Thursday, July 27, 2006

Cartoon Cluelessness

Amid at Cartoon Brew has been pointing out some examples of historians and film critics talking about animation who really shouldn't, because... how can I put this... they know about as much about animation "as my behind knows about putting up stovepipes."*

First, via Mark Mayerson there was historian Paul Johnson trying to write a chapter about Walt Disney, and coming up with stuff like this:

As he employed a good many intellectuals, artists, and writers who at that period leaned overwhelmingly toward the left, this produced tension at the Disney Studios and, in 1940, led to a strike aimed either at forcing Disney to make pro-Communist propaganda cartoons or at shutting the studio down. Disney defeated the strike, with some help from J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, and pursued his own individual way until his death.

As Mark points out: "The quote above is demonstrably false on several counts. Disney lost the strike as the company had to recognize the union. The strike was about issues like wages and had nothing to do with the content of the films. Nobody, including the strikers, wanted the studio shut down." But apart from that, Johnson's accuracy cannot be faulted. Johnson claims in a footnote that he's relying on the book Hollywood's Dark Prince as his source for that passage, but a commenter at Mark's blog says that book doesn't make any such claims. This means that Johnson just made it all up to fit a storyline (Disney vs. the Commies) and then mis-attributed it to another book. This may be something you should keep in mind if you read one of Paul Johnson's books.

Next, Amid rips into film critic Mick LaSalle for claiming that motion-capture animation (i.e. animation with minimal involvement from those pesky artist types) is a new and superior advance over anything that has come before:

[Animation] never had the ability to show the human face. There was never any point to a close-up in an animated film -- there was never really anything to see. But with the motion-capture process, real actors give their performances with computer sensors attached to their face and body, and that recorded information becomes the template for the computer animation... Imagine what Disney might have done with this in the creation of the Seven Dwarfs. Imagine all the things that will be done with this in the future. "Monster House" looks like the ground floor of something important.

Amid, Jenny Lerew, and Thad Komorowski all have something to say about LaSalle's assumption that mimicking a real actor produces more and better animated acting than the actual creative work of an artist. Thad gives us a clip of Rod Scribner animating Bugs Bunny, where the facial expressions are more imaginative and expressive than anything you could "capture" from an actor. The whole point of drawing something, as opposed to just taking a photograph, is that the imaginative evocation of life can show things that a simple facsimile of life cannot; a real person couldn't stretch and crumple his face to express emotion the way Bugs Bunny can. But instead we get James Lipton saying that rotoscoping "ought to be more effective than an animated performance", when decades of onscreen evidence has shown that rotoscoping generally produces performances that are less expressive than animated performances. It's like saying that the Mona Lisa would have been more effective if Leonardo had had a Polaroid handy.

Seeing how lazy or inaccurate critics and commentators can be when talking about animation, you have to ask yourself: do they just not take the art form seriously enough to make sure they have their facts right? Sometimes I think that's true; some critics feel a need to understand live-action cinema but not a corresponding need to understand animated cinema, which means that they don't really do a very good job of judging the physical acting in an animated movie, or even understanding that there is such a thing as animated acting. (This explains why many reviews of animated films are fixated on the backgrounds and voice work, these being easier to evaluate.) It's also why some critics use lower standards for animated movies; I've seen Roger Ebert and Richard Corliss and others give animated movies a free pass for story and structure weaknesses that they would never tolerate in a live-action film.

But we shouldn't overlook the possibility that some people are just sloppy in general, but make a pretense of knowing what they're talking about, a pretense that doesn't hold up if you check their facts on any particular subject. That seems to be the case with Paul Johnson, since he's not only making sloppy factual errors but inventing stories out of whole cloth to fit his story.

It reminds me of something Bill James said when he was pointing out all the factual errors in a baseball book by historian David Halberstam.

There are two possibilities, one frightening and one irritating. It is frightening to think that Halberstam, one of the nation's most respected journalists, is this sloppy in writing about war and politics, yet has still been able to build a reputation simply because nobody has noticed.

What seems more likely is that Halberstam, writing about baseball, just didn't take the subject seriously. He just didn't figure it mattered whether he got the facts right or not, as long as he was just writing about baseball.

And that, to me as a baseball fan, is just irritating as hell.

Replace baseball with animation, Halberstam with the name of one of the above commentators, pick one or the other possibility, and you've got a very similar situation. And animation fans are certainly irritated as hell.

*Quoting a Gordon Korman book there.


Sterfish said...

Whether something is mo-capped, CG, 2D, rotoscoped, or whatever, the only thing I care about is whether or not what I am watching is good. I'm not someone who loves or hates a movie based on how it's made. I don't think that Mo-cap is any better than actual animation but I also don't discount a film just because it was made that way.

The uninformed criticisms by the people mentioned really shows how little the perception of animation has really changed. It's still viewed as a technology where one method is ready to be replaced by something new instead of an artform where new methods just mean new ways to do things. How pathetic is it that after decades of animated work that elicited real emotions from audiences that people still think that mo-cap or rotoscoping is automatically ten times better than traditional animation?

Despite all this, I want to be hopeful that eventually, animation will get its due across the board. I mean, only now are we finally figuring out that comic books can truly be for multiple audiences.

Brent McKee said...

I don't think I have any biases on this despite the fact that a high school friend of mine, Darwyn Peachey, was one of the developers of the Renderman software that is the basis of most computer animation and is now the VP of R&D at Pixar. The simple fct is that motion capture of the sort that was used for Polar Express and rotoscoping, even as practiced by the Fleischer Brothers, are merely efforts at mimicking human movement, a weak imitation of reality. An animated film - a well done animated film that is - isn't about imitation, it's about creation. I suppose that's where a Pixar film like Toy Story has it over a Polar Express. The Pixar animators weren't trying to create a simulacrum of Tom Hanks they were creating Woody, and if Woody resembled Tom Hanks it was just that, a resemblance, a caricature. It's true that the Disney animators largely failed when they tried to create "realistic" human images in a film like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs - the Witch and the dwarves are much better realised than Snow White or the Prince - but that wouldn't have been any different if the Disney animators had chosen to rotoscope their reference models rather than use them as references. All you have to do is look at the Fleischer's Gulliver's Travels for proof. Gulliver may be facially perfect but he's a wooden character. And the Disney animators could - and did - get better. Someone tracing from a rotoscope or using motion capture doesn't.

Many critics often tend to look at an animated film differently than they do at a live action film. Animation is "kids stuff" and not to be taken seriously unless it breaks some alleged new ground. The fact is that what makes a good movie - whether live action or animation - is a good story. Despite all of the R&D work that Darwyn Peachey and his crew have done the success of a film like Little Nemo comes down to having a good story. It's something that the critics forget but more importantly it's often something that people making these films forget.

Simon said...


I reread a childhood favourite yesterday (Who is Bugs Potter?), and subsequent googling of Mr. Korman led me to your site.

I think the quote from the author's mother about the audience outgrowing him is very apt.

I don't think Kormon's style and content (ie, Bruno or Boots) really allow him to grow with his audience. I still like the oldies though. They're like little time capsules of my childhood days.

Anonymous said...

Some film critics just don't like animation, period. Their editors should show some common sense and not assign them to review anything animated.

Come to think of it, the same SF Chronicle sent Aidin Viziri, who can't stomach anything remotely resembling "prog rock" - and is gleefully proud of the fact - to review a Carlos Santana show. Another local paper sent a critic who couldn't stand the Brian Wilson SMILE album to review . . . the Brian Wilson SMILE concert. The mind boggles.