Friday, December 2, 2016

Why I Love Animation

With the 2016 film year drawing to a close, I’ve been mulling over the stand-outs. Surprisingly, in a year filled with plenty of films, I’ve come to the conclusion that my favourite all have something in-common: animation. Normally I’d have one or two amidst a string of live-action, but this year the live-action end has consistently either disappointed or met my expectations, while the animation has dazzled and amazed. Why is that? What is it about the animated movies that made me appreciate them more than live-action?

Part of it could be the rise in quality animated films over the last few years, although that’d be doing a disservice to animation from the past; after all, the medium has been around since the early-20th Century, taking off with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs 1937. Animation’s come a long way, with its different styles and techniques evolving to match contemporary technologies and innovations, and it’ll only grow bigger as time goes on. Perhaps it’s even safe to say that I love animation, enough to list a few reasons as to why.

(By the way, I know this’ll be highly-subjective, as everyone acts differently to art. But I’ve been meaning to write this for years.)

1. Imagination-The first point that sticks out in my mind is imagination. Animation is a medium that stokes the imagination, largely because it creates everything, ideally, from scratch. In the early days, when everything was drawn by hand, animators had to create everything painstakingly from the ground up. Sure, they might’ve used real props as examples of how to get a feel of weight and texture, but it was still done from scratch. These days, the process has been simplified by computers, but the fundamentals remain the same: in order to animate effectively, you need to make everything by yourself.

This forces animators to be imaginative and creative: you want to put your premise in outer-space? You need to imagine how outer-space works. You want to put your premise underwater? You need to imagine how underwater works. You want to put your premise on land? See the above.

I can’t stress enough that imaginative creativity. In live-action, you have pre-built tools like solid ground and natural lighting. The need for imagination is still there on some level, but because you’re dealing with real props you don’t need as much effort. With animation, however, you don’t have the luxury. You’re forced to get creative within your pre-existing world. It’s harder, but also more satisfying if done successfully.

Let’s look at two of my favourite movies of all-time, one animated, one not, and see where they differ on imagination. It’s not a completely fair comparison, but whatever. First, Spirited Away. I’ve rambled on endlessly about how I love this film, but it needs stressing that everything, right down to the design of the bathhouse, had to be visualized in director Hayao Miyazaki’s mind. He had to think of the nitty-gritty details of the floor, the walls, how it’d feel if someone were to step on the floors with or without shoes, how all the machines and gizmos functioned, the list goes on. Spirited Away is a labour of love, and a good chunk of why is because of how much care to detail Miyazaki had to give.

Conversely, there’s Schindler’s List, my 5th-favourite movie of all-time. It’s clear that Steven Spielberg also poured his heart into everything he filmed, as he always does on his A-game, but his need for imagination was smaller. He already had real actors, settings and props, he simply needed to know how to use them efficiently. That too takes lots of creativity, but it’s not the same kind as Miyazaki’s film. Where as Spielberg had to innovate and re-craft, Miyazaki had to invent from scratch. Inventing is always tougher than innovating.

And that’s why someone like myself can admire and appreciate animation so intently: invention and imagination. I can see the worlds in my head, I can picture how difficult it must’ve been to bring them to life. With live-action, I know how it works more clearly, hence I can pick up on patterns (more on that later.) Animation I’ve never had that problem with, hence adding to the fun behind the magic. It helps that there’s more freedom to create, which leads to…

2. Lack of limitations-This is a huge one.

One of the big frustrations of live-action is when your idea can’t work because of restrictions of technology. If you want proof, James Cameron took well-over a decade to make Avatar because: a. the CGI advancements weren’t there for a long time. b. the motion-capture advancements weren’t there for even longer. c. the 3D camera technology wasn’t there for even longer than both, even forcing him to pioneer some of it himself. The end-result was a spectacle to behold, and one I actually enjoyed, but that he had to wait says a lot about the limitations of live-action.

Animation doesn’t have that problem: want to have a world where giant monsters roam alongside humans? Go ahead. Want to add giant ships to that world? Sure. Want to make the world a hybrid of prehistoric and futuristic? Assuming you know what you’re doing…

It’s amazing how limitless the possibilities are. In live-action, you’re constantly weighed down by limitations. You’re weighed down by technological limitations, physical limitations, financial limitations and limitations of what looks good. Something that works in animation doesn’t necessarily convert to live-action, simply because of the lack of restrictions the former grants. So if you want to make that 15-armed robot with a hooked nose and no eyes, by all means, go ahead! With live-action, it’s still possible, but not without complications.

That isn’t to say there aren’t limitations in animation, but most of are inside the creator’s mind. The rest lies in how well said creator can bring it to life, although with the right help it’s definitely possible. Either way, animation thrives in the ability to go wild, something that I relate to because I don’t like restrictions. I can surrender myself to the concepts that much more, which in turn leads to…

3. Greater suspension of disbelief-This is an even bigger reason than the last. One of the big appeals and acceptances of film as a visual medium is the ability to suspend your disbelief while enjoying it. There’ll always be details that, ultimately, don’t make sense or don’t add up. In order to appreciate what you’re watching, you have to accept that those details either don’t hurt the experience, or don’t hurt the experience enough. It’s tough, but not impossible.

With live-action, I find it can be really tough. I look back at many classic movies, and I see details that are obviously fake. I know, for example, that the fade-out at the end of A Streetcar Named Desire is supposed to indicate that Blanche has snapped, but they never show you what happened the scene before. I know that Luke’s hand is supposed to have been cut-off in Star Wars Ep. V: The Empire Strikes Back by Darth Vader, but it’s easy to tell that he’s hiding it behind his shirt. My mind can process a lot, but even with the advances in technology there are details I have a tough time fully accepting.

Animation never seems to have that problem. For one, that everything is animated, so I don’t have to suspend any disbelief. When those hands come flying off from Ashitaka’s arrow in Princess Mononoke, I believe it because there’s no need for acting. When Zuko first appears with the scar on his face in Avatar: The Last Airbender, I believe it’s there because there’s no need for detailed and inconsistent make-up. There’s a lot more I can naturally accept in animation because it takes less effort to suspend my disbelief.

This can apply to food too. Food is a big challenge because of its finite shelf life and the restrictions of an actor/actress’s diet. Often substitutions are used to prevent spoilage, and even then it’s not always consumed. Your brain fills in the gaps if the acting is good enough, but even then I find it tough sometimes to believe that that’s actually beer someone’s drinking, or that that’s actually pizza and not a cookie. It doesn’t kill the experience, but it drags it down a bit.

With animation, again, it’s not an issue. Because everything’s animated, it not only looks more real, but it can be consumed more efficiently. That pie in Wreck-It Ralph looks like a real pie, as does that cake that Ralph smashes. Wabisuke can drink his beer in Summer Wars without it looking fake. The banquet during Beauty and the Beast’s “Be Our Guest” number is convincing despite Bell only tasting one of the entrées with her index finger. I don’t have to factor in real-life restrictions because there are none.

But why stop there? Another advantage with animation is musical cues, something this video has already pointed out. In live-action, because you’re already suspending your disbelief, it can be hard to accept when your character’s about to burst out into song. In animation, because you can do whatever you want, that ability to accept that a talking crab or teapot is about to sing is much less complicated. It’s already part of the experience anyway, right?

Then there’s filming action and visual gags. Live-action has struggled in recent memory with both, but animation doesn’t have those problems. You don’t need months of training and/or stunt doubles to make fight choreography look real, you only need to animate it. You don’t need elaborate staging or blocking to make a visual gag work, you only need to animate it. And there’s no need for a Jackie Chan-type to combine both successfully, you simply need to animate them. In other words, the limitations are removed entirely.

Finally, because of the endless possibilities of animation, as well as the eased concerns of whitewashing, having your characters be different ethnicities, nationalities, genders or even species and have it feel natural is that much easier. In live-action, this sort of stuff can take numerous work-arounds, both legal and physical, to work. Even then, it’ll still be sticky. And yes, computers can help, but not always successfully. With animation, none of this is a problem: a film like Zootopia functions wonderfully in animation, while a live-action equivalence would be that much harder to pull off. There’s a lot that can be swallowed in animation, hence it’s possible to do so much more.

4. Cross-appeal-Another strength of animation is its cross-appeal, although, admittedly, this one’s somewhat subjective because any real classic has cross-appeal. Film is an incredibly broad medium that appeals to a pretty general audience, and that usually doesn’t exempt good storytelling from reaching specific audiences. That said, there’s something to be said about animation, a medium usually regarded as “kiddie” over here, having cross-appeal.

I think a large part of that is because it’s seen as kiddie. The secret to a good kid’s movie is having adult content, themes or humour that only make sense as you get older. It’s this dual layer of storytelling that allows someone to come back 5, 10, even 15 years down the line. A movie like Up, for example, can appeal to little as a fun, quirky adventure tale, while to adults, particularly older adults, it’s about the challenges of grief and aging. Conversely, something like Avatar: The Last Airbender, which happens to be my favourite show, can be a fun action-adventure series for kids, but an allegory about imperialism for adults.

That’s why so many animated anythings have endured for so long: sure, the adult content gives adults an excuse to go with their kids, but I think that discredits the amount of thought that goes into great storytelling. Because while a lot of times the adult content can feel forced, when done properly it adds to the long-term value. Good stories have something for everyone, and animation, which frequently gets relegated to “family friendly”, has to put in more effort to make its stories resonate. I’d even argue that some of the best writers are writing for animation, but that’s for another day.

However, it doesn’t stop there! Animation also has some surprisingly adult content. Ignoring anime for a minute, which often caters to adults anyway, some animation is actually too mature for children. Movies like Watership Down would probably scar kids for life, while Fantasia would bore them. And then there’s South Park. Need I say more?

Remember, animation is a storytelling medium. I get that it can be childish sometimes. I get that it can be forcibly adult sometimes. But so can live-action. Yet I find the animation that excels excels because more effort has to be put into it. That only adds to its timelessness, and speaking of which…

5. Timelessness-The final piece to the puzzle is the timeless nature of many animated shows and films. To be clear, live-action has also tackled timeless themes. The Wizard of OZ, for example, is so timeless that it’s remained a perennial classic almost 80 years later. Picking timeless ideas to talk about has been a prominent theme in some of the greatest movies ever made, even! But on the front of true timelessness, I think animation is the victor.

Most of that is because so many animated films and shows, at least mainstream ones, follow the escapist fantasy route. Perhaps part of why is that they allow for greater suspension of disbelief, meaning they can go full-out. Perhaps part of that is that more ideas can fit into the medium than live-action. Perhaps part of that is even that everything is built from the ground-up, so you have a more timeless feel in general.

Ultimately, the key is timelessness. To be fair, not all animation ages well. But the odds of it doing so are still higher because, in taking timeless stories and writing them, they’re also more heavily simplified. Like Doug Walker once said, what’ll be more memorable in the long-run: a series of complicated motives within a complicated narrative, or something like Wile E. Coyote chasing the Roadrunner? Having a blank canvas to experiment on means more room to be general, hence so much animation taking advantage of that. And that’s what really counts.

So there you have it, my 5 reasons for why I love animation. Feel free to comment on whether or not you agree, and I’ll see you next time!

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