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Mind Your Business: Adam Sandler Can Make Us Better Animators

In this month's column, Mark Simon messes with the Zohan and finds inspiration for pushing the animation envelope.

Mark Simon as Zohan. Courtesy of Mark Simon.

Mark Simon as Zohan. Courtesy of Mark Simon.

For years I've said the reason for animating a story is to portray something that can't be shot in live action. However, recent live-action movies are making the distinction between live and animated content less clear.

Last week, I started to question my own statements when I saw Adam Sandler's latest movie You Don't Mess with the Zohan. I laughed hard through the entire movie. It was as outrageous as it was visually amazing.

To be fair, I also have to give credit to director Dennis Dugan, a longtime Sandler cohort. Dugan has also directed a few of my favorite comedies, like Saving Silverman and Happy Gilmore.

For those of you who have not seen Zohan, it takes physical comedy to a new level. There is one sequence in particular where Sandler's character swims and leaps out of the water like a dolphin. The effect is flawless. Other sequences, which you have seen in the movie trailers, show the lead character flipping over cars and doing push-ups with no hands.

Ryan Tudhope.

Ryan Tudhope.

As I was watching the movie, I started to reconsider how far to take the physical gags in my cartoons. I realized we have to rethink what we do in animation, because live-action movies with special effects can now do anything a director and screenwriter can imagine. Dugan and Sandler have raised the physical comedy bar.

In order to achieve their comedic vision, Dugan and Sandler worked with Ryan Tudhope, visual effects supervisor at The Orphanage. Ryan agrees that anything is possible now in live-action films, provided "that it really comes down to time and money. It's amazing that even on a feature as large as Zohan, you are constantly hitting that boundary of time and money. It's all about collaborating with the other departments and everyone doing what they can."

What this means to us as animators is that we need to push the gags in our animations even further. We can't take the jokes too far.

Famed animation writer Jeffrey Scott agrees. "There was a time when only the immortal Wile E. Coyote could drop off a cliff, have his eyes pop out, his neck stretch like a rubber band, and leave a perfect body-shaped hole in the ground. Poof! Now, with the magic of CG, any mere mortal can go through the digital animation mill and be transmogrified into a live-action ‘cartoon.' The worlds of animation and live action are no longer separate and distinct. Anything a writer can image can now be painted on the silver screen in awe-inspiring ones and zeros."

In many ways, TV animation is entering the same type of crappy look we used to see in the '70s. Flash can be a great tool, but when its only use is to cut costs, it also cuts creativity and quality. I am seeing more and more badly designed series with no cartoony action of quality keys. Talking heads does not make good animation.

Of course it's getting harder and harder to differentiate between some live-action and animated movies. They seem to be moving into each other's territories.

Cartoony action in live-action movies is not really new. The Mask starring Jim Carrey was released back in 1994. The biggest difference between Carrey's Mask and Sandler's Zohan is that not only did The Mask move like a cartoon, it looked like a cartoon.

Movies like Garfield, Alvin & The Chipmunks and Beverly Hills Chihuahua are as much animation as live action. They put a great cartoony animated look into a live film.

Then we have movies like Beowulf and Final Fantasy, which are completely animated drama/action movies that attempt to look like live-action films. They failed because they tried to replicate reality because they could, not because they should. As great as they looked, any imperfections in replicating realistic humans took us out of the magic of the film. They should have been live-action movies with CG replacement characters when necessary.

You Don't Mess with the Zohan raises the physical comedy bar and makes animators rethink what animation can do that live-action vfx can't. © 2008 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All rights reserved.

You Don't Mess with the Zohan raises the physical comedy bar and makes animators rethink what animation can do that live-action vfx can't. © 2008 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All rights reserved.

Movies like Zohan, Superman Returns and Iron Man use the richness and subtlety of great actors, and supplement their actions with great effects, compositing and CG actor replacements.

But because live-action filmmakers are now so good at making humorous and physical actions so big, they have raised the bar for us in animation. No longer can we be content to just animate funny worlds, we have to be bigger than ever in our actions and our jokes.

In some ways, we don't really need to tread new ground. We actually need to look back 40-60 years and study the best animation had to offer us. Few animations now have the physical humor of the toons of yesteryear, with the exception of cartoons like SpongeBob.

The classic Bugs Bunny, Coyote and Road Runner, Pink Panther, and Tom & Jerry cartoons, and anything by Tex Avery and Chuck Jones, showcase cartoony action that only works in cartoons. And it's not just the big action, it's the timing of the gags, it's the humor of the writing, it's the strength of the characters, it's the humorous way the characters move even when walking.

Richard Williams' masterful animation text The Animator's Survival Kit does a great job of showing how even a simple walk can be funny when it's animated and not just a replication of reality. His best walk cycle examples do not really resemble reality. The knees move all over the place and bend in impossible directions. That's the point. They are animated!

We need to do better. We need to think as animators. We need to think bigger. We need to think funnier. Adam Sandler is not giving us a choice.

(My interview with Ryan Tudhope of The Orphanage for this article covers a number of the effects from Zohan and how they pulled them off. There was far too much great information to leave it unused, so I decided to share it with you. I've posted the entire audio of the interview online. You can listen to it stream on the web or download an MP3 file for your iPod. Enjoy.)

Mark Simon is an award-winning animation producer/director and speaker. (He also worked with Adam Sandler doing storyboards and illustrations on The Waterboy.) Mark has recently released two new editions of his popular Facial Expressions photo reference books for artists, Babies to Teens and the E-Book Companion, Volume 3. He can be reached at