Deneroff’s Law … of Filmmaking and Everything Else

How to Train Your Dragon

After seeing How to Train Your Dragon and The Secret of Kells back to back, I noticed that both films finished with rather elaborate and visually complex climaxes. Such sequences have become commonplace in animated films these days, and can be seen in movies ranging from Astro Boy to  Shrek Forever After, a trend that seems to have been  facilitated by the introduction of digital technologies. It is a development that can most easily be explained by what I call (for lack of a better term) Deneroff’s Law, which is admittedly a variation of Parkinson’s Law and applies to both pre- and post-digital animation and live-action filmmaking.

The Secret of Kells

In 1958, C. Northcote Parkinson, famously stated in Parkinson’s Law: The Pursuit of Progress, that, “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” And Deneroff’s Law basically states: Given more powerful and complex tools, filmmakers will inevitably use them to make more complex films.”

This rather simplistic observation is by no means original and in fact was inspired by a comment John Lasseter made during a phone interview about Toy Story 2. If I remember correctly, he said something like when presented with a computer 10 times more powerful, rather than using the added power to produce animation 10 times quicker, animators will usually opt to make their animation 10 times more complex and expensive.

I then noticed something similar in Michael Barrier’s Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in its Golden Age that

When Disney ordered the switch to rough animation [around 1932], that procedure made it possible to pass down much more work to the lowest—and lowest-paying rungs—and so greatly increase the animators’ output.

In fact … everything indicates that the animators’  footage actually declined sharply as they delegated more work. Although the Disney studio’s staff more than tripled between 1930 and 1932, the number of films changed hardly at all. In 1930, the studio completed nineteen cartoons; in 1931, twenty-two; and in 1932, twenty-two again. … As Disney pursued an ever more refined division of labor, breaking the work into smaller and smaller components, each worker’s output did not rise—as could be expected in a normal manufacturing operation—but fell. (104)

In other words, Disney expanded his staff in the early 1930s for some of the same reasons that companies like Pixar or Weta Digital will add additional computing power. I would also, for instance,  argue that Willis O’Brien, Ub Iwerks, Max Fleischer and Walt Disney adopted the multiplane camera (first developed in Europe by Lotte Reiniger and Berthold Bartosch) in the 1930s for some of the same reasons. (See my earlier post on multiplane technologies here.)

For O’Brien, the multiplane setup he devised for King Kong enabled him to create imagery far more complex than he could previously do using traditional stop motion techniques, as well as more credibly blend it in with live action than was possible with his earlier work on The Lost World.

For Iwerks, Fleischer and Disney, their multiplane systems similarly enabled them to expand beyond the limits imposed by traditional cel animation technology. Up until the introduction of the multiplane camera, drawn animation was constricted by the use of 12 field animation paper (10½” x 13½”), though Disney termporarily trumped his rivals by using 16 field paper (13½” x 16½”), which was over 50% bigger, thus allowing for more detailed drawings.

For instance, the following image from Fleischer’s Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor (Dave Fleischer/Willard Bowsky, 1936) in which Sindbad’s Roc is about the fly off to kidnap Olive Oyl, was done as a traditional cel setup, though possibly using 16 field paper.

Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor

Now compare it with a frame from the next shot using Fleischer’s Stereoptical Process which used three-dimensional instead of painted backgrounds that resulted in a sharper sense of perspective and detail.

Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor

But with the introduction of digital ink and paint, multiplane effects were much easier to implement and also allowed the introduction of computer animation into the mix. But in accordance with Deneroff’s Law, one could point to the ballroom scene in Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise’s Beauty and the Beast as a way of using technology to increase the scene’s complexity.

Beauty and the Beast (1991)

As time went on and digital imagery became more prevalent, so did the complexity of what passed for traditional drawn animation, as seen in this shot from the climax of Ron Clements and John Musker’s Treasure Planet.

Treasure Planet

The same effect could also be seen in live-action movies. Once upon a time, studios could boast of films with huge sets and cast of thousands, and actually mean it, as in this recreation of ancient Babylon in D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance.


Visual effects could substitute to a certain extent, but were limited by pre-digital technology (though not as limited as those available for traditional drawn animation). The following shot from Stanley Kubrick’s widescreen epic, 2001: A Space Odyssey, while perhaps breathtaking in its splendor, is nevertheless rather static.

2001: A Space Odyssey

George Lucas’ Star Wars (Episode 4: A New Hope) pushed the technology a bit further and got more dynamic results, creating a greater sense of depth and detail, as seen in the film’s opening shot.

Star Wars IV A New Hope5

With digital technology, you could create vast vistas and populate them with both people and/or creatures, as seen in the scene where Forrest Gump addresses an anti-Vietnam War rally on the Mall in Washington, D.C. in Robert Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump (the size of the crowd was grossly inflated) …

Forrest Gump

or in this scene from Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers populated by an endless numbers of alien insects.

Starship Troopers 01

Of course, the development of more powerful digital technologies need not always lead to increased visual complexity, but clearly the temptation is there.

(By the way, could the increased number of shots in movies in recent years be related to the introduction of such non-linear editing systems such as The Avid?)

Ari Folman’s The Congress


Raz Greenberg, in a post on the Society for Animation Studies discussion group, pointed out the above Spanish-language clip from a Euronews report on Ari Folman’s new film, The Congress, which mixes animation and live-action. The movie is based on Stanislaw Lem sci-fi novel The Futurological Congress and is follow-up to Folman’s acclaimed animated documentary, Waltz with Bashir.


Avatar 06

Well, the wait is over and, whether one likes it or not, Avatar looks like the game changer that James Cameron, Jeffrey Katzenberg and other promoters of 3D movies said it would be, quieting critics who said the technology would never really work in live action. It also looks like it will be the film which legitimatizes motion/performance capture, especially as a way for live-action directors to enter the wonderful world animation (though sometimes without necessarily admitting it’s animation). It also helps that, despite its occasionally comical mixture of Star Wars and FernGully, it’s a pretty good movie.

As I wrote a year ago, “I suspect 3D will not go away anytime soon; the question , I believe, is whether or not it will go beyond being a niche market.” Avatar’s success certainly solidifies 3D’s place in the cinematic mainstream, though calling it a live action is problematic. (In this regard, do read Brad Brevet’s “Should ‘Avatar’ Be Considered for Best Animated Oscar?” on here and Steve Hulett’s follow-up comments on The Animation Guild blog here.) Thus, Kristin Thompson’s comments on Beowulf that “It’s still fiendishly difficult and expensive to shoot live action material in digital 3-D, so most projects are animated,” perhaps still seems to hold.

In regards to his use of motion capture, Cameron has been especially boastful about how he has overcome the last obstacle to the technology’s acceptance, that of being able to reproduce not only the reference actor’s bodily actions, but their exact facial expressions as well. As a result we are left with the spectacle of critics gushing over how, for example, Sigorney Weaver’s avatar face looks just like Sigorney Weaver’s actual face (see comparison below). This, as Brevet points out, is something that animators have been doing since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (actually since Otto Messmer’s pre-Felix the Cat work on Charlie Chaplin cartoons).



Rodney Dangerfield posess with his animated alter ego

Also, the film really does not fully address the problem of the uncanny valley, as the mocap characters are not meant to be realistic humans, but highly stylized humanoids; a better test would be to see how Cameron would do on a follow-up to Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.

Cameron also boasts that his work on performance capture technology will eventually lead it to becoming more commonplace and cheaper. I suppose so, but less expensive approaches already exists. For instance, director Neill Blomkamp in an interview about his District 9 with Todd Gilchrist notes:

Pretty much in any shot with an alien interacting with a human, which 99 percent is Christopher interacting with Wikus, there was Jason Cope, who was the actor who plays Christopher and who also plays all of the other aliens in the film. He was always on set in a lycra, light-reflective suit, and he would be interacting with Sharlto. It was not performance capture from a data-recording standpoint; like, there were no motion-capture cameras around. But once our live-action camera was tracked, the animators at Image Engine would sort of trace-animate the motion of Jason, almost literally like tracing him. That rotomation would become the essence of the performance of this digital creature, and then they would paint Jason out and put the digital one in, and you would have both performances and they would both be real and they would both be interacting with one another. It’s just very difficult and very expensive to paint someone out of a moving-camera [image] and then replace them with something, but we factored that in.

And despite District 9’s $30 million budget, it doesn’t suffer much in comparison with Avatar and, I would argue, is the better film.

District 9

The comparison between the two films is also interesting in that Blomkamp’s training and experience was an animator and special effects artist, while Cameron’s was not. (True, Cameron can draw, a skill which is often considered the holy grail of qualifications to becoming an animation artist or special effects artist, he never had any particular training in either craft.)