ACTING for ANIMATORS
ED'S MONTHLY NEWSLETTER:
My Commentary on DVD Director Commentaries
During the past few months, I have been revising Actng for Animators for a 3rd edition to be published next year by Routledge. In addition to chapters on acting theory, this new edition will include performance and story analysis and deconstruction of four well-known animated features. I am going through the DVDs chapter-by-chapter, taking a look at what works and what might have been a missed opportunity and why. As you might imagine, I have had to screen a lot of DVDs while deciding which four to work on. My usual procedure for screening is to watch the movie on my computer while taking notes and then go back and listen to the director commentary to see what else I might learn. It is those commentaries that I want to talk about today.
We have to presume that the directors are talking to whoever purchased the DVD, yes? Most non-industry people that I know aren't interested in commentaries; therefore, the intended audience would be film enthusiasts in general, animation enthusiasts in particular and other industry professionals. And I think we can all agree that a director's commentary is basically a guided tour of the development and production process of that director's film. He (side note: Will we ever have female directors for major animated films? I'm just saying.) is the one recording the commentary because he was the person most in charge of the movie.
Given those presumptions, why is it that so many director commentaries feel "clubby" and smug? I often have the impression that the director is actually playing a game with other directors at other studios, and that I - a mere consumer - am an eavesdropper rather than an invited guest. I never seem to hear enough about story or character development in the DVD commentaries. When the director points to a sequence that he considers to have top notch acting, he will surely give total credit to the animator that did it. It seems important to many directors in their commentaries that they come off as super-modest and that their "team" should take bows for all the creativity. So what did the director do while everybody down to the gaffers were tossing in brilliant ideas? Out of all the hundreds of commentaries I have heard, I think I have maybe once or twice heard a director speak about his personal concept for a sequence. It would be terrific if one of them said, "Hell, I was the only one in the studio that wanted to go this way but, hey, I'm the director so that's what we did. If it doesn't work, it's my fault." Instead, it is almost always something like, "This sequence has the most moving acting in the film. Glen did it, and, as always, he is really an awesome talent." Well, okay then. Glen is brilliant, I'll buy that. But if Glen is the brilliant one, I would rather hear Glen giving the commentary on his sequences than listen to the director handing out meaningless high-fives and shout-outs. What was the thinking behind the sequence? What do the characters want? Why is the acting brilliant? What standard of brilliance is being used as a gauge?
The director commentaries are often enlightening, but I suspect in unintended ways: After listening to the director give credit to everybody up and down the production ladder - except himself - for creative input ("We had a different ending on the movie for a long time, but John never liked it. One day he suggested the action shift to the North Pole in the third act ...."), I am left wondering how they ever got the movie made. My sense of things is that if you want to make a movie, you first get a story and script that you like, and then you polish it. After that, you start production, and the script itself is the blueprint you follow straight through to post production. Based on commentaries on the animated features, though, it seems that story is frequently more of vague suggestion than a guide. I was listening to one director explain in his commentary why his movie featured a rabbit character who kept referring to a racoon character as his "dad". He said that in early meetings the rabbit had a rabbit father and a rabbit mother and rabbit brothers and sisters, but a couple of months into production a storyboard artist stuck in the rabbit and racoon thing for a joke, and everybody just loved it, so they kept it in the movie. You what? Why did the director want to include this kind of admission in the commentary? I would think it would be embarrassing.
In-jokes seem to be a really big deal for feature animation directors, based on the commentaries. I heard one point out that the destination number on a city bus in his movie was actually the same as that of a classroom at Cal Arts, where he first hung out with Glen and Pete and John. Who cares? We don't need to know that and, anyway, that is a silly way to determine a bus route. And the homages...Oh my Lord, the homages ... Every major animated film, it seems, now has some homages in it. Why? What does an homage have to do with telling the story? Why would a director instruct his animators to spend their time animating homages? Regardless of how wonderfully executed, an homage is inherently a clubby and smug shout out from this director to those at other studios. It is like telling a joke behind the teacher's back. Part of the fun is that she will never know. An homage, it seems to me, has nothing to do with anything other than somebody in charge blowing creative smoke up his own skirt.
And then there are the endless caricatures of friends, co-workers, whoever. "Heh. Take a look at that guy picking up the elephant poop. That is our composer, Lou. It is pretty funny that we have him picking up elephant droppings!" Who? What? Lou? What the heck is Lou doing in the movie? Why did it even occur to someone to caricature Lou? All that matters is whether the story actually needs somebody picking up elephant poop. If it doesn't, then leave it out and save a buck. Alfred Hitchcock famously put himself in each of his movies some place, but he was always a face in the crowd, a random guy on a subway, a man waiting for a bus. That, too, was kind of silly, but at least he didn't write little roles for himself, and it didn't cost the studio extra.
One more, and then I'll stop. In many of the commentaries, there seems to be subtle boasting about the production budget, but never by citing specific figures. "We took the entire group of lead animators to Marrakech for a month so they could breathe the Moroccan air, eat some authentic kebobs and get a real feel for the place. Notice the details in those mosques - the ever-ingenious and always laugh-riot Alan Swerling did all the mosques - and while we're at it, a big knuckle rap for Allison Moonves who did the snake handlers!" Or... "We heard through Randy's second cousin in Little Rock that his 8th grade teacher had the perfect voice for the Witch, so we flew her out for an audition. She really was good but, in the end, we went with Jennifer Anniston. What a doll!" What's the point of telling this kind of story other than demonstrating that the director had the authority to spend money on a totally wasted flight back and forth to Little Rock?
Until next month...
"Actors and Animators are Shamans!"
Copyright © 2012-2016 Ed Hooks