Monday, June 20, 2005


Read this little gold nuggets in a paper from Eric Larson over on

Let's think of the action as an expression of the body. In his memo to Don Graham, December 23, 1935, Walt (Disney) chided us saying: "The animators go through animation and don't make the positions of the body express anything." How often do we do that? We just make 'em move and accept that as being animation. It's certainly difficult to express a positive thought when we move the character all over the screen, failing to accept the fact that such action so often destroys personality, making it impossible for the audience to appreciate and relate to our animated character's emotions.

Are we in CG animation going through our own "make 'em move all around the screen" phase? Dunno for sure, but maybe we're in a groove collectively where the characters are moving soooo much that it can be hard to dial in to who they are and what they are feeling on many occasions. I really liked Madagascar. Really neat designs, functional story, interesting characters, some good funny bits and some amazingly wild animation. Fun stuff. It looked like the animators were having a blast. But there were times in the film where I did wish things would take a breather and just BE. Robots left me with the same feeling (except the enjoying the movie part. I imagined homemade flyers all over telephone poles in NYC that read LOST: One feature film story. Black with white spots. Responds to the name Bucky. If found please call Fox).

Perhaps this hyper-kineticism of motion is just a symptom of growing pains as Cg breaks free of the constraints of lower technology rigging solutions? I got the sense that Madagascar had rigs that could do some pretty fun things deformation wise and those guys were having fun taking their new toys for a spin. I'm guilty of it as well. I tend to go for the bigger action and then dial back from there. And with every new rigging achievement for greater deformation I say Hey, let's try this move. Look man, I got me a new toy and dangit I'm gonna use that puppy. Heh. I know when we got some more stretchy squishy rigs at work we had a time of trying to figure out how to use them. Some of the first tests were pretty wild to say the least.

Maybe it's the fact that we have a whole industry of animators groping along the learning curve that represents the typical maturation of a medium. I think folks are experimenting with styles, working to establish a motion lexicon that has more entries in it besides "Pixar Style".

Perhaps another thing that may be contributing to this is cultural- Maybe we western animators are afraid to let things breathe? Miyasaki (who's film "Howl's Moving Castle" is out and I plan on seeing it) has been quoted as saying a defining aspect of his movies is that he takes care to let the characters breathe. He described it as the enjoying the empty space between the clapping of the hands. We western animators tend to like to make the noise in the clapping. More noise and faster. I think maybe we need to allow the quietness between the claps to breathe a bit. It's that contrast between action and stillness that we need. We're pretty solid on the action, but could use some more stillness.

Heck, sounds like our American society as a whole, don't it?

I think the stillness is key to how we dial into the mind and soul of the character. Maybe we can't plug into a soul that's always hopping around like a maniac all the time.

I'd be interested in your thoughts.


Drew said...

great post keith. east is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet. i think the difference between miyasaki's films and western animated films is that he is a filmmaker first. that is important. too many times "directors" of western animated films are former animators who have a great eye for movement, but don't do so well when it comes to pacing an overall story. brad bird said in the commentary for the incredibles that "there is pleasure to be had in the sneaking around." i think that is great. how else do you build up tension so that really cool action scene pays off. if you always yell at people, you tend to get tuned out by those you are trying to communicate with. having too much happen in a scene is almost worse than having the scene not play at all. because if you invest that much time into it, then you are dillusional thinking that what you are doing is working.

Anonymous said...

We were just talking about this the other day... one of my favorite sequences in any animated film is the train ride towards the end of "Spirited Away". Pretty much nothing happens, it's just one long, quiet moment. After the gigantic action sequence that precedes it, it's a refreshing breather, a chance to wind down and contemplate the implications of what just happened. Miyazaki's a genius.

I think one of the reasons American movies (including live action movies) tend to shy away from those quiet, contemplative moments is that the stories are so weak that if you give the audience too much time to think, they'll start to see all the holes in the plot!

That said, we did have a *lot* of fun with the characters on Madagascar. We were like a bunch of kids in a candy store. I'm glad that feeling comes through!

Bobby Pontillas said...

I think alot of it too has to do with western audiences, generally speaking. We've been so bombarded with a million images per second so many times that I think we've become accustomed to that sensation, so when something isnt on full-blast it takes us off guard and we fly past and we miss it completely. How many times have you heard "The Hulk, eh, was too slow." (for lack of a better example.) How many people would be able to watch the original Fantasia today?

Anonymous said...

check out adam elliot's work (stop-mo):




harvey krumpet preview (oscar winning short):

almost NO animation, but yet so touching and full of feeling. his films are amongst my favourites, because they touch me. yet, all which is moving is hands and eyes, very very simple. watch them, very inspirational imo.



Raf Anzovin said...

Hey Keith, hope you're having fun at DNA!

I think part of it is actually the kind of movies that the studios want to make these days. After Shrek's success, every animated movie now has to be a frenetic screwball comedy with lots of movie references, and a big dance number at the end. I know that the original story of Robots was a bit more thoughtfull then what made it to the screen....I think they got pushed to cram in as many gags and bits of slapstick as they could, because that's the kind of movie FOX wanted them to make.

I wish there were more low-budget animated films in America....then we might get some more experimentation with different kinds of storytelling.


Anonymous said...

This is something that my friends and I call the "Wouldn't it be cool?" syndrome. It's what happens when you let animators write movies. Robots is the perfect example of a movie where you can imagine a room full of animators going, "Wouldn't be cool if they started surfing on dominoes?", "Wouldn't it be cool if all of a sudden he turned into Britney Spears?". Meanwhile the audience is left going, "What the...?" Animators are animators. Very seldom writers as well.

Something that needs to happen across the board is that studios need to start hiring writers to write these things, as you would a normal movie, and keep the animators under control so they don't get too much ability or temptation to just make stuff up as they go along. I'm heartened to hear that Dreamworks has commissioned Jerry Seinfeld to write the script for their upcoming flick, "A Bee Movie".

It comes down to this. I've seen many many movies that have great animation but are ruined by poor stories. I've seen far fewer examples of movies that have great stories but are ruined by poor animation. We do have to ask ourselves as animators - which is really the more important?

Anonymous said...

Clay, I assume you don't actually work for one of these companies, or you'd know that animators are rarely, if ever, involved in the story development process.

I totally agree with you that story is the most important thing, and that stories generally work better when a single author is given a large degree of artistic control. But you're totally off base when you blame any film's story problems on too much input from animators. If anything, these films would be improved by more input from animators earlier in the process, because we get to know the characters very intimately, and often have good insight into what works and what doesn't.

Anonymous said...

Fair comment, my humblest apologies :-)

Anonymous said...

Well, I don't think it is a matter of difference between east & west.
Indeed, great italian movies weren't afraid of silence (Sergio Leone, Fellini etc..), nor french cinema (Truffaut, Tavernier, Godard etc..), nor german movies (Fassbinder etc) and so on, only to quote the biggest directors, the matter to me seems to be more between American movies and rest of the world movies.
European and Asian movies, but African and South-american movies as well, aren't afraid of sequences where nothing is really happening, like the train ride in 'Spirited Away'. Sometimes they are not so beautiful and successfull, but that it's true for action or dialogue scene as well...
The point is that American seems to be afraid of putting silence (and the equivalent in images) in their films.
Of course there are some exceptions, there are some great directors who definitely know about the power of quiet silent scenes. That's why they are great directors. I'm not making any distinction between live-action and animation here (why should I? a movie is just a movie, no matter the medium), but definitely american animation movies always tends to be too verbose.
Very often there's a character around who is there just to talk continually.
The observation by Cassidy, about stories being weak and making all that is possilbe to hide this, really made me laugh.
But I'm afraid it's worse than this.
I'll make a good example.
I am italian.
I recently bought Kiki's Delivery Service on DVD, released by Buena Vista. That means, the subtitles were translated into italian from the american version of the movie.
I looked at the film in Japanese with subtitles, and I was astonished:
there is double dialogue in the american version. That is, lots of lines were added where in reality the characters were silent, to explain a situation that was already explained by the action or the drawings going on.
That is ridiculous. For real.
I believe that anyone in Usa would have been intelligent enough to understand the movie without those ridiculous extra-lines.
And that the silence, that was on purpose, for artistic-communication reasons, would have not bored anybody!
But for some reason, someone clearly does not believe that...