Fantastic Mr. Fox and the New Animation Paradigm

… The idea was breathtaking. Picasso’s love for American comic strips was mentioned in Gertrude Stein’s book, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. He was now thinking about making an animated version of Don Quixote! Since he knew nothing about the intricate process of making animation, Picasso had left it up to his courtiers to find someone who could help him make the picture.

One of those people was a friend of the producer, so here we were sitting over a beer as I faced this mind-jolting possibility. A stream of thoughts were jostling each other through my head. Imagine working with Picasso on a storyboard! … Where could I get an animation crew in France? Would Picasso do more than just draw a storyboard? Could he learn to animate?

— Shamus Culhane, Talking Animals and Other People,  p.385

Fantastic Mr. Fox is the latest example of the recent trend of live-action filmmakers into animation, something that would have been considered an anomaly only a few years ago, or the stuff of Shamus Culhane’s shattered dream. If there is something anomalous about Fantastic Mr. Fox it is not that it is animated, but that he chose to do it using stop motion rather than motion capture, the current technique of choice of former live-action directors like George Miller (Happy Feet), Robert Zemeckis (Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol), and the team of Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson (for their forthcoming Tintin trilogy). (Mocap, of course, is increasingly used for such live-action/animation hybrids as James Cameron’s Avatar, while I suppose the low budget choice would be Flash, as Ari Folman did with Waltz with Bashir.)

Though this paradigm shift is probably all to the good, it has not always been greeted with enthusiasm by the animation community. After all, motion capture is often seen as something other than real animation, which live-action folk seem to latch onto as a poor substitute for “the intricate process of making animation.” Amid Amidi in a recent post on Cartoon Brew, made a similar point with regards to Flash in giving advice to Jonathan Demme about a possible animated version of Dave Eggers’ novel Zeitoun:

…I beg you not to use cheap Flash/AfterEffects-style animation. Don’t Waltz with Bashir this film, and compromise the personal impact of the story with mechanical movement. Maintain the integrity and vitality of the graphic illustration that initially drew you to the project, and bring it to life with the nuance and lushness that only traditional hand-drawn animation can provide.

Though Anderson’s film has been largely given a pass, it encountered some unusual public grumbling from some crew members. Thus, in August, the Spectacular Attractions blog reported on the reaction by cinematographer Tristan Oliver to Anderson’s decision to direct the film long distance from Paris, rather than working alongside the film’s crew in London’s Three Mills Studios communicating via email and sending copies of his favorite films on DVD “to give an impression of what he’d like to see.”

I think Wes doesn’t understand what you can do, and he often wants us to do what you can’t do, and the length of time the process takes … I don’t think he quite comprehends that, and how difficult it is to change something once you’ve started. It takes a big amount of someone’s time to change a very small thing. I think he also doesn’t understand that an animator is a performer. An animator is an actor. And this is the secret to animation: you direct your animator, you do not direct the puppet, because the puppet is an inanimate object. You direct an animator as if you’re directing an actor, and they will give you a performance. So we’ll get a note back from Wes saying “that arm movement is wrong.” But that arm movement is part of a fluid performance. And that has been really quite difficult for the animators.

            Later on, a story in the Los Angeles Times further noted

The move did little to endear Anderson to his subordinates. “It’s not in the least bit normal,” director of photography Tristan Oliver observed at the production’s East London set last spring, when production on “Mr. Fox” was about three-quarters complete. “I’ve never worked on a picture where the director has been anywhere other than the studio floor!”

Moreover, Anderson had no idea that his ignorance of stop-motion … and exacting ideas concerning the film’s look would so exasperate his crew.

“Honestly? Yeah. He has made our lives miserable,” the film’s director of animation, Mark Gustafson, said during a break in shooting. He gave a weary chuckle. “I probably shouldn’t say that.”

Now that the film has been released to general critical acclaim, all seems forgiven. And I must say I found the film quite charming and very much a piece with other Anderson films—perhaps a bit too self conscious but nevertheless likeable.

But the episode brings up the question of how live-action filmmakers will adapt to animation when their knowledge of the medium is deemed less than adequate. The reaction by Tristan Oliver and Mark Gustafson to Anderson’s methods is nothing compared to the reactions I heard regarding director Joe Dante’s handling of the animated segments of Looney Tunes: Back in Action.

In live-action, first-time directors with little or no training pose a similar problem; and over the years, producers have learned to deal with such situations. I believe Elia Kazan once noted that when he went on the set of his first Hollywood movie, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, he didn’t have a clue what he was supposed to do; however, the cameraman, Leon Shamroy, told him he should stage the action and he would handle the camera. Something similar seems to have been the case with Orson Welles on Citizen Kane with cinematographer Gregg Toland. (Welles would acknowledge his debt to Toland by giving him equal billing in the film’s credits.)

A Hollywood cinematographer once confided to me that he was dubious about taking a high-profile assignment because he was tired of the sometimes thankless task of educating first-time directors. As thankless as these sorts of tasks might be, Hollywood has adjusted to the process and not a few of these first-timers have gone on to long careers behind the camera. It would seem the animation industry is in the process of learning to adapt in a similar fashion; the process might not be without pain, but as Fantastic Mr. Fox shows, the results need not be all bad.

P.S. (December 3rd): Another low budget choice for live-action filmmakers doing animation would, of course, be Bob Sabiston’s Rotoshop, a computerized rotoscope process used by Richard Linklater in Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly.

Dental Tales

Glenn Martin DDSOn July 28th,  Daily Variety reported that,

Nickelodeon’s Nick at Nite has given a 20-episode order to “Glenn Martin DDS,” a stop-motion animated comedy series from former Walt Disney Co. CEO Michael Eisner.

Series reps the first to come out of Tornante Animation, a newly formed part of Eisner’s investment firm, the Tornante Co. Eisner has partnered with “Celebrity Deathmatch” creator Eric Fogel to design “Glenn Martin,” which Nick at Nite plans to launch next summer.

“Glenn Martin” revolves around a dentist who persuades his family to embark on a cross-country road trip — in their toothbrush-topped “dental mobile.”

Eisner brought “Glenn Martin” to Nick at Nite after reading how Nickelodeon was readjusting the evening programming service to target young families ….

The story caught my attention not so much because of the involvement of Eisner and Vogel, but because of the series has a dentist as its central character. I’m not sure if it is my imagination, but it seems to me that dentists are more common in animation than physicians, especially in comparison to live-action films and TV shows.

Alison Snowden and David Fine's Bob and MargaretDavid Fine and Alison Snowden’s TV series Bob and Margaret (1998-2001) and Michael Sporn’s Oscar-nominated short Doctor De Soto (1984) (pictured below) come immediately to mind. After bit of searching, I also found Earl Hurd’s Bobby Bumps at the Dentist (1918), Ben Hardaway’s Buddy the Dentist (1934), and Signe Baumane’s Five Infomercials for Dentists (2005).

Doctor Desoto While films featuring doctors and even nurses abound, the amount of live-action fare featuring dentists seems sparse; e.g., while there was a Carry on Doctor and a Carry on Nurse, there was never, to my knowledge, a Carry on Dentist. The popular Bob Hope comedy, The Paleface (1948), featured him as Painless Potter, though it was co-written by Frank Tashlin, who had recently graduated from directing cartoons for Leon Schlesinger.

Perhaps the scarcity of doctors in animation is due, in part, to the fact that animated characters are virtually indestructible. Thus, one paper presented at the recent Society for Animation Studies conference by Van Norris (University of Portsmouth), “‘Taking an Appropriate Line’ – Assessing Representations of Disability Within the Popular,” which basically pointed out the obvious, that animated characters are not supposed to have disabilities; there are exceptions, but they are few and far between. (Norris used some Aardman public service announcements as examples, though one might also add the Nelvana TV series Quads! [2001] and the character of John Silver in Treasure Planet [2002].)

Anyway, the comic potential of dentistry seems too much to resist even for a bunch of indestructible toons, drawn or otherwise.

Enchanted & Bee Movie

Pip, the chipmunk, in Kevin Lima's Enchanted.Enchanted, the new Disney live action/animated musical is the latest post-modern pastiche that depends too much on inside jokes rather than genuine emotion. It’s the type of film one wants to work, but despite some delightful moments, soon becomes tiresome.

The story begins in Andalasia, an ersatz 1950s cel animated, fairytale country, where the handsome Prince Edward meets and falls in love with the beautiful Giselle; however, his plans to marry her the next day are thwarted by his evil stepmother, Queen Narissa, who promptly sends the princess-in-waiting hurtling into the real world, i.e., New York’s Times Square, where she becomes flesh and blood. She is then followed by Edward and Narissa, among others, while Giselle is taken in by chase after her; in the meantime, Giselle is taken in by an divorce lawyer who tries to keep his young daughter away from fairytales.

Though much has been made of the opening sequence’s use of traditional animation, it tends to look and feel like the worse Disney had to offer (and that could be pretty bad ). That would not be a problem if Kevin Lima’s direction and Bill Kelly’s script had gone beyond the obvious cliché moments. Ironically, the one scene where the animation does come alive is when the CGI chipmunk, Pip, in a game of charades, tries to tell the clueless Prince Edward about Queen Narissa’s plot to kill Giselle (see above). (Equally good, in a different way, is Susan Sarandon’s turn as the Queen, who milks her brief live-action appearance for all its worth; unfortunately, it ends prematurely when she turns into a Sleeping Beauty-style CGI dragon.)

The film’s appeal may owe something to the way it tries to lovingly parody the Disney family jewels. This is somewhat akin to Julie Andrews topless turn in Blake Edwards’ S.O.B. (1981), though not so naughty. It was certainly done to better effect in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, as well as numerous other films from the era of Looney Tunes to numerous episodes of today’s TV series.

Bee Movie Bee Movie, DreamWorks Animation’s latest effort (directed by Simon J. Smith and Steve Hickner), is a fairly conventional showcase for the talents of comedian Jerry Seinfeld, who helped produce and write it. The plot deals with the ambitions of Barry B. Benson, a bee just just out of school, who wants to explore life outside the hive before choosing a career.

Animated films centered around the personality of a comedian like Seinfeld are nothing new. I recall, with some pleasure, Rover Dangerfield (1991), whose Rodney Dangerfield script and performance helped alleviate the film’s rather slapdash production. However, Bee Movie really owes more to DreamWorks’s Antz (1998), which featured the vocal talents of Woody Allen.

For whatever reason, I never watched Seinfeld on TV and, thus, never developed a strong affection for his brand of humor. Even so, I found Bee Movie a pleasant, if not particularly memorable film.