What American Animation Has Lost

What American Animation Has Lost
Posted by on Feb 22, 2016

American animation has lost something. While not detrimentally important, if not addressed at the studio level it could vastly narrow the variety of content. American animation has lost it’s sense of artistic aesthetic. To be clear I don’t believe this is something exclusive to American animation. It’s more of a large studio problem. America just happens to have a lot of big animation studios.

This loss of aesthetic largely came about with rise in CG animation. However, it’s not restricted to this type of animation. Let’s back up for a second and let me explain exactly what I’m talking about.

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What sets animation apart from live-action more than anything is that everything is hand-crafted for that film. From the landscapes to the faces on the characters. While live-action still has visual development (costumes, sets, etc). Production is still largely restricted by making it look as realistic as possible. Even when you look at films that are grounded in fantasy (Pan’s Labrynth, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars) you’re still held back by realism.

Not too say that this bad. In fact, it is down right amazing when you are able to create a world that looks real no matter how ridiculous it might actually be. However, when you no longer have to hold to reality there are some interesting directions you can take.

When you have absolute control over the medium you can make your world more accurately represent the story. The most recent best example does actually come from 3D. Mostly in the form of the design of the emotions from Inside Out. For the most part, each character was designed to reflect their personality. Sadness small, blue, and modeled after a tear drop. Anger was red, blocky, and rigid. Fear was all squiggly, bent out of shape, and all around spastic. So on and so forth.

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Joy, Sadness, and Disgust could have been modeled more distinctly but that get’s into a much different discussion about diversity and women in the industry. The point is, the characters were able to be shaped to their personalities. This doesn’t even take into account the design of the rest of a films world. However, this is restricted to Riley’s mind world. The outside has to reflect reality as closely as possible. This isn’t necessarily case for every 3D film but it’s quickly becoming the trend.

Another example from 2D animation would be Atlantis: The Lost Empire. When your in the surface world, you have a lot of hard edges. Lots of squares and triangles. In many ways, it mirrors rigidness of Milo’s world. One where everything is straightforward and defined. Thus no room for his fantastical voyage to a lost city. Plus, the surface world is cloaked in darker hues further adding to the depressing tone. Sure, it may look like our world but the artist’s were obviously not going for photo-realism.atlantis-the-lost-empire-19

Now when Milo first enters Atlantis, we get much brighter hues and less rigid shapes. Thus marking the joy Milo initially finds and signifying his crossing of the threshold. These sorts of design choices in animation can add an unconscious depth for the audience. A layer that helps suck the audience in even more.

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So what does this all mean? Well like I said earlier, this isn’t necessarily just an America problem. It’s more of a problem with big animation studios. Looking at Studio Ghibli films, they tend to all have similar design aesthetics as well. This basically means that when a studio gets big enough, design becomes a branding issue. When your films at least look similar, it’s easier for the audience to recognize a studios work. Since it becomes about branding, it basically means your films are easier to sell.

In much the same way certain directors can have their own distinct, recognizable styles (Zach Snyder, Quentin Tarantino) so can studios. Why is this a problem? Simply put, the art of the medium gets pushed aside in favor of money. You can’t really fault anyone for this because after all, it gets movies made.

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Snyder = Slomo

The real question is how can we we have both? A money making movie that still has a more unique look and feel. Maybe we can’t but, no matter what, it won’t happen until technology get’s a little further. What makes different styles easier in 2D rather than 3D is because there is no barrier. None. As a 2D artist, you take what’s in your mind and put it on paper. It’s literally that simple. The only thing standing in your way is your own artistic ability.

When it comes to 3D, you’re blocked by the level of technology and your own personal experience of the technology. Take hair for example. Hair is incredibly hard for 3D since you’re basically trying to animate millions if not billions of individual objects. That puts a tremendous strain on the computer and software. With 2D, you can get away with treating hair as one object. If you do that with 3D, you basically get a beanbag chair strapped to somebodies head.

So, what is the solution here? Frankly, there isn’t one. A reason, I suspect at least, why 3D has lost it’s distinct design aesthetics is because it’s more expensive. For 2D, you can change aesthetics on the fly. For 3D, there are a lot more steps between initial idea and final product. Plus, if you want to switch styles half way through, you pretty much need to start from scratch.

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Until technology get’s more advanced where the barrier between artist and 3D gets thinner, we’re stuck. The best thing to do now is to enjoy the films being made and continually come up with ideas that push the technology.

How to Build a World

How to Build a World
Posted by on Feb 26, 2015

In the past I have talked about world building and it’s benefits for creating a compelling story. Recently, this idea has come back into my mind for a number of reasons. Marvel’s announcement about adding Spider-Man to the MCU is chief among them. However, my new year’s resolution this year was to re-watch all of Walt Disney’s theatrically released animated films. I’ll detail the experience more when I have actually finished watching all of the 50+ films. As I watch these films, I get to thinking about world building and it’s use in film. Particularly with how Disney has handled it so far. Before that, let me tell you what I think is needed to build a truly wonderful world.

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Most recently, one of the best worlds built from scratch has got to be John Wick. Originally seen as your basic B-level action flick, its masterful world building helped elevate the narrative to another level. What worked so well is that the directors didn’t bother spelling everything out. I’ll do my best not to spoil anything but they essentially introduced elements that obviously had a history but they didn’t tell the audience. They just introduced it as it should be and left it at that. How this helped them is it let the audience to fill-in the gaps.

They introduce a concept such as a currency only mean’t for hitmen and assassins. Instead of giving us some sort of explanation as to how this currency works and its worth, they simply just use it. This currency then becomes this cool gimmick throughout the film that continually piques the audiences interest. It also allows the audience to speculate how these characters gained their varying levels of wealth with this currency. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. We are left to wonder how widely this currency can be used. Is it global? Can it be used as bribery for politicians? We are literally left with endless possibilities. To create a successful world, leaving a little mystery to allow your audience to explore is key.

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What’s also important is having a distinct visual style. Take Big Hero 6. It’s a world where San Francisco and Tokyo have been merged. Here you get distinct combinations of iconic examples of American and Japanese culture. The visual style, as with just about any animated film, is also very distinct. Characters are more caricatures than realistic with features that support or clash with their personalities.

Go Go Tomago looks like a bicyclist or a sprinter. She has the legs of someone who was always pushing to go faster. I mean seriously, just take a look at what Olympic sprinters look like. Her mentality of a tough, fearless, speed demon is only supported by the way she looks. Wasabi on the other hand has an opposite relationship. He looks like your typical strongman, hulk, bruiser type. Broad shoulders, barrel chested, and just big all around. He looks like someone who is called in when someone needs a buddy to help them out in a fight. However, his personality clashes with this perception. Out of the entire group, he is by far the most neurotic and least likely to want to jump into a fight.

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These visual cues, whether directed at characters or scenery, are key to develop a world that the audience can get lost in. It allows the audience to fill in the gaps of what else could be going on in the world.

While having a sense of mystery and a clear visual style is important, nothing can be more important than your question. Every successful world can be boiled down to one question that the world gets shaped around. How would an underground assassin network operate? What would it look if the most advance technologies we have, were accessible and affordable to the entire public? What would the world look like if dragons were real? I bet you can figure out which movies I’m talking about here. This question may not be your starting point, but I believe it is a sign of a well crafted world.

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After Earth, while terrible, had a single nugget that piqued my interest. What would the world look like if humans were suddenly at the bottom of the food chain? Starting there I can see a story forming. What if one day we found that the various species on Earth suddenly seemed to turn on humanity. Where not only animals are no longer afraid to actively defend against humans and their machines, but hunt them down. Amazon forest crews would find themselves fighting off hordes of monkeys who have developed poisonous saliva. Cities would find themselves overrun by the natural wildlife as they refused to be scared away. Throw in plants growing more aggressively and you have yourself a situation that would cause humans to want to flee earth. That right there seems to be a start of a more compelling story than what we got in After Earth.

My observations are not an official, peer reviewed basis for a theory that required months of research. I have simply watched a lot of movies and started to to piece these things together. Most films can be observed this, especially that of the animated genre, and I find two ways to break them down. They either have a strong narrative or a well-built world. Not to say they can’t be both, it’s just that they tend to favor one or the other. For instance, most of the Pixar films would land in the narrative category. This makes sense since they have essentially built their company around how to tell a story. On the other hand, the better Dreamworks films tend to have stronger worlds.

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Why I bring this up is because Disney tends to ride the line. Sometimes it works out well, other times it doesn’t. It seems they have tried both and mostly have had average success on either side. However, those that do the best are usually those that have a stronger narrative base (Frozen, Lion King). What I find interesting though, is that they have created many worlds that are truly unique. Big Hero 6 is the most recent while Treasure Planet is a place I eagerly want them to revisit.

So in conclusion, before this piece gets out of my hands, Disney has tried many different story-telling styles. From world building to strong narratives they, more than most, have tried both. Recently, they are getting their groove back with John Lasseter at the helm. I can only wait in anticipation to see which side of the line Moana and Zootopia fall on.

How to Train Your Dragon 2

How to Train Your Dragon 2
Posted by on Jun 23, 2014

The world has gotten much bigger in five years.  Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) has been busy, inventing new dragon riding equipment and exploring the world.  Discovering new lands and new dragons.  The rest of Berk has been busy integrating dragons into their everyday life.  Stoick (Gerard Butler) has officially declared Hiccup the next chief.  This of course causes Hiccup to run away and do what comforts him, fly.  During a talk with Astrid (America Ferrera) at a brand new archipelago, they spot burning patch of land.  They consequently come across a group of dragon trappers, led by Eret (Kit Harington) who informs them of the malevolent Drago (Djimon Hounsou) who has been forming an army of dragons.  After a few conflicts with his father, Hiccup discovers another dragon rider.  One that has created a sanctuary for dragons from Drago.  This mysterious rider turns out to be Hiccups mother, Valka (Cate Blanchett), who has been presumed dead for the past 20 or so years.  In an inevitable turn of events, the residents of Berk ally with Valka’s dragons to repel Drago and his army.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a great entry into Dreamworks pantheon.  It has plenty of heart, humor, and action.  Not to mention they aren’t afraid to add some real pain to the mix.  In a world where franchises are seen as easy cash cows, it is refreshing to see genuine effort put into another franchise entry.  Not to mention the great cast of characters surrounding the main protagonists.  While they don’t add much beyond some light-hearted humor, they are a nice tension relief during some of the more tense moments of the film.

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What this movie does the best, is expand upon the world that we were introduced in the first film.  They have truly created a world that is exciting and enjoyable.  Combining this whimsical world with improved visuals makes it all the more immersive.  Really, my one regret about seeing this movie is not seeing it in 3-D.  Not to mention the full on dragon war that occurs in the latter half of the film.  The design of the fight and flight scenes is absolutely perfect.  What is extremely interesting, however is this theme of dismemberment.  You have the heroes, Hiccup and Toothless, both missing a small piece of themselves.  What is important is that these injuries were essentially inflicted by each other.  To clarify, these injuries were not directly inflicted on them by each other.  However, these injuries were direct results from the others actions.  Regardless, these injuries go on to bond them to each other and shape their character.  This is put into contrast with the villains own dismemberment.  It is revealed that early on, Drago lost his arm to a dragon.  This turned him against the very idea that dragons could be anything more than mindless beasts.  Instead of choosing to grow from the incident, he chose to conquer his fears through domination.  Now this is all just my own musings since none of this is confirmed in the film.  However, it fairly easy to see when you observe how differently Hiccup and Drago approach dragons.  Hiccup always approaches new dragons with humility and calm.  Drago on the other hand approaches with rage and domination tactics.  Drago asserts himself over the dragons, demanding their obedience, while Hiccup earns their trust.  Honestly, I could write a whole paper Dreamworks representation of trauma and how it shapes.  That I will have to save for a rainy day.

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Now, all this to say How to Train Your Dragon 2 didn’t have its problems.  My main issue is how Dreamworks seems to rehash many of the same internal struggles.  We get it, Hiccup and his father don’t see eye to eye on things.  That was the last movie.  I can understand Hiccups struggle of entering adulthood and accepting more responsibility, but not in the way the represented.  Instead of focusing on that fear of growing up, they turned into more teenage angst about how his father doesn’t understand him.  It was really the exact same issue only with a different setting.  The peripheral characters were also very underwritten.  Taking Astrid for example, she really has no part in the movie.  Sure, she’s there but she offers very little substance to the film.  This goes for the rest of his childhood friends as well.  They do offer some excellent comedic timing but otherwise they seem over abundant and unnecessary.  It would have been nice to at least one of these characters at least add some kind of side conflict or telling Hiccup to just get over himself and take on some responsibility.

Now, since this is the second installment in a possibly 4 movie franchise lets take a look at where the franchise could go.  The best thing for Dreamworks to do, would be to show Hiccup struggling with his new duties as chief.  This seems fairly obvious but the majority of his struggles should come from one of his friends resisting and even becoming an enemy.  This could be difficult but not impossible.  Plus, it would be a new and very interesting situation for Hiccup to deal with.  Beyond that, since Dreamworks has exhausted the dragon army idea, they would need to go into non-physical territory.  For instance, there is some new disease that is affecting both dragons and humans.  Hiccup takes it upon himself to find the cure or the cause.  Not only does this raise the stakes by putting his loved ones on the line, but it would naturally open up the world even more.

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Wherever Dreamworks decides to take Hiccup and his friends, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is an excellent addition to the series.  It plays to Dreamworks strengths while still bringing in fresh and exciting story elements.

My Rating: 7/10