Wednesday, January 21, 2009


Some folks in the comments in my previous post about Planet 51 have wondered why I was less than thrilled about the production design that I noted in the trailer. And they are right to ask me- after all, it does look like it might be a fun film to watch. Indeed the Spanish made Planet 51 has strong American animated CG film influences to its production design (they do a good job of using the 'Pixar-look'). But I do have a reason for my grievance. So rather than stick my reply down in the comments I figured I'd make another post about it and see what kind of conversation can arise from it.

One commenter expressed:
I haven't seen a movie from a big american studio in the last couple of years that has had the kind of freaky style you want. If they had taken it that far, no one would go see the movie. Dont't you think so?
That's certainly a valid point. Big American animation studios tend to stick with the blue sky, green grass, sunshine world of utopian southern California suburb (before the smog). And a lot of those films have been a success commercially. The easy thing is to equate the two as causation. Causation being: American big studio animated films are successful, they also use traditional approaches to design and color scheming. Thus use traditional design and color scheming and your film will be successful. People fall for that confusion all the time (especially executives). We must understand that correlation is not the same as causation.

Another commenter offered:
I personally think the whole point of it was to keep it "down to earth" and close to what an audience can instantly recognize.
Again, a very solid point. I can see the rationale behind that approach. But then- do audiences really need to be addressed as pre-schoolers? It's too bad that filmmakers believe that things must be so easily digested, lest somebody get a tummy-ache in their eyes. The Nightmare Before Christmas looks nothing like 'real life'. Yet it was a big hit during its time and has gone on to become a classic- an evergreen property that still makes Disney money. I contend that the production design did not hinder the film's commercial & creative success- it defined it. Nightmare's design did not shackle it to failure- it freed it to become more than another come-and-go run of the mill offering.

Laika's Coraline has a similar vibe to it- it's not all green grass and blue skies.

We've yet to see how Coraline will do in the theaters, but I applaud Laika's risk taking spirit here. If you're gonna make a film, make a memorable one- make a striking one. Yes, there will be commercial risk- but following the 'normal' path of animated production design is no guarantee of mitigation of those risks. Everyone's Hero is a good example of that (and visually that's an example of the 'Pixar-style' that was pretty well executed, too). But where exists greater risk, greater reward is possible. Since the statement that "in Hollywood no one knows anything" really is true, why not embrace that uncertainty and use it to give license to a whole realm of possibilities- and even impossibilities?

Reality has no power of constraint in animation. Of all the forms of cinema only animation is free to explore every crevice of our imagination. Why be so timid about that exploration? Step out a little, stretch those imagination wings. Why play it so safe? Audiences don't want safe- they want something bigger than that. I truly believe it.


Michael Cawood said...

I'm with you on that Keith. Animation has so many tricks up it's sleave still to come but so few filmmakers are willing to explore. I know it's slow and expensive, but let's take some risks, otherwise all we're doing is reinventing the wheel.

Anonymous said...

I agreee I don't want to be treated as a toddler by the film industry, but everyone else in my neighboorhood and the majority of the city I could argue didn't graduate from high school at best and are quite complacent with their situtation; resisting adaptation and opprotunities to increase their knowledge base. Then again, these kind of people don't watch animated films at all unless they have children and some sort of conscious torwards them....

bclark said...

Hey Keith, how do you feel about 9 and it going from a short film to feature. I think that has a chance of coming closer to a "diffrent look" visually than the current crop of big studio features.

Anonymous said...

I think the trend for now will be to make more and more "safe" films, especially in this downer of an economy. Until something unique comes out and becomes a huge hit so all the execs try to jump on the "unique and different" bandwagon. And after Chris Sander's firing from Bolt and Glen Keane's removal from Rapunzel, two industry heavy weights, it seems more and more power is being taken away from the creative side of the movie making process. So challenging the status quo right now seems like a quick way to lose your job.

Unknown said...

you got me, great arguments!
I´m working on my short at AM and I´ll certainly take this as an advice (cause there´s still time for this) Thanks for the fresh air.

Anonymous said...

I was directing a show and showed the color keys that I was very excited about to the exec. producer (A business guy who self admittedly wasn't interested in production). Later i heard he was concerned that the show wasn't colorful enough and was too 'dark'. The stinking thing was pink and purple and orange all over the place.

I figured out that what he meant was 'the skies aren't blue and the grass isn't green... this is weird and I feel uncomfortable.' I ignored his concerns and pressed on to create a gorgeous production that was a big hit. Put green skies and purple grass in front of an exec and 9 times out of ten it makes him nervous. Which is fun.

andy said...

I think all the points made here are good and valid. However, in the specific case of Planet 51, I wonder whether the production design is actually part of the story; maybe the makers want to draw a parallel with Californian suburbanites ?

Tim said...

A couple of points:
1) Take a look at the palettes of a couple of "conventional looking" films:
- Mulan. Some definite blue skies throughout, but also peppered with olive green and fiery red at times.
- Fantasia. The Rite of Spring skies are all over the place, also in the Pastoral sequence rarely is any plant life green.
- Gone With The Wind. For being made in 1939, they paid a lot of attention to the color palette and pushed the limits of Technicolor. Watch the sky underline the emotional thrust of the story from scene to scene, from dull grays to brilliant oranges and reds.
- How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The only conventional colors Chuck Jones & Maurice Noble used was Santa's Red suit and Max the Brown dog. Brilliant.

2) I think much of Keith's point on "Planet 51" stemmed from the fact that this story takes place on an alien world. That's the perfect excuse to explore some new palettes. Why didn't they? Now maybe the point of the story is to make this planet look familiar to the invading Earthling. In that case, yes, a blue sky/green grass world is necessary.

Okay, one more point: 3) When you are creating a world from scratch, think. Explore. Don't make choices based on "that's what it's supposed to look like". Create every shape, color and texture to reflect what you want, to re-enforce the emotion, the feel, the style and the theme of the story.

MikeBelanger said...

Why can't they do something like the Japanese do, and 'take a risk' by doing something like a graphic novel first, get some feedback on it, and if THAT's successful THEN make it an animated feature. Graphic novels are way cheaper to produce than a 75-minute feature, so you could take more of a risk.
Hell, make a leica reel of the first half of the movie, put it on YouTube and if THAT gets a lot of attention and ad revenue, then make the whole thing animated.

Anonymous said...

I'm loving this discussion :)

If the point is to make a parallel between alien and human civilization, I wonder how far you can push it visually until your setting no longer looks like the obvious 1960's middle america that is presented in the trailer.

Could they have taken the Jetson route perhaps?

As that Planet 51 is not yet released, I will hold judgement and merely speculate, but yes there are tons of films, animated or otherwise, that play it safe.

Don Lafontaine's flame has long since extinguished, yet it still sounds like he's doing 80% of the movie trailers we see. Including Planet 51's....

Anonymous said...

Unless of course the trailer's are recorded months and months in advance. :S

Anonymous said...

Since the statement that "in Hollywood no one knows anything" really is true

Yes. Anything can work and anything can fail. And you can't tell which is which until after the thing is produced. Which means green grass and blue skies can easily be the elements of a smashing success. Or not. It doesn't matter. The look of a film is largely irrelevant. Gags can not be improved by using a revolutionary background sky of green instead of blue. What it's all about is emotional weight or power. Does it move? You don't produce that power by ginning up a new look. Surface detail is beside the point.

It's like the power of a piece of music. It's not determined by the key in which it's written. You can write in all sorts of different keys. It's just not relevant to whether or not the thing will have a certain emotional power or not.

Anonymous said...

The relating to the audience thing could backfire...I for example, don't see how this story could progress for a feature legnth amount of time... this could easily be a New Yorker or Charles Adams one-panel gag and I'd be fine with it. With this there's nothing here taht I haven't already saw, including the aliens, so I can't see how a story such as this can be interesting, even if the astronaut is a biologist because the only discovery he could make on this planet right now is the alien's phsyology.

Anonymous said...

Honestly, I think this green grass, blue sky stuff is part of the irony of humans as aliens. Also, not to get all scientific, but we can assume that any planet supporting life-forms so similar to ours would have blue skies, due to the Tyndall effect. I don't think animation *needs* to go all freaky-deaky to be interesting, so long as the story is there.

FleaCircusDirector said...

It looks to be a classic formula kids movie. Lots of gags referring to other films, e.g. the "alien" dog, over acting and I'm sure the odd fart joke too. I'm sure it will be very popular with it's target audience which is largely NOT the people reading this blog.

nubby said...

I guess what really confused me a bit after watching the trailer was maybe one of those darned subconscious things that something just didn't feel right. So I watched the trailer a couple of more times. There it was right at about 11 seconds into it. The entire planet is being shown with a green atmoshphere. But then, yeah, it's like you said, blue sky and white clouds. Something doesn't add up visually.
The plot looks like a neat concept though.

David Beer said...

KidAnimator: totally agree