Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Want to *create* great character performances?

Make a short film!

That’s the conclusion I draw from reading the entirety of Mark Mayerson’s master’s thesis (he posted the final installment on it today). Of course I am making a distinction between creating a performance and contributing to one.

The bulk of Mark’s thesis points out that almost from the start animators on commercial productions have been marginalized in their contributions to a character’s performance. A myriad of decisions and developments in animation over the years have all worked to reduce the animator from an ‘actor with a pencil’ to junior member of a larger committee that contributes to character performances. Character designers, voice actors, live action reference actors, directors, storyboard and layout artists and now actors in mo-cap suits– all have taken a chunk out of the animator’s domain of being the creator of a performance in the same sense that an actor creates one. By the time a film animator gets their scene the larger substantive decisions regarding the performance have already been made, most often without the animator’s input. Mayerson shares this anecdote…

Story artist Bill Peet felt that he was the prime contributor to One Hundred and One Dalmatians and that others simply enhanced his contributions. “The public probably thinks the animator sits down and starts doing it from scratch. I did storyboards, thousands of them, and character design; I would direct the voice recordings. Then guys like Marc Davis, Ken Anderson, and Woolie Reitherman would take credit for my Cruella De Vil and all of the personalities. Those personalities were delineated in drawings, and believe me; I can draw them as well or better than any of them” (Province 163).

The above not only exposes the tension over credit, it also shows that the artists themselves can’t agree on where control of a character lies. Peet wrote the script and did the storyboard for One Hundred and One Dalmatians, based on the book by Dodie Smith. Marc Davis, cast by character as Barrier would prefer, animated Cruella De Vil. Live action reference footage of actress Mary Wickes was shot for the role of Cruella (Frank Thomas 320). Betty Lou Gerson recorded Cruella’s voice track. Does this character represent any one contributor’s point of view? Can any of the above people claim the same level of control that an actor routinely has over a character. …

While within the industry animators are routinely compared to actors, perhaps a better analogy is to musicians in a symphony orchestra. Such musicians are responsible for playing the notes on the page while filtering them through the interpretation of the conductor. Within the ensemble, how much room is there for musicians to assert themselves?

Surprsingly little if you think about it. What’s left is delivering a performance, not creating one. It seems like a slight distinction, but it is a real one. Allegorically speaking, the second trombone music is written. Is your second trombone player quitting the orchestra? No worries. Find yourself a competent professional trombone player and the symphony can succeed without the audience noticing any difference, or even caring to. Fine work for the trombone player, pays the bills and all– but it’s no jazz gig, that’s for sure.

But here’s the sunny ray of opportunity- independent animation. Mayerson again…

It’s only on short projects that animators have the freedom to control a character without having to collaborate, but just as silent animators were limited by their backgrounds as cartoonists, many independent animators are limited by their backgrounds in fine arts. They prize the image over believable characters. Norman McLaren is an example of an independent animator who controlled his films but was more interested in design and the formal aspects of the animation process than he was in creating characters.

How ironic. The one place that offers the most performance freedom from the limitations of the commercial world is independent animation, yet it is largely absent of professional level character animators.

I don’t want people to get the impression that I think working in the film biz is bad or somehow beneath you. It’s a fun and honorable profession and I’m thankful to have had a chance to do it. I’m just saying don’t just settle for being in the film biz, that’s all. There’s more out there than working on the next big film. I think we animators should be engaged in the struggle to create independent animated films and not give all our energy to the homogenized committee. Even if all you make is one or two independent films in your career that’s still a valuable enterprise (I don’t think student films should count since most of them were made when we didn’t know what we were doing. I’m talking about films you would make *after* you became a pro film animator, not your student work). Imagine if every year a few different professional film animators released their own short films filled with rich, professional level character animation and unique performances of note? Imagine how fun the festivals would be! I love the studio shorts that are being made, but I’d love it even more if the animators who worked on them did their own thing as well. Why let Goeblins and Supinfocom have all the fun? Take inspiration from the graphic novel world for comics. Many, many great artists who work in animated film studios express their own creativity outside of their day jobs by creating their own works- you see them at Comicon. These guys and girls aren’t cranking out the industrial DC or Marvel stuff, but these animation film pros are bringing the weight of their experience and skill to apply fresh voices and expressions to the medium. Certainly the comics world is all the richer for it. Why shouldn’t film animators do the same thing?

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