Tag Archives: animation

All’s Fair

The California State Fair is going on right now.  Since it’s here in town, I go every year.  And every year I marvel at the strange juxtaposition of time that it offers.

State fairs (and county fairs) are, to a great extent, a remnant of a different, earlier time.  It was an opportunity for people to come together in a largely agrarian society where such opportunities were rare.  People would exhibit prize livestock and produce, and artisans would get a chance to show their skill.  There were competitions of quilting, cooking, canning and manufacturing.  Winemakers would share their bounty.

In addition, vendors would exhibit and demonstrate their products to people who otherwise had little chance to even be aware of them.  Carnival rides gave an opportunity for fun, and ultimately the extended community would come together for celebration and camaraderie, with musicians and performers.  It was the highpoint of the agricultural social calendar.

All that has changed.  The internet has put us in contact with each other, and allowed us to purchase whatever we want from the far corners of the world.  Music is readily available in multiple media forms, and few of us really live agrarian lives.  Somehow, a jam-making contest seems quaint.

Fairs are struggling, trying to keep up with the times in the face of dwindling attendance.  High tech exhibits are increasingly common, along with celebrations of pop culture.  Where the county fair circuit was once a valid musical path, now it’s the place for washed-up bands and tribute acts.  One must ask if fairs even serve any purpose any more.

To answer that, I can examine a recent remarkable coincidence.  In my composition class just one day before I visited the fair, we found ourselves discussing the use of media and technology in education.  I confess I am one who has not been quick to embrace the computer age.  Call it a function of my advancing age, but I’m not convinced that something that has worked for years without computers suddenly needs them to succeed.

It’s a common assumption: our students are computer-savvy, and very tied in to media, so in order to reach them, we teachers much come to their level, and embrace their media.  So we must use social networking, and the internet, and on-line communication, and laptop computers, and all the other things they take for granted.  Those of us who are reluctant to do so are stuck in old ways and must get current to survive.

But why?

Unexamined in the scramble to embrace technology is the question of whether doing so is needed or appropriate.  I, for one, tend to be a late adopter.  Despite being in a classroom equipped with a “smart board,” I rarely use it.  Nor do I often use the computer.  I don’t have a course website, and still read essays on paper.  Hopelessly out-of-date, right?  Time to retire?  I don’t think so.

Perhaps I am just rationalizing, but I believe that my emphasis on old-fashioned discussion has benefits that cannot be gained by the latest tech programs.  Discussion worked when I went to school, and I have yet to see a single cogent argument as to why something that used to work somehow stopped working simply because some other method with more bells and whistles came along.

This perspective is not new for me.  I began my teaching career at a time when the teaching of English was undergoing an enormous transformation.  The perspective was that we must abandon inadequate old methods, and my reluctance to do so did not sit well with my fellow teachers and supervisors.  What I could not bring myself to say to these people was, “The old methods produced all of you, so how bad can they really be?”  But it’s what I was thinking.

But, as I said, perhaps that’s rationalization.  Maybe I’m making excuses for being too old to learn new tricks, or maybe just too lazy.  I put that to my students.  The response was intriguing.

While there was agreement that I would benefit from some of the smart technology to demonstrate, for example, the process of editing an essay, for the most part they said I should not change my methods.  They have seen many cases of teachers who use technology and yet do not improve the classroom experience by doing so.  Some do, but, from my students’ perspective, that means it’s a good teacher, not that the technology is what makes it good.

This parallels my experience of animation in film, where traditional cel animation has been replaced by CGI.  This was largely because the groundbreaking films from Pixar changed everything.  The assumption was that, because Pixar uses CG and their movies are great, using CG must make movies great.  But other studios’ uneven output has shown that CG does not make a movie great.  Indeed, even recent offerings from Pixar have shown this.  The fact is, their earlier movies were great because they were well made, and not simply because of the technology used.  They would have been just as great if animated traditionally.

This is true in education.  A good teacher is good regardless of technology, and a bad teacher won’t get better by using a computer.  My students went on to say that my emphasis on discussing ideas is a rare thing in their college experience, where they mostly sit silent while a professor drones on in the lecture.  Being able to explore their own views and learn about each other’s is something they value, and they urged me not to stop doing it.  In other words, be open to new approaches, but don’t abandon what works.

And this takes me back to the fair.  I find something very comforting about those jam contests and quilting shows and the vendors with their booths.  It hearkens back to an earlier time, yes, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t things of value in that time.  The fair is, among many other things, a community-building opportunity.  Just because we now build communities other ways doesn’t change that.  It is a rich pageant of traditions, ones that can, and should, be handed down for generation to generation.  It reminds us where we come from, and who we are.

Sure, let us always keep an eye toward the future.  But let us not forget the past, nor abandon those things that still have value.  That’s too easy to do in a disposable age of planned obsolescence, where last year’s model is considered hopelessly out of date.

Continuity.  Traditions.  That’s what makes societies strong.  Learn from the past to build the best possible future.  But you can’t have one without the other.

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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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The Movie of the Book

I’m frequently told by well-meaning fellow writers (and non-writers) that I shouldn’t be concerned about whether what I am writing is going to be a best-seller and make me the next J. K. Rowling, nor that it should be successful at all, nor even get published, especially in the age of self-publication.  I should write, they say, for myself, because I enjoy it, because I have stories to tell and all that sort of inspirational stuff that writers always tell themselves.

And I have no doubt some, perhaps many, writers really do feel that way: they write because it burns inside them and they have to get it out, and what happens after that is of less consequence. But the reality is, as in all things, it’s not really that simple.

The majority of writers have in mind the model of all the successful writers we follow.  We celebrate each others’ publications and sales milestones and eagerly peruse the bestseller lists.  We may write for ourselves a bit, but really we write because we want to be read.  And because we want to be able to think of ourselves as writers, rather than as teachers/lawyers/accountants/computer technicians/sales managers/lab workers/etc. who also happen to write in our spare time.  To quit your day job and be “A Writer,” you have to write a bestseller.  And yes, that’s kind of what I want.

Then what?  What about the writer of a bestseller that goes on to be made into a successful movie.  Some would say that’s sort of selling out, but most would consider it that much sweeter.  Most of us write with mental images of what we are writing, and, to some degree, have in mind what the movie might look like.  Who should play this part, how should that scene be staged, and so on.

I certainly have had those thoughts, but I also believe that what I am writing, even if it is published and becomes successful, is probably unfilmable.  Not because my vision is beyond the scope of film, but rather because of certain elements of story and character about which I would not want to compromise.  And I would be expected to do so.

Established, successful authors have some influence.  Perhaps they get first crack at writing the screenplay, or maybe some input towards casting, music and so forth.  But mostly, once the book becomes a movie, it’s out of the author’s hands.  I understand that, and I understand why that is.

The fact is, many of the things that make a novel great do not translate effectively to film.  Many of us have had the horrifying experience of seeing the movie based on a beloved book and bemoaning how “they ruined it!”  But to translate a book to film, changes must be made and compromises are inevitable.  Consider the films based on The Lord of the Rings, which endured significant changes.  Some were due to the tastes of the filmmakers: Peter Jackson favors elaborate battle sequences and action and spectacle and so emphasized those elements even when they were only alluded to in the text.  And it was often at the expense of the moments of tone and character that make the books so beloved. 

In some cases the changes arguably damaged the story.  There was great controversy about the complete removal of the “Scouring of the Shire” sequence near the end, a part of the story very important to J.R.R. Tolkien, that made a strong point about the aftermath of war and how it is worst when it comes close to home.  Jackson admittedly didn’t like that part and so left it out, at great loss to the story.  And yet, he may well have been right to do so.

Modern day audiences have little patience for a story that goes on for a long period after the Big Climax where the main villain is defeated.  They got to the place the story was going and are ready to move on.  To test this, next time you attend an action movie, right after the villain is blown away, start watching the audience; you will see them reaching for their jackets and packing up their popcorn empties and all that.  Because for them, the movie is basically over, so let’s get ready to go.  As it was, the third Lord of the Rings movie confounded its audiences by continuing on for nearly half an hour after the Big Climax, and that was with a lot of the subsequent story removed.

Another, even more justifiable change made by Jackson was the complete removal of the three early chapters dealing with Tom Bombadil.  Indeed, virtually every dramatic adaptation ever produced leaves out Bombadil, despite those parts being among the most magical, engaging passages.  Why?  Because it’s a total three-chapter digression that has nothing whatsoever to do with the rest of the story.  Had Tolkien been writing today, he would surely have been told by editors to lose that part, and also the “Scouring of the Shire,” probably.  Yet they make the book work.  But not the movie.

I have no illusions that, if my book were made into a movie, I would be faced with changes and compromise.  I’d be willing to listen in most cases, and actually have only a few areas where I would not give in.  My main action hero being a girl of apparent Polynesian extraction is one.  My youngest character having red hair is another, along with one of her most defining chacteristics: her preferred mode of (un)dress.  And that alone would be a huge impediment to film.  So I have no expectation that I’m writing the next summer blockbuster.  Just as well, because I have to finish writing it before it can be anything.

But there is one way it could be done, a way that might well address some of the stickier character elements.  I have come to realize that I see considerable appeal in the possibility that my book could be made into a movie… in animated form.  I’m a big fan of animation and would wholeheartedly embrace such a prospect.  Provided that the state of American animation could get past the assumption that animation is strictly for children.  Yeah, there’s the problem.

To be continued…

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