been meaning to make a post like this for a while and i’m only now getting around to it. but here we are, the dreaded animation discussion. in this post i’ll attempt to lay out my philosophy for my approach to animation as a tool in film, its limitations, and what i believe is pushing the medium forward.
i’ll start this off with a perhaps-needed disclaimer, which is that i fully believe animation to be capable of the heights of live-action film. if anything, mixed media formats are going to have an even more important role in time as technology to utilize either one (and, thus, synthesize them) will see an uptick, and socialized filmmaking has always been a good thing. there are already concrete examples now, of which i’ll list ten, of films that i believe utilize animation to a progressive degree that i don’t believe can be done with live action.
this isn’t the same as saying something would be different if made in live action or that it couldn’t be done or what-have-you, although this is probably true as well, but rather that these films advance the medium of animation (and greatly heighten my rather meager opinion of it). this could be from their juxtaposition with live-action, their style lending to a more substantial thesis on behalf of the film at large, an important thematic role for the animation to begin with, or excel at making animation look aesthetically pleasing or immersive in some way.
Wax or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees by david blair
Persepolis by vincent paronnaud and marjane satrapi
Waltz with Bashir by ari folman
*Corpus Callosum by michael snow
After Last Season by mark region
Avatar by james cameron
It’s Such a Beautiful Day by don hertzfeldt
12 oz. Mouse by matt maiellaro
Dog Star Man by stan brakhage (among others)
and Tower by keith maitland.
these are not necessarily the animated films that i believe are best (calling some of these animated is dubious at best anyways), but rather ones that actively give me encouragement that the medium isn’t entirely dead. these are films which meaningfully utilize the plasticity, variation, and contrasts that animation has the capacity for, and don’t settle for merely drawing cartoons that could end up being compelling or not depending on if the screenwriting is.
while i don’t want to get too exhaustive with this list, i do want to at least briefly illustrate what i mean when i speak of this sort of progressive-ness. there are many ways a film can be aesthetically progressive. eisenstein famously spoke about the plasticity of early disney, in a sort of childlike adoration for the new capability of cinema. this is something which has surely happened to many of us over time – seeing something brand new which just totally knocks us back – but i believe this initial hype must inevitably be answered with some form of payoff. childlike wonder is an interesting concept to build a film around, but variation in themes and tones is something i tend to value above an exclusive approach.
obviously, you say, not all animation is about this sense of childlike wonder. but i do have to question this to some extent. due to the way that our cultural zeitgeist has been set up, there are inherently different visceral reactions one gets depending on the media they consume. as a child, one who either prefers live action or animation, seeing the “other” medium will trigger a desire to return the more recognizable, comfortable, soothing one. these notions have the potential to become cornerstones of their developmental taste, which progresses into adolescence and some people just never seem to really move on past there. the way that our culture is set up, though, is that there will always be that innate sense of wonder based somewhat on comforting nostalgia that i think surrounds our reactions to seeing animation as opposed to live action.
this is psychology 101, surely, but i need to address the “childlike” aspects of animation. the fact of the matter is that the vast majority of animation is tailored towards young audiences. this shouldn’t stop us, however, for there is countless animation out there which isn’t (predominantly) going for that age group (and for the revisionists who sincerely believe something like The Incredibles is part of that group, well, stop reading now i guess). so what’s the problem?
i think these two somewhat self-evident truths coalesce into my general theory of animation, which is that it attempts to humanize adolescent tastes – be those by the people who created the film, or the viewer. i understand that this is culturally not true everywhere and that the rep of animation largely depends on your habitat, but from my western perspective it stands to reason that this call to animation is, at its core, a call to nostalgia, to going back. this medium which is capable of the infinities allotted by your HDTV screen, customizing each and every one of the 4096 lines that show up there, has its primary appeal relegated subconsciously towards a longing for simplicity. as a viewer, it’s something i have little to no interest in. the only animated film which moves me in this way is My Neighbor Totoro, which is an all-timer for me and sort of makes anything going for this broad type of appeal irrelevant for my personal viewing.
there are other sorts of appeals that one can have, though, but i have rather dismal views of those as well. lots of animation goes for cheap psychedelia or attempts to utilize the plasticity of the medium to create surrealism, a concept that surely blew the mind of sergei eisenstein 80 years ago, but has long become tired and only interesting in contrast with other cinematic elements, not as a lone goal.
the films that i’ve mentioned above are films that, while they may flirt with these notions, approach them from an ironic distance or contrast them to a reasonable extent such that the final product is one of subversion rather than strict adherence to a nostalgic beckoning.
one such example of subversion is Persepolis. in this work, the ironic distancing is achieved by the non-realistic style; the heightened, childlike proportions and view of the world that the protagonist encounters are meaningfully portrayed in a film about learning from these experiences and ultimately rejecting many of them. in a feminist move, it employs the stance of criticizing not necessarily your own past, but the world that you have matured from, that which you no longer feel like you belong to. this form of rebellion is successfully shown alongside a medium which we subconsciously relate to our adolescence.
satrapi’s usage of minimalism in the animation of Persepolis grants it a more universal appeal, de-colorizing the world and even the people so as to not have the viewer be overloaded on specifics and more interested in the ideas and feelings that her character has. while there was surely a massive amount of time that went into the production of Persepolis, the movie’s stripped down style and aesthetics acts as a counterbalance to this – it is a film where your self-insertion is encouraged because it is a film that wants you to accept, on some level, a rejection of your past. the narrative engine in coming-of-age films being maturity is facilitated through these contrasts in intelligent ways here.
the limitation to satrapi’s approach is that the film is devoid of the catalyst for most narrative payoff: faces, glances, gestures. her minimal approach doesn’t even attempt to reconcile this – sure, characters are created with generally acceptable human proportions, but the distancing effect is ever-present. while we may self-insert as marjane, we never feel as though this is our world, these are our friends, that this is truly happening in a concrete sense; it’s purely in the cinematic that the catharsis in Persepolis lives.
to some extent, all of the films i’ve listed here are like this. the only two you could really make a case against would be Avatar – which is really just the cinema of attractions for the modern era – and Waltz with Bashir – whose central themes of PTSD and trauma meaningfully climax in a switch to live action, a pivot which far too many animated films are afraid to utilize.
the rest of the films i’ve selected are ones which accept the irreality of the animated world and, in their own way of minimalism, maximilze the brechtian distancing effect that’s possible with pictures. you can self-insert as a stick figure, but you will never believe the stick figure is truly you or having your experiences – the goals of these films are entirely different to both most of the animated canon (constantly attempting to live up to the best of live action or utilizing century old plasticity) and the live action (which oftentimes is focused on verite in some fashion).
many of these films acknowledge the differences between the two media and utilize their respective aspects properly. in It’s Such a Beautiful Day, the live-action bits bring us from self-insertion to the potential of that stick figure really being us, the bridge from sympathy to empathy. in After Last Season, the animated segments serve as a contrast to the sterile, artificial environments – they provide childlike wonder and bafflement in a world that appears clinical and cold for most of the time. even when there are murders and ghosts afoot in this world, in some ways, it is more acceptable than the reality of live action.
for me, the existence of plasticity is only a small fraction of the appeal to animation. it’s something which can give it purpose at times, but reliance on it simply exposes us to tired surrealism. the existence of animation’s irreality can doom it to preying on nostalgia that i have no interest in digging up again. these two engines are those which seem to be the ones that continue to drive animated works forward; the canon is filled with them. this is my primary issue with animation – where there are boundless possibilities, there is boundless laziness. a desire to keep returning to the same roots and choices that past masters have done, with little to build upon them in the form of meaningful analysis or recontextualization.
so much of animation is painfully, painfully limited in what it attempts to do. there is no rhyme or reason to the creative choices made – and i don’t mean which color signifies what or analysis of this sort, but more decisions on entire media – why is something animated instead of just shot normally? budgetary constraints are usually not the issue. even as large of an advocate for 3D as i am, i am still in the stage of requiring some method to the madness when it comes to using that as a device.
i’ll conclude by saying that plasticity’s modern counterpart is almost surely the avant-garde (brakhage and snow have more meaningfully contributed to the notion of physically malleable cinema than any studio has in the last 50 years) and that there is hope for animation yet. i just wish there was more to the canon than what we currently have.