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Is Animation Taking over Film?

11/22/2013
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NFFTY 2013 Alumni, Amos Sussigan, creator of Audience Choice Award film Broken Wings, talks about how animation and film come in tandem. His film is also our Film of the Week. Watch it here.

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When asked if animation is going to take over films, I raise my eyebrows impulsively I would answer with a more than overconfident yes. Despite the short-term relief in thinking that I just answered such an intricate question with one unsatisfactory word, I do find myself slightly baffled and with the raising willingness not to answer, but to present more questions. Isn’t animation something that goes hand by hand with film? Did animation evolve to become something necessary for a film to be made? Or even, are these questions raised because animation has already taken over the film industry?

Different, but in essence, equal.

Animation, per definition, is the simulation of movement created by a series of sequenced drawings. Live-action movies, are the simulation of movement though sequenced photographs. On a more conversational and less “I-found-it on-wikipedia” note, live-action films portray “real human beings.” As an animation director, I often find myself slightly wounded every time someone asks me “Oh, did you do a real movie? Or an animated one?” Leaving upset feelings aside, this generalized misconception might come from the fact that often audiences, journalists, and even film makers, consider animation as a genre, a set of stylistic choices like western, crime, or fantasy. Instead, Animation is a storytelling technique, as much as live-action is, that can be created in different kind of genres. Animation made an impression with children’s oriented movies, but evolved to films such as Pixar’s “The Incredibles,” (action), “Wall-e,” (sci-fi romantic comedy), and Laika’s “Paranorman,” (horror), capable to capture all kinds of audiences.

Blurring the lines.

Animation went, in less then a century, from being a series of experiments of moving drawings at the edge of magic, to the release of the first hand drawn animated feature, Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, to the revolutionary Toy Story, the first entirely computer animated film. At the same time, animation techniques and drawings were applied to live-action films to reduce costs and amplify the effectiveness of the images on the silver screen. In the past, special effects were something that needed to be actually created, for example, with the use of craftsmen who would extend sets using wood and metals, create puppets, or even paint backgrounds. With the knowledge of animation, this barrier has faded, creating a mix between animation and live-action. Special Effects, then, as a matter of fact, are animation too.

Animated Films are better than live-action ones? Not necessarily.

In the past few years there have been increasing production of animated films that have taken a special places in audiences’ hearts. Finding Nemo, Ratatuoille, and Up are good examples. Their common denominator is, and so much so, that they all have a great story. It does not matter if the “actor” is a fish trying to look for his son, a rat desiring to be a master Parisian chef, or an old men embarking in a journey trying to fulfill his wife’s lifelong wish, what matters is that we can relate to them. Just like emotions, a great film cannot be defined as animated or live-action. If it speaks to us, if it makes us “feel” and we remember how we felt while watching it (or afterwards), that is when we can define it a good film.

What differentiates animation from live-action movies is the way they are made. Animation films take much longer because everything needs to be created from scratch. If a studio takes four years, hundreds of people and sometimes even hundreds of millions of dollars to make one movie, they will want to make sure that it is good and their effort is recognized (then, there are plenty of examples how it does not always work, but that is a whole other story.)

Pixar’s “UP” opening scene. Do we care that they are not real but animated?

As important as a Shoe string

When four years ago I decided to enroll in a university majoring in directing animation with the goal of becoming a live-action director, my thought was that I wanted to be able to control everything. An animation background would allow me to make every decision consciously. I needed to design the environments, props, characters that had both aesthetically and spiritually the feeling I wanted to convey without being limited by the locations in my neighborhood, the actors I would find, or the type of camera I could afford (especially as a student, often with the vibe of a starving artist).

To make my point, I ask my live action-filmmakers friends “How many times have you shot a live-action film and thought about the color of the shoes strings of a secondary character? This does not understate some sort of animation superiority or define them as sloppy directors, it simply explains how in animation you are forced to explore every tiny detail because you either have to draw it, or create it with computer software.

As people might guess, the upcoming Disney’s Frozen will be strongly influenced by cold weather, more precisely, by snow. What animation allowed Frozen to do was to transform the snow into an element that consciously enriched the story and emphasize the emotional state of the character, and automatically, of the viewer. The snow is not anymore limited to “little white dots”, like if you would rent a snow machine, but it tells the story of the character himself designing the shape, the thickness, the speed, and the density of it towards a definite emotional goal.

VFX Overdose

Scrolling through the list of top grossing films of all- times, one might notice that never before in Hollywood’s history have there been such an intense presence of visual effects driven movies. In the top ten, movies such as Avatar, The Lord of the Rings, the Return of the King, and even Marvel’s The Avengers make the differences between animation and live action even more blurred.

When I was done with Marvel’s The Avengers, I did not feel unsatisfied. After all, it was a pleasant visual experience. However, if asked what I recall from the movie, I would say: “the snakish-like spaceship that floats around the city at the end of the movie looked great.” But I am sure of it because I just checked the trailer out because I wasn’t sure if I had seen it in Capitan America, or Iron Man. These movies all offered a great visual experience, but did not do much more than a great ride at a theme park. I did not leave the theater with new ideas, concepts to think over, or shaken by the meaning of what I just watched. Usually this happens because I am caught up looking at the realistic, but often entirely useless giant explosion at the corner of the screen. The latest overwhelmingly action-packed superman movie, “Man of steel” for example, made a great effort in trying to show Clark Kent’s internal emotional struggle. However, it completely destroys it in the last thirty minutes of shuttering glass extravaganza.

The Great Gatsby VFX from Chris Godfrey on Vimeo.

The Great Gatsby VFX. Amazing special effects, but less flying cameras around the city and we could have actually learned how to love, and maybe, understand the characters of Fritzgerald classic novel.

Then there are times when a movie like Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (one of many) shows up on screen and magic happens. I did not necessarily love the movie, but I admired its use of visual effects to tell the story it wanted to tell. Not for a second I doubted the reality of the world created in Gravity. Despite the abundance of special effects, animation has been used to enhance the emotion, not distract us from it, giving us a beautiful representation of the universe we live in.

So then, the question might not be “Will animation take over film?” since it is clear that it already did. A better question would be “How will animation take over film?” Once the novelty of computer generated visual effects will fade away, then film makers will realize that at the end of the day making movies it’s not just creating a beautifully photographed piece of art or an amazingly realistically animated series of effects, it’s about, one more time, storytelling and the way it makes us feel.

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