Critical Studies

(The first five posts submitted below are intended for the assessment for the Critical Studies element of my Animation degree course. The individual blog posts comprising my submission are included sequentially)



Narrative theory

Often, stories and their structure reflect the society to which that story is aimed, and deliver messages telling the viewers more about their society. Sometimes, these messages are rather blatant, such as enforcing morality through on-screen righteous actions, but other times they can be far more subliminal, perhaps referencing political unrest. An example of this is the view that the storyline of Spielberg’s ‘Jaws’ is a reference to Richard Nixon’s government- subliminally inferring political corruption.

It seems that since the beginning of cinema, movies have attempted to show people how to conform to social normality, to demonstrate a particular code of conduct, and try to persuade the viewer to think a certain way. Think about how many movies reinforce the belief that crime doesn’t pay, for instance. These messages translate through the animation medium too.



In the book 'Hollywood Flatlands: Animation, Critical Theory and the Avant-Garde' by Esther Leslie (1), it is detailed that recognised theorists Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Siegfried Kracauer grew disconnected from animation in the mid twentieth century, due to the changes taking place with regard to the narrative of animated films. They argued that cartoons had stopped exploring the impossible, surreal situations and characters featured in early animated films, and instead merely taught 'submission and conformism' (2). For Kracauer, this realisation occurred with Disney's 'Dumbo', which he believed promoted conformation to a capitalistic society.

Of course, many of these messages come from the characters of the story, and how their actions define the principles the film is trying to convey. But what are the functions of the characters? How does the viewer relate to the hero and their trials? How can they truly be inspired by fictitious events?

If stories are aimed at a specific audience therefore, how well do the messages they contain translate to other territories? As an example, with the majority of films originating in the USA, many stories seem to embody the American dream as an overarching narrative tool that the character strives for success and prosperity against the odds. Do audiences outside the USA really understand or appreciate that message, particularly if belief in such an ethos is not firmly ingrained in their own culture?

To identify common elements of films pertaining to both character and plot, several theorists have identified key areas that seem to weave throughout all stories. From the folk tales of old, to the latest motion pictures, it seems the structure of a good story has barely changed. Perhaps this tells us that stories have always been used as a teaching tool to support generalised social order.

Will Wright identified character archetypes and ‘narrative units’ (plot points), with a particular focus on classic western movies. He identified that films typically feature:

  • Hero- someone seeking a goal against the odds
  • Villain- the main antagonist to the hero, usually desiring the opposite
  • Donor- A character who lends the hero an important or magical artefact
  • Dispatcher- The character who sets the hero on their quest
  • False hero- someone who regularly disrupts the hero’s progress
  • Helper- the character aiding the hero on their journey
  • Princess- a character providing motivation for the hero, and central to the villain’s plan
  • Father- The character to deliver the ultimate reward for the hero’ success

These are stereotypes, but it is interesting that almost all characters in a movie can be attributed to one, if not more, of these classes (though a cynical viewer may suggest this is simply because the classes are broad and appear to cover all types of personality and position).

The ‘narrative units’ on the other hand are considered more genre-specific. As mentioned previously, Will Wright established plot points relating to western movies (though that is not saying they could not apply elsewhere):

  • A hero, unknown to society, enters a social group
  • The hero is revealed to have an exceptional ability
  • A villain, who is stronger than the weak society, threatens said society
  • The hero defeats the villain, becoming accepted by the society
  • The society is saved, and the hero gives up their special status

Tzvetan Todorov, the French/Bulgarian philosopher, was more interested in the structure of the film. Writing in the 60’s, he established that when a story begins, the world in which it takes place already exists in a full status quo. The ‘plot’, a chain of cause and effect events, is brought into motion by a disruption of normality (a mystery, fantastical occurrence, etc.), eventually through this chain of causation leading to a resolution and ultimate restoration of normality.

To demonstrate how these principles and theories can be attributed, I shall apply them to the film ‘Shrek’ (Note that I shall assume from here on that the reader has some knowledge of the film).


The Hero of course would be Shrek himself, seeking to get his swamp back from the evil Lord Farquaad- the villain who seeks to be king. Farquaad also acts as the dispatcher of the film, sending a disgruntled Shrek on his quest to rescue Princess Fiona (filling the- you guessed it- princess role). Donkey meets the criteria of helper, aiding Shrek (admittedly against his wishes) and being somewhat of an annoyance to him- does this mean Donkey is also the false hero?

As far as the narrative structure of Shrek goes, this seems to divert a little further from Wright’s plot points. Instead of the hero entering a society, it is interesting that the society, by which I am referring to the group of evicted fairytale creatures, is instead forced to impede upon Shrek's way of life. Indeed they are a weak society- as much is proven by them having been relocated with an eviction notice.

Another switch-around is the point ‘the hero is accepted by society’, for I would argue that in Shrek, it is more so a tale of ‘hero accepts society’. Shrek initially has little to no tolerance for any of the creatures, though as we see at the end, he does grow to accept them as friends.

You could consider Shrek’s ‘extraordinary ability’ as simply his being an ogre, which does mean he is stronger and more fearsome than the other characters in the story. Also true to the narrative points, Shrek’s marriage at the end of the film could represent his resignation of special status- of no longer acting like an ogre.

The last point, the hero defeats the villain, is rather different, for it is not Shrek who eventually defeats Lord Farquaad- it is the dragon. It is quite clear that these minor changes to the format of the story arose due to its offbeat style- featuring various parodies and being in many respects a send up of the fairytale genre.

The film does coincide well with Todorov’s theory however. We begin with Shrek living as he always has done, until normality is disrupted when fairytale creatures are forced to relocate to his swamp by Lord Farquaad. The chain of causal events would include Shrek seeking the rights to his swamp back, leading to his need to rescue the princess, which leads to the realisation of what he really wants. From this chain of events, we end up with the restoration of normality (albeit a new normality for Shrek).

But, to conclude, what messages can the viewer take away with them after watching the film? Certainly, there is an element of ‘crime doesn’t pay’, relating to Farquaad’s evil plan and subsequent demise. Nevertheless, I feel the key message at the heart of Shrek is one of friendship, of acceptance, and of teamwork. 


References:


  1. 'Hollywood Flatlands: Animation, Critical Theory and the Avant-Garde' [Esther Leslie, published by Verso, 2002]
  2. http://www.ejumpcut.org/currentissue/gadassikFlatlands/index.html
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Animation 'auteur' profile: Nick Park

The term ‘auteur’ in English originates from 1950’s French film critics (the word is actually the French for ‘author’), who believed that a director was to their film what an author is to their novels. This notion that, while many people collaborate to make a film, it is really the vision of a single talent, has escalated to common pop-culture nowadays, and we often make reference to the principle without giving it any real thought. For example, certain creative minds have become synonymous with their unique styles of film-making- if I were to say to you I had been to see a Tim Burton movie, without any further details you could gather some idea about what that movie was probably like- dark, gothic, and most likely starring Johnny Depp.

The concept of 'auteur'ship is not that simple however, and is subject to some level of controversy. Can you really single out the director, and say that they have a greater role than the scriptwriter, for example? To believe that the director alone has potential to gain auteur status, you must look at how they can influence their film in a way that no one else can. US film critic Andrew Sarris stated:


'The strong director imposes his own personality on a film; the weak director allows the personalities of others to run rampant.'


This implies that a director must have recurring themes throughout their work, which become instantly recognisable to the audience. But not every director, no matter how good they may be, can be considered an auteur it seems. To quote my reference source, (speaking on Peter Jackson):


'(As a mainstream director) he is subject to the economic pressures of Hollywood, which evidently rates artistic design below economic success.' 


The point the writer is trying to convey is that though Jackson has worked on many prestigious movies, either by pressures from a studio, conforming to socially-accepted mainstream principles, or by adapting novels of another's work (such as J.R.R. Tolkein), he has been unable to exercise his full personal creative design. It is this artistic footprint, the writer argues, that enables a director to gain auteur status- and it seems that social and economic factors have a large part to play. 

In the animation industry, it is a little harder to define individuals who could achieve ‘auteur’ status. Often, the animation studio itself has a series of overarching principles which are applied to all of their works by everyone who works on them. So, if the person who pioneered these rules had no involvement in a particular film, however the rest of the team used these principles, is that original mind the true ‘creator’ of the new film? A strong example would be Walt Disney- his style of animation and storytelling (which focuses heavily on character development and anthropomorphosis) has become a staple of the ‘Disney’ brand, a recognised trait of their animated films, even though Walt himself had no input towards many of them. You see how the issue of individuality and a collaborative team-based approach in animation makes it far more difficult to identify the auteur. Someone I do believe to be a modern-day auteur however is Nick Park, creator of ‘Wallace & Gromit’.

‘Aardman animations’, founded by Peter Lord and David Sproxton, was already well-established before Nick Park joined in 1985, producing a myriad of short animated films and commercials. With the release of Wallace & Gromit’s first outing ‘A Grand Day Out’, featuring the plasticine pair that would eventually become icons, Nick Park’s input towards Aardman’s style and status would only continue to grow.

Though Aardman have worked with many mediums and styles (and continue to do so), aside from the well known ‘Morph’, it is mostly due to the immense popularity of ‘Creature Comforts’ and ‘Wallace & Gromit’ that claymation has become a staple of the company, firmly ingrained in British culture. Furthermore, Nick Park’s signature cartoon style (i.e. exaggerated characters with small round eyes and large mouths, as used in both of the aforementioned series) has become somewhat Aardman’s flagship style, and has since been applied to 2000’s ‘Chicken Run’, which Park also worked on, and even 2006’s ‘Flushed Away’- showing that Aardman truly have embraced his style and taken it on-board, since he had no creative role on the film. His style is great to analyse since it is so unique, and has, over the years, become a trademark of his animations.



Even now, twenty years since the first ‘Wallace and Gromit’, Nick Park is still firmly a part of their development. He has directed and co-written all of their films so far, even taking an executive producer role for the latest instalment ‘A Matter of Loaf and Death’. Everything about the characters has remained true to his original vision.

There are many recognised traits to Nick Park’s stories. The most noteworthy seems to be that they have so far all been set in Britain- Wallace & Gromit are actually said to live in Wigan, close to Park’s hometown of Preston. A point of note, often stated by Nick Park himself, is that he is careful not to tie his films to a particular time period. Even so, references are always made to the 1950’s, particularly with the animations’ visual style- cars are few and far between, but when they do show are always from the 50’s era (such as the Austin A35 van). The inventions, a staple of the Wallace & Gromit series, always have a vintage look to them, utilising pastel colours and sporting large bolts and rivets, reminiscent of machines of that time. Perhaps, this is to give a true ‘British’ feel to the animations- many of the stereotype features the general public would associate with England originated somewhat with 50’s architecture and culture, such as red brick terraced houses and stone walls. A further common element of all Park’s work is his style of humour- a very humble, pun-filled humour that relies heavily on plays on words and slapstick gags.

As for influences, Nick Park has said himself that he finds great inspiration for his storytelling from an auteur of the big screen, Alfred Hitchcock, whose many films are an institution in their own right. Most of Nick Park’s stories have a crime/mystery theme to them.

Linking back with what I said previously about Tim Burton, the interesting point here is that when people say a cartoon is unmistakably ‘Aardman’, without realising, they probably should be saying it is unmistakably ‘Nick Park’, as recognisable as his style has become. I am certainly a big fan of his work, I might add of Aardman in general, and I certainly believe that there are few cartoonists or animators these days who can rival his originality and devotion. 




References: 


  1. 'The Art of Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-rabbit' [Andy Lane and Paul Simpson, published by Titan Books]
  2. http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A22928772
  3. 'Authorship and Film (AFI Film Readers)' [David A Gerstner & Janet Staiger, 2003]
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Genre according to Wallace & Gromit


It has been said many times by its creators that each ‘Wallace & Gromit’ film is based around a particular genre in terms of story and visuals. When looking to compare multiple animation genres, you can really begin to notice the techniques which give each story a particular overarching theme. Due to the fact that the main characters remain the same, the story differences which make each film unique are all the more apparent. The two films I am going to compare are ‘The Curse of the Were-Rabbit’ [2005], and the more recent ‘A Matter of Loaf and Death’ [2008]. I should note that I am unable to embed the latter of the following videos since this feature has been disabled on YouTube:

The Curse of the Were-Rabbit:



A Matter of Loaf and Death: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pU1HS8cekJE

The former, notable for being the first feature-length film in the series, also marks the first time a ‘Wallace & Gromit’ film has included horror themes. Though the comedy, a staple of the franchise, exists throughout every film, each carries undertones of other genres. ‘A Matter of Loaf and Death’, on the other hand, contains elements of the thriller, crime and mystery genres heavily inspired by the work of Alfred Hitchcock.

But what visual and narrative cues are there which suggest to the viewer a particular genre? For the most part, genres have derived it seems from stereotypes, and nowadays often by means of parody, of existing pop-culture films from that genre. In fact, the title for the Wallace & Gromit movie is a parody of existing hammer horror flick ‘The Curse of the Werewolf’ (which I might add there are several more references to throughout the film). The title itself appears in the movie to be constructed from coffin wood, before transforming into fur to resemble the monster.

A great deal of a genre's feel comes from the use of colour, lighting and camera angles, but also of the character choices and the roles they play in the story. One horror film stereotype which the film pays homage to is the inclusion of an eccentric character who somehow knows far more than everyone else about the threat in question- in this case the local vicar. With this, the church features on a regular basis, giving rise to religious themes in likening the were-rabbit to the devil, or another monster. With the church, graveyards are also featured, commonplace in horror films due to their creepy nature and association with death. Furthermore, one key point of horror is the feeling that nowhere is safe- now, the church is often seen as a safe haven, a sanctuary, but in ‘The Curse of the Were-Rabbit’, it is established early on that the church is about as unsafe as everywhere else, with the mad vicar having a close encounter with the beast. Add to this a town gathering which ends in mass-hysteria, and you can see how a simple choice of setting can give rise to countless genre-defining references.

Key to the theme again, the majority of the story takes place at night, quite the opposite to the other films in the series. With this nighttime setting comes a much darker colour palette, featuring many deep blue tones which carry a slightly mystical edge. Shadows play their part too- often, the monster is hidden or obscured from view, playing on how elusive the creatures seem to be in horror films.

Camera work also plays its role; there are several scenes where we look through the eyes of the monster himself, further emphasising the aforementioned elusiveness and unstoppable nature of the threat. In addition, a scene of note features Wallace and Gromit stranded in the woods when a fallen tree blocks their way. This gives rise to a long shot showing the grandiose scale of the foggy woodland setting, showing the two are lost and truly a long way from civilisation. I should mention the horror theme of isolation therefore- how often do the cast of characters get picked off one by one in horror movies, leaving but the strongest (or more often than not the luckiest) member of the party alive?

Sound effects most certainly add to the horror atmosphere. There is an amusing scene in the church where sinister organ music plays, a reference to the over-the-top nature of most horror films. Again, with the majority of the film set at night, there are many subtle details in terms of sound which help to set the atmosphere; hooting owls, twigs cracking underfoot, and the long, echoing footsteps of the policeman on his nightly patrol. Similarly, these subtle details translate to the props used and referenced in the films- including crucifixes (à la Dracula), villagers with torches and pitchforks on a monster hunt, and the notion that the monster can only be killed by a gold bullet (a reference to how stereotype werewolves can only be defeated by a silver bullet).

Though Wallace and Gromit themselves are not inherently sinister, their inventions this time round took on a far more questionable role- themes of brainwashing and mechanical devices worn on the head seem slightly tendered towards the genre, with Wallace really being portrayed as the mad scientist whose experiments created the monster. Gromit therefore was left to play the role of the mad scientist’s assistant, being commanded to throw switches and levers in true horror fashion.

All in all, the movie is a triumph of combining the horror and comedy genres, without becoming too frightening or atypical of the characters- everything is handled in such a light hearted way that it could be seen as poking fun at the genre stereotypes, exposing them as (some utterly ridiculous) clichés.

‘A Matter of Loaf and Death’ takes a rather different approach, being a classic tale of murder-mystery. Here, clever sleuth Gromit is the first to find out something is wrong, but Wallace (madly in love) is completely oblivious to the situation. As Gromit plays detective, uncovering a sinister plot, it is up to him to warn Wallace before it is too late, and he becomes the latest victim of the rampaging ‘cereal’ killer.

Now, this premise in itself is reminiscent of the murder-mystery stories we’ve all seen before- there is always a mystery, naturally, and with this someone to solve it. Similarly, to help build up the tense atmosphere this genre is renowned for, there is always something at stake- a person’s life, for example, adding pressure to the detective to catch the killer before they strike again. This tension translates well to the viewer, as long as the next potential victim is established as someone the audience care for. Wallace certainly fits that bill.

A further theme here is how the detective so often reaches a point where they lose all hope, out of options and out of faith. This may be a point where they have no more leads to investigate, the killer does something unexpected, or they fail at stopping the killer leading to a feeling of inferiority. Whatever the narrative tool used to define this stereotype moment, the common element has to be an attempt to show the detective as more human, to prove they are indeed fallible. Gromit is not a human- he is a dog. There has always been a great deal of anthropomorphosis about his character, though whilst he is developed to have human characteristics, able to understand speech, and being in many respects smarter than his gullible master, there are times in ‘A Matter of loaf and Death’ where the fact he is a dog are really driven home. This is a fantastically unique take on the ‘lost all hope’ point I made above; instead of Gromit losing faith in his own strengths or knowledge, we see his spirit somewhat broken as he is constantly reminded of his place as a pet, and that no one will listen to him as a result. This leads to a nice build up of tension when he uncovers the murderer’s identity, yet is powerless to stop her since Wallace just won’t take him seriously.

Moving on to the points about visual references I made for the last film, there are perhaps fewer visual cues for the murder-mystery genre. Unlike horror, with its key stereotype locations, murder-mystery stories often occur in regular everyday places- emphasised by the fact that the majority of the film, including the climax, takes place in Wallace and Gromit’s own home. There is really a sense here, like horror, that nowhere is safe- your own home is supposed to be the one place you feel comfortable, your own safe residence to retire to at the end of a long day. So when Gromit realises that the killer is inside his own home, this gives rise to an interesting dynamic whereby he cannot let his guard down for a single second. This is played up significantly in the film by Gromit taking a security role, installing metal detectors and other security devices in an attempt to make his home safe once more.

A further common element of horror and murder-mystery is the feeling of being stalked by a much more formidable foe. Similar to the classic monsters, the serial killer is portrayed as an elusive unstoppable force to be reckoned with. In fact, to highlight a blur between these two genres, how many horror films feature murderers as their ‘monster’?

In terms of the camera work and lighting, they are frequently used to draw the viewers’ attention to a particular detail or set piece, mimicking the detective seeking out clues to solving the mystery. There is a notable scene in the film however where Gromit must venture to the killer’s house to return a purse, and here the creators have it seems revelled in the opportunity to include as many references as possible; from heavy rain and lightning, a large, imposing castle of a home, wrought iron door knockers, creaking doors (adding tension since the character may be caught), and even large dark corridors and hallways, it seems just about every tool is used to show to the viewer it is not a safe place to be. Likewise, the murderer’s bedroom features a slew of creepy mannequins as trophies for her kills, standing upright looming over the bed- a sight which, due to the fact this would terrify most, really goes to show the insanity of the killer. But conversely, despite the decidedly spooky aspects of the home, the killer’s bed is made perfectly, with pink duvets and tablecloths- depicting a rather unnerving contrast with the rest of the house, that the killer finds comfort amongst the innumerable scary features.

Though the references through sound take on a lesser role this time, there are notable inclusions such as the thunder and lightening of the storm, and the title sequence, which plays a harsh alarming piece of music typical of the genre.

Overall, the film works well, playing mostly on story-based genre references than anything else, but you can certainly see how many differences there are, and indeed some similarities, between the horror and murder-mystery genres.


References:


  1. 'The Art of Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-rabbit' [Andy Lane and Paul Simpson, published by Titan Books]
  2. 'Modern genre theory' [Edited and introduced by David Duff, Longman, 2000]
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The history and development of the animation industry

The first attempts at animation were really experiments, paving the way for greater things to come. Early endeavors, such as the zoetrope (a spinning device where individual images were cycled) created the illusion of animation, giving the impression of motion when certain conditions were met. A further example here is a flip-book, pioneered in 1868 by Joseph Barnes Linnet- which requires the images to be cycled at a particular speed in order for them to be truly perceived as being in motion.

As these devices became more widespread, through people’s intrigue at the possibilities they presented, some were inspired to create their own works- none more so than James Stuart Blackton, who is credited with creating the first American animated film, ‘Humorous Phases of Funny Faces’ in 1906. Though technically a stop motion piece, the principle of doing many drawings, slightly different each time, to create the impression of movement took form.

Now, you cannot talk about the history and development of animation without mentioning Disney- clearly the greatest animation company there has ever been. In the late 1920s, Walt Disney created his first original character, ‘Oswald the Lucky Rabbit’, who featured in 26 short films before Disney lost the rights to the character. He then went on to create the timeless Mickey Mouse, starring in a few shorts before Disney’s first sound film, ‘Steamboat Willie’.

Disney is also credited with the first feature length cel-animated film, ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ in 1934. A milestone in animated history, the movie became the highest-grossing film of the time. Disney held firm ground with the release of films such as ‘Pinocchio’ and ‘Dumbo’ in the early 1940s, until a revolutionary new invention was developed- the MultiPlane Camera.

Developed for the production of feature films including ‘Bambi’, this device sought to give the illusion of depth to a two-dimensional scene. Disney noted that in reality, as a camera pans the scenery, things in the foreground appear to pass by much faster than those in the background, (such as the moon, which does not appear to move at all). By drawing the various elements of the background on separate transparent films, they could be positioned different distances from the camera, thus moved independently creating a far more immersive cinematic experience.

A pivotal point in history is the Second World War, which had a devastating effect on all areas of life, including the animation industry, which ground to a near-halt. Many animators were enlisted in the military, and the productions that remained were geared towards lifting the public spirits and providing public information. Of note here is ‘Popeye’, created by Elzie Crisler Segar, who, as the War became more of a concern for the USA, was enlisted in the U.S. Navy, even receiving a costume change to match the Navy uniforms of the day. This would not be the first cartoon/comic to embrace the War seemingly in attempts to increase the public morale- similar efforts can be seen looking back to the golden age Superman comics, who was often seen fighting in the War itself. Furthermore, the Disney studio was temporarily owned by the U.S. military, who (during the wartime period) commissioned them to create a series of training and propaganda films- a far cry from what they were used to, though Disney at the time needed the funds. Even the studio’s characters played a role in these films; Donald Duck featured in numerous propaganda shorts, such as the Academy Award-winning ‘Der Fuehrer’s Face' (1943).





What is perhaps most important regarding Disney and the history of animation is just how influential it has been- when you really consider it’s impact, Disney has truly been at the pioneering forefront of the industry since its inception. Throughout the decades, many subsequent companies have attempted to share some of Disney’s immense success by imitating their style. An example would be ‘Popeye’ once again. The original run of cartoons, by Fleischer Studios, embraced a more simplistic structure to that of the comic strips, but since the cartoon’s original run various animation studios have taken the mantle and the character has been updated and modernised constantly- the characters were simplified somewhat in the late thirties to make them closer to a Disney style, as it was recognised that Disney was the most popular. Note also the early Disney cartoons ‘Silly Symphonies’- to which Warner Bros.’ ‘Looney Tunes’ and ‘Merrie Melodies’ bear an uncanny resemblance, simply being synonyms for the Disney title. The apparently humble rivalry between the two companies could be implied from more recent business strategies- as Warner Bros. purchased ‘DC Comics’, Disney went on to pay $4.24 Billion dollars for the acquisition of DC’s main competitor, ‘Marvel Entertainment’.

Continuing with the theme of Disney’s influence, consider computer animation specialists Pixar- without the phenomenal success of ‘Toy Story’, the world’s first feature length CGI film, in 1995, would we really be living in a time with an abundance of computer generated movies? Currently, it seems that the traditional hand drawn techniques (with which Disney became all it is today) have almost been phased out completely in the motion picture industry. In fact, in the last several years, I can recall only two hand drawn movies; ‘The Simpsons Movie’ in 2007, and more recently ‘The Princess and the Frog’. The latter marks Disney’s return to the hand drawn format after a long hiatus. I cannot help but feel that this movie was in many respects a market research experiment, perhaps Disney ‘testing the water’ to see whether mainstream audiences were willing to once again invest in more traditional animation. Perhaps this all paid off- a new hand-drawn 'Winnie the Pooh' feature is soon to be released.

It would seem that others share this view (3), including John Lasseter, best known for his work at Pixar, who is now the chief creative officer at Disney's animation studios. Lasseter appears to be in full favour of a comeback for hand-drawn animation, having expressed his desire to return the animation juggernaut to its former traditional glory. I do honestly believe, as is the nature of supply and demand business strategies, that all it would take is for Disney to have a single box office hit with a hand drawn film- and all of a sudden CGI would ironically become a thing of the past. Disney would realise that it is viable to return to the format, and then following in their footsteps, other animation studios would return in an attempt to imitate the success of Disney, the market leaders. (In a mirror of this, how many iPhone copies are on the market today as a result of Apple’s success?)

To conclude on a slightly different note, many industry professionals believe the future for smaller animation companies lies in ‘mobile’ animation- that is, products geared towards the mobile market such as phones and handheld games consoles. Indeed, despite being global, the animation industry is a deceptively tight-knit one, in which the top talents are very much in contact with one another. Networking and online developments, it seems, are the future- and as always it is important to be innovative and original in a world as fast moving as this.


References:

  1. http://www.animationarchive.org/2006/03/biography-j-stuart-blackton.html
  2. 'Enchanted Drawings: The History of Animation' [Charles Solomon, 1994]
  3. http://www.cinemablend.com/new/Disney-s-Hand-Drawn-Animation-Plans-Don-t-Exactly-Scream-Renaissance-16041.html
  4. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/09/business/media/09disneys.html
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Social, technical and economic effects on the animation industry

There are many factors that affect the production of animated films, much like any other industry. Since animation is very visual however, it is often easier for the audience to detect where these problems occurred, as they have a direct impact on the visual quality of the films.

As a technological restraint, animated films before the introduction of the MultiPlane Camera (described in detail above) were restricted in how they were able to depict scenery. Without this device enabling them to create the illusion of depth, early animated films had very two-dimensional backgrounds, which ultimately were not that believable. People it seems have an inherent aptitude for spotting inconsistencies and errors, and whilst a restriction in available technology can hardly be considered an error, what I am trying to say is that people will have noticed that it was not realistic. In fact, as with the development of all new products based on a ‘need’ for them, this is exactly why Walt Disney sought to create the MultiPlane Camera in the first place. The resulting animations raised the bar for others to follow (which could also be considered a social pressure to conform to mainstream expectations, though I will elaborate on that shortly).





Perhaps one of the fastest growing forms of animation in recent years has been the computer animation industry. Think how much better the visuals of CGI movies are now, compared with the first CGI feature film ‘Toy Story’ in 1995. On a further social note, following the success of Pixar’s impressive portfolio of masterpieces, many other animation companies made their foray into computer animation- as success is found in one field, others will venture to imitate based on public reaction. If the general movie-going audience is amazed at the new technology and seemingly cannot get enough of it, then naturally any strategic animation studio will follow suit, chasing the money. And, once again akin to the product design market, real development and technological advancement arises due to interest and demand for it. If all attention from industry professionals lies with the development of CGI, then of course it will rapidly improve- until the demand slows, and in correlation the advancement in the field will also slow.

In relation to CGI, though it does apply to all forms of animation, consider economical factors. When a feature film or a short film is commissioned, it is given a set budget, and usually a deadline for completion too. We see therefore that from the outset, the animators are restricted to making something which they are able to complete comfortably within that time frame, and for that amount of money. This is particularly a problem in the video games industry, whereby large elements of the game are all too frequently cut from the final product as they could not be implemented before the release date. In movies, the issue of meeting a deadline by cutting material is not as prominent- sure small scenes may be cut or replaced, but a movie is pretty much set at an hour and a half to two hours. You would not find a movie of fantastic animation quality cut to under an hour due to time restraints. If changes need to be made to accommodate for a time limit, the cutbacks cannot be with the length of the film as they can a game. The story must be told after all. Instead, the cutbacks will be in the visuals- the quality of the CGI will not be as good, as detailed or as polished to perfection as it would otherwise have been. Perhaps the best example I can give for this is the CGI used for children’s TV programmes. If you have seen any, you no doubt noticed immediately that the computer graphics are amateurish compared to the latest big budget feature film.

As for technology, in my opinion the single greatest development in CGI in recent years has to be the introduction of motion capture, a.k.a. performance capture, technology. Previously, animators had the difficult task of creating walk cycles, and other movements and gestures for their characters, which had to look very natural and realistic- it was very hard to achieve convincing movements with the correct fluidity. With motion capture, a physical actor will be clad in a special suit, covered in data points called ‘nodes’. When the actor moves their body, these nodes transmit positional information to the computer, and so the character on screen will mirror the actions of the actor. Used a great deal in video games, the technology is now being increasingly implemented in feature films, such as James Cameron's Avatar:





Two fantastic examples of purely animated movies using this technology are ‘The Polar Express’ and Disney’s ‘A Christmas Carol’, both of which utilize performance capture technology as the basis for their animation. The result is astonishing, with animations so realistic they truly begin to blur the boundary between CGI and real life actors. There are some drawbacks to this technology however. Firstly, the equipment is very expensive, so there is little chance of small animation studios being able to afford it (yet). Other downsides relate to the principles of animation- designed as an exaggeration of life, do we really want our animations to be a hundred percent realistic? If this is the case, you may as well use live action actors. You see, performance capture animation is based around real life movements- any actions defying the laws of physics for example may be difficult to pull off, or must be added afterwards (such as ‘squash and stretch’). Furthermore, it is awkward to use motion capture for characters whose proportions do not match those of the actors.

Once more in relation to budgets and the economical factors affecting the animation industry, one change I have noticed is with children’s cartoons- perhaps the only place where traditional 2D animation still has some relevance. But even here, with emphasis it seems on making cartoons as quickly and as cheaply as possible, you notice a shift to more simplistic character designs which are easier to animate, more ‘Flash’ based animations with limited movement (for example, you find a lot of the time that for an arm movement, the animators will not redraw the arm for every frame, instead somewhat ‘cheating’ by simply repositioning the existing arm). Don’t get the impression that low budget cartoons are a modern day affair, however- many animated series from the 60s/70s such as ‘Scooby-Doo’ and ‘Captain Caveman’ are far from motion picture quality. A common trick to saving time is to re-use sections of the animation. Disney are notorious for this, so certainly even they are not above saving as much time and money as possible. As an example here, I recently watched ‘The Aristocats’, and discovered that the exact same sequence (where a kitten hisses and spits) was repeated four times in the same film. I will also mention Japanese Anime cartoons here, where very few frames are used. Sometimes, the characters will effectively pause on screen for a very noticeable period of time, showing that the animators try to save themselves as much work as they can.

In terms of the social change towards animation, for a very long time it was perceived by the general public to be purely for children. Slowly, it seems there is a growing acceptance amongst people that not only is animation for all ages, it can be geared towards adults and mature audiences too. Likewise, it is only fairly recently that animation has garnered similar critical reception and consideration to the likes of major live-action movies (4). I feel that people are realising that it is not how a film is made which determines its appropriate audience; it is its content. One of the longest running animations in history, ‘The Simpsons’, was perhaps one of the first animated series to introduce mature themes and references to everyday adult life, and this trend has certainly continued with the likes of ‘South Park’ and ‘Family Guy’. Nevertheless, the primary focus of animation today remains children. Despite the growing acceptance of more adult-oriented animations, studios realise that it is still a relatively small target market, if not a niche market. When aiming to earn as much revenue from a film as possible, it is often the decision to ‘tone down’ the mature content, to effectively make the piece suitable for a 12A cinema rating- since everybody will be able to see the film. The aim to appeal to mainstream audiences to make as much money as possible applies to all of cinema and not just the animation industry. Examples are the ‘Alien’ and ‘Predator’ franchises, which began life as 18-rated horror films but were eventually diluted to become age-appropriate for children to go and see. Similarly, the decision to make the ‘James Bond’ movies more generic action films was made in the hopes that more people would go and see them. The main problem with this however is that if you stray too far from the original source material, you risk alienating the original fanbase.

As aforementioned in my ‘The history and development of the animation industry’ work, the World War Two era played a significant role in the financial and social alterations to the animation industry. I shall not focus too much here since I would be repeating many of the same points I made in that piece of work, but I will say that the entire social atmosphere changed- animations went from light entertainment to trying desperately to convey serious messages to a distressed public.

The issue of subliminal political messages through animation has never been that much of an issue in the Western world, however was a cause for concern in Eastern Europe. Pressure came from dictators like Stalin, who requested that animators attempted to imitate Disney’s work. Corruption and communism limited the freedom of animators when it came to expressing themselves, often dictating the subject material of their animations, or deciding the outcomes of the stories. Political unrest it seems was a large part of animation in the East, where the cartoons seemingly attempted to teach a strict set of somewhat biased morals and behavioural rules to keep the public under control.

A point I shall raise regarding Eastern animations is that some of the content, despite being aimed at children, appears to carry darker connotations which seem wholly inappropriate for a young audience. What we really need to consider therefore is whether we (as a British audience) feel these Eastern animations are strange, perhaps a little twisted, because they are inherently and universally so, or whether this belief is one arising purely from cultural differences between our nations.

One point about animation today is that is really is unrestricted. There are far less collective fears than there were in, say, the Cold War era, and we (at least in the UK) are free from oppression and able to express whatever we like through our animations. Even so, as I have talked about previously, there is a social trend to appeal to mainstream audiences.

But do audiences want to be restricted to social norms, limiting the more abstract animations due to intolerance for anything new? In a way, it is far easier to aim something radically new or different at a young audience. The thing is, a child has had far less exposure to culture and social 'normality' than an adult. The child therefore will not be judgmental of a character/character's appearance- they won't look to compare that character against existing ones, or the story against other films. The child will likely have greater tolerance and acceptance of something out of the ordinary. They may see something completely new, and see something different and interesting.

Contrast that with an adult, who has been exposed to common trends and mainstream franchises their entire lives, and they will be less forgiving. A subjective and critical adult may dismiss something new as being too strange, or too different to what they are used to, that they are reluctant to even give it a chance.

Is it possible that it is the TV networks and movie publishers who really decide what the public watches, as opposed to the public themselves? How often do we watch a movie or TV show because the network who created it tells us it is ‘the next big thing’? In appealing to mainstream audiences, the networks effectively limit the variety of what we can watch, which in a full circle ironic way almost leaves them to decide what we will watch. In all truth, how often does something radically different appear in the cinemas? Ultimately, though we are free to animate as we please, the success of the piece is critical, thus certainly a limiting factor for freedom of expression.


References:


  1. ‘The Pixar Story’ [2007]- a documentary on the beginnings of Pixar
  2. Walt Disney- ‘The MultiPlane Camera’ (featured above)
  3. 'Hollywood Flatlands: Animation, Critical Theory and the Avant-Garde' [Esther Leslie, published by Verso, 2002]
  4. http://www.ejumpcut.org/currentissue/gadassikFlatlands/index.html

Note: Other information consists of existing knowledge including extracts from my other blog posts which have not been selected for submission.

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Animation Timeline- 'Humorous Phases of Funny Faces' [1906]



The first attempts at animation were really experiments, paving the way for greater things to come. Early devices created the illusion of animation, giving the impression of motion when certain conditions are met. An example here is a flip-book, pioneered in 1868 by Joseph Barnes Linnet- which requires the images to be cycled at a particular speed in order for them to be truly perceived as being in motion.

As these devices became more widespread, through people’s intrigue at the possibilities they presented, some were inspired to create their own works- none more so than James Stuart Blackton, who is credited with creating the first American animated film, ‘Humorous Phases of Funny Faces’ in 1906.

The animation was created as a ‘Trick Film’, whereby the camera could be stopped momentarily for changes to take place- similar to what we know today as ‘Stop Motion’. The film demonstrates the hand of the artist in live action, drawing the faces, which then proceed to interact with one another. Though many experiments with such Stop Motion techniques were taking place, Blackton was the first to have a level of interactivity between the characters on show, hence giving rise to true animation (which means ‘to give life to’). Furthermore (and what I believe truly sets Blackton’s work apart from others in that era) he had the goal of entertaining an audience- which is really the same goal animators have today. When others at the time wished to simply show off a new technique to audiences, wowing them with their technology, Blackton took a seemingly more humble goal to create that sense of wonder with the content of his animation as opposed to how it was achieved (though suffice it to say that audiences were delighted by that, too).

What I also find interesting about this film is that the style of the animator is still relatable today, and not dissimilar to something a modern day cartoonist may draw. This helps to give ‘Humorous Phases…’ a certain ‘timeless’ quality, whereby we can still appreciate the effort and attention to detail that went into the piece. It is perhaps more astounding when we consider that this technique for animation has barely changed in the past one hundred years, and is still prominent today.


References:
  1. http://www.animationarchive.org/2006/03/biography-j-stuart-blackton.html
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Animation Timeline- 'Wallace & Gromit' [1989]


‘Wallace & Gromit’ are characters created by British animator Nick Park, originally for his graduation project at the National Film and Television School. He was recruited by Aardman Animations (based in Bristol UK) to work on an unrelated project, and in return Aardman offered to help him finish ‘A Grand Day Out’- the first short film featuring the plasticine pair, airing in 1989.

The appeal of the series is believed by many to lie in the humble nature of the characters, the ‘hand-made’ appearance, and its very subtle and inoffensive humour (which relies largely on puns). There are many references to British culture and the characters have certainly made an impact, becoming national icons in their own right. Wallace, an eccentric inventor, usually builds a contraption which goes haywire, and in the aftermath its up to his silent but cunning dog Gromit to piece everything back together and save the day. Storylines have been designed as homage’s to popular genres of film, with a notable influence being Alfred Hitchcock’s work. The 2005 movie ‘The Curse of the Were-rabbit’, the first full-length film to feature Wallace & Gromit, marked the series foray into the horror genre, albeit handled in the classic good humour fans had grown to expect.

As for the techniques in ‘Wallace & Gromit’, these have remained largely the same stop-motion ones as featured in their very first outing. Newer technologies have been added more recently however to complement the traditional methods, such as the use of computer editing to add smoke or steam to a scene, or in the case of ‘A Matter of Loaf and Death’, to add traces of flour floating around the air in the duo’s bakery.

The characters are largely, though not completely (as is a common misconception), constructed from plasticine. In fact, sections of the characters which do not move (for example Wallace’s green knitted tank top) are in fact moulded foam. The characters do contain a complicated framework known as an armature, which ensures they keep their shape and can be secured to the sets so that they do not fall under their own weight.

There are many things which I admire about the series and its creators. Firstly, there is an incredible attention to detail that is a given in any Aardman production; you can watch these films for a dozen times, and yet each time you will notice something that you have never seen before. The humour and characters work on multiple levels so there is always something to appreciate regardless of your age.

In a time where CGI has the animation industry firmly in its clutches, Aardman are perhaps one of the only companies sticking to their roots. Whilst they have welcomed the new technologies with open arms (see ‘Flushed Away’, and the upcoming ‘Arthur Christmas’), they have made sure not to detract from the more traditional stop-motion techniques. It seems there is a tendency these days to say that just because CGI can be done, it must be so, and that the older forms of animation are no longer acceptable. ‘Wallace & Gromit’ prove that there is still a huge market and fanbase for these more traditional methods.

It seems many cartoonists and animators create successful characters, only to leave the development to somebody else. What I admire about Nick Park is that after twenty years he still has such avid involvement in the production of these films, showing that he cares about the characters he created as much as any fan who enjoys their adventures. This helps create the very genuine feel in the ‘Wallace & Gromit’ films, where it is easy to tell by the care and level of effort gone into the production that they have been created by a dedicated team of people who take a pride in their work. Aardman Animations, in some ways akin to Pixar, are a company who only settles for their best.