Nearly three years ago, an animation legend weighed in on the state of mainstream American feature animation. The legend in question was Gene Deitch, known for his work with the UPA in the 1950s, the Tom & Jerry cartoons that he was tasked to make in Czechoslovakia after MGM jettisoned their animation studio, and his unrealized Hobbit adaptation, among many other things. Contributing to Jerry Beck’s Cartoon Research, he wrote a thoughtful criticism on how dangerously realistic and life-like animation has and is becoming in the CGI realm, using Blue Sky’s Epic as a prime example whilst being more thrilled by the minimalist traditionally animated French/Belgian feature Ernest & Celestine.
I had misinterpreted what he had said. This was because I used to crawl around the more toxic pockets of the animation fandom that routinely bashed computer animation. I believe all kinds of animation are equal, so I was always a defensive type when it came to CGI. I was so used to forum-dwellers’ bitterness over 2D being kicked out the door, their wails and moans about how CGI was the devil, how it wasn’t true animation, was something anyone with no talent can do, etc., etc. I read Deitch’s piece as yet another diatribe, I assumed he was pulling that card. I got a little venomous in my response. After it unfortunately got out (someone had found the article and shared it), I realized my error and realized what Deitch was really trying to say.
And now, some three years later, I find myself in the same position. I’m frustrated, to say the least…
I respect the work that goes into each and every computer animated film. The photorealism is indeed impressive, as is the attempt to keep in that special unreal realm that only caricature animation can do… But I’m tired of this being the norm. Where are the more surreal Book of Life CG pictures? When seeing Moana last night, I felt the most exciting visuals were either done in traditional animation or something other than photoreal CGI…
Like most modern computer animated films, the most impressive things about Moana‘s CG visuals were the actual movements, the character animation, the color work, and the lighting. I was not too fazed by how real the islands, the vegetation, and the water looked.
Actually, I kind of wished throughout that Moana was a traditionally animated film. I think it would’ve had so much more life and verve in it, if it had been a 2D film. Or, if it had been a CG film that didn’t aim for staggering realism. Something akin to Disney Animation’s shorts Paperman and Feast, and the very one that preceded it, Inner Workings.
Animation, to me, has to FEEL real. It doesn’t have to look real, I just want to be able to successfully immerse myself into what I’m seeing. To feel what’s going on, the characters’ emotions, and whatnot. Whether it’s drawings, clay/plasticine models, cut-outs, paintings, or CG puppets. If Moana were 2D, I could’ve done just that, and I’m sure as heck that other audiences could too.
Finding Dory, from cousin studio Pixar, was no different. Loved the art direction of the movie, the sets all looked great, but it was the color and lighting that really brought them to life. If Finding Dory was filmed in the ocean and in aquarium exhibits with overlayed CG’ed fish, it just wouldn’t be the same. Pixar’s lighting and color crew enhanced the visuals, that impressed me far more than how realistic everything looked.
I thought similar things about other animated films that were released this year. Secret Life of Pets? From what I saw of it, I liked the color, lighting, and character designs a great deal. Storks‘ character design I thought was good, and the fast-paced Looney Tunes-like energy of the thing. Angry Birds? Again, the comic energy and character design. Zootopia? Dear lord, from the set design to the art direction to the character animation to the hidden details to the overall aesthetic of it… Everything except the realism. Only DreamWorks seemed to be a little exciting in the visual department this year: Kung Fu Panda 3 had some extremely stylized shots, almost eering into 2D territory for a CG film. Trolls was like someone CG’ing a big, improbable felt art project. Both looked marvelous and fresh.
John Lasseter has stated many times that CGI is all but a tool, and that the story comes first. Pixar’s specialty is computer animation, and their work just gets more and more photoreal. Disney Animation is doing CG only because of the ignorance of the executives from the top. Disney Animation recently has adopted a technique, CG that uses a 2D underbelly. Basically, CG characters corresponding with 2D pencil tests and animation. As one person put it… “CG ink-and-paint”. 2D below, CG overlays, hence those great movements and that great, fluid character animation. But as the Bancroft Brothers – former Disney story men Tom and Tony Bancroft – said on one of their podcasts, why struggle to get CG to be like 2D when you can just… You know, make it in 2D! It’s already right there!
But because American animation executives don’t want to touch traditional animation with a 39 1/2-foot pole (except for films based on television shows, see Sponge out of Water), we have to be stuck with CGI. So why not, like I suggested before on here, go some wild directions with it? Do what Book of Life did! Do what The Peanuts Movie did! Do what Genndy Tartakovsky’s ill-fated Popeye was going to do! Do what Trolls did! Animation is limitless, innovate! This goes for all the studios, but make sure your style isn’t there just for show, and that your movies feel real.
The more real you make it, you’re just getting closer and closer to making Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book or pretty much the bulk of Avatar, or any big blockbuster tentpole… Animated photographs.
Let’s embrace the unreal again. Enough of this “cartoony” or “cartoons” talk, animation’s most unique quality is its inherent unreal side.
Like Mr. Deitch suggested, let’s do something with computer animation that takes us away from the hyper-real. Deitch’s UPA background alone is a fine example. The UPA sought to go against the naturalism that Disney pushed for in the post-war years, and we got abstract and visually exciting works as a result. Works that actually influenced Disney and other studios, long before the UPA’s style was mimicked for all the wrong reasons in 60s television animation.
Minimalism can either give you cheap and lazy animation, or it could give you something bold and new. In the 1950s, the innovative stuff was in cartoons like Rooty Toot-Toot or Fudget’s Budget (pictured below). Those are just a few examples… There’s a whole sea of modern features that are like the UPA’s vision reborn: The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea, A Cat in Paris, The Rabbi’s Cat, April and the Extraordinary World, the list just goes on and on. Europe has clung to this for decades.
So let’s explore some unseen avenues in the world of computer animation… In the mean time, I’ll marvel at the lighting and the color and the character animation, not so much the “jaw-dropping” realism. All but a minor trick to me, now.