeal for fans of anime has less to do with the quality of the animation and more to do with the story-telling.  The stories are often highly sophisticated and can also be highly adult in content, something extremely rare in American animation.  That’s the problem.  In the US, animation is considered something for children.  We can blame Disney for that, but at the same time we must credit them for inventing feature animation in the first place (nobody thought Snow White could be done).  But because of Disney, animation is associated with fairy tales and children’s stories.

And then there’s Saturday morning.  The other use of animation in the US has traditionally been in Saturday cartoons, usually cheap and limited. The epitome of “kidfare.”  There have been rare exceptions: the animated version of Star Trek, while suffering some definite problems, was nevertheless, not surprisingly, one of the most intelligent and sophisticated “children’s cartoons” ever created.  This was because the producers insisted on keeping true to the source and refused to add kid-friendly elements like child protagonists or cute animal companions.  But this is an exception.  Mostly animation is defined by such kid-oriented elements, and that’s a tragedy.

Animation, at its best, is a remarkable art form.  When I say I’m an animation fan, I particularly mean the traditional, 2D cel animation that has become increasingly rare.  To me, there is nothing more beautiful than a hand painted cel with a detailed background and fully animated characters.  It’s glory to the eyes.

Not to say that CG animation is bad.  Computers have revolutionized animation, often in good ways.  But, because of the extraordinary success of Pixar, it’s become convention that everything should be CG.  Pixar’s films were great while traditional animation was dying, so the conventional wisdom is that people want to see CG.  That misses the point.  Pixar’s films were great because they were well-written and creative.  It was story above all.  Toy Story worked because the characters were so engaging.  Brad Bird originally intended to do The Incredibles in cel form, and it would have been just as good.  Finding Nemo would have been great as a series of sketches on cocktail napkins.  Being CG doesn’t make a movie great, as many films from competing studios have proven.  Indeed, Cars 2 proved this to even be true of Pixar.

CG has had the unfortunate effect of giving all animated films a sameness that they did not used to have.  Sleeping Beauty looked radically different from 101 Dalmatians, and intentionally so.  But CG always looks like CG.  Where CG has the greatest potential is in combination with cel animation.  Its earliest uses were exactly that, and the results were extraordinary.  CG can greatly enhance cel animation with programs like Massive and Deep Canvas.  I confess what I would have liked to see, and what was all-too-briefly hinted at in the early 2000’s, was what I call “hybrid” animation, combining both.  We saw the potential in films like Atlantis and Treasure Planet, Titan AE and The Iron Giant.  But it was short lived.  And most of those films suffered because they were hampered by, again, the assumption that they were for children, when they clearly were not.  Or at least they shouldn’t have been.

The issue, ultimately, is content.  It’s still the rare animated film that receives a PG rating.  And we’re just talking PG.  PG-13 seems unlikely.  And R-rated animation?  Unthinkable, even today.  For such an attempt we can turn only to the maverick projects of Ralph Bakshi, who gave us the initially-X-rated Fritz the Cat (it’s actually a pretty tame R by today’s standards), as well as Wizards and his ill-fated Lord of the Rings adaptation.

Bakshi was daring and ambitious but suffered from budget limitations at every turn.  He was a frequent user of rotoscoping, a painstaking technique where a live-action image is traced onto a cel, sort of a pre-computer version of motion-capture.  It’s a much-reviled method, although I’ll take it over motion capture, which, in my experience, has disturbingly artificial results.

But Bakshi used rotoscoping to great effect as a way of salvaging Wizards, where the use of heavily stylized stock footage added to the tone of a film that was already surreal due to Bakshi’s decision to combine many different animation styles in a single film.  It was less effective when he attempted to do the entire Lord of the Rings via rotoscoped live action, but the failure there had more to do with budget and studio meddling than the format itself.  He made it work later with Fire and Ice, but that film suffered from script problems.

In truth, if my project were made into an animated film, I would prefer it done by someone with Bakshi’s mindset: anything goes, combine styles and techniques, and don’t worry about making it for kids.  I’m writing Young Adult fiction, that’s true, but my target audience is at the older end of that range, and it may well be that animation is the only format in which my ideas would be permitted to breathe the way I want.

This is not hyperbole.  Animation has always led the way in breaking barriers in terms of content.  There may be no better example of this reality than the simple fact that the first married couple to be shown in the same bad on primetime TV (rather than separate twin beds) was Fred and Wilma Flintstone.  Yabba-dabba-do!

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “An Animated Discussion

  1. Brilliant post! I absolutely love animation too. I’m a big fan of Disney (despite the fact that everyone tells me off for this because Disney is one of those big evil corporations), but my real passion for animation lies with foreign productions. I find that these are always far more inventive and wild than stuff from the UK and America. Not always, but very often. They also produce a lot more stuff for adults, especially places such as Russia, France, Germany and Japan. I do enjoy anime, I agree that sometimes it can look very similar but I would recommend that you watch The Animatrix just as an example of how wildly different styles of anime can be (I really enjoyed the content of this as well because I loved the first Matrix film).
    I also love motion capture animation, the effect can be adorable and fun (Wallace and Gromit) or eerie and macabre (Jason and the Argonaunts).
    I agree with you about CG though. I find all of those Pixar type films very samey, they even tend to have the same jokes and plot lines. I think the fact that they can be mass produced is what takes the heart out of them. It’s the difference between say, making a birthday card for someone and buying one from Hallmark. It’s the love and care that makes it special, not the polished appearance.
    /end of essay

    • Thanks for responding. I fully agree the best thing about animation is how varied it can be, which is why I number both Fantasia and Fantasia 2000 among my favorite movies of all time.

      I assume you mean stop-motion animation when you mention Wallace and Grommit and those wonderful old Ray Harryhausen productions, like the Sinbad movies. I agree those are a lot of fun. Motion-capture, on the other hand, is the new thing where actors put on those weird body suits and run around an empty studio. Granted, it was effective for bringing Gollum to life, but most of the time it just looks creepy, The Polar Express being a particular example of that. Trying to motion-capture facial expressions just ends up with all the characters looking anxious or in pain.

  2. I’m not generally an anime fan either–I’ve seen a number of Studio Ghibli films, and they tend to have excellent landscapes with less-impressive character drawing (kind of an odd mix), and the plots have been mixed. I agree that it’s too bad 2D animation has disappeared so much, and I like your point about how good content may have led to an assumption that a medium was preferable…when that wasn’t really what was happening at all.

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