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.


Michael Sporn said...

Excellent post. However, I still believe that an animated Dilinger Is Dead could be as exciting, enthralling and informative as the live action version. You're right; I don't think cg is ready for this, but I know 2D could do it, if it were well directed and animated from the concept stage on.

George said...

There is so much that you write here that is important to animation as an art form.

The first thing I want to comment on is your opinion on the Oscar for animation. I do not think that having an 'animation' category stops animated films from competing with live action films, just as 'foreign films' are not stopped from competing with domestic films for 'best movie.'

Furthermore, it seems that your whole post is about the distinct expressive qualities that animated films can bring and present to an audience. I agree with you that every idea could not (or at least, should not) be presented in animation. Your example of 'Dillinger is Dead' is apt. I think that if such a film were animated, it would not be expressing the same thing; the film would be 'about' something different. All that said, it seems to me that animated films are expressing something different form live films, and as such should have their own category.

I don't quite understand your ideas concerning 3d animation. There are so few 3d animated films (distinguished from live films with 3d animated content) that have tried to "replicate such ordinary details that make up a living individual." You might be right that those that have tried have failed, but I think that everybody, even within the 3d community, agrees with you (especially as concerns
'Beowulf' and 'Final Fantasy' (I can't think of any others)). I do believe that there are examples of good and bad 3d animation, just as there are examples of good and bad 2d or stop motion animation. Furthermore, I think that there are very important things being expressed in 3d that cannot be expressed in 2d, stop motion, or live action.

All that is only to say the same thing I got out of your post: that each art form has its strengths and weaknesses of expression. 'Alice in Wonderland' in live action (upcoming Tim Burton) is expressing something very different from 'Alice in Wonderland' as cell animation (Disney), or 'Alice in Wonderland' as stop motion (Jan Svankmajer), or 'Alice in Wonderland' in 3d (American McGee's video game), all of which are expressing something very different from what Lewis Carroll was trying to express.

I think that your point is crucial when a film maker decides what sort of film to make.

roconnor said...

The number one difference between animation and live action: schlepping.

Live Action is all about getting up really early, schlepping stuff then standing around for a while before schlepping somewhere else.

Animation, not so early, not so much schlepping.

stephen said...

Hi Dave,

While seeing Dilinger is Dead as an animated film might forfeit a certain degree of voyeurism that in part makes it successful, I think there's no reason why it couldn't be an animated film if done by the right person with the right skills. I look at some of yuri norstein's tests for the overcoat:

Then again, I'm sure norstein and ferreri have different reasons for their choices, and the result is surely extremely different.

Perhaps a better question isn't "what" to capture and in what medium, but "why" show something and why use animation or live action. One could make any subject successful in any format given enough time, money, and skill--but why?

And now here I am, giving out more rules! Let us break them all.

Elliot Cowan said...

"When it comes to animation, less equals more."

This is something I've heard you say several times
Although I do mostly agree, surely it comes down to personal preference.

Many, many folks embrace what you might call an "overanimated" style as animation heaven.
Are they really wrong?

If the story telling is good, then animate it any way you see fit.

Perhaps this post harks back to an earlier discussion - animator vs film maker.
(Well, not versus as such, it's not quite a boxing match).

George - Tim Burton's Alice project is mocap, which is nearly animation and nearly live action but not really either.

David B. Levy said...

Wow, guys... lots of food for thought in these comments...

In my opinion a 2D short could maintain interest in something like Dilinger is Dead, but I think it would be difficult to pull off in a feature and still maintain interest. Godard has long sections of film where we only see the back of an actor's head and its interesting. I think such stuff could be deadly dull in animation. But, don't get me wrong... I'm not against interesting staging in animation. I just think there is something about a live actor that allows for a very experimental approach in a feature live action narrative.

The animation category at the Oscars does (in fact) segregate animation from live action. As it is currently, an animated feature cannot compete for best picture alongside live action. Academy members, am I incorrect?

Any use of the word Schlepp is very appreciated.

If anyone call pull off what you're talking about its Norstein, but, Overcoat is still a short film, no? Albeit a longish short.

I agree that there are many who enjoy what I label, "overanimated" styles, but I would argue that those styles don't work for me because those films become about the animation. When it comes to character-based animation, I prefer animation that doesn't draw attention to itself just for the sake of the artist's ego.

Elliot Cowan said...

I don't disagree with you, but it's still a personal preference.
It comes down to you (and I for that matter) not liking a particular thing.

This is very different than saying something is good and bad or right or wrong.

Also - and perhaps this point is redundant - this overanimated style is something that you dislike as an animator.
It effects your enjoyment of the piece because of your proximity to the material.
Most audiences aren't made up of folks like you and I (and whoever else would like to be dragged into this)and may enjoy the piece regardless.

David B. Levy said...

I agree, Elliot.. and you are reminding me of something Stephen Neary said,..."now here I am, giving out more rules! Let us break them all."

My feeling is that there are no rules, except the one's the guide us from film to film. Self-imposed rules are the only important ones. But, you are correct that there is no way for me or anyone else to quantify what is good or bad or right or wrong in a general sense...

But, that said, I sure am prepared to back up my argument.

roconnor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
roconnor said...

But there are "rules" to animation, moreso than live action.

This is because the process of animation would degenerate to incoherence without them.

There is an established frame rate. There are rules about registration, about field sizes.

These may not be narrative rules -and that's where the fundamental, ontological difference in techniques lies.

Animation is not a storytelling genre, it is not a film form -it is a process (there, I've said it three times).

That technical process has intrinsic limitations. Many of those limitations are based on the skill of the director/producer/animator. In live action (or, as I sometimes call it "non-animation") the process can mask the technical and artistic shortcomings of the creators.

David B. Levy said...

Hi Richard,

By "rules" I am referring to the almost infinite choices an animation filmmaker has to make from frame-to-frame as well as from conception. The process is one of elimination. There are general principals of animation that guide us, but we impose a different set of creative rules that govern each bit of animation we produce.

David B. Levy said...


I have a wider definition of 3D films that attempt to add details of realism without capturing the "soul" of a live actor. My list goes way beyond Beowulf and 300. Shrek (and it sequels) fits this definition for me because of the realism in skin texture, hair, moles, etc...

justsim said...

Animated characters don't have "souls". Shrek isn't real, not even Bugs Bunny is real. They are just drawings, or in Shrek's case a 3d model built inside a computer, he doesn't even exist as a drawing you can hold in your hand. In a film like Dilinger Is Dead so much of the performance depends on seeing into the "sole" of that character, to get that becomes an incredibly difficult thing to do in animation when so much of the performance depends on an non existent "soul".

David B. Levy said...

Hey Justin,

If the term "soul" is an obstacle, I can instead say that animated characters can have believability.

But, yes, soul or the human spirit, is automatically there in live action and that is my point. And, that's why live action can do certain things in a feature film that animation would have trouble sustaining.

justsim said...

I believe in your believability Dave. Nice post again.

Rachel Pearlman said...

Maybe I'm entering this too late and maybe this is too philosophical but Shrek and Bugs Bunny don't have a soul? I don't know. I think if you ask a five year old they'd beg to differ. Maybe it's because they're definition of this stuff isn't defined by real life or not. Bugs bunny just is. Bugs Bunny has a personality and does stuff and I know what he is and what he is not. He also has a code of ethics- he will not do certain things or look down on people who do those things. What else defines a soul? Does it matter that Bugs Bunny is the sum of many different artists work? Most people experience Bugs Bunny as singular entity, not moving drawings.

David B. Levy said...

Hi Rachel,

Bugs Bunny is certainly a believable creation, by any one's definition... but, to understand the point of my post--imagine Bugs Bunny in a feature film where nothing happens. Imagine we just watch him in an ordinary evening in, cooking diner, ironing his robe, etc... that's what you see in a live action film such as Dilinger is Dead.

In typical animated feature films--something is supposed to be happening. Can an animated feature film engage by spending time with a character doing almost nothing? My answer is "no" because animation (by the very nature of the process) is about something happening. Otherwise it would be a still drawing hung on a wall.