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Dr. Toon: Is 'Avatar' Good for a LAFF?

Dr. Toon discusses the implications of Avatar on Live-Action Animated Features.

Will Avatar set off a photreal trend in animation? Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.

Now that James Cameron's techno-driven blockbuster Avatarreigns as the top-grossing film of all time, discussion runs rampant on how much of a game-changer this film actually may be. Cameron clearly sees it as such; he's gone so far as to say that future action films can star actors in their seventies looking very much like they do today. It would be easy to fill this column with recent quotes by MoCap technicians and virtual artists who now believe that anything in animation is possible, including our most extreme sci-fi dreams. But is it really true? In one particular genre, probably not.

Is this a Bart Simpson you'd want to see in a live-action movie? Courtesy of Worth1000.

Recently I considered the following scenario that seems to have been overlooked by many, if not all, in the field. Having an utter disdain for Live-Action Animated Features (LAFFs for short; films in which live human actors attempt to portray animated characters), I wondered whether the advanced performance capture and CGI of Avatar had unwittingly saved the day for LAFFs. I thought about a recent column of mine blasting the (allegedly) upcoming Jetsons live-action feature.

Some bloggers have been casting the film in advance and were nominating Danny DeVito as the dead-lock, perfect choice for Mr. Spacely, George Jetson's dyspeptic boss who fires him at least once per episode. Suppose, my reasoning went, you hired DeVito, put him in a MoCap suit, filmed him and then altered his features until he actually became Cosmo G. Spacely? That way, the live actor still carries the role but has been altered by CGI to complete the illusion of being an animated character. After all, if Zoe Saldana can be turned into a large blue felinoid with a set of neural dreadlocks, what can't be done?

Well, maybe that's a point, but perhaps not. Debate raged (and still does) over whether the Na'vi known as Neytiri of the Omaticaya was a human actress capable of an Oscar nomination or a fantastic simulated variation of her produced through the extreme cutting edge of visual FX. Mr. DeVito would undoubtedly lend identifiable characteristics to the Spacely construction, but would it be him? If you could not tell, wouldn't this be an animated film rather than a LAFF? In this journalist's opinion, no, it would not be, for a number of reasons, and the film (also IMHO), would still fail miserably.

Does this Homer Simpson looks more like a mutation? Courtesy of Pixeloo.

Oh, Dr. Toon, can't you ever give LAFFs a break? What if they all looked as good as Avatar? They won't. I submit Exhibits A through D as evidence. These were constructed by various artists who submitted them to sundry sites as examples of how animated characters could be realistically constructed to mimic live beings. As can be seen, they range from unsettling to grotesque to terrifying. However, this is pretty much the way they would have to be done if a LAFF were to successfully resemble Avatar.

As can be seen, just because an actor can be made to look like a cartoon character does not make it a good idea. When all is said and done, what you have is a very ugly version of the character in question, so that the effect is more like looking at a human mutation rather than a familiar cartoon character. I, for one, would not want to watch ninety minutes of such horror. If LAFFs were to adopt the realism of Avatar, two things would be certain: It would be a triumph for the animators and a surrealistic exercise in weirdness for the folks in the theater. With all due respect to the wizards of LightWave, (and they have earned it), I have to wonder how this movie would have been received had it featured the grotesqueries depicted above. Am I the only one who gets the willies from imagining them moving around and talking? If anything, ultra-real CG might make LAFFs even worse than they already are.

One might also note that several of the above artists depicted characters from The Simpsons. It might be interesting to note that The Simpsons Movie grossed $183 million on a $75 million budget. A survey by the website Box Office Mojo found that 85% of audiences rated this film an "A" or a "B." Rotten Tomatoes found 90% of its contributing critics recommending this movie. It was made in 2D with the characters appearing just as they do on television. Would it have been better using the technologies employed in Avatar?

Is Mr. Burns an exercise in weirdness? Courtesy of Worth1000.

If visuals on the order of Avatar could save LAFFs, they might have a slight chance, but no such luck. There's another factor working against them. Consider a recent interview with Dan Lin, producer of the upcoming Tom and Jerry CGI live-action mishmash. As one of the brewmasters of Cartoon Brew pointed out, Mr. Lin believes that Tom and Jerry were the originators of cartoon violence, that T&J's relationship was a sibling rivalry and that the series was actually a "show." These three statements alone make one wonder how much Mr. Lin has researched Tom and Jerry or animation history.

To begin with, sticks of dynamite and deadly mallets were pulled out of thin air in many cartoons well before T&J. Slowly rising lumps on skulls and steamroller-flattened bodies surely existed before the cat and mouse were born on Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera's drawing boards. In fact, I believe that a certain brick-tossing mouse may have preceded Tom and Jerry by several decades. As Cartoon Brew also notes, siblings generally don't use deadly weapons against each other with the intent to disfigure or maim. Finally, anyone who forgets that T&J were theatrical stars long before they had a "show" probably shouldn't be making Tom and Jerry films in the first place.

But please, let's not be too hard on Mr. Lin, who is probably a very nice person. He is, after all, the perfect person to helm this project. To date he has never worked on an animated project in his career, although he appears to have some animation-related titles "in development". The pattern of giving producers and directors with no animation experience whatsoever green lights for LAFFs continues. In my November 2009 column I noted that the same mistake was being repeated with Robert Rodriguez, who is heading the live-action Jetsons feature.

Does Butthead give you the willies? Courtesy of Worth1000.

Start with an inexperienced producer/director who believes he/she totally understands animation and give them a bad idea for a LAFF. Game over then and there. You could rehire the entire technical team from Avatar, purchase them the next generation of CGI technology, and give them an unlimited budget and schedule, and the result will be entirely predictable. The movie will be a putrid failure. Worse, it won't even look good, because a producer/director who does not appreciate or understand animation will opt for character designs like the ones in this column because such a person will value the dazzling technology over the best presentation of the characters. So, do I believe the technology that produced Avatar portends the eventual salvation of LAFFs? No. I do believe that it will produce more detailed and dazzling failures unless two issues are addressed. Let's recap:

First, as the cliché goes, science can be used for good or evil. Same goes for advanced 3D CGI FX. Just because you can adapt the anatomical structure and features of Butthead into a flesh-and-blood amalgam does not mean you should. As was pointed out earlier with The Simpsons Movie (and, I should add, the very successful The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie), one can make a very good and profitable 2D animated film with familiar characters not portrayed by live actors, mo-capped or otherwise. Second, as long as creative control of any animated property in any format is placed in the hands of unqualified and/or inexperienced personnel, there will be tears in executive offices and empty theaters in the communities.

It appears to me, no matter what marvelous innovations appear in the future, up to and including 3-D holography, the best way to address the future of live-action animated films is not to bother making them at all.

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