Saturday, March 6, 2010

Where, oh where has my little cartoon dog gone?

I noticed this lovely image on the TAG blog just now, in reference to artists who passed away this past year being remembered at the annual day of remembrance that the union holds.

After noticing that they had listed the artist's life as having lasted from 1917-2011, I could only think that either: 1. my Saturday afternoon snooze had lasted a good bit longer than usual; 2. someone was amazingly prescient; or 3. very likely an innocent typo was to blame. Not being the world's leading fact-checker myself, I find the error is so innocent, it is barely worth mentioning. The person's next of kin might care tho, so I did point it out.

What this led me to think about next, however was how rivetingly ingratiating this image is. LADY & THE TRAMP is not really my favorite Disney movie, but it is a fine one and has some very unique qualities. For instance it was the first animated feature in a panoramic format, and is one of the rare (really the only) Disney features to be concocted as an original story, rather than being based on a well-known fairy tale or work of literature. And as original stories go, it is not ground breaking but so expertly done that it bears watching time and again.

It is also a transition, in my opinion anyway, from the "literal" animal locomotion animated in BAMBI to the looser, more caricatured style of 101 DALMATIONS. The skill on display in the film is frequently flawless. The animals are animated with solid believability and very little rotoscope (if any) was used. Probably why it is so good. The crutch of roto would have only hurt the animation anyway.

But (and here finally is MY POINT:) it also occurs to me that if LADY & THE TRAMP were made (or re-made?) today it would: 1. NEVER be drawn, 2. now not even likely be an all-CGI film; 3. almost certainly would be a live action hybrid of the CATS & DOGS type, in other words, for all intents and appearances, a film comprised almost entirely of live action footage of dogs, augmented in post by CGI. And it occurs to me in turn, that this approach would probably suit audiences of all ages just fine.

Hell, if it were funny enough and engaging, I'd probably enjoy it as well. The fact that I have a hard time imagining why it would be done otherwise is partially what bothers me...

I could see George Clooney and Jennifer Anniston being equipped with AVATAR helmets to help record and faithfully transfer their emotions and lip sync to cgi-augmentations which would be integrated with live action footage of the real dogs they were portraying and that the whole thing would probably be a massive hit. (I have zero inside track at Disney by the way, but if they like the idea, they can send me a check ahahahaha.)

Something about this though, suggests a trend I find unsettling. It suggests to me that the tolerance for a well-crafted cartoon image, even one as sedate and safe (albeit expert) as any in the original LADY, even if it were faithfully re-created, rendered and impeccably lit in CGI, is pretty much shrinking in the hearts of the public and the minds of the power brokers. As the world of CGI expands the roles of animators and animation, it also somehow seems to ever marginalize the space cartoon art occupies in animation, especially features.

This isn't the old CG vs. 2D thing I am lamenting here, it is the encroaching realism even on CG cartoons, just as realism encroached on 2D. It is about realism vs caricature, specifically cartoony caricature and how the tide seems to be turning ever more toward the former and away from the latter.

Not to slam ALVIN (full disclosure: I did a bit of uncredited boarding on the SQUEAKUEL and had no qualm [thanks Chris!]) but it only now just dawned on me that the characters (which I don't mind for what they are) are what passes for "cartoony" in the 21st Century paradigm. Which as an industry wide standard doesn't jibe for me. No, they aren't "real," but they are "realistic", more akin to a kind of elaborate illustration than a cartoon would ever need to be. Everything about this kind of character design is compromised by the necessity of needing to blend in with live action. And the public (including my own kids) have voted vehemently in favor.

I get the appeal of CGI and have liked some of the films (CLOUDY, which I loved, has held up under repeat viewings and gets even better every time). Pretty much all my employment in the past 6 years has been on CG films and as adjustments go, it is one that doesn't bother me that much. As a process, medium, whatever you want to call it, I both welcome and enjoy it. What I will have a more bothersome time with is the evaporation of cartoon as a dominant style of feature animation regardless of what techniques are used.

I don't think this has happened and if it does, it will likely take time even so. I think there will for the long haul, always be cartoony looking films (of a type anyway) but I fear that in the aftermath of AVATAR and films like it the public and the industry may find cartooniness to be too quaint, too passe, too childish, all the specious negatives that threw up roadblocks in my early career days. I sometimes think that many of the full time CG places already seem to be hedging their bets: a cartoony one here, a more realistic one there, an even more realistic hybrid over there... It could be possible that one day cartoon styling in a feature film would be as unconventional as an all-jazz score.

What attracted me to animation in the first place is that it was where cartooning and film intersected. That intersection seems to be gradually detouring toward a superhighway of CG animation where fantasy and film intersect in a ever less cartoony manner.

Hope I'm wrong, (I frequently am) but anyone who wants to talk me down is welcome to...

UPDATE: A follow-up post, written in the aftermath of some of the comments....


RooniMan said...

I REALLY hope the tide doesn't turn towards the former. If it does, my heart will be broken in millions of pieces.

Stephen Worth said...

This is a sideways comment, but have you seen "Benji the Hunted"? I was introduced to this film by Louise Zingarelli, who I worked with at Bagdasarian and Bakshi. She invited me over and popped it into her VHS machine, and with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of wine in the other, she proceeded to break down the performances of the dog arguing that a real dog can perform more complex acting than anything you see in animation. She was absolutely right. Benji's expressions and attitudes are not just beyond the range of animated actors, he gives the best of human actors a run for their money.

I'm not joking either. This is a very interesting film to study.

Will Finn said...

Haven't ever sat thru a BENJI film, but I get what you are talking about.

I know an animator who once told me he had seen the roto footage of the people playing "Tony & Joe" and he said it was infinitely funnier and more nuanced than the animation, (which is considered of course quite phenomenal and rightly so).

Maybe the best way to save cartoons is to let them be cartoons, not matter what medium is used. Most of LADY after all is relatively "naturalisitic' by any standard.

A.M.Bush said...

I've been sitting around all day trying to think of an intelligent comment to add to your very interesting topic.

It would be easy to blame the dumbing down of the audience on why the American consumer is turning towards less "cartoony" movies. One could say that they no longer have an eye to interpret the sophistication of real cartoons, but cartoons by nature are not supposed to be sophisticated. Exaggeration and caricature are meant to exploit the senses and make the subject easier for the audience to interpret.

Perhaps today's cartoons try too hard to be "cool" or are too watered down and lack the skill of yesterday's animators?

I'm trying for the life of me to understand why a child would rather watch a live action/cg film than a purely animated one. I assure you that the 8 year old version of myself would have scoffed at the idea of a shiny rubbery cg Ariel.

Eric Scales said...

I think it's a bit of a cirlce, Will. I mean, CGI was once the newest biggest thing, this spurns new studios to open and make their own CGI films. More films being made, attracts more talent, studios can pick and choose which writers and artists and directors they want, because everyone wants to be involved with this "new wave" instead of 2D which is viewed as old fashioned. Companies involved with 2D, feeling the pressure, become worried, afraid to take risks, or take the wrong kind of risks, and the films are less honest and heartfelt, more calculated and homogenized. CGI films feel confident and the audience senses the enthusiasm of those involved. Regardless of the style that the Chipmunk films were made in, it's the story and spirit that caught people. If they had been made 2D unless the films was shot for shot word for word the same, it would have come out very differently. after 110+ years of animated films, there are just certain conventions of "cartoons" that are extremely difficult for even the most daring film maker to make, and perhaps it's these conventions, not the medium, that people are tired of. Try as hard as they might have, Princess and the Frog was not a good test to determine what the public wants, because it was such a flawed film. It was very good in parts, but it certainly wasn't astounding and that's what was called for.

On the other hand, I think CGI films, (fully and hybrids like Alvin) have plenty of conventions themselves, but of course they're newer and the public is still enamored with them enough not to be bothered by them. Unfortunately for those of us who prefer 2D, CGI isn't saddled with a reputation as being "for kids", so CG films have much wider margins to work within, less expectations (though isn't all the potty humor inherent in movies nowadays, pretty much for the kids?).

As for a prediction? I know 2D will never die as an artform, especially as technology makes it easier and easier for anyone to create their own stuff and distribute it, but will it ever be a corporately funded phenomenon (sp?) like it was, or even just an anticipated event that showed up in theaters once a year? I can't say. But never say never.

David Nethery said...

Too bad for those of us who like drawing and cartoons. The future is hard to predict, but I fear you may be right about the increasing marginalization of cartooning (and of course the present reality is very much skewed that way , so unlike the future our present situation is very clear and not encouraging in many ways) .

What I've always wondered is why this seeming aversion to drawings has happened in regards to animation, but not with comics ? If people inherently prefer the realism of CG why aren't comics now made using Maya , Poser, or Z-brush ? Certainly super hero comics have always been somewhat more oriented towards 'realism' than funny cartoony comics, but still the people who like comics like the hand-drawn LOOK of the comics. Some comics fans are intensely loyal to certain pencillers or certain inkers , and a comics artist who has a distinctive drawing style can sell a lot more books .

Of course, it's not really the exact same situation in terms of animation vs. comics because it's still much lower up front cost to publish a comic book and less risk involved than making a $120 million dollar budgeted animated film. (and I suppose hard core comics fans who care about such things are a smaller niche market to begin with)

But I still find it odd that drawing continues to be popular in comics, but not so much in animation.

David Nethery said...

And I'll give an example to back up what I'm saying above about comics vs. animation:

Jeff Smith's "Bone". One of the most popular indie comics of modern times. It went from being an indie hit to mainstream best-seller when Scholastic picked it up and reprinted it in color .

Certainly people are responding to Jeff's storytelling in "Bone", but everyone who is a fan also loves the way "Bone" looks. There is a very visceral response to the beauty of Jeff's drawings , both the characters and the settings.

So he spent years trying to get it made as a hand-drawn movie that would preserve the look of the books . But what happens when he finally sells the movie rights to Warner Bros . ? They announce it will be made at Animal Logic ("Happy Feet") in Australia using Mo-Cap CG . HUH ?!

What is it they liked about the look of the "Bone" books that they felt would be better in Mo-capped CG animation instead of drawings that look like the original book?

I don't get it.

By the way I'm not arguing Hand Drawn vs. CG or Motion Capture. I don't hate CG. I just wish both CG and Hand-drawn would be considered on a level playing field (with Stop Motion ,too) so that the value of hand-drawn cartooning is not pushed aside in favor of always pursuing more "realism" via CG .

Rich T. said...

A lot of good comments here about your excellent entry, Will. I definitely agree that it would just take one extraordinary, well-told, emotionally captivating hand drawn cartoony-style feature to turn the tide. (Maybe Pixar will be the ones to do it).

One way or the other, isn't the situation better now than it was 70's and early 80's(between Jungle Book and Great Mouse Detective)when it seemed no one would ever make a great animated feature again?

Regarding your Lady and the Tramp live-action/CGI scenario: Sure it would make a lot of money up front. But would anyone remember or care about it two years down the road? Does anyone remember that live-action Jungle Book Disney made? Does anyone love the live-action Dalmation films? Lady and the Tramp isn't just about the look of the characters: It's the color, the backgrounds, the magical one-of-a-kind world the characters inhabit so smoothly. It's a beautiful film. I can't think of a single live action talking animal flick I'd call beautiful.

Regarding CGI, it seems we're finally emerging from the days when every non-Pixar CGI film seemed to be about farting animals sticking it to "the Man." There's a lot of fun projects in the works and in the recent past. I thought Horton was very well done, well-told, and even had the guts to include some 2D for the scenes in Horton's head (I like the idea of CGI characters dreaming in 2D).

At Burton's Alice (loved it), I saw the final 3D trailer for "How to Train Your Dragon," and I was mesmerized. I've never seen an animated fantasy world depicted with such startling clarity and detail, yet keeping the humans and dragon well in the realm of caricature and exaggeration...almost Asterix-like. More than any other animated film I've ever seen (except may Wall-E), the *textures* play a huge part in the film's impact: The furs, the ironwork, the woodcraft, the vikings' beards, the stonework, the dragons' scales...yet none of it would be mistaken for *real.* It's an exaggerated version of reality. I hope it's as good as the preview.

One last comment: Disney certainly killed the golden goose with their flood of bland video sequels. More than anything else, that greedfest made 2D Disney animation less special in the the public's eye. Thank goodness that nightmare's over.

Cartoons will make a comeback in film. People love cartoons. No one wants a CGI Bugs Bunny or Charlie Brown. What people want is a cartoon feature that shows them something they've never seen before and entertains the heck out of them.

Floyd Norman said...

Disney is currently paying the price for their greedfest over the past few years. The damage, though not permanent, will be lasting. Those executives who presided over this debacle should be hunted down by the Mouse Police.

Perhaps traditional animation can be saved, but I fear we're already too late.

Bob Flynn said...

I wouldn't lament quite yet, Will. But your observation is an accurate one. What keeps cartoons alive is kids growing up watching them—if there are less cartoons being made (and being shown), the effect will only compound...and they risk becoming a relic of the 20th century.

That said, to your point:

"Maybe the best way to save cartoons is to let them be cartoons..."

I point you to a hugely successful and profitable yellow sponge. There isn't a kid on this planet who doesn't know SpongeBob. He is as cartoony as cartoony comes these days.

So, there is hope. Kids recognize a good cartoon when they see one.

zoe said...

Realism has a power all its own, to further convince the viewer that what is happening on screen is real. When 2D was all there was for animation, of course people loved it -- it made fantastic stories possible and convincing in ways that puppetry and special effects were not yet able to achieve. In some ways, 2D animation is a conceit. It requires that people be willing to accept it in exchange for the stories it can deliver. The sad fact, I think, is that CG comes closer to what people would prefer to see -- something so real that you almost believe it.

Oil portraiture used to be the most popular medium for capturing the mysteries of the human likeness. Photography has all but supplanted it, except in rare ceremonial cases. I'm sure there are many painters and art aficionados who lament the public's lack of interest in oil portraits.

I choose hand-drawn animation over CG any day of the week, but I fear we are all a bunch of bewildered dinosaurs. It is an art no longer of its time, like opera, baroque music, copper engraving, kabuki theatre... kept alive only by true believers, and perhaps never to be popular again.

Daryl T said...

I was thinking about this exact thing not a little while ago. It's not only effecting the cartoon form, but the stories that can be told. I mean that movie Cats and dogs. Five years before that came out, there would be no question that it would have been an animated movie. But now, well we all know. It's quite an unsettling situation and makes it much more of a challenge to find a story that can only be told in animation. Even harder to find a story than only be told i traditional hand-drawn animation. I don't know why this partcular situation has happened, maybe it has something to do with parents allowing their children to grow up faster and have more access to inappropriate material, making the children believe that they are too mature for cartoons? I don't know. It would break my heart to see cartooning go extinct like silent comedy. Let's just hope that it's a cyclindrical phenomenon, and the old cartoony look will be brand new again.

Mark said...

Very much agree. I think the video game visual experience has had a lot to do with setting up what a 'successful' visual experience is. Realism and more realism. I think Fantastic Mr. Fox was also a relief from the over wrought CGI films of late. More personal , more expressive. I never understood the appeal of realism in animated concepts. Or I should say the desire to create something as close to the reality we see all the time. I was always more intrigued by a vision outside of what I might reasonably see in 'real life'.

Katy Hargrove said...

One thing I've noticed about art. If you take an unattractive artless image and render the hell out of it people will be impressed. Simpler art, as in line drawings, can be very sensitive but they will never have that instant wow factor of the rendered image. However, that line drawing might be what a person comes back to time and again and they'd never be able to vocalize why.

3D can be polished on the surface regardless of the quality behind the animation and design. This also means it tends to be busy with detail and reads less clearly. Then technical things kick in where animators can't control motion blur the way 2D can or drop information to make things read better and have impact. I think some of these things are being solved to degrees.

The strength of 2D is that it is usually a realm of minimalism. You've only got a few lines to get across a lot of information. In the right hands it reads clearly and that information just jumps into our brains. The impact can be wonderfully powerful because it is such a direct path. No unnecessary detail getting in the way of the action and emotion. Also the animator has complete control of everything about that character.

I have a guess as to why children may respond so well to 3D. It looks real. Imagine growing up in a world where all your favorite characters seam flesh and blood real. I can't. It must be pretty wild to be a kid now.

Anyway, I can't imagine 2D animation will ever die. Too many people love it and are willing to put in the money and labor to do it. The popularity of 2D is going to come and go like anything else that's for sure.

I love this post Will, and also the responses. Very thoughtful and engaging.

Rogério said...

Very good post. We should remember that one of the most important, creative and rich animation markets of the world is still the reign of 2D: Japan. I know that anime is a totally different creature, but it's curious that a country that is so associated with high technology stills has respect for the old and good 2D.
I don't want sound totally geek but I can't avoid: Man, I don't believe that I am "talking" with the guy that animated Iago. This is great.
Well, back to the subject: seems that the decline of the 2D and the cartoon don't is generalized. Maybe there is hope.

Sao Paulo, Brazil

warren said...

2D will resurface, sure. But cartoons to the big screen? Honest to goodness funny, caricatured drawings?

If it does, I don't know if it will be coming from LA. Anyone with money is running far, far away from that...well, it seems that way. Unless someone is cleverly deking left as I type this.

I think a lot of the 'staleness' associated with cartoons is simply overuse & abuse of conventions. Even making fun of those conventions is boring or even esoteric now.

This is how I think of it: If stop motion animation filmmakers kept re-using the same conventions as George Pal did in 'Gumby' all these years, it'd be dead as that duck in 'Rabbit Seasoning'.

One would imagine that if there was a decent story told with the same visual panache you can find in some television advertising today, and throw in some anime riffs (in terms of camera work, pacing and composition at the appropriate points of the film) one could come up with a pretty unique hybrid of its own - all in 2D, and as caricatured as you please.

Films like 'Coraline' and the Wallace & Grommit shorts borrow heavily from a myriad of contemporary film influences to 'bring up-to-date' a formerly marginalized form of animation. If someone with a 2D cartoony project in their heads can manage to make an equivalent - instead of the same old hash the public & suits think of - we'll see it bounce back.

The trick would be getting someone to pony up for it. The race to be second, and all that. So, I think, if it does happen, it wont be in LA. It's too expensive there, and this has to be done relatively on the cheap to succeed.

Pokey said...

Boy, oh boy, Warren, I have to stop you right there: GEORGE PAL and "Gumby"? So my creator and Gumby's was George Pal of Puppetoons and not Art Clokey?:)

Regardless of 2d or CGI, it kinda comes down to one's taste..I'd love the cartoony stuff----of, say, 50 years ago...and certain clay animation. [wink]

Chris Sobieniak said...

I don't know why this partcular situation has happened, maybe it has something to do with parents allowing their children to grow up faster and have more access to inappropriate material, making the children believe that they are too mature for cartoons?

The "letting kids grow up faster" seems to be something I've noticed as well, and it's rather sad to see how the industry has let it happen like that. We're raising a society of obnoxious, spoiled brats as far as I'm concern.

The realism vs. caricature issue is one that bothers me plenty. I was turned on more by the caricature nature of the cartoon medium than I was for the realism that seems to be standard now. And yeah, a film like Lady & The Tramp these days would be done in the live-action/augmented sort of way though I rather miss the loose caricatured styling of animals that were in those later Disney films after 101 Dalmatians and all (you could get away a lot more with the movements an animal wouldn't do in those).