Friday, 2 February 2007

Do Pixels Make Perfect? - by Robert Duffin

Woody the Cowboy stubbornly climbs up the side of a patchwork quilt, gripping on tightly he pulls himself onto the bed. He looks up in disbelief at what stands before him. Space Ranger Buzz Lightyear, an amalgam of gleaming plastic and gadgetry, stands proudly with his hands on hips sporting an uber-white grin. It was in this moment that animation changed forever.

When film audiences saw the first computer generated animated film back in 1995, the reaction was similar to that of Andy’s toys meeting Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story. There was surprise, awe, wonder and eventually wholehearted acceptance of this shiny new friend. However, the reaction of 2D animation artists was closer to that of Woody: shock, jealousy and eventually homicidal thoughts. For 2D animated features, much like the bandy legged vintage pull-string Woody doll, started to look pale in comparison.

CGI has permanently altered the entertainment industry. Computer generated special effects are used everywhere: from huge blockbusters like Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy to independent films like the Australian Oscar favourite Little Fish. Film and television advertising is reliant on it: in fact Pixar's animation department started off making adverts for Lifesavers mint sweets and Listerine mouth wash. CGI is used as special effects to create alternate realities, making actors look younger, chocolate creamier, chicken more finger-lickin' good and, since 1995, get 2.4 bums on seats.

Eleven years after Toy Story and 2006 saw an interesting anomaly occur. This year saw the release of more CGI animated features than any year since Woody and Buzz broke the mould; yet no CGI animations were nominated for Best Animated Feature at the 2006 Oscars. The awards have frequently been seen as setting the standard in Hollywood; many believed colour was a passing fad until the Academy honoured Gone with the Wind Best Picture in 1939. So, in such a short period, has an over saturated market resulted in both audience and industry apathy?

The CGI animation industry has boomed since 1995. In 2003 Pixar’s Finding Nemo amassed $865 million worldwide and the following year DreamWorks’ Shrek 2 grossed $920 million making them the two highest grossing CGI animated movies of all time. The last hand-drawn film to even come close to those figures was Disney's The Lion King in 1994. Disney’s most recent 2-D feature, Home on the Range, grossed a relatively paltry $101 million worldwide. Given the figures it was unsurprising when Disney announced the closure of all facilities for hand drawn traditional animation in 2005, moving their focus to computer animation.

Nowadays nearly all the major distribution companies have a CGI Animation branch on their creative tree. DreamWorks bought Pacific Data Images (PDI) and have had success that comes close to rivalling the Disney/Pixar relationship with the Shrek series, Antz and Madagascar. 20th Century Fox have Blue Sky Studios (Ice Age), Sony have Sony Imageworks (The Polar Express), Paramount team with Nickelodeon Movies (Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius), Warner Bros more recently with Animal Logic (Happy Feet) and Disney even self produced some CGI films (Chicken Little). The logic behind these creations and mergers seems obvious: if they like it, give them more. Unfortunately most studios are simply delivering more of the same each and every time.

From an audience perspective film differentiation has been a massive issue in 2006. Upon sitting down to watch this years Cars, the many trailers that flashed before my eyes began to melt in one monotonous film. In less than twelve months there were ten CGI animated movies released by various studios all featuring an almost identical narrative: cute furry animals on an adventure. Chicken Little, Hoodwinked, The Ant Bully, Barnyard, Ice Age: The Meltdown, The Wild, Open Season, Over the Hedge, Flushed Away and Happy Feet were all focused on animal central protagonists on a journey. Compared to the one film released in 2005, Madagascar is an incredible jump in production, which can be linked, back to the success of one film: Shrek in 2001.

On a budget of a comparatively meagre $60m, DreamWorks Animations made $485m worldwide and cemented themselves as a genuine contender to Pixar, the only other studio specialising in CGI animations at the time. It is the formula for Shrek that has resulted in DreamWorks, and evidently many others, mass-producing these homogenized animations.

Shrek is everything that is wrong with contemporary animated films. The celebrity voice stars are more important than its characters. Instead of finding a voice to suit the character it becomes a case of which Hollywood A list stars are available for an afternoon in a recording booth. DreamWorks have continued the worrying trend with more recent films. Voice stars have become so important that dialogue is often recorded years before the film is ever finished highlighting the importance of celebrity involvement, which can be at the expense of the movie. For example, they secured pseudo-punk princess Avril Lavigne to record her part for Over the Hedge during the height of her fame in 2004. However by the time the film hit cinemas in 2006 she had become a pop culture non-entity and the trailers boasting her involvement no doubt left more than a few executives red in the face.

Shrek also relies heavily on pop culture jokes and derivative sketches over narrative and utilises toilet humour and sexual innuendo to entertain the parents in the crowd. The writing process was filmmaking by committee, which resulted in a shotgun spray of demographically safe noise, babbling and jokes. There were four screenwriters and 27 credited additional dialogue writers and story artists who toiled here, and the result is hyperactive cliché. The pop culture jokes ensure a short shelf life for our contemporary family classics. How much of a belly laugh will Shrek’s Princess Fiona get for her Matrix spoofing slow motion karate in twenty years time? Similar problems plague the 2006 release Ice Age: The Meltdown which features a parody of Saving Private Ryan where Manny the Mammoth loses his hearing after a geyser explosion. Pop culture jokes only last as long as the movies you’re spoofing remain in public consciousness.

It’s unfortunate that in the last ten years that the majority of animated features with the best narratives and characters have been created with computer animation. This has no doubt led to the belief that all a studio needs is a computer in order to manufacture the next big animated hit. This credence was symptomatic of Disney’s decision to close down its 2D animation department in late 2005, the most ridiculous decision the company has ever made. Had Toy Story been hand drawn would it have been any less successful? It can’t be said for sure, but no eight-year-old left the film screaming about fluid camera movement and pixel resolution.

There have been too many examples of filmmakers getting carried away with the pixels; for every The Incredibles there is an Over the Hedge. The focus is so much on the technology that narrative drive, character development, visual composition, rhythm and mood are neglected. The best CGI animated films are not about the technology that created them. When technology is brought to the forefront the film almost always suffers. The Robert Zemeckis directed The Polar Express utilised digitised performances from the likes of Tom Hanks and the technique was heavily advertised in the film’s marketing. However this form of animation, which couldn’t animate characters eyes, resulted in a cold and emotionally frigid piece of work.

Many of the contemporary films lack the charm of early Disney-era classics such as Dumbo or the cheek and anarchy of the Warner Bros posse of Bugs Bunny and the Looney Tunes. Contemporary masterpieces came from Japan's Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. All their features, such as Howl’s Moving Castle and the Oscar-winning Spirited Away are made the old-fashioned way, with multiple drawings and keyframe animation. Instead of unleashing filmmakers to make feature films of astounding ingenuity, all that high-end technology seems to have dulled their imaginations.

The gluttonous mass of CGI animation in 2006 has left several casualties in its wake. Disney’s The Wild only made $95 million on a budget of $80 million and in the latter half of the year Aardman’s Flushed Away, while still on release, is struggling. On first glance this looks like no bad thing given that the films failing were all half-hearted efforts: The Wild was a poor humourless copy of Madagascar, and Flushed Away was a horrendous attempt to capture with CGI the magic of Aardman’s plasticine animation. The biggest failure of the year was the Warner Bros. produced film The Ant Bully, which hit the studios pockets hard with a theatrical profit of only $5 million. Despite the marketing emphasis on the involvement of Nicolas Cage, Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep the film, a dull re-tread of A Bugs Life and Antz, deservedly bombed.

2007 is shaping up to be a huge, if familiar, year for animated films. The green ogre returns with Justin Timberlake in tow for Shrek the Third, Pixar will unleash another rodent tale Ratatouille and penguins will once again take centre stage in Surf’s Up. However the most anticipated film of the year will be the hand drawn The Simpsons Movie. Perhaps it’s inevitable box office success will lead the studios to think that hand drawn animation can still pull in a crowd. Either way, it appears this year will continue the trend of diminishing returns with CGI animated films even if technology makes them more impressive than ever. It’s a sorry state for an art form that once promised to take us to infinity and beyond.
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