A Whole New World

It would appear that animated film making has evolved into a whole new breed of animal. With more and more animated motion pictures finding a home in the Academy Awards animated film category I can’t help but wonder how these so called animated movies are that different from their live action counterparts? Add such goodies as motion capture and photorealistic rendering, the lines have become continually blurred.

In years past I remember audiences going to Walt Disney movies in particular because they were NOT live-action films. And, of course audiences were well aware of this. There was something fanciful and delightful watching moving drawings spring to life on the big screen. Today, it would appear animation is moving toward increased realism with each passing year. Anything the film maker can imagined can reproduced in the computer. That’s correct, anything is possible and it would seem the sky is the limit. And that, boys and girls is exactly the problem. Those of you who remember the beginning days of digital film making probably recall the early attempts at shading, rendering and how difficult it was to create convincing imagery. Certain textures, including fur and hair pushed programmers to the limit. It’s hard to believe how far we’ve moved since those days when images in the computer looked primitive and clunky. Digital technology has taken a quantum leap and we’re still in the beginning stages of this remarkable technology. While creating storyboards for Pixar’s “Toy Story2” back in 1997, we watched with amazement as digital capability double while we were in the process of creating the movie. Early rendered scenes had to be trashed and redone because the technology had advanced so quickly while the film was in production. This is all a good thing, I would imagine. Although it sometimes feels like clinging to a high-tech tiger by the tail. When he runs at full tilt you hang on for dear life lest the beast decides to turn and eat you alive.

Today, I listen as animated film makers extoll the virtues of their new medium and all the movie making power at their disposal. They can now fold live-action techniques into animated film making that include dynamic camera movement and hand held camera simulations. They can light a cartoon much the same way the old Hollywood masters lit live-action movie classics. Animated cartoon characters will no longer be limited by drawing and caricature. Cartoons can now deliver a performance worthy of Merle Streep or Anthony Hopkins. Subtlety and nuance has now replaced broad acting and exaggeration. Yet, the new realism brings little to the table when compared with classical animation’s efforts. I don’t know about you, but I came into this zany business called animation precisely because cartoon making was not live-action filmmaking. I loved animation exactly because it was all about caricature, broad performance and the limitations of an imperfect medium. Finally and most important, the animator brought characters to life using only his skills and pencil and paper. While I appreciate the enormous range of expression digital technology has given us, I can’t help but wonder if the animated “tail” is finally wagging the cartoon dog?

While it’s true in the old days a creator named Walt Disney pushed for more “realism” in his animated motion pictures. The Old Maestro wanted more life-like performances from his animators because he knew his characters had to be believable. This was necessary for Walt’s stories to work. However, Disney’s artists were limited by what they could create on paper and restricted by the five levels of the animation camera. Yet, that very limitation enabled them to become incredibly creative and they were continually pushed to come up with unexpected and amazing solutions to problems simply because they had to. They were limited by the technology of the day. Yet, that very limitation enabled them to become enormously creative. I’m not knocking the amazing technical achievements we’ve made over the last two decades in the cartoon business. However, I am concerned we’ve become too focused on the wrong things. Technology can free us from tasks that are tedious and redundant. Images such as props, vehicles and effects are child’s play for the computer. Although, I think I’d still give a nod to analog special effects animator Josh Meader’s hand drawn pixie dust over that sparkly computer crap any day. The Disney Masters created classics and they were limited by the tools of their day. The limitation was certainly acknowledged, and they worked within those parameters. Today, the number of camera levels is virtually unlimited and the computer’s ability to replicate images knows no bounds. However, that kind of technological freedom won’t guarantee any classics, I’m afraid.

I honestly don’t expect hand drawn traditional animation to make any kind of meaningful comeback in the near future. I’m not being negative - just simply accepting reality. The “3D genie is out of the bottle” and its not going back in anytime soon. Digital movie makers can now deliver a feature length animated film in months. The same hand drawn footage would more than likely take years. Once you compare the cost, there’s no contest. And, in big time Hollywood movie making the dollar rules. Finally, this is not an appeal to dump the new technology because it has already demonstrated how successful it can be. However, I’d like to appeal to our young animation film makers to use the new technology and not be driven by it. Ultimately, the electronic marvel on your desktop will not solve your creative problems. As always, it will be your imagination and ingenuity that will create the amazing product we call movie magic.

When I arrived at the Walt Disney Studios fifty years ago, the artists were king. Today, technology drives pretty much everything and the artists - what few there are have been pretty much shoved to the side.

When I arrived at the Walt Disney Studios fifty years ago, the artists were king. Today, technology drives pretty much everything and the artists - what few there are have been pretty much shoved to the side.