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Analogy and Animation: A Special Relationship Part 4 — Good Studios, Bad Films, v.2

Continuing our excerpts from the Inspired 3D series, Keith Lango presents part one of a two-part tutorial on lip-sync and facial animation.

Many have praised Finding Nemos balance of technology and tale, but Ellen Besen begs to differ. © Disney Enterprises Inc./Pixar Animation Studios. All rights reserved.

Finding Nemo is a huge success and frankly, this has me worried. Very worried.

So far in this series weve examined the what of creating an animated film, as in what are the underpinnings, and the why, as in why understanding them makes a difference. And weve had a damn time doing it, havent we?

So now its time to look at the how. By this I dont mean a review of stretch and squash or model building or other animation production techniques. What I would like to take a look at is our preconceptions about those techniques and then consider how we can make our films more truly animated.

But why would we fool around with the current formula? Animation has never been more popular, so we must be doing something right right?

Well, yes and no. The technical end is thriving, but in spite of (or maybe because of) the success of films like Finding Nemo, animation is in denial: its cut off from a crucial aspect of itself and, as a result, is at risk of losing its identity.

Uh oh, youre now thinking, another article criticizing the industry for favoring technology and technique over story. But we need to be careful here. Animation, as it is currently done, sucks is at risk of becoming as much of a knee-jerk reaction as automatically treating the latest Pixar release as if Moses just brought it down from the mountain. And any automatic reaction can become just one more barrier in the way of making better films.

Yes, we do have a tendency, particularly in recent years, to focus on the technical side of animation as an end goal. But can we solve this by simply reversing the roles? I would say no.

Instead, we need to recognize that technology and technique are part of the content just like plot, camera angles or abstract visuals. And, as with the other parts, we need to first understand what we can communicate through the technical side and then build a strategy that will focus all the pieces on a common goal. In other words, the point of the whole exercise is to communicate something, not just move things around, regardless of how cool the means for moving them might be.

The conflict around tech and content is especially hot in 3D animation. Of course, CG is in a rapid state of growth, so its easy to understand that people are excited about creating and applying new developments.

But Ive been to the meetings where hours are spent finessing the technical details and then everyone laughs when a flaw in the story logic is pointed out. Weve all been there. And the truth is that when stories are viewed as merely being showcases for the latest technological breakthrough (Hair! Weve got hair! Now what are we going to do with it?), we are letting the tail wag the dog.

This reminds me of Disneys history. Over the years, that studio produced one major technical advancement after another but they always found a synergistic relationship between the technical and the story. Each new development released a different kind of storytelling: breakthroughs in emotional expression opened the door to commercial animated features; 101 Dalmatians was made possible by the advent of Xerox technology (imagine hand-inking all those spots). Tech may have been a driving force but it never ruled the roost.

So how is this playing out today? Chris Landreths films (Bingo - 1998; The End - 1995) show us how technology can inspire story in personal filmmaking. In fact, these films were conceived as in-house tests for Alias|Wavefronts software but you would never guess it. Both make clear that a strong concept can use technology without being owned by it.

And how about commercial applications, like Pixars films? Do they hold up as well?

Toy Story carried its analogy through from start to finish. © Disney Enterprises Inc.

Toy Story is the granddaddy of the current trend in CG features, but it isnt a victim of tech uber alles. Instead, this is a film with a solid foundation in analogy.

The starting point, that the toys are alive, is garden variety. But adding the idea that they are aware of their precarious lot in life one day youre the favorite, next day youre in the giveaway bag opens up a wellspring of ideas. One of the most interesting is the nature of the films alternative world.

The story takes place in a world just like ours, with the twist that the toys are active participants in the job of being toys; they know the rules and believe it is in their best interests to obey them. This generates a believable tension that becomes an effective story engine.

The plot is a grand adventure played out on a microcosmic scale in which a move across town is an odyssey and the boy next door is evil incarnate. Then there is the ensemble of toys, each with their own unique movement possibilities, each possibility incorporated so nicely into the story not just for the laughs, but as an essential story element.

And finally, there is the technology, which, in this case, is a near perfect fit. Toy Story could just have easily been done with 2D drawn animation. But the combination of the real world setting and the totally convincing CG toys gives the film the feeling of being some kind of impossible live-action footage, at least as long as the story stays focused on the toys.

This, combined with the rules of toy behavior (that they can only act alive when we arent looking), creates an atmosphere of eerily heightened reality, one that lets the audience consider the possibility that things like this might really happen. This, in turn, adds drama to the moment when the toys break the rules in order to give bad boy Sid his comeuppance.

Notice here how all the elements are drawn into the storytelling and then interwoven, with each part playing multiple roles and multiple parts combining for a common purpose. This harnessing of all the elements towards effective, theme-based communication is the key principle of a uniquely animated style of communication called integrated storytelling.

In integrated storytelling, we can take advantage of one of animations most inherent properties: the ability to control every element down to the frame. So smoke can become an expression of the villains intentions, wrapping noxious fumes around his intended victim; background music can become an offscreen characters cocky attitude and the camera can become the off centered and shaky POV of a drug addict.

Is Finding Nemo plot just a clothesline to hang random gags? © Disney Enterprises Inc./Pixar Animation Studios. All rights reserved.

Now remember here that, as animators, we have the power of gods over our films and we must use that power well. By allowing us to treat every part of a film like a character, integrated storytelling lets animation make the best use of its most inherent properties. But to do this we need clear guidelines, like the ones we get from analogy. Without them things can go seriously awry.

For example, lets look at Finding Nemo, a film that is charming but surprisingly weak weak enough to cause concern.

Finding Nemo has a good location, lots of great characters and plenty of inventive situation-based action. But the storyline doesnt rest on any analogy at all if there is an intrinsic relationship between fish and humans, it certainly isnt revealed here.

So instead of developing multiple strands of story, character and theme that can be woven together, the story becomes like a clothesline: a rope along which various unrelated sequences can be strung, connected by only the vaguest cause and effect.

Psychological conditions substitute for character development and, to add insult to injury, are abandoned with abandon whenever it suits the filmmakers (that is, whenever those characteristics get in the way of the plot).

And then theres the problematic combination of photorealistic settings and fish, which are cartoony in design, but whose behavior makes them more like humans in fish suits than fish who can think.

In other words, without a guiding analogy, all the key decisions in Finding Nemo are essentially random, held together by a superficial logic at best. In fact, for a film that takes place in the ocean, its awfully shallow.

Perhaps you think Im being too picky here. Whats wrong, for example, with the fishes unfishy behavior? If its wrong here, how about elsewhere, like SpongeBob SquarePants? He isnt anything like a sponge. Is that a problem too?

Well, actually, no. The problem with Finding Nemo lies in the inconsistency of its alternative world and here we can point a finger squarely at CG technologys ability to make things photorealistic. It worked fine for Toy Story because there the point was to make everything, including the toys, as real as possible.

And SpongeBob also works, because in an unabashedly cartoony world there are no set rules to begin with. So SpongeBob can have whatever combination of human and spongy characteristics the creators choose, as long as they are consistent with them.

But when we include elements that flirt with live action, we give up a degree of license. In Finding Nemo, the backgrounds and effects say real world but the character designs and performance say cartoon and you cant have it both ways. Part of the beauty of Toy Story, and SpongeBob for that matter, is that there is such coherence between the design, animation, characterization and action. Both precisely define their places on the continuum between reality and fantasy and maintain them in every aspect of the film from beginning to end.

Besen argues that SpongeBobs style helps sell the combination of human and animal-like attributes. © Nickelodeon.

From all this we can take two key thoughts: to make good films we need internal logic to guide the decision making for every element including the technology, and we need discipline to use the resulting choices consistently and well.

Such issues have always been important to thinking animators. As early as the 1930s, Disney animators began to question the logic of Mickey: how did a three-foot mouse fit in with the rest of the gang, a more or less normally proportioned bunch of cartoon animals? Once they had thought about it, they couldnt account for the discrepancy.

And as the studio moved into feature films, members of every department would collaborate on the story development phase. From the beginning of pre-production, they would be looking for logical, inventive ways to make every part of the film count as part of the content and ended up with films that were way ahead of their time in their remarkable storytelling techniques.

But talk about discrepancies: now we have animation that looks like live-action and live-action that can be manipulated like animation, as well as all the traditional techniques to contend with. How can we reconcile so many possibilities? There has never been a time when there was more need to understand the real nature of this medium.

A couple of years ago, I was in a planning meeting for an outdoor live-action shoot when the question came up, How long is the alleyway? The location scout answered, 15 feet. As the crew debated how they were going to shoot the sequence in that constrained space, I started wondering how an animator would respond to that question. And then I realized what the animated answer was: As long as it needs to be, of course.

To really understand this medium, we have to come back to this point over and over again: the control we exercise in animation doesnt end with the concept or with the nature of the hero or with the rules. We can go much further, defining not just the length of the alleyway but its physical properties, as well. So do we create what appears to be a real alley or do we imply a location by a rectangle that defines the idea of a wall and a grid that implies a fence?

Or do we decide to do away with defined locations altogether and have the film play out in a malleable white void one minute as flat as a sheet of paper and next minute, infinitely deep?

Going even further, we need to be in control of the physical structure of the film itself, but do we have to use live-action sequence structure? Do we even have to use shots or pretend that there is a camera? Is there anything stopping us from developing an entirely new kind of animation film grammar?

There is no right or wrong answer to these questions. The reality is: it depends. Depends? On what? On the nature of the content, on the underlying analogy, on the stylistic strengths of the filmmaker, on the particular technique that is being used. Regardless, though, the first answer to any of these questions is always: whatever it needs to be.

These are not our only challenges. Technology has almost fulfilled Disneys desire to make animated films that look like live-action films and so, we are entering an era where little brother animation is beginning to show some muscle with its much bigger sibling, live action.

The imagery in Amelie had a very whimsical animated look and feel. © 2001 - Miramax Films - All rights reserved.

When live-action films begin to include significant amounts of digital animation, they become de facto animated films. Live-action folks keep making the mistake of trying to simply incorporate the new techniques into live-action films when what they really have to do is start approaching them as a new hybrid of animated film.

It isnt a coincidence that the most masterful films of this new breed so far have come from former animators such as Tim Burton and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amelie). This new genre is going to need a new syntax, and we are in a much better position to do this than are most live-action people.

But we wont succeed with any of this if we stay on our present path. Kaj Pindal, a great NFB animator and teacher, once told me that being a classical animator in the 1960s and 70s was like being a monk in the dark ages, nurturing a little flame of knowledge till it could be passed on to a new generation.

This mission has been accomplished and now its time to work the same magic with the nature of content and communication.

To do that, were going to have to get a lot more serious about this subject. Yes, I know that Finding Nemo is popular. However, the lesson of Toy Story and Finding Nemo is that while the technology has gotten better, the stories are getting worse. Isnt it more than a bit ridiculous to use evermore sophisticated technology to tell increasingly unsophisticated stories?

The good news is that much of what we need to know is just waiting for us to rediscover it and once uncovered, it will help us figure out the rest. The payoff is not only films that are more truly animated, but films that have more bang for the buck and what could be wrong with that?

Ellen Besen studied animation at Sheridan in the early 1970s. Since then she has directed award-winning films both independently and for the NFB, worked as a film programmer and journalist, taught storytelling and animation filmmaking at Sheridan and given story workshops at many institutions and festivals, including the Ottawa International Animation Festival. She is the director of The Zachary Schwartz Institute for Animation Filmmaking, an online school that specializes in storytelling and writing for animation.