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.