ACTING for ANIMATORS
ED'S MONTHLY NEWSLETTER:
If you have never visited this website, I suggest you do so. It is a treasure. It includes on-camera interviews with the two legendary animators and all manner of tips on character animation. A big round of applause to Mike Clark for maintaining the site and to Dan Sarto and Ron Diamond at Animation World Network (AWN) for hosting it.
Walter Robot is the name of a fictional director who is, in reality, Bill Barminski and Christopher Louie. I am predicting big things from them. Their music video work is strikingly original, plus they are as comfortable with animation as live action. The last time a directing duo caught my attention like this was when the Coen Brothers directed their first feature film, Blood Simple. Bill and Christopher - I mean, Walter Robot, know how to tell stories visually and how to communicate with the younger members of our human tribe. Their latest work is a video for the group Death Cab for Cutie's Under the Sycamore. Film Noir animation! You have to love it.
Chico & Rita, one of the Oscar nominees in the Best Animated Feature category, has drawn my attention even though I have yet to see it. (So far, the film has not had wide release in the U.S., a situation that will hopefully change soon.) Based just on the trailer and its home website, this is obviously a labor of love. Costing less than US$20 million to make, studios in eleven different countries collaborated on the production, communicating with each other via the Internet. This will be a popular production model going forward, especially if the movie wins an Oscar.
Here is a good YouTube "making of" video. It's in Spanish, but you will understand it regardless of your native language.
3D vs. 2D – A Difference in Pedigree
Traditionally animated movies are defined by their cartoon pedigree. CG animated movies, on the other hand, do not share that pedigree, which is why the aesthetic experience of watching them feels fundamentally different. Not better or worse, just … different. The reason is tied up in the implied contract that exists between actors and audiences for any and all kinds of theatrical productions, whether on stage or screen. The transaction is clearest on the legitimate stage, so let’s begin there and then move on to film.
In the theatre, actors and audience get together in the same place at the same time for a common purpose: to pretend together. People in the audience are neither passive nor voyeurs. The audience arrives with excitement and anticipation, ready to play, but it is waiting for the actors to define the playing field. In a traditional two-act play in which the actors are playing characters, the audience knows to suspend its disbelief. By that, we mean the audience fully realizes what they are seeing on stage is pretend. The actors playing Romeo and Juliet do not really die. They will both be here for the matinee tomorrow. The audience knows this but pretends that it does NOT know it, so that it reacts emotionally as if their tragic love was real. The audience understands that the person on stage is an actor who is repeating rehearsed lines but, in order to make theatrical magic, it must forget about that. The actors and audience pretend together, and each side has a part to play.
Live action movies take the audience into a more immersive environment, but the actors are still pretending, and the audience still suspends its disbelief. Johnny Depp is really Johnny Depp, and everybody knows it. In order to enjoy what Johnny is doing with his character, Jack Sparrow, the audience has to, in effect, temporarily forget that Johnny is Johnny. Johnny is pretending, and the audience is pretending.
2D cartoons are drawings on paper. The audience does not believe for a moment that Ursula is an actual, living person like, say, Johnny Depp. That means that there is an EXTRA layer of suspension required. When watching a traditional cartoon, the audience carries more of the load. Traditional animation is imperfect, and the audience must overlook that, too. In other words, cartoons require that the audience enter into a childlike suspension of disbelief. It is sort of like suspension of disbelief with an extra knowing wink.
Traditionally animated movies are basically sophisticated feature length cartoons. When watching them, the audience knows to contribute that extra knowing wink. Walt Disney made movies for kids, and then he charmed adults into seeing them also on the grounds that there is a child in all of us. Adults watching a 2D movie regress in order to get the most out of it. They temporarily pretend in a childlike way. 2D movies are defined by their cartoon pedigree.
CGI did not emerge from cartoons. The characters are more like dolls, and the action is more like stop motion. Producers and directors of big-budget 3D movies like to say in interviews that they are following in Disney’s footsteps, but they really are not. 3D will never have the same kind of magic as the movies made by Disney’s Nine Old Men because the implied contract between actors and audience is different. For starters, computer images are perfect. An animator would have to purposely distort an image in order to make it appear imperfect like 2D. The audience sees this right away and responds accordingly. CG animation is closer to reality than 2D, and the animators must carry more of the load. Yes, the person in the audience still suspends his disbelief, but it feels different when you are pretending with a computer image than with a hand drawn one.
In December’s craft notes, I wrote about Tin Tin, pointing out that the title character did not really work because the director, Steven Spielberg, tried to retain its comic book look while bringing it to life in a mocapped 3D way. The underlying reason for the failure is that he, probably unwittingly, tried to have it both ways – a character with a cartoon pedigree and also without. The audience was aesthetically confused by that character. It was unclear how suspension of disbelief in Tin Tin was supposed to occur.
Mocap and performance capture have tilted CGI strongly toward live action. Photo real characters will require yet another kind of implied contract with the audience and, so far, that contract has not been defined. Audiences do not yet really know what to do with photo-real characters. They can deal with dancing penguins and talking fish, but photo-real humans are a different matter. This is why I personally think that, in order to escape the “uncanny valley”, the audience must not be told up front that the character(s) they are watching are digital. That information should be in the end-credits, where it would probably earn a standing ovation.
Until next month ...
"Actors and Animators are Shamans!"
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