Rendered characterless

The latest CGI technology can bring animation closer to real life, says Jim Davies. But he draws the conclusion that it’s often a trade-off for the standard of writing

At the best of times, I’m forced to sit through hours of dodgy animation. My young sons are connoisseurs of Japanese cartoons; anything as long as it involves crazed battling monsters, badly dubbed voiceovers and cutesy bug-eyed protagonists.

The Christmas break, however, took matters animated to another level. As well as the usual Far Eastern fare, there was a raft of feature-length animated films to contend with, including Disney’s Mulan, The Tigger Movie and Monsters Inc, to name a few. I realise I’m not exactly target audience here, but I’ve always been interested in the genre and, with the honourable exception of Nick Park’s seasonal contribution, was surprised at how few of these films managed to engage, amuse or charm.

Monsters Inc? But that’s a great film, isn’t it? Funny, pacy, well-voiced, and the special effects are astonishing. All true. But something about 3D computer animation doesn’t work for me. No matter how good the storytelling and characterisation, the technology always gets in the way. You start to analyse the production design rather than get carried along with the narrative. Your disbelief, as Samuel Taylor Coleridge might say, is far from suspended. Instead, you’re left thinking, ‘Amazing, they can do fur now.’ ‘Wow, they’ve got the shadows exactly right for that time of day.’ ‘Look, you can even see the reflection in the toilet bowl, talk about attention to detail.’

It’s a classic case of getting carried away with what your kit can do. There’s an element of showboating, of including extraneous detail just because you can – but, ultimately, this reveals more about the limitations than the capabilities of the available equipment. They’ve now done glacial landscape (Ice Age) and underwater seascape (Finding Nemo) to show that the latest monster computers can cope with any graphically hostile environment.

But if you take computer animation to its logical conclusion, what do you end up with? An accurate simulation of live action. So why not use real actors? They’re probably cheaper than running banks of high-end graphics workstations and employing enough people with sufficient expertise to run them.

Clearly, there’s a huge market for this animation style. Yet it seems so cold and calculated, lacking in the verve, spontaneity and variety of 2D cel animation. It harks to the prevalent aesthetic of computer games, shiny, robotic, slightly out of sync. It’s telling that these films come unstuck when they introduce a ‘real’ human character into the storyline; they’re about as life-like as a blow-up doll (apparently).

There’s a lesson here for all schools of design: don’t be led by your technology; it’s a means, not an end. Cel animators have used computers more subtly – invisibly even – to do all the laborious spade work, saving precious time to allow designers and directors to concentrate on the things that really make a difference: ideas, characterisation, developing surprising and imaginative forms of expression.

That’s the true beauty of animation; there are no limits. It encompasses an incredible stylistic range and, at its best, is a highly subversive medium – as practitioners in the former Eastern Bloc consistently proved. Even in the context of Western popular culture, it questions accepted boundaries – including programmes supposedly aimed at kids. Violence is often gratuitous, sexual innuendo bubbles just beneath the surface and in-jokes, clearly for adults, abound. Let’s face it, Tom and Jerry make Quentin Tarantino look tame. It’s only because drawn animation seems so far removed from reality that the watchdogs are so uncharacteristically lenient.

But the Pixar school of computer-generated animation has become something of a straightjacket. It’s trapped in its own particular aesthetic and, the more it apes reality, the more likely it is that some moralising crusader will clamp down on its content.

As with other forms of graphic design, when original visual style and impeccable writing collide, something special results. My current favourite is Dexter’s Laboratory by Genndy Tartakovsky – a mad fusion of bold 1950s retro styling, curious perspectives, witty references and peculiar voices. It’s silly but savvy.

No critique on animation would be complete without mention of the most successful TV series ever, The Simpsons. It’s not particularly well drawn or realised, but it doesn’t matter – you’re too busy laughing to notice. The show’s success is entirely due to the quality of its writing. And not a reflective surface in sight. Th-th-th… that’s all folks!

Please e-mail comments for publication in the Letters section to lyndark@centaur.co.uk

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