Way back in 1979, I published a theoretical essay on animation.* It explored how animation is different from live-action because it can mix types of perspective cues within the same image. That was basically the only original idea I have ever had about animation, and I never followed it up by writing more on the subject.
At that point, animation studies were lagging behind film studies in general. A single essay in the area was enough to brand one as an expert. Ever since people have thought of me as an expert on animation. By now, though, animation studies have grown into a healthy area of scholarship, with its own journals and conferences. There are many people studying animation who know far more about it than I. My only work in this area since 1979 has been to write most of the sections on animation in Film Art and Film History.
Still, that leaves me the resident animation expert on this blog, and since I seem to end up writing about the subject occasionally, we’re adding it as a new category as of this entry.
Among the new films I’ve seen in the past couple of years, I find that a significant proportion are animated. I don’t think that’s because I prefer animated films but because these days they are among the best work being created by the mainstream industry.
Why would that be? There are probably a lot of reasons, but let me offer a few.
Animated films, whether executed with CGI or drawings, demand meticulous planning in a way that live-action films don’t. David has written here  about directors’ heavy dependence on coverage in contemporary shooting. Coverage means that many filmmakers don’t really know until they get into the editing room how many shots a scene will contain, which angles will be used, when the cuts will come, and other fairly crucial components of the final style. This is true even despite the fact that filmmakers increasingly have storyboarded their films (mainly for big action scenes) or created animatics using relatively simple computer animation.
People planning animated films don’t have the luxury of lots of coverage, and that’s probably a good thing. Storyboards for animated films mean a lot more, because it’s a big deal to depart from them. Every shot and cut has to be thought out in advance, because whole teams of people have to create images that fit together—and they don’t create coverage. There aren’t many directors in Hollywood who think their scenes out that carefully. Steven Spielberg, yes, and maybe a few others.
A similar thing happens with the soundtrack. In animated films, the voices are recorded before the creation of the images. That’s been true since sound was innovated in the late 1920s. Pre-recording means that images of moving lips can be matched to the dialogue far more precisely than if actors watched finished images and tried to speak at exactly the right time to mesh with their characters’ mouths. The lengthy fiddling possible with ADR isn’t an option. Most stars are used to recording their entire performances within a few days, picking up their fees, and moving on to more time-consuming live-action shooting.
[Added December 11: Jason Mittell, who teaches at Middlebury College, has pointed out to me other factors closely related to the thorough storyboarding of animated films and to the pre-recording of dialogue.
Live-action projects often go into the shooting phase with the script still being tinkered with. The main writers are long gone, script doctors have taken over, and stars may request, nay demand, changes in their dialogue. But for animated films the script, like the editing, is in finished form at the move from preproduction to production.
Jason also points out makers of animated films very carefully distinguish the characters by distinctive dialogue and voices. In contrast, do planners of live-action films think much about the combination of vocal tones that the actors will bring to the project? It’s indicative of the difference, I think, that the Annies have a category for best vocal performance and the Oscars don’t. Ian McKellen has been nominated for an Annie in that category for his contribution of the Toad’s dialogue in Flushed Away–completely tailored to the role and totally unrecognizable from his usual voice.
As Jason concludes, “Live-action filmmakers should try to emulate Pixar’s pre-production strategies to raise the quality bar.”]
In The Way Hollywood Tells It and Film Art, David has briefly discussed the modern vogue for muted tones, usually brown and blue, of many modern features. (Remember what a big deal it was when Dick Tracy used bright, comic-book colors in its sets?) The old vibrant tones of the Technicolor days are largely absent, at least from dramas and thriller. Not so in animated films. Most animated films are full of bright colors. (Some tales, like Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride and Happy Feet, call for the elimination of color, but they’re exceptional.) Think of Monsters, Inc. and, say, any David Fincher film, like Se7en. (Yes, Se7en is dark in its subject matter, but I’ve illustrated the two early getting-ready-for-work scenes in each film, before the nastiness starts in Fincher’s film.) For those of us who like some variety in our movie-going, an animated film can be visually pleasing in ways that few other films are.
Makers of animated films aren’t obligated to drag in sex scenes or to undress the lead actress. Maybe such scenes in live-action films really do draw in some viewers, but they can be hokey and definitely slow down the action. (Remember Ben Affleck rubbing animal crackers on Liv Tyler’s bare midriff in Armageddon?) Animated films tend to have romances and sometimes even mildly raunchy innuendo, but it doesn’t slow down the plot. The romances in Flushed Away and Cars are very much like the ones in Hollywood comedies of the 1930 and 1940s, flowing along with the narrative in a more logical way.
Animated films don’t have to be tailored to the egos and ambitions of their stars to the degree that many live-action features are. Indeed, often stars bring film projects to studios or produce their own films. The growing number of stars providing voices for mice and penguins and spiders don’t have that sort of investment, emotional or financial.
Some of the best directors working today are in animation. Pixar’s John Lasseter hasn’t let us down in any of his Pixar films, whether he personally directs them or supervises others. Nick Park’s shorts and features, especially Creature Comforts and The Wrong Trousers, are the works of a genius, and other director/animators at Aardman aren’t bad either. Then there’s Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, to mention only one). There aren’t many live-action directors working in commercial cinema today with such track records.
Despite all this, studio executives and commentators continue to debate whether there are now too many CGI films coming out. Indeed, the November 24 issue of Screen International says, “Much has been made this year of the seeming over-saturation of studios’computer-generated titles, with critics and analysts pointing to growing movie-goer apathy.” Of course to most people don’t notice any difference between CGI 3D films and those made with claymation (Parks) or puppets (Burton), so SI’s article talks about the successes and failures among the family-friendly animated films of 2006, including 2D Curious George.
This debate over a possible saturation of the market with CGI films seems bizarre. As a proportion among the total number of films made, CGI’s box-office successes seem fairly high compared to live-action films. Yet one doesn’t see execs and pundits mulling over whether audiences are tired of those.
Certainly success or failure isn’t based on quality. Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-rabbit, last year’s winner of the Oscar as Best Animated Feature, was a commercial disappointment (in the U.S., not elsewhere). Monster House got a lot of highly favorable reviews, but similarly had a mediocre reception by ticket-buyers.
This week the nominations  for the Annie Awards, given out by the International Animated Film Society, were announced. The Best Animated Feature competition is among Cars, Happy Feet, Monster House, Open Season, and Over the Hedge. But in the “what’s the logic behind that?!” world of awards, Cars and Flushed Away got the highest number of individual nominations, nine each, followed by Over the Hedge with eight.
I’ll confess right now that I’ve only seen three CGI-animated films this year, because, as I say, I’m not an animation specialist. I go to animated films for specific reasons. One, Cars, is a Pixar film. Two, Flushed Away, is an Aardman film. Three, Happy Feet, is directed by George (Road Warrior) Miller.
On the other hand, Over the Hedge was advertised as being “from the creators of Shrek.” Shrek was an entertaining film, but I think it has been overrated. Besides, a check through the main credits of Over the Hedge reveals no one who had worked on Shrek. “Creators” here must mean Dreamworks. That, by itself, is not enough to draw me in.
Of the three I’ve seen, I would rate Cars the best, Flushed Away a not too distant second, and Happy Feet a distinct third. (More about Happy Feet later.) So how come Flushed Away didn’t get nominated for Best Animated Feature?
A cynic might point out that, on a list of the ten highest-grossing animated features of 2006, by year’s end the five nominees will end up among the top six. Ice Age: The Meltdown, currently at number two, received four nominations, but not one for best feature. Flushed Away is at number nine and likely to remain so. I’m sure that’s not the only factor, but as with many other awards nominations, hits tend to maintain a high profile through the year. I suspect that Cars will end up becoming the fourth Pixar film to win the Annie for Best Animated Feature during the seven-year period since Toy Story, the first totally CGI feature, won.
Quality apart, though, why do industry people doubt the wide appeal of CGI animation? Why do they think rising above an indeterminate number of such features per year causes CGI-fatigue among moviegoers? They certainly go on releasing far more live-action films than could possibly all become hits.
As I suggested in my earlier entry on Flushed Away , most of companies releasing animated films don’t know how to market them very well. Let me offer a couple of suggestions as to why everyone but Pixar often seems so clueless.
First, although animated features seem like the ideal family-friendly audience, they’re quite different from the family-friendly live-action film. Every studio wants films that appeal “to all ages” (i.e., to everyone but small kids), preferably with a PG-13 rating. Think Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, and Titanic, in ascending order the three top international grossers of all time (in unadjusted dollars).
With most animated features, however, there’s a big gap in that family audience: teenagers. Animated films (“cartoons”) are still perceived as largely for children. Sure, savvy filmmakers like the people at Pixar and Aardman are putting more sophisticated references and jokes into their films, things that are more entertaining to adults than to children. The assumption is that parents who take their kids to the movies might be more likely to pick a film if they think they’ll have something to engage their attention, as opposed to sitting tolerantly waiting for the thing to be over.
This, by the way, is another reason why some animated films are among the best products of the mainstream film industry these days. They’ve got a wit and visual sophistication that is sorely lacking in many live-action films. (That’s certainly not true of all of them. I thought Madagascar and the first Ice Age had simple plots that would be engaging mainly to small children.)
So the grown-up humor may please the adults, many of whom, like me, go to them without children in tow. Kids, of course, will watch just about anything animated that’s put in front of them. But suppose a bunch of high-school kids on a Saturday are trying to decide which film to attend. Would any of them nominate Cars or Happy Feet? Maybe I’m behind the times, but I find it hard to imagine. Most teen-agers among themselves, after all, would do anything to avoid seeming not to be grown-up, and watching cartoons is just too childish. (Even the CGI film most obviously aimed at teens, Final Fantasy, was a flop.)
This is not to say that teen-agers don’t see or enjoy Cars and Happy Feet, but I’m guessing they probably go with their families on holidays or see them at home on DVD.
The second big problem that stymies the industry when it comes to promoting animated features is that they usually can’t be branded by director or star, the way “regular” films are. Pixar, as usual, is the exception. John Lassetter is sort of the Steven Spielberg of animation—one of the few directors with wide popular name-recognition. Pixar quickly became a brand in the world of animation, even more than Disney was at that point. Now they’re under the same roof. But Dreamworks really isn’t a high-profile brand, and the newer Sony Pictures Animation certainly isn’t. Their films succeed and become franchises in a hit or miss way. “From the people who brought you Shrek” is a feeble way of branding a film. Mostly I think distributors market animated films to kids and hope the adults will be there, too. Maybe they don’t even think about the teenage audience, considering it a lost cause.
More and more famous actors are doing voices for animated films, but that’s far from the same thing as appearing in a live-action one. Hugh Jackman was a big selling point for the X-Men movies, but who would go to see Flushed Away just because he voices the lead character?
So what can the studios do to integrate CGI and other types of animated films into their flow of regular releases, comparable to live-action films?
One solution is obvious: Make the characters into stars. Disney created the prototype with Mickey Mouse. Buzz Lightyear and Woody would be stars with or without Tim Allen’s and Tom Hanks’s voices. Shrek is a star. Wallace and Gromit are beloved stars outside the U.S. It might have occurred to Paramount to lead up to its release of The Curse of the Were-rabbit by circulating a package of the three earlier shorts, in order to familiarize Americans with the duo. (That was done in European theaters years ago.) Roger Ebert’s review  of the feature opined that “Wallace and Gromit are arguably the two most delightful characters in the history of animation.” A pity the American public have not yet been given much of a chance to discover that.
Another possibility is doing what Hollywood is slowly doing for live-action films: Publicize award nominations other than the Oscars. More awards ceremonies are being broadcast on TV as time goes by, and audiences seemingly love these contests. Why not tout an animated film’s garnering of Annie nominations?
Of course companies use Oscar nominations in their ads, but under Academy rules, only three animated features can be nominated in any year unless sixteen or more such features are released that year. Then the number of nominations jumps to five, but so far that hasn’t happened. It may finally happen this year, if all sixteen features currently under consideration qualify under Academy rules.
One might object that the general public doesn’t know or care about the Annies. But it’s a vicious circle. They don’t know about them because the industry doesn’t bother to publicize them, and the industry doesn’t publicize them … well, you can see where this is going. If the industry promoted the Annies as signs of quality animation, the public might know and possibly care about them. They’ve learned to be interested in the Golden Globes, because those have been increasingly covered by the infotainment section of the media. And the infotainment industry largely covers the “news” that the industry’s publicity departments want it to (star scandals excepted).
And then there’s the Internet, where fans often do a better job (and for free) of publicizing films than their distributors do. Case in point, Lyz’s WallaceAndGromit.net . I can’t get into online publicity here, or this entry would balloon out of control. Still, there seems an obvious link between people who spend time on the internet and those who are interested in CGI animation.
Epilogue: On Happy Feet (Spoilers!)
I went to Happy Feet with high expectations, based both on reviews and on my liking for previous George Miller films like The Road Warrior and Babe: Pig in the City. I saw it under ideal conditions, in an Imax auditorium.
I enjoyed it but was somewhat disappointed. For one thing, much of the time the images seemed to be going by in fast-forward. The swishing movements of figures combined with rapid-fire editing occupied a lot of screen time. The story has its penguin hero, Mumble, shunned by his vast flock as having dancing rather than the conventional singing talents. The plot hinges on Mumble’s two goals: to win the love of talented singer Gloria and to gain respect by finding out why the supply of fish has dwindled recently.
Both of these goals are, however, put on hold for great stretches of the film’s middle. Miller seems so caught up in Mumble’s escape from a seal or his encounters with a nearby troop of Puerto Rican-accented penguin hipsters that the plot gets sidetracked. Once the search for the “aliens” who are decimating the fish supply reveals that they are humans on huge ships, the scenes that resolve that plot-line seem perfunctory.
The animation itself is dazzling, the vocal talent excellent, the ecological message unobjectionable, and the wild mix of musical styles amusing. I just wish I hadn’t spent much of the movie wondering where it was all heading.
*Kristin Thompson, “Implications of the Cel Animation Technique,” in The Cinematic Apparatus, eds., Stephen Heath and Teresa de Lauretis. St. Martin’s Press, 1980, pp. 106-120.