Monday, January 7, 2013

Anthropomorphism in Animation

In the 1946 Disney animated feature, Make Mine Music, there was a rather delightful sequence called Johnny Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet. It was a terrific example of anthropomorphism - giving human traits and personality to that which is not human. Usually we think of anthropomorphism as it relates to cartoon animals who wear clothes, talk, and walk upright on their two hind legs. But there are plenty of samples of objects that are also brought to life with human traits, like the enchanted clock, candlestick and tea pot in Beauty and the Beast, or the brooms that overwhelm poor Mickey Mouse in The Sorcerer's Apprentice.

But getting back to the film I cited above, here are some stills from Johnny Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet that show what it is that I love about their design and treatment in the animation.

In the stills above, you can see how the two hats really lend themselves to being cast as human "types". Alice has a bow on the back, just as a girl might have a big bow tying up the back of her hair. The rest of the ribbon hangs down gracefully and can be utilized as girlish arms as demonstrated. Also, the lace around her brim suggests a frilly collar on a dress. Johnny is certainly a lot simpler in design, but the eyes exist where there would be the shadowed indentations on a fedora, and the opening of the hat acts as his mouth. The hatband even suggests a mustache, I suppose.

What I particularly enjoy though about Johnny's design is the use of a visual "cheat" - an element that goes deliberately against the rules of 3 dimensional structure (like Mickey's always round ears, for example). In Johnny's case the cheat is in the way his face actually encompasses two separate planes of the hat: the eyes are on the front, while the mouth is on the underside of the brim. Because a drawing is a 2 dimensional representation of 3D form, the artists can easily get away with this optical illusion of the two planes working as one when the hat is tilted up, as in the two stills above. Also, note how Johnny is able to exhibit emotion in the way the brim is pushed and pulled to achieve different mouth shapes, with the eyes reacting accordingly. This is the magic of traditional, hand drawn animation, and one of the reasons I will always vastly prefer it to CG animation, which so often is trying to mimic the literalness of live-action film. Additionally, so long as Hollywood continues to pursue creating these CG films in 3D, such visual"cheats" cannot possibly work as effectively.

This brings me to a subject that is bound to rub some people the wrong way, but I believe the criticism is warranted. Because of the trend in current animated features to try to emulate live-action cinematography, I feel that we're losing the very definition of what it means to be an animated film. My own interest in animation as a young kid was that it was the illusion of a drawing seemingly springing to life upon the screen. That was truly magical to me, and was certainly one of the factors contributing to my love of drawing and hopes to one day becoming a cartoonist. For me, it was always "The Animated Cartoon" - take "Cartoon" out of the equation and I really wasn't that interested. Sure, I liked some stop-motion animation back then, but it was always drawn cartoon animation that intrigued me.

So hopefully you can understand why I might not be particularly impressed with the latest short that Pixar is working on called The Blue Umbrella, which seems like a watered down (so to speak) variation on the classic Disney segment cited above. I came across this teaser clip on Cartoon Brew today and I must say it just leaves me cold. For a start, though it's technically CG animation, it might as well be live-action footage from the way it looks. The animated faces appear merely pasted on, rather than being physically integrated into the umbrellas themselves, and these objects only twist and turn a bit, not exhibiting any of the whimsical "Squash and Stretch" we associate with classic drawn animated performance. In short, this film clip holds about as much charm for me as a typical TV commercial for Kool-Aid, which it sadly puts me in mind of. For the record, I remain equally unimpressed with Pixar's two Cars features, as they also come across as live-action films with some animated elements pasted on top, again exhibiting no exaggeration of form and movement of the various car characters, thus not taking proper advantage of the animation medium.

By the way, I've heard that this short film may be the work of the satellite studio that Pixar set up in Vancouver. If so, it is likely that some of the folks involved in the animation may be former students of mine at Sheridan. Please understand that my criticism is not targeted toward those involved in bringing the film to fruition. My issue with the film is in the concept and art direction that was decided upon by the powers-that-be. Animation that tries this hard to look like its live-action film cousin just isn't really "animation" in the true sense of the word, not in my book anyway. Sorry, but this stuff needs to be said.


Jonah Sidhom said...

I understand where you're coming from, but don't you think variety in animation is a good thing? Pixar DOES utilize traditional principles of animation in a lot of their work, but I don't think it would be appropriate here. They also use highly stylized characters (Carl from Up, for example) which don't try to copy reality.

I just feel like if everything animated was done in the style of a classic hand-drawn Disney short, I'd grow tired of animation after a while. I feel like variety should be encouraged, whether it's stylistic CG, stop motion, Len-Lye type drawing on film, realistic CG, or traditional hand-drawn stuff.

Pete Emslie said...

Sorry, but I don't agree. Yes, variety is a good thing, but not animation that strives so hard to look indistinguishable from live-action. I'm not talking about animation as "special effects", by the way - I fully approve of photorealistic characters like Gollum or Kong when integrated into a live-action film. But a film that claims to be an "animated" film should set its sights on some obvious degree of visual stylization, otherwise what's the point?

Jonah Sidhom said...

I see what you're saying. If you're trying so hard to make something look like something else, why not just skip a few hundred steps and actually use the medium you're trying to replicate. Makes sense.

I'll have to watch the whole short, though, to see if there's a reason they chose to keep it animated. You never know, it might not be as straightforward as it looks.

X said...

It's nice to hear another person who's not enthusiastic about Cars. I'm going to stick my neck out and say that both it and Finding Nemo had the same lack of emotional involvement and style that The Blue Umbrella has. I'm not a fan of Johnny Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet either mostly because of it using the tired old Disney mannerisms, but at least it evokes a sort of magic, while The Blue Umbrella looks more like an alternative-rock music video, and the extremely simplistic faces just strike me as devoid of charm.

kurtwil said...

Nice to see you back at the blog, Peter!

Behind Golum and Caeser, there is Andy Serkis and WETA's data manipulators / animators tweaking Andy's motion capture performance.

Things we take for granted in good 2D animation, such as independent manipulation of many details, multi-dimensional squash/stretch, and/or distortions/exaggerations, remain extremely difficult and time consuming to do within 3D.

Cedricstudio said...

Some great observations Pete. I'm glad I'm not the only one was underwhelmed by the pasted-on faces. I still have high regard for Pixar, and hold out hope that they will surprise us somehow with something amazing. But you wouldn't think so by looking at this clip.

Mark Mayerson said...

That comparison to the old Kool-aid commercials made me laugh because it's so appropriate.

Tyson said...

I love the feel of the hand drawn animations your speaking of. And I remember the hat cartoon from my childhood, loved it! I always combined it with the little blue coupe short Bill Peet did. Which is also why I thought it was interesting you brought up cars, which borrowed the character design largely from that Bill Peet short.

I really respect the technical skill it takes to put together things like this pixar short you mention. But it feels like it should be an experimental independent film, not the norm. I'm excited to see 3D doing so well, I do hate that it came at the cost of removing 2D.

It also worries me to see 3D animation and live action are becoming so interchangeable. There's a charm to live action, going to locations, making miniature sets or making detailed life size sets. It's a wonderful art form. But when the behind the scenes features are nothing but people standing in front of a blue screen, it just seems off to me. Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings was wonderful because it blended real sets and models with 3D animation to make one master piece. I love that. But when the whole film is animated except for the characters... it's almost like doing an animated film for the purpose of it looking like live action. The two worlds seem to blending.

Very much enjoyed your post! Good to have you back ;)

Floyd Norman said...

When CGI animation successfully marginalized traditional hand drawn animation that was the end of this love affair. I find I have less and less interest each passing year with animated feature fare.

Unknown said...

I totally agree with you and I remember thinking the same thing when I saw the post on Cartoon Brew. What's the point of animating so photo realistically when you could just shoot it in live action? There is so much more charm in the original Disney short and the CGI umbrellas only suffer more in comparison.

I'm normally a big fan of Pixar (and I still believe that they are the best CGI animation company), but this doesn't impress, nor has Cars.

Ricardo Cantoral said...

That clip looks like a 30 second tv commercial. No way you can stretch such a visually uninteresting film with mute character for more than half a minute.

GW said...

I respect that not everybody is interested in real looking animation, but it does have a purpose. I don't see any need for an argument Proponents of more stylized animation miss the fine point that just because something looks real doesn't mean that it can be done in real life. Views of the inside of the human body(aside from those that can be achieved through an endoscope), or 19th century bulldogs are two examples of things that are real but can't be portrayed in real life. The point is that if you find something that can't be done in real life, you can still create it.

And let's be honest. There's a whole of room for improving on live action. You can make a real Gotham City rather than shooting it in an actual city, you can make actors who look like a real person would as they age rather than using separate actors. I'm sure that there are even more advantages. You get the drift. I personally think that there should be a new term for animation that's done for the sake of creating a virtual version of reality, Simulated Action. Also, I think that realistic looking visuals shouldn't be an automatic choice but one that's done with more moderation.

Michael Sporn said...

I couldn't agree with you more. When I first saw CARS, I knew we were going doen the wrong path. The BGs were photorealistic to match the car characters. It was all wrong. Then CARS 2 just imitated bad live action comedy-adventure movies. They're at a loss as to what to do at Pixar.

Perhaps Floyd Norman is right, feature animation is not very interesting anymore. The umbrella movie is just tiresome.