Why I Like Animation

Roger Ebert has posted his list of favorite animated films from last year. I’ve heard of all of them, and seen two. The rest are either in my Netflix queue, or soon will be. It looks like a strong bunch- while Ebert’s tastes and mine don’t align perfectly, they're close. I was particularly interested in his acknowledgement that

“Animation is no longer considered a form for children and families. In some cases it provides a way to tell stories that can scarcely be imagined in live action. The classic example is the Japanese "Grave of the Fireflies", about two children growing up on their own after the Bomb falls.”

If this is true, it’s a welcome development. I remember writing coverage on a wonderful spec script while out in Los Angeles, and noting that its supernatural characters lent themselves to animation- but that its violence and sex scenes would raise a few eyebrows. If you want proof that people other than grade schoolers like animation- look at me.

Wallace & Gromit, The Triplets of Belleville, the collected works of Pixar… the list goes on. I’ve never animated anything myself (too tedious), but it is fun to watch. One thing I’ve noticed in animation is that the editing is often a lot smoother than in live action. Pixar’s films are cut very fast [ref]Average shot length (ASL) 3-4 seconds. Search for a few titles here: Cinemetrics[/ref], but I never get disoriented or have trouble following what’s going on (Transformers *cough* Revenge of the *cough* Fallen).

I suspect this has to do with the preproduction process for animation. Since it’s so slow and labor intensive (especially stop-motion), shooting hours of footage to play with in post isn't an option. That means carefully planning where ever shot and every cut goes before any of the dirty work starts. This is also how I try to plan my own live action projects- just because you can shoot seven hours for a 15 minute short doesn't mean you should.

If you want more proof of the new respect for animation, look at the Best Picture nom for Up in 2009, and the push to have Toy Story 3 get one this year. The Best Animated Feature category is a joke- since it was started in 2001, all seven Pixar releases have been nominated, and five have won. The push now for Best Picture I think stems from the snub for WALL-E in 2008, which to me is the best work the studio has done.

I remember when WALL-E was released, several reviewers noted that small children might get restless during the first half hour, which has almost no conventional dialog. $521 million later, this sounds ludicrous. Animation, with its reliance on gesture and exaggerated expressions, owes much to the Silent Era, when movies didn’t talk, and yet millions and millions of people still watched them.

Any screenwriting guide (or screenwriting professor) will tell you to “show things visually,” [ref] Of course, that isn’t always the best solution. Tell, Don't Show [/ref] but we all use dialog as a crutch, myself included. The constraints imposed by animation force filmmakers to come up with more creative solutions, and as a result, the final product is often better than that year’s Oscar Bait.

I saw WALL-E while watching Chaplin and Keaton films to prepare for Cinememtropolis’s Silent District, and it was some of the best inspiration I found. Why don’t live action studios try to be more like Pixar? The short answer is Money, Dear Boy. The long answer is another post.