Dr. Toon: Running With the Pack

In this month's column, Dr. Toon peers through the microscope to the dawn of animation to see how the path of 3D evolution is mirroring 2D's development.

Is Jimmy Neutron this decade's Felix the Cat? © 2001 Paramount Pictures and Viacom International Inc. All rights reserved (left) and © Felix the Cat Prods.

Is Jimmy Neutron this decade's Felix the Cat? © 2001 Paramount Pictures and Viacom International Inc. All rights reserved (left) and © Felix the Cat Prods.

Those of you keeping up with scientific theory circa 1866 have no doubt noted the evolutionary musings of one Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919). Haeckel was the German biologist who originated "recapitulation theory," better known to modern-day students through the phrase "Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny." This high-blown phrase simply means that, as the embryo of a given species develops, it re-enacts the entire evolutionary development of that same species. When Haeckel peered at human embryos during their early formation, he noted what appeared to be gill slits, and thus deducted that the human race once passed through a piscine stage and then went through subsequent reptilian and mammalian stages, eventually developing into the writer and readers of this month's column.

This theory has since devolved into fish food. Science has marched on, leaving poor Ernst Haeckel behind as a belated whipping boy for the creationist camp. Dr. Haeckel's theory may be a dead end in the biological sense, but it remains perfectly applicable in animation 140 years later. To be frank, the early years of CGI feature films have somehow replicated the early years of traditional animation and we can most readily see that in two areas. One is the progressive development of realism in animating the human figure. The other is the overwhelming preponderance of animal protagonists in animated works.

Animating people in a convincing manner had never been easy in the early days. That is not to say that humans and humanoids were completely absent from the scene; Winsor McCay produced some spectacular work featuring detailed, proportionally correct humans. Several studios endlessly animated Mutt and Jeff. Bobby Bumps, a young chap developed by Earl Hurd, was a rather sophisticated piece of work for the pre-1920s era. Figures that were more primitive also graced the first decades of American animation, such as Colonel Heeza Liar and Paul Terry's Farmer Alfalfa.

Still, humans were a tougher test for animators than animals were. Studios were mostly content to animate human caricatures with "rubber hose" limbs and faces to match. The mechanics of movement mattered little, anatomy less and gravity was used more for the purpose of gags than for the disposition of actual weight on a living human body. So it was as far back as 1915, when computers were yet the stuff of science fiction.

Max Fleischer was as much a technician as he was a filmmaker. In conjunction with his brother Dave, Max developed the rotoscope. This device allowed filmed images to be traced and then inked, in effect turning a filmed subject into a cartoon. Dave cavorted in a clown suit while Max filmed away; the result was Ko-Ko (later Koko) the Clown, who stunned audiences with his lifelike antics -- and the agility of his movements. The means to produce realistic humans for animated films had taken a huge step forward.

Sort of. Although the Fleischer studio would use rotoscoping in the decades to come, problems emerged with the process. The strengths and limitations of rotoscoping can be observed in the first feature produced by the Fleischer studio, Gulliver's Travels (1939). In their portrayals of Gulliver, actors Nelson Demorest (and later Sam Parker) are meticulously rotoscoped from live-action film. The light that falls on Gulliver, the folds of his clothes and the nuances of his facial expressions are startlingly lifelike. Still, Gulliver is a jarring figure, so realistic that he comes off as a special effect in an animated world comprised of far less sophisticated character designs. Then too, there was the problem of action.

It was apparent that animated movement had to be as much a simulacrum of actual kinesis as animated people were of their flesh-and-blood templates. The translation of motion from live-action film to animation often resulted in stiff movements that lacked fluidity. Beginning roughly around 1935 Walt Disney began a strenuous effort towards realism in his animated endeavors. His chief instructor, Don Graham, held rotoscoping in great disdain and urged Disney's artists to study live-action film as a frame of reference for animated movement. The Disney crew ultimately validated Graham's teachings in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). Some rotoscoping of the Prince was done near the end of production due to cost and time limitations and this animation is generally recognized as the weakest in the film.

Rotoscoping never disappeared entirely. For example, Ralph Bakshi used the process in his films during the 1970s and 80s. Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly is an advanced twist on the venerable technique of rotoscoping. The same can be said for the Miramax release, Renaissance (Aside: I recall that some readers looked askance at me for suggesting in an earlier column that a stylish animated feature could be made in black and white. Well, here is your proof in chiaroscuro). As Disney's artists and methods disseminated to other theatrical studios, animated shorts and features tended to follow the Disney model of using live-action film as a reference, if at all.

Don Graham, Walt Disney's chief instructor, urged his artists to study live-action film as a frame of reference for animated movement, which resulted in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). © Disney.

Don Graham, Walt Disney's chief instructor, urged his artists to study live-action film as a frame of reference for animated movement, which resulted in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). © Disney.

If humans remained caricatures they were at least more sophisticated, displayed true heft and moved more convincingly than they did in 1930. Disney's films continued to feature human protagonists and typically did not falter in doing so. As realism and naturalism became desirable goals, the human figure was a proving ground for animators. This trend towards realism would change with the ascent of the UPA studios in the early 1950s, but even then not permanently.

Throughout the early years of the past decade, CGI artists have been attempting realism and naturalism through their steadily evolving cybercraft. Animated humans have not been exempt from this trend and like Disney's characters post-1937, they are getting more lifelike all the time. Efforts at CGI-enhanced rotoscoping and motion-capture animation suggest that today's CGI artists are still pursuing the Holy Grail of depicting authentic humans. Not that it won't happen; the nicely textured but stiff cast of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001) look dated today against the freedom and variety of movement mocap allows and the software for lighting effects and textures are more impressive every time out. Grab some LightWave 3D, throw in a few dashes of Maya and Alias, season with a sprig of iClone 3.5. Voila! Living, breathing, CGI people!

Recent films featuring larger roles for human(oid) characters were Hoodwinked, Monster House, the aforementioned A Scanner Darkly and Renaissance, Everyone's Hero and The Ant Bully. The latter two films seem to be less obsessed with human verisimilitude. Monster House is another shot at animation via motion capture and is actually an improvement over the creepy characters that populated The Polar Express. This is because the designs are far looser and paradoxically less eerie. There is no doubt that CGI software will undergo further refinements that make people indistinguishable from their animated counterparts. On that note, let's take a look at the second area where CGI replicated the initial decade or so of traditional animation.

Monster House (left) is an improvement over the creepy characters that populated The Polar Express. © 2006 Columbia Pictures Industries Inc. and GH One Llc. All rights reserved (left) and © 2004 by Warner Bros. Ent. Inc.

Monster House (left) is an improvement over the creepy characters that populated The Polar Express. © 2006 Columbia Pictures Industries Inc. and GH One Llc. All rights reserved (left) and © 2004 by Warner Bros. Ent. Inc.

In the beginnings of what would be considered theatrical animation, there were very few human protagonists, but there were entire zoologies of critters. Animals were easier to draw than humans, more fun and audiences seemed far more forgiving of draftsmanship when it came to animating cats, mice and pigs, rather than human beings. The first animated star was arguably a trained dinosaur. The first theatrical and commercial stars were a pensive yet mischievous cat named Felix, a cheerful rabbit named Oswald and, his successor at Disney, that mercurial mouse Walt called Mickey. Their contemporaries were critters like Krazy Kat and Flip the Frog. The first successful smash as a humanoid star, Betty Boop, began her screen career as a dog. Disney went on to give Mickey Mouse compatriots that were cows, dogs and ducks, but no humans intruded on their ink-and-paint world.

Warner's early stars (with the exceptions of Bosko and Buddy) were animals. When Leon Schelsinger attempted to develop a stable of stars in 1935, tryouts went to a pair of puppies, two cats, a pig, an owl and a turtle in Friz Freleng's I Haven't Got a Hat. Eventually Warner added a very famous rabbit, the pig that first appeared in the cartoon mentioned above, a wacky duck and other non-human creatures who are still revered favorites today. Not to be outdone, Paul Terry developed a super-powered mouse, and Walter Lantz an insane woodpecker. Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera came up with a cheerfully combative cat and mouse pair for MGM.

After CGI gradually crept into feature films, independent pieces, experimental projects and commercial work, there was great anticipation concerning the future of theatrical films. Even so, both animation fans and the public were awed at the Disney/Pixar collaboration Toy Story (1995). Although the focus of the story was on sentient toys, CGI-powered studios soon fell back on an old chestnut; herds of animated animals were soon dominating the screen and would do so for a period of years.

This is most clear when we examine the computer-generated output of 2005-2007 (2007 films are projected to the time of this writing). Over that period, there were 20 CGI films that were (or will be) released, and an interesting pattern can be observed; only six of these films attempted significant attempts at animating humans in any major role. Most of these films featured large animal casts. Many of them have had "party animal" themes, with wisecracking four-footers having a ball with (or against) other nonhuman species.

Madagascar, Over the Hedge, Barnyard, The Wild and Open Season fall pretty much into the "party animal" camp, Chicken Little nominally so. Valiant and Doogal had animal protagonists. Ice Age 2 was a zoo. Coming up (at the time of this writing) are Ratatouille, Flushed Away, Happy Feet and Bee Movie. As in the early days of animation, there have been ingenious attempts at constructing CGI people, but they were and are a minority in animated films today. Hollywood is running with the pack.

CGI humans are outnumbered by their furry counterparts. The Incredibles runs counter to Hollywood's animal pack. © 2004 Disney Enterprises Inc./Pixar Animation Studios. All rights reserved.

CGI humans are outnumbered by their furry counterparts. The Incredibles runs counter to Hollywood's animal pack. © 2004 Disney Enterprises Inc./Pixar Animation Studios. All rights reserved.

In fact, if we were to take the original Toy Story movie (1995) as a starting date, much the same would be true for most of the CGI features. The most notable exceptions are Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius (2001) and The Incredibles (2004). Consider that from 1995 through 2000, the following (wholly) CGI films were produced: Antz, A Bug's Life, Toy Story 2 and Dinosaur. Three of those four movies featured non-human casts; Toy Story 2 did feature some animated humans. In the meantime, the following 2D films were released: Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, Swan Princess II, Anastasia, Quest for Camelot, Mulan, The Prince of Egypt, The King and I, Tarzan, Iron Giant and The Road to El Dorado. These films featured predominant casts of animated humans.

CGI humans remain greatly outnumbered by their furry, four-footed counterparts even though the technology and methods used to represent them had progressed significantly. Why should this be? It could be that 2D animators have had a hundred years to refine their craft while 3D artists have had 20. Perhaps it is believed that CGI critter films sell better, although The Incredibles runs strongly counter to that notion. Perhaps there is a perception that, should humans become too realistic, one may have well as made a live-action film with good vfx. It does not have to be so; Linklater, before taking things too far in A Scanner Darkly, proved this point with Waking Life. Alternatively, perhaps CG truly is in an evolutionary stage that does parallel that of traditional animation; maybe ontogeny does indeed recapitulate phylogeny in this case.

Meanwhile, Jimmy Neutron has been a hit in TV, DVDs, licensing and the big screen, the first big time CGI character to do so. I suppose this makes him this decade's version of... Felix the Cat?

I neglected to mention last column that I have now spent seven blissful years with the great folks at Animation World Network. My grateful thanks to Sarah Baisley, Darlene Chan, Rick DeMott and everyone else at AWN who brings you this column every month. My thanks and blessings as well to you, my readers, who deliver the hits that keep this thing going. I look forward to entertaining and challenging you in the months ahead.

Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.

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