Sunday, November 14, 2010

From the eyes of a Newbie: Character Animation in Feature films nowadays (Occidental Mainstream Animation!!)

Recently I did a presentation at work about the current state of character animation in feature films. My proposition was to look into animation history in order to further understand how we approach animation in CG nowadays (because that is the medium I work on).

I also discussed this topic with fellow classmates at Ianimate and some interesting stuff was covered. I just finished writing a reply on a forum post regarding this matter and I thought it would be good to expose it in public through my blog. Didn´t want things like these to get lost and thought the blog could be a good way to record it.

So here was my reply:

Wow willem, really good insight and truly inspiring. Your views are absolutely right too!

I think what Angelo meant wasn´t the fact that one generation is better than the other, is just that our technical demands have a historical ground and have evolved. By all means, the 9 old men defined what we know as "classical animation", the "classical principles of animation": by classical I mean timeless....a style that defines other styles...the reason why it became mainstream (even more so than Stop motion, which kind of had a slightly different development path at the beginning with timelapse photography and VFX stuff like Ray HArryhausen, which nevertheless was amazing too). That´s why most of the time when I talk to people about classical principles, people easily understand "the disney style" normal. And most schools and character animation education is based upon these principles, cause even if you wanted to make something like South Park I guess is important to have a solid understanding of the principles in order to break them and repurpose them. Kind of like Picasso did prior to Cubism, as Ed Hooks points out, he had to master first the naturalistic approach to painting, on the likes of Michaelangelo and such.

It is an outstanding achievement from these people to have "made" this happen. But I do think there has definetely been an evolution. And sophistication in terms of demands....from an audience mainly.

My personal focus for the presentation (which generally went well by the way) was "feature films in western animation" (it would be way too much of a complex topic if we involved japanese anime and the likes of Akira or Ghost in the Shell....which again, in western society wasn´t mainstream back then, and probably it isn´t still...but i might be wrong so correct me if so!!...likewise I didn´t really cover stuff like Hoodwinked, or Fantastic Mr.Fox, or Shane Acker´s 9, etc.)... And to even be more simplistic, I tried to focus on the approach of cinema, and mainly staging, but also some insights on other animation principles such as timing, solid drawing vs. solid modeling and rigging, etc... It was only a 40 mins presentation hence I didn´t have much time to go really deep.

Classical Animation (which back then probably was predominantly the "Disney style", which has defined the nature of mainstream stuff, even I´d say on animation nowadays) originated in a historical context influenced very much by the cultural factors of the time: great deppression, world war, etc... At that time, musicals and theatre were popular mediums of entertainment, perhaps (i don´t know 100%) more than watching a film. And one thing I noticed was that, mostly, the staging in animation is pretty "flat" compared to films nowadays.

Look at "The Illusionist" and you´ll clearly see what I mean (although Illusionist is not a film from the 30´s it heavily draws inspiration from that I think): very rarely you see an extreme closeup, or an over the shoulder shot, or a dutch angle, or a traditional hand drawn animation I think.

Shots are held longer. Audiences have a chance to "explore the picture"...there are no frequent cuts (well not as much as in a Transformers movie anyways :P). And framing is done almost mostly with full body or mid body, so we see clearly the performances. And that was key back then far more than now: shots were (in my opinion) far more "Choreographed" and performance led. It was all resembling the theatres and musicals. It was all about the audiences entertainment, and by entertainment I mean being disconnected from the materialistic nature of their real world at the time, to get moved by this different world being "played" in the stage they are watching...the animated film in this case.

Performance led shots are very challenging, and hence the brilliance in traditional character animation is far more appreciated. The simplicity of the reality (by simple i dont mean easy at all!) was accepted far more than nowadays. It was a lot about how "appealing" the personalities were on screen. You talk to a kid now and i´m sure he can tell you what is good or bad animation "technically". Back then I think it was about the personality of these characters far more, and you wouldn´t care if in a stop motion piece you could see wires and imperfections on the character.

Look at this "The wrong trousers" example, if you are a bit of an animation geek (like me!)you´ll start to pick on things like the overlapping action on the ears, arcs and squash and stretch, etc...but that is clearly not the point at all in this type of animation!

You are led by the character´s performance. You wouldn´t get Eddie Murphy doing Donkey´s voice...the voice actor of Donald Duck was "The Donald Duck guy!" for me (two in this case I guess).

This is a contemporary example of the whole performance led thing:

This opinion kind of came to me after looking at these storyboarding notes by Hat Liebermann. He talks about Theatre staging vs. Cinematic staging, and the goals you achieve with both:

Now if we look at the first two pictures... doesn´t the framing resemble some of the disney classics animations? and I mean mainly from the 30´s throughout the 50´s. Wasn´t this predominantly the type of framing you would get in shots? The audience is just looking from their seats, being distracted with this "entertainment", but they´re not "emotionally intimate" with the characters as they would be in contemporary films. Look at both the physical and "abstract" gap between audiences and the film. That gap has a lot of meaning...and a lot of impact in the way we suck the film experience! Cinematic techniques of nowadays allow us to be far more "intimate" with the characters...although if overdone it just look like fancy cinematography and you end up having "style over substance" i guess...

This again, is subjective. The way each one of us gets to that emotional engagement is different. Im just talking in this case about staging, but it can purely just be through character animation... Here is an example of this flat staging approach (variations on how tight we get with the characters are there, but angles are still flat)

This might just be true to all of cinema, not just animated movies...but when I think about stuff like Hitchcock I tend to avoid talking about live action. Hitchcock was a genius, and the whole thing gets too complex hahah :P

Now why all this changed? In the "Thinking Animation: Bridging the gap between 2d and 3d" book I think there is one chapter where Angie Jones and Jamie Oliff mention how in the late 80´s and early 90´s VFX started to dominate. CGI just played with our everyday reality and "enhanced it". Photorealism is just one of the many things you can pursue in CG. Things have far more detail of sophistication (which one is harder? I dont know, thats a different question though,and personal to the artist. Im not here to say if 2d or 3d was just a medium, an artform, and a way to communicate, and it depends on the artist´s imagination how hard it can be...thats what I think).

To me, audiences just where getting saturated with the old classic fairy tales...animation started to become more corporate, and people where trying to do more stuff and cheaper. That´s how cartoony TV animation from saturday mornings developed...but more than a business need, it also had an impact in the artform itself when things like Tex Avery stuff or Tom & Jerry kind of cartoonyness started to come out. Even in terms of stories, "The secret of Nihm" or any Bakshi movie, were deviating slightly from the "all family audiences" idea and exploring new themes, perhaps closer to real world issues. Audiences clearly were asking for "more intimacy", more emotional connection with the characters and stories, "more empathy".

Again I´m talking about "western features" animation, because things like Miyazaki´s stuff adress really mature stuff sometimes in a beautiful way, but is just this whole idea what was "mainstream" in western society. And likewise Disney´s films maybe pursued really mature themes as well...but the presentation was in a way that was "easy to digest"...which to older generations started to become more of a "kiddie´s thing"...this is why a lot of adults think that cartoons and animation are the same thing and that they´re "just for kids". Is this whole idea of trying to entertain, but the entertainment standards were different back then...hence also the "principles" were slightly differently approach (they are the same, just applied differently).

So, Disney throughout this transitional period (since walt disney died, up to the 2nd golden era) suffered quite a bit i guess, because the industry demands were changing but they didn´t cope up with it as well as they should have. Black Cauldron is cited as a great example of the least success in Disney.

This whole thing was, again, led by audiences demands. People wanted more. People wanted real world issues to be discussed, and identify closely with stories. VFX stuff started to develop and now adults could enjoy animation as much as kids would. Look at Jurassic Park or Terminator 2, or Aliens, or Star Wars...

This was had an impact on the 2nd golden era of disney I think. If you look at animations from the 30´s and 50´s, they were far more musical and rhythmical in nature than maybe "Lilo & Stitch" or "Mulan" were. But the later two were drawing far more reference from real life than stage acting and showmen. Look at Mulan for instance in terms of story, it deals with the strenght of a woman against a male dominant society. That´s a slight deviation from the classics I think, and that I believe is what Angelo meant? Is more human, and artists are daring to caricature the human characters far more, in order to reflect these themes.

Is true that reference footage was used also back then for animation reference a hell of a lot, but the approach you have now is in my opinion different. It almost leads you to question whether you could potentially be "rotoscoping" your live action reference!! Back then people would either call up the subjects on the studio (animals for BAmbi or Lion King...or showmen, entertainers, stage actors, etc...) to draw them and do gesture and life studies....or to record them perform with cameras at half speed I think (again, correct me if I´m wrong cause I´m not 100% sure!). And rotoscope was there too (Snowwhite...) but it was different I think. I mean, our instructors here worked on MEgamind, and they tell us about how the whole thing was first shot in liveaction....the whole thing!! And even if animators are not happy with one particular aspect of the performance, they get up and shoot the thing again, or that particular part of the performance...the easyness of using the technology allows us to be more demanding also. You end up "frankesteining" your reference (thanks for the term to Joost Van Schaik, fellow classmate :D )

Also...CG uses computers...and computers are by nature logical...therefore they always have a tendency to be "perfect". And too much perfection is what we kinda fight against in CG in a way, to make things more organic. the same time, we are so minimalist...that we try to mimic "perfect imperfection"....or something. How to Train your dragon is a great example.....the ambient animation there is insane. I think for instance you wouldn´t get that kind of minimalism in hand drawn animation, OR (to correct myself) you wouldn´t approach the
minimalism that would present it differently. You see what I mean?

On a minor note, notice the technicality of the lip sync in Shere Khan on the previous jungle book clip....he is just perfect! But if we try to do that kind of lip sync in CG is just gonna translate to jaw opens and closes. We have to work out the little shapers and things to bring the flesh and volumes out in a more detailed approach in CG I think.

[b]BUT[/b]....CG can let you "mimic" other styles too!! Or create new ones deriving from others, for that matter. You can emulate and repurporse other styles within CG. Some quick examples I could come up with:

Animators back then drew a lot from showmen, entertainers, comedians on play, musicals, musicians, jazz really was about "Rhythm" a lot of times.

Now I think is a lot more about live action, improv actors, cinematic direction, real personal engagement and deeper subtexts. Instead of rhythm it has become more about "Texture".

By the way, for me animation terminology sucks. Is really confusing hahaha. Because to me these two things are essentially the same: variation in timing right? right?...hmmm....dunno.

There is this ongoing debate at work about what film was better and which one deserved an Oscar, "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" or "Up". The argument being, what was the point on making a film like "UP" when is so close to live action, when you could have done it with VFX and real actors....whereas Cloudy is far more fun and "animated"....

My contribution to that was that they are JUST DIFFERENT. Is like comparing Philip K. Dick to Kafka or to Agatha Christie. The medium is animation / writing novels. And the themes and stories are different, therefore the style/writing style has to reflect that. And fair enough Up draws alot from Live action but ITS STILL ANIMATION: you are personifying archetypes, you are playing with film timing in a far greater range than live action could do, and you´re bending the laws of physics far more than with live action I think (even more than Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon´s flying kung fu hahaha). So, to me, Up is just as unique as Cloudy. And i can really see why it won an Oscar, although Im not here to say "because is better"...but is again, this whole idea of reaching the audience far more. Going back to the staging example, if you read one of David Anthony Gibson´s posts in his blog, he talks about staging in Cloudy and how it was an overall style decision from the directors to "flatten things" more:

Is all intentional, and super cool. And the directors know they want that effect because they know is gonna play well with the whole story, the design and the character´s performances. Is all serving its purpose reeeeeally well. I love this film, and I also love UP.

Read the post here:

And this post at the "Temple of the Seven Golden Camels" relates alot to what staging can do to the nature of a film:

Someone on the comments even says that is like life itself. That´s such an awesome analogy!: the more we try to undestand life the deeper and deeper we get, the more superficial and "ignorant" we stay, in a way the "happier" we could be? HAha...well sounds pessimistic really. But I can totally understand this point of view.

But thats where it is I think, that´s what I kind of covered in my presentation. Is just an evolution of things. Is not that one is better than the other by all means. The 9 old men were amazing pioneers. But the new animators are also amazing, you cannot discredit some of the stuff we´ve seen from Pixar or Dreamworks, or BlueSky, or Sony. You cannot compare, is just a whole bunch of factors that have influenced the course of things.

BAAAHHHHHHHH looks like I´ve done the whole presentation in written form! hahaa

I love healthy discussion, please enlighten me more if I need to...I love animation and I love to learn!! :)

I would love to let the authors of their respective works posted here in the blog entry that by all means it was all done for educational purposes, and please feel free to let me know if you don´t want me to talk about / show your stuff here.



Bryn Richards said...

Great post Ravi! You focused on some really interesting points there, well said :)

RVG said...

Thanks Bryn, glad you liked it :) I plan to expand more on this kind of stuff. I guess you don´t "need it" to be a kickass animator but I just find it interesting and fascinating. Thanks for reading :)