Tuesday, June 02, 2009

At least I'm not alone

It's nice to know I wasn't the only person underwhelmed by Up. In addition to some commenters here, Michael Sporn and Michael Barrier both were fairly critical of the film's faults. Both gentlemen have a long history of accomplishment, as well as critical thought and analysis of animation. Each have strong opinions, as well. Some say that puts them into the crumudgeon category. I wouldn't agree with that label. They are definitely fans and want animation to be great- but they have their standards and they don't waver from those. I certainly don't always agree with their views. I'd be afraid of the person that I always agreed with. Yet I find their blogs to be required reading, especially if you wouldn't normally share their opinions. Always seek out different points of view- it makes you a more well rounded person and keeps you from becoming intellectually inbred. It also makes you less likely to be used as a tool.

I'm thankful for the chance to have a different perspective. I'm finding that my own views on animation -- especially the big studio feature film variety -- have evolved a lot more now that I'm not in the belly of the animation studio biz like I used to be. That culture can be claustrophobically limited and tends to be very self re-inforcing (a dangerous hallmark of any brand of fanatacism, by the way). You always end up working with the same people, or people who know people, again and again. Everybody is one level removed from everybody else. So there is a strong, unspoken pressure to not rock the boat, to be as vanilla as possible. Keep potentially caustic opinions to yourself because you never know what thin skinned person (or friend of said person) you might offend by expressing an original critical thought. Plus there is a tendency to elevate the profession of character animation to levels of importance and significance that are, frankly, just silly. One artifact of this is to navel gaze about the smallest of details, which is tiresome to me and misses the point. There is a noble benefit to self improvement and refinement of one's craft, but do we really need to study video reference of the tongue in slow motion in order to convincingly animate an "L" sound? Really? So often CG film animation misses the forest for the veins in the leaves on the twigs of the branches of the trees.

At this point I don't feel a need to work in the big animated film biz. Been there, done that, got the receipts to prove it. I'm just in a different place. Our family loves where we live and I thoroughly enjoy teaching and tinkering with my own experiments in animation. I don't worry as much about somebody getting their tighty-whiteys in a twist because of something I have to say. I think the very fact that Barrier and Sporn have no stated desire to work in the big studio animation film biz is significant. It's good to have informed outsiders chiming in. Perhaps there are benefits to having informed former insiders who are now almost outsiders chiming in, too.


Kevin Williams said...

Barrier and Sporn have some of the most negative and bitter things to say about animation.

I avoid reading anything they have to say, and try to disregard there opinions.

It's good for your blood pressure, and better for your peace of mind.

Keith Lango said...

Yeah, I can see what you're saying, Kevin. It can be easy to read their work through that lens. I just choose not to. Don't make the mistake of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. One may not like their ideas based on style points, but they do have valid things to offer. Maybe it's good they get under folks skin- keeps everybody honest. Some time ago I got the idea that if anything anybody says about animation got my blood pressure up then maybe that said more about me than them. Every now and then I have to remind myself- it's just animation. It's not the cure for cancer. :)

The Jerk said...

Hey good thoughts, I was actually thinking along similar lines today-- i've also come to the conclusion that i actually don't mind when people disagree with my own opinion, it only bothers me when the disagreement descends to petty personal attacks and hurt feelings as i have observed happens so often in forums and blogs where folks like to express their opinions. As you say, it keeps us honest, forces us to re-evaluate our opinions- "WHY do i like/dislike this film/painting/political idea? Is my reasoning sound?" If i surround myself with people who believe only the exact same things i do, i can easily go wrong.
Iron sharpens iron, and a variety of differing opinions is healthy when expressed in a civil manner.
I too have read these less-than-enthusiastic reviews of Up, and though it hasn't made me change my mind about it (i feel it is at or near the top of pixar's ouvre) these thougtful criticism of the film have at least tempered my own opinion and kept me from hyperbolizing too much about the movie.

Randy said...

Hey, Keith,
I actually agree with a lot of your critiques, even though I was totally sold on Carl and Ellie in the beginning. Emotionally I was totally there. But the ending of the film really underwhelmed me. It felt like the cross-your-heart thing wasn't ever paid off in a key moment, and it seemed un-pixar-like for them to have so little to "pay off" in the end. Usually the last 10 minutes of a Pixar film is taking phrases and ideas that were seemingly inconsequential and turning them into the film's most memorable moments, paying them off one by one. Up just didn't have that kind of a finish line to it.

And I actually pretty much hated the dogs all the way through. Some funny bits, but I just didn't enjoy watching them. ...or the bird, for that matter.

But that being said, I loved the first part so much I can't say I didn't like the movie. ...I dunno where you left your heart during that part, dude. ::sniffles::



Kevin Williams said...


I think it's best to give constructive criticism. Where your review not only pointed out where you thought Up could be better, but also made suggestions as to how to achieve it.

Barrier and Sporn, however, don't. I haven't read their Up review, and I don't intend to.

It's definitely not a cure for cancer, and I'm sure I can out curmudgeon the Michaels any day out of the week.

I do love that Pixar movies spark such good conversations among animators. Last year, discussing Wall-E and Kung Fu Panda created some great thoughts on animation!

[Mild Spoilers Ahead]

One of the best parts of Up for me was when looks at his mail and makes a comment to his deceased wife. It was something my own grandfather did, and for me, cut out 20 minutes of exposition about the character.

Dave said...

I liked UP more than you did despite the odd lapses that you (and Barrier, and Sporn) pointed out. It was an entertaining film, but ultimately not a great film because of those lapses. I can buy the whimsy of a floating house and all , but I'm surprised more people didn't find themselves pulled out of the story by those strange lapses of logic, by wondering how this infirm, elderly man inflated all those balloons and attached them to his house overnight , then later in the movie is crawling around on the outside of a zeppelin , etc . ?

I guess I'm like you in the comment you made above: " I'm finding that my own views on animation -- especially the big studio feature film variety -- have evolved a lot more now that I'm not in the belly of the animation studio biz like I used to be. That culture can be claustrophobically limited and tends to be very self re-inforcing". That observation really resonates with my own experience of no longer being in the belly of the animation studio biz and finding that my tastes are more "catholic" now and I see the limitations of what comes out of the studios more clearly than I did before when I was wrapped up in that claustrophobic, self-reinforcing world. There is incredible pressure in those studios to toe-the-line as a "good team player" and act as though whatever the studio is working on at the time is the BEST , MOST SPECIAL Golly gee WOW project ever , when often it is mediocre . It's understandable and in some ways necessary to keep the crew's enthusiasm from flagging during the long production, but often it leads to people feeling like they can't speak up and truly be honest about story problems or character development problems that are actually pretty glaring if one only had the opportunity to step back to look at it clearly.

Andrew said...

I have to agree with an earlier comment that you offer constructive criticism whereas Sporn comes across as cranky old man yelling at the kids to stay off his lawn (I don't read Barrier). I have enormous respect for the man's work and don't doubt his passion for animation, but sometimes how you say something is as important as what you say.

I saw Up last night and I can see how the film doesn't work if the Carl/Ellie montage doesn't hook you. I thought it was a beautiful film and incredibly well-animated, but it was a predictable story. Even having stayed relatively spoiler-free I had the ending figured out 1/3 in to the film.

The dogs were brilliant. That was the most inspired idea in the whole movie. Well, other than making a feature film about an elderly man in a flying house to begin with.

Keith Lango said...

There was a time some years back where I swore off both Mssr's Barrier & Sporn, so I know the frustrated feeling one can have sometimes when reading them. But I've learned a little better how to see a person's POV without necessarily getting bruised by the delivery. And there are still posts by each fellow that just make me go "What the heck are they talking about?!". But I am pretty certain I do the same to them on occasion, so I'm willing to call it even. :) I still don't buy everything they sell, but I do find the process of having my assumptions challenged and the exposure to different opinions & POVs to be a worthwhile endeavor. Maybe for some folks reading them is like taking animation vitamins. Doesn't always taste great, or maybe if it's a big honkin' pill it hurts a little going down the pipe- but in subtle ways unseen over time there can be a benefit to be had. Even so, if they make you really upset, it's probably a good idea to avoid them. No need to punish oneself. heh. But this discussion here is a good reminder to me to always be extra mindful that I flavor my words and attitudes with grace- a good life skill regardless of the forum.

Anonymous said...

However without the biz you wouldn't have as many students coming to you to learn animation. Its definitely the biggest draw to those who want to learn animation.

Keith Lango said...

Anon-- True, but it's not as simple as that either. For those who want the studio biz insider for their training they usually head to AM. But a lot of my students are people who want something a little different. They're looking for a different take, a different style, a different outlook. That or they are folks who, after getting a more biz oriented bit of training, come to me to help fill in the blanks in a more personalized setting. But a good chunk of my students still have a primary goal to get into the big studio biz. And I am more than happy to teach them that style of animation. A number of them have succeeded in that goal, too. :)

Emily said...

"At this point I don't feel a need to work in the big animated film biz...I don't worry as much about somebody getting their tighty-whiteys in a twist because of something I have to say."

I totally understand what you're saying, but I hope you're not implying that any of us (working in the big biz, small, or other) should be afraid to voice our true opinions and reviews of films. It's not as if we're singling out any one person or artist, or Pixar as a whole. I would hate to think that Pete Docter might put me on a black list for not giving Up a rave review. I've met him a few times, he seems very nice and genuinely interesting in the art of animation (once was at a Mary Blair art exhibit). Anyways, maybe I need to be thicker skinned than to worry ;)

It just seems petty to label someone else as "bad" or "rotten" for not liking something. We all have varying sensibilities, and if people are going to post their ecstatic reactions to Up, why can't others comfortably post their less-than-ecstatic reactions?

Hamish Beachman said...

Hey Keith,
Thanks for the honest review,I have not seen the film yet, but if past efforts by Pixar are anything to go by I am sure you are on the money.Be nice to see them try something radical and not cheesy?! Will there ever be a place animation film that don't feel like it made for kids first?
I just found your blog the other day through the interview on Its Art and I think its just great. Have founds tons of interesting stuff in the last week!

Anonymous said...

I don't know if I can escape this intellictual inbreeding, if I've guessed correctly as to what it means. It's always been me in the wrong with whatever opionion or truth I stated. It's not because I couldn't transfer my thoughts to voice in a logical mannar (my mind to body cooridination has always been screwed), it's just that I was in the minority both in the popular culture and educational field (I was raised in socialist/elitist charter schools, so it was a no win situtation as there was no one I wasn't scared to associate with, coming from a Southern Bapitst background). Now I'm wanting to write my own stories and produce my own animations and discovering that it's next to impossible because I can't appreciate anybody's (I'm good at animal psycology but I'm 80 years too late to pitch any idea focused around that) opinion or even their individual personalities because I can't get comfortable around any concept I know or don't know about because no one agrees with me. I've been tempted to just live off my socical security and animate for myself, and forget about starting a career in the field that requires mentally stable and organized social-behavioral skills...