Eye of the Beholder: How We View Animation (Essay)

This is one of the first longer-form pieces I did for the newsletter, which was a wholly inappropriate platform, but most of the editors were very kind and printed them anyway.  It was in response to a lot of people dismissing certain movies off-hand because they were cartoons.

I believe that 2008 saw animation finally receive the recognition it has deserved, probably from its inception, but certainly from within my lifetime. Any remotely serious television or cinema fan has appreciated the power and wonder of animation and placed it on level footing with traditional live action filming long ago, but I believe that last year finally saw this opinion break through to the general public.  My impression of the public perception of animation was that it was something not just primarily, but exclusively for children.  Animation was a way of simplifying the world to primary colours and repetitive adventures to amuse and distract a child for a couple of hours. Even with the release of Pixar’s accomplished body of work in recent years, little jokes for the adult audiences were seen as being thrown in whilst the little ones enjoyed the show, almost separate from the experience itself and this led to an unwillingness for anything animated to be viewed as a serious piece of work. It wasn’t that people just assumed that it was for children, because animation for adults has been around for a long time, it was a more subtle undercurrent of immaturity that animation became associated with; some inherent inability to deal with a complex theme or do more than simply entertain. With the releases principally of Persepolis, WALL-E and Waltz with Bashir last year the general population’s eyes have finally been opened and, as WALL-E’s director, Andrew Stanton put it, animation will no longer be viewed as a “genre” but simply as another tool at a filmmaker’s disposal.

Before 2008 there are countless worthy examples of superior animation, indeed too many to give due credit to in a short newsletter article, but it would be remiss of me not to even mention them. There are examples simply of the technical feat of crafting the animation to a watchable product, such as the old Max Fleisher Superman cartoons, Tom & Jerry, Merry Melodies/Looney Tunes and, of course, Disney. If you take a moment to look at any late ‘80s or early ‘90s cartoon that’s directly associated with a product or established franchise (with the huge exception of Batman: The Animated Series, which is fantastic) you’ll see just how incredibly poor the technical aspects of the animation are. Issues like repeating cells and bland backgrounds and insufficient frames of animation for convincing motion all plague the shows. Be warned, though: looking up any cartoons that you have fond memories of will most likely shatter your image of them. It did for me with Spiderman and X-Men. The poor quality is because these were designed to get kids to get their parents to buy the toys, and children aren’t always the most discerning of viewers. This period may be largely responsible for the unfair reputation that animation had until recently. If you compare the animation here to any of the list at the start of the paragraph then you’ll immediately see how much better the old stuff is, because it was done with care. People often overlook the craftsmanship and creativity involved in animation but it’s something that has always been present in the industry and although 3-D animation initially drew crowds based merely on the spectacle, it has now reached the point where a 3-D animated movie has to be more than just that. Although I don’t believe the public will ever really take the time to appreciate the creation process of animation I wanted to point to some examples of it in the past before talking about those films continuing the tradition of a high standard of technical accomplishment in the present. It’s also very easy to find examples of animation that are definitely not for kids. All you have to do is type “anime” into Google to see that. Studio Ghibli, however, is a Japanese company that bridges this divide and they deserve an honour able mention. Their films are undoubtedly for children but they always deal with complex and mature themes whilst looking absolutely captivating. They’ve been doing this since 1979 so this article would be nothing new to anyone familiar with their films and I advise you to investigate their back catalogue at your leisure.

That brief digression brings me neatly to my first point. Animation can serve to be the most magical visual feast imaginable, more so than any degree of sophistication in computer graphics integrated into live action can be, with an honourable mention to Sin City and 300 for really pushing the envelope with how you can make a film look. With live action the film maker is always bound by the fact that he or she has to worry about people being in the film. This can limit the vision as you can’t really change how a filmed individual looks. Even if the CGI is seamless we’re bound by this constraint and when it isn’t our suspension of disbelief is broken and we’re taken completely out of the world in which the film is set.  With animation, however, you can create any image you want and you can make it completely self-consistent. The design can be as simple or detailed as you require, as colourful or bland, smooth or sharp. Just look at how different the character designs, the contrasts, the colours appear between animated features, even within one stable like Pixar. The look and feel changes between films and each inhabits entirely its own world. I don’t know that live action films ever accomplish this. I think Persepolis, Waltz with Bashir and WALL-E exemplify this argument beautifully.

Persepolis is based on the art style in the comic book and it has been translated remarkably well. The style is incredibly simple, but very affecting. Each character is stripped down to only a few features but we’re never left wondering who is who and this is a real accomplishment. The animation here, and in Waltz with Bashir, serves to distance us from the trying circumstances depicted on screen. In Persepolis it enables us to overlook the horror of the image and instead focus on the humanity of each situation. When Marjane is living homeless in Austria we’re entirely focussed on how she feels as opposed to how forlorn she looks, an effect that would be almost impossible to achieve with live action. It’s a real testament to the versatility of animation as a tool that, depending on how it’s employed it can be even more visual than conventional cinema, but also strip all of that away to show us what lies beneath. In Persepolis it also serves to make certain situations less threatening. The sight of a man with a gun threatening you for not wearing a scarf properly contains little humour, but by making the characters as minimalist as they are we’re able to see the absurdity, but also the cruelty of these situations. I actually felt that Persepolis was a little self-important at times but its unique style lent it such charm and humour, that I forgave my perceived shortcomings and thoroughly enjoyed the film. I don’t think that this could have been accomplished with live action.

WALL-E, I think, represents the forefront of animation technology. Every detail is rendered precisely and although it was clearly never intended for the characters to be photo-realistic all of the scenes on earth really do look amazing. For example, piles of garbage are seen throughout the landscape. In video games this would be done by having some arbitrary base surface shape and then putting a 2-D image of the rubbish all of it, with some clever lighting to make it look three-dimensional.  In WALL-E there is no evidence of this and all of the full cityscapes are breath-taking to behold. They use this technical prowess to create some of the most memorable and arresting character designs ever, and they manage to make all of the characters cute. A good rule is that the less detailed something is the cuter it will be, but here the mind boggling detail doesn’t swamp the essence of the characters.  In addition WALL-E took real steps towards feeling more like a conventional film. Pixar hired Roger Deakins, cinematographer for No Country for Old Men and many other greats, as a visual consultant. They asked him how he would frame the shot in a conventional film and then replicated it through their computer animation. They also enlisted Thomas Newman, composer for American Beauty, to do the music.  All of this combined to form a truly magical experience and really made people sit up and reconsider animation as on par with anything produced through live-action. This was acknowledged by WALL-E’s nomination for Best Picture at the Golden Globes, as opposed to best animated feature although the Oscars have failed to follow suit. On top of this, though, we can’t forget that Pixar’s philosophy on their wonderful artistry is to use it to tell a great story. True, they may pause briefly to dazzle us with WALL-E’s escape from earth or his weightless dance with EVE, but the visuals are not the foundation of their film-making. Pixar are true masters of their craft who understand exactly what animation is about and I think we will be assured of quality from their camp for many years to come.

Finally, though, we come to the epiphany that is Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir. This film opened the eyes even of a true believer. Waltz with Bashir is the director’s story of trying to recover lost memories about his time in the Israel-Lebanon war. It is a documentary, yet it’s animated. And as is the theme of this piece, could not have been done any other way. The film is produced in a semi-rotoscoped fashion.  Rotoscope is the word used to describe when the all of the shots are filmed first on a conventional camera but then traced over and animated. In Waltz with Bashir the film was used as a strict reference point but animated independently. The animation here is used to achieve something absolutely amazing. For most of us, trying to imagine what war is like, and then again having no memory of such events is impossible.  Waltz with Bashir employs its animation style to constantly blur the lines of reality and delusion and create a disturbing dreamscape that completely envelopes the viewer. Aspects of delusions are explained as the director continues his journey and the unique ability of animation to maintain a complete continuity of tone between the dream-like and the reality-based sequences gives us some idea of what it must feel like for our narrator. It also serves to give the war a suitably surreal feeling visually, as well as tonally.  The music accentuated all of these ideas perfectly to leave me stunned. Waltz with Bashir is one of the most, striking, beautiful pieces of cinema I’ve ever seen and when I left the cinema I walked around literally in a daze for about ten minutes because I’d felt so involved the new, disturbing world that I’d seen on screen.  This is a film that everyone should see and I defy them not to have their mind changed about how brilliantly animation can be used.

These three films are not the first to employ their techniques in storytelling. Incredibly simple, yet idiosyncratic character designs have been around ever since someone decided to doodle something on a piece of paper and are seen most frequently in newspaper cartoon strips. Joe Sacco’s journalistic pieces on Palestine and Bosnia were reported in comic book format from 1993 to the present day. Rotoscoping was used in Richard Linklater’s Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly and although the former is a self-indulgent mess that I didn’t make it though it was visually interesting and when he combined the technique with more care and a more solid narrative the latter was born. A Scanner Darkly is a great piece of work and I think came out just a little too early (in 2005) to get the recognition it deserved.  Now I believe we’re entering a new time where any film using animation is not discarded as children’s entertainment and the three films briefly discussed are the seminal pieces of work our society has to offer.  If you don’t agree with me then I implore you to seek out anything mentioned in the piece and have your mind changed and open yourself up to an exciting new world of entertainment.

Originally Published 19 February 2009.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s