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The Animation Pimp: The Kind of Thing I Like to Talk About

A fascinating and thought-provoking roundtable discussion tackles the notion that animated short films may be getting too “talky.”

Historically speaking, my sense is that independent animation (i.e. not including Hollywood cartoons) didn't use a lot of voice-over/dialogue. I suspect this was so that the films could reach a larger audience and it was cheaper to avoid narration (no need for translation/subtitles)... but since... well…I'll say the turn of the century or so animation has become a lot more talkative and it's reached a point where sometimes I feel it's too much...where I wonder if animators are relying more on voice-over/dialogue because they don’t have faith in the power of their images to convey the message. At times I feel like I'm watching an animated radio play and am often wondering...why some of these films needed to be animated to begin with. The rise of voice-overs also seems to coincide with the emergence of more animated documentaries.

These are just impressions. I don't have firm evidence, but it did make me curious to know how animators make the decision to use or avoid narration.

To get some additional insight, I invited a myriad of animation professionals to chime in on the issue of narration. Those participating: Richard O’Connor, Torill Kove, Steve Subotnick, Robin Steele, Chris Sullivan, Ruth Lingford and the always-chatty Konstantin Bronzit.

Richard O'Connor: I'll have to look this up but wasn't there a sort of directive from ASIFA in the 60s/70s on this? A set of guidelines for animators in the spirit of internationalism.  One of the tenants was that films should communicate across language.  The ASIFA Festivals, in turn, favored these types of films making them more prominent.

Ruth Lingford: Does the rise in voice-over coincide with a broadening of the sorts of things we are asking animation to do? You mention the rise of the animated documentary, but there are other areas - more adult-aimed feature films, more biography and autobiography, more films, perhaps, based on text.

Torill Kove: There are a few things to address here, but I'll try to answer the question about how I make the decision to use voice-over in my films. The initial stages of the process for those three films were very similar: I wrote a story around an idea that I was interested in with the goal of adapting it to an animated short. A voice was always intended to be a part of the film. In other words, I never tried to let the images do all the speaking and then decided in the edit that a voice was needed after all. A lot of voice always gets edited out, often quite early in the process. But the voice was always there like a part of the palette. I agree with Chris Sullivan's comment that a voice-over creates a kind of distance to a film's images - it makes the viewer more of an observer, a listener, than someone really absorbed in the film. But at the same time, I think a voice can also create a closeness and intimacy to the storyteller. I have so far wanted that intimacy between me and the audience even though the stories are not about me.  Even when I just make things up, like The Danish Poet, I like it to come across as, if not "true," at least familiar, and I think a good narrator can do just that, along with the images.

Steven Subotnick: In a film like One Day a Man Bought a House [Pjotr Sapegin], the narration adds a whole dimension of the film's identity, so I guess the question for me is what the voice is adding to the film.

TK: I agree. In the films mentioned here, Herzfeldt's and Sapegin's, the voice is so deeply attached to the characters I can't imagine those films without the voice. Who would that house rat and Bill be to us if the narrator didn't give us access to their hearts?

Robin Steele: I agree with Torill (and her films) - that it certainly has its place in storytelling, especially if the telling was planned that way.

It does, I think, get used far too often to prop up a visual work that did not quite live up to its task, as if, as has been suggested, the artist did not have the faith or the means to express its intent without some sort of verbal intervention. I object to it as much in live-action film as I do in animation, and I'll suffer the backlash for saying I do think it can be the result of lazy storytelling. Which is not to say that the very act of animation is lazy - it never is, obviously. But just as all good animation involves great silhouette posing, it should also involve at least some sort of visual code that's the reason for doing the story in animation at all. Call it pantomime, or non-verbal language, whatever. It's the language of silent film, to which I think animation owes more than to "radio plays" - the physical acting of lines, shapes, volumes, composition and color (even in abstract films) is still more closely related to filmmaking prior to sound than it is to the wall-to-wall talkies we generally see.

It really was enlightening, as I was first getting into animation, to see the incredible subversion the eastern European animators were doing with non-verbal, purely iconic, symbolic and metaphorical work - powerful visual statements of complex and often dangerous ideas, whose power derived from the fact that their language was more universal than could be expressed verbally. Of course, not all films work this way.  No two stories should live by the same rules. I just find, in animation, that there's always the chance to express what we can through the visual dance on the screen, allowing the audience to add the narrative that resonates within their viewing of it.

ROC: Part of this question also considers the enormous increase of film production in the past decade. It's not that Cordell Barker is making 10 times as many films (unfortunately), it's that technology has considerably broadened the field of creators. Traditionally "animators" made animated films.  Now people who identify primarily as "writers" are part of this boon.

Writers love words and the sound of their own voice.

TK: I think you are right, Richard, in pointing out that animators now include many who may have been writers first. But, to be fair, (while we're on the topic of how technology has brought more people to animation), I think there are now also many more films made by people who are visual artists first rather than animators or film makers. Not saying there's anything wrong with this, and visual artist animators are of course nothing new. But while narrated films by writer-animators may be flooding animation festivals with would-be radio plays, there also seems to be more films that are primarily eye-candy, visually and technically impressive and beautiful pieces (both narrative and non-narrative kinds) that fail to stir up any reaction in me except perhaps some curiosity about how it was made.

ROC: There's also the fallacy of "STORY!!!" that bombards young animators. Students think that "STORY!!!" is the most important aspect of their work.  Since constructing a naturalistic visual story is significantly more difficult than telling people what's going on, the voice is an obvious crutch.

"Story!!!" is one of the least important aspects in film.

TK: Really?

ROC: Absolutely. Look at the films referenced in this conversation.  "Story" is not why we love any of them.

RL: Richard, I disagree! One Day a Man Bought a House relies on its building of tension and unexpected denouement for its appeal. That's done with storytelling. And Don Herzfeldt is all about story (Billy's Balloon) or writing. Or would you define story differently?

SS: Animation lies at the intersection of visual art and filmmaking.  It is as much a visual art as a cinematic art.  Materials, line quality, color, movement, metamorphosis, and countless other visual elements can help tell a story.  This plastic quality of the medium gives animators very flexible storytelling tools that go well beyond dialog and narration.  So when an animator uses narration or dialog, we can ask if that use of voice is necessary.  Does it add or subtract from the film?  If it is used thoughtlessly, and is distracting the director from his or her visual work, then voice is hurting the film.

ROC: I define story the way Hollywood defines story for the sake of discussing films.

Sure you can move the goalposts and say that "story" is something broader, but then it becomes meaningless.

Most people like films because they're "funny" or have amazing special effects or compelling performances.

Story is anathema to the art of film.

Don Herzfeldt is great example of "story" having little bearing on the impact of the film.

I'd also say that One Day A Man Who Bought A House is great radio.  The picture is nice too.  But, man, it would be great on the radio.

This hints at the idea that "story" is an oral form and that film - as the expansion of photography - is something else.

TK: Richard, I don't understand what you mean when you say "story" has little bearing on the impact of Hertzfeldt's films.

If by Hollywood definition of story you mean the character driven three part structure, I would say that it's hard to have a nuanced discussion about the role that story plays in animation if we can only talk about story within parameters of that definition. It's too rigid.

About Hertzfeldt and story: would his films have any meaning at all if we removed the voice, shuffled the scenes around and re-spliced them together in some random order? If the answer to that is "no," then would that not mean that there is a story, a deliberate sequence of events that tells us something about Bill and about Hertzfeldt's particular take on the human condition?

ROC: I don't see how you can redefine an idea that has been widely accepted since Aristotle to fit a work that it doesn't fit.

This demonstrates how "story" has become such an albatross in our field that it needs to be drawn out where it doesn't exist.

People like Hertzfeldt work for the philosophy, the poetry and the humor. 

And I do think I could re-cut without the voice-over in a different sequence and still come up with something good.

TK: I think we can feel free to redefine anything we want, including Aristotle's theory about story. People do it all the time and it's part of what makes film interesting.

RS:  The world seems safe for people to make abstract, experimental or purely evocative art films, if that's what the artist in question desires. But even a purely poetic film might employ a voice-over, instead of allowing the visual work to portray and convey the idea and theme.

The question at hand seems more specifically focused on films that intend to tell story, by whatever definition one might prefer. Hence the use of a voice-over narrator to help tell it.

One possible point about using narration, it seems to me, is the challenge that both the short story writer and short film maker face: Brevity. The short form requires an economy that is a difficult thing to achieve with only visuals, and it demands (in both cases) a level of skill and iconic insight that maybe not all storytellers have mastered. So the gap between the idea and its purely visual expression is sometimes - not always, but sometimes - approached by the easier and more accessible means of "explaining" through VO narration. Perhaps that's some small part of the reason, if true, that more less-experienced filmmakers - freshly enabled to make animation by widespread technology now - are resorting to using narration to bolster their visual work…

Just a theory.

I'm also still not convinced that "story" is solely confined to a verbal context.

TK: I buy that theory Robin. And I don't think of story as confined to verbal context. Konstantin's films for example have wonderful stories without a word uttered.

RL: Robin, I think you have hit on one of the core problems of voice-over - it's about pacing. Though I think not in the way you mean. The first time I used voice in a film (The Old Fools - a poem) I realized that the spoken word moves at quite a slow pace. Without words, animation can often convey ideas faster. I found I had to make the images move slower to keep pace with the voice. Also I had to dial the power of the imagery back a lot to avoid distracting from the words (which were quite complex). I was very committed to including the poem in its entirety, but it was a challenge to balance the film with that many words.

ROC: Very true, Ruth.  We process visuals faster and more complexly than language.

RS: That may well be true, Richard, and is probably why we all do animation in the first place! The trick is to sequence those visual images in sensible, incisive ways that deliver the story or theme with the power we hope it will have. And, because we communicate far more routinely with verbal than visual skills in the world (now combined with a whole lot of visuals, certainly - but we did without this much of that for a long time), the default - the linguistic fallback - is words, either written or spoken.

And so, if there's doubt in the imagery on screen, it seems reinforcing to talk about it as it passes the eye. Necessary? Maybe sometimes, of course. An improvement on purely iconic and visual story, for which animation has a unique and virtually unlimited capacity? Not always. But getting the visual language just right is a fearsome endeavor - striving to do it without intervention by narrator is probably often a thankless task. But personally, it's still my favorite and most satisfying kind.

Chris Robinson: One of things that drew me to Me and My Moulton was the unspoken. I just felt that there was a mild darkness lurking beneath this family that wasn't actually spoken about (even the quick reference to the break-up of the family next door).

Chris Sullivan: Interesting, to think of ways that voice can either clarify of not. One thing I think is that lack of language can often keep your mind searching in a way that expository information does not. One of my favorite films of recent years is Ryo Hirana’s Paradise. The first time I saw it was with no subtitles, and it struck me that when I saw it the second time it was with subtitles. And there are two lines that I was happy to not know in the first viewing. From the radio it is announced that a bear has escaped from the zoo. And then a character asks the other if he dances. In my first language-less version, I enjoyed that there was no explanation, about the origins of the bear, or why the characters where dancing. I also feel that though I really like Coda, I think I would love it more with no language. 

To Ruth Lingford, I think if in the Pleasures of War, we would have had invocations of Judith, or other historical or biblical cues, it would have taken something away from it. The film works best floating in this unmoored time and place.        Once you open the language part of the mind, I believe you open the narrative, sense making part as well. This is in fact what I have leaned towards in my films, and there is nothing wrong with it. This also plays into the ways that people absorb information in short films, and in features. Mystery can turn into confusion over a long spell on screen.  I believe that when the language in a film is doing something different than the image, that is when I am most engaged. I will highlight here, Crulic The Path to Beyond by Anca Damien, Dog by Susie Templeton, and Old Man by Leah Shore. These films use dialogue and language but the image is doing something else that blurs the concreteness of the language.

RS: And speaking of feature-length films: The Triplets of Belleville, There's what…one or two lines of dialogue in the entire film? Not your typical old-man-with-flowers lament, either. One of the most evocative, emotional, hilarious and satisfying animated films ever made - you scarcely even realize there's no dialogue until well into the story, if ever. I would go so far as to suggest that dialogue - or certainly, voice-over narration - would have been not only superfluous but harmful to the experience of that story as told.

ROC: Animation is a form of painting that's occupying film space (ontologically speaking -whereas film is a further expression of the photo, animation is altogether different). 

This may hint at why the relationship to narration in general and dialogue in particular is so complex.

RL: It seems analogous with what happens when you use rotoscoping - I always feel it's as if an extra bank of spotlights turn on, and you interrogate the image in a different way.

Also, something similar happens, I think, when you use text on screen - it clicks us out of the loose, allusive, metaphorical pictorial language and into the verbal mode. L v R brain is probably too simplistic, but it feels like that.

RS: Very good points about perception, and how we use different parts of the brain for different tasks. There's certainly thought to be given as to how we, as filmmakers, use those neural compartments to evoke our themes.

I keep going back to what (I think) was suggested above, though - that the first "written" languages were pictographic. We learned to perceive, process and respond to "story" in pictures before there were alphabets, words or well-developed verbal languages, which came - sometimes - ages later. Thus, it seems to me, the more powerful way to the mind's receptive centers might still be pictures rather than words.

TK: I am really pleased that the unsaid parts in Moulton were noticed, that there was a sense of another story there somewhere, but not told. I love that aspect of wordless films, that not everything is explained, that the audience fills in the gaps, especially the psychological ones. I tried to achieve this in Moulton even though I always knew there would be voice-over. I think you can have mystery and poetry with voice, and I don't think voice necessarily diminishes that mysterious quality, or takes away from the power of the images.

ROC:  This may also get at the underlying question: When you talk about the "unsaid parts," those are my favorite parts of just about any film.  But when you're making something, there's always a person (or several) who say, “I don't get it. It's not clear what's going on." Many of us take that to heart and try to make it understandable when we might as easily say, "Fuck yourself, I like it and if you don't understand it,-tough." And that's one of the many lovely things about Torill's film -it doesn't think the audience is as dumb as we actually are and rewards us for sticking with it.

TK: Before I begin to watch an animated film, I have a hope that I will be engaged. Non-narrative and experimental films can resonate with me just as much as the narrative ones, and narrated films as much as the wordless ones. I have favorite films in all of these styles. But I am always especially happy when I see a really good film with a voice-over. This style speaks to me in a different way. It's interesting to bring into the discussion how the brain processes image and language differently. But are pictures intrinsically more powerful than words? I don't know. Vision may have been with us first, but language is key to what defines us as human beings. Since brain development has been brought up, I think our artistic preferences also are linked to where and when we grew up, our cultural background, what we were raised on, what we were exposed to when our brains were young and malleable. I grew up on Norwegian fairy tales, The Moomins, The Peanuts, The Flintstones and Disney animation, and until I was in high school a lot of entertainment, for kids and adults, came from the radio. I am sure this has shaped how I think about animation and story.

Jane Campion said in an interview I heard that she sees it as her responsibility as a filmmaker to throw some light on how she experiences certain aspects of our shared humanity. This simple “mission statement” really appeals to me. Our shared humanity is a deep well to draw on, and our individual glimpse of it can be communicated with others in countless different ways. If somebody would like to share an idea or a feeling with me, I don’t care if it is done with words, sound, painted, filmed or photographed images, or a combination of all of the above, as long as it is done in a way that engages me emotionally or intellectually (or both). Maybe we are too caught up in evaluating which style is best, truest and purest. I think all artistic styles are capable of originality, depth and power, and all are able to convey some aspects of our shared humanity. We just have to try to get really good at what we do, and let others do their thing the best they can.

CS: My last thought is that each film calls to you, hopefully, and tells you what it needs. If the words are the dominant element, so be it, if the visuals carry the weight of the film, so be it. I just ask that films are powerful, and do there best to get under my skin and into me. Three contrary Haikus of filmmaking by Robert Bresson: "never use two violins when one will do", “Empty the pond to get to the fish” and  "the image carries the narrative of the film, the sound carries the emotion."

TK: Finally, to get back to the initial question about why there are so many narrated films. Maybe animated short film is becoming an extension of what we see in social media, a desire to put oneself, one’s life and one’s story on a public screen. In that context, animation is perhaps seen as just another visual aid that we can produce easily, like snap shots and movie clips. I think Robin, Richard and others here, have hit the nail on the head by mentioning the enormous challenge of wordless animation, and how much more efficiently language can tell a story, especially if we only have ten minutes or less to work with. Communicating “Mammoth coming. Sharpen spears,” with just images is one thing. But what if you want to say: “The mammoth are coming, but I had a really horrible experience last year that nearly killed me (I still have nightmares!), so although I may be judged harshly as a coward and bring shame upon my family, I’d rather face the consequences and stay back with the elderly women, and hope that one of them, at least my mother, will still love me.”  An inexperienced animator may find that saying all this with just images is just too damn hard, and if the audience doesn’t get the bit about the “shame,” the story is pointless anyway. Next thing you know you’re drawing thought bubbles, which, as we all know, is a gateway to voice-over dialogue. “Mammoth Are Coming” might still be a really good film, but I think we all agree, its success will depend on the director’s vision, on what she/he wants to convey and on how the images, words, voice and sound are working together to engage us.

Chris Robinson's picture

A well-known figure in the world of independent animation, writer, author & curator Chris Robinson is the Artistic Director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival.

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