Monday, March 16, 2009
Embrace the Differences
I'm currently writing a third book on animation––and its got my wheels spinning about what distinguishes animation from live action. This seems a little counter intuitive because many of us spend a lot of time and energy explaining that animation is not a separate genre of film. For instance, some wish that the animated feature Oscar would be abolished, allowing animated features such as Wall-E to compete head-to-head with the likes of Slumdog Millionaire for a best picture nomination. In fact, I am planted firmly in that camp. But, despite my belief that animation is not a genre limited to one type of film, I don't think animation can or should go every place live action goes.
Case in point: I recently saw Dillinger is Dead (pictured above right), a 1969 Italian art house film directed by Marco Ferreri in a revival screening at BAM. To quote from Wikipedia, "...The story is a darkly satiric blend of fantasy and reality. It follows a bored, alienated man over the course of one night in his home." For most of this film, we are watching the leading man cook dinner, eat dinner, tidy his house, find a gun, take apart the gun, clean the gun, reassemble the gun, watch TV, and watch his own home movies projected on the living room wall. Sound like fun? It was actually fascinating at every frame. So much of the film's power is what a living actor can bring to a role. Why else would it be interesting to spend all this time with a bored middle aged man going through his nightly routine?
I can't imagine a clearer example than Dillinger is Dead for what animation can't do well. The lead actor in Dillinger is Dead, Michel Piccoli, brings pathos with his posture, brow sweat, skin moles, thinning hair line, and with every nuance in his subtle performance. Now-a-days, some 3D animation attempts to replicate such ordinary details that make up a living individual, but 3D has yet to recreate the human spirit that goes along with them. That's what is so tragic about 3D animation. In its goal for total realism it moves further away from what animation does best, which is simplification of detail and caricature of action. An animated character going through the mundane tasks shown in Dillinger is Dead would be a dreadful bore of a feature film.
When it comes to animation, less equals more. Incidentally, 3D animation is not the first form of animation to walk away from what animation does best. When Disney finally returned to feature animation following WW II, the move was towards more realism of movement and design. In Cinderella (1950), Ward Kimball's cartoony cat stands as a remnant for what was lost–– a holdover from a time where an entire feature might be done with a lighter touch, as last seen in 1941's Dumbo (pictured above left). But, even when 2D features took the realistic path, at least there was still simplification and abstraction that comes with making a drawing. 3D could travel down a far more interesting path if only it would get over the fact that it can recreate a realistic looking world.
There's another aspect to why a film like Dillinger is Dead works in live action. The live action medium provides an instant reality. It's real life. We automatically relate to people, things, and places seen in a film. Its as if we are looking in the mirror. Because live action is based in reality, creative filmmakers have been able to play with separate realities within the reality of film. And, this has been one of the reasons that live action film has taken so many directions over the years. French new wave director Jean-Luc Godard provides a good example. Check out any of his 1960s films and you'll see the director playing with the nature of sound, continuity, etc. Even his actors step in out of character and in and out from the confines of the story. Goddard's efforts are bolstered by the built-in reality of film. And, it didn't hurt matters any that he cast sexy leading actors like Anna Karina and Jean-Paul Belmondo to keep us watching.
Animation succeeds best when it builds and supports its own reality, one that is separate from live action. We know mice don't talk. We know elephants don't fly. But, when we watch Dumbo we are charmed by its many appealing elements such as simplicity of design, clarity of story, and the very emotional character arc of the titular character. Each frame in Dumbo is purposeful and moves the film ever closer to its conclusion. Unlike Dillinger is Dead, Dumbo is not interesting because of the time we spend with him during an ordinary eventless evening. Dumbo utilizes the power of simplicity and caricature of animation to make us watch, care, and cry.
Animation and live action are in parts similar and different, but I would suggest that we best unlock the power of animation when we embrace the differences.