Sunday, 28 December 2008


I've spent the last two years writing essays that criticize CGI and modern animation techniques for not looking as good as traditional animation techniques, but until now I never had any suitable way of explaining the problems.

Over the festive period I have been putting the finishing touches to my final essay for Edinburgh College of Art, and although I had a good analysis on the topic, it is not until this afternoon that I finally found a solid reason for CGI and modern animation techniques not looking as good as traditional animation techniques!

I will post a more detailed diagnosis in January, but until then, try examining the aesthetics of:
- King King (stopmotion with CGI),
- Wallace & Gromit films (especially comparing A Grand Day Out with A Matter Of Loaf & Death),
- The progression of Pixar feature films (Toy Story - Wall-E),
- Different styles of rotoscoped or live-action referenced films (especially Beowulf with A Scanner Darkly),
- Computer graphics (70s arcade machines with modern home consoles...)
- And "realistic" paintings with the photographs that they are based on (eg: the painting of Scarlett Johansson on my website with the photo of her in Lost In Translation - just Google search her name and the film).

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Research experiments after Thomas Allen

Today I experimented with trying to make flat bookcovers look 3D(ish)... It is just a bit of practice-led research for my essay, but the technique might find its way into my degree film if I can get it to work properly... Below are some tests:

The technique is based on the really cool work of Thomas Allen (below), which is certainly worth searching for!

I was introduced to Allen's work by Alison Cross, who used it as research for her beautiful graduation film Tale Soup (below) produced at ECA in 2008.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

My graduation film is...

My graduation project is a slightly experimental suspense film about a young woman searching through a spooky mansion for her lost dog (which is a Beagle). It will be animated by rotoscoping [a hand-drawn interpretation of live-action video footage] with ink on paper. I will record the live-action footage in January and then I will be drawing the footage every day for several months until it is all interpreted on paper... It is due to premiere in June 2009 at The Filmhouse on Lothian Road, Edinburgh.

I will be drawing in a style similar to Arthur Rackham and Edward Gorey but on a very small size so that the drawings are loose and the animation movements look vivid on screen; it will mainly be in black and white; there are influences from the New Wave cinema of Jean-Luc Godard and Aki Kaurismäki; and I will record the dialogue for my film in Finnish (why not?!).
What else is there...?
As well as getting Finnish dialogue recorded by Erica Weiste in Helsinki (Finland); I am getting video footage for the Beagle shot by Annalise Wimmer in Budapest (Hungary); and I am shooting video footage of Darryl Ryznar in Edinburgh (Scotland). The production of my film is basically a little Pan-European jigsaw!

Below is a short rotoscoping test (using footage from Jean-Luc Godard's Bande a Part) as a teaser for my graduation film.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Why CGI will never fully replace traditional stopmotion

How Pixar’s “Cars” reflects upon our fondness for nostalgia, and therefore describing how stopmotion films like “Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride” will continue to succeed in the age of CGI.”

The success of CGI animated films has led to traditional forms of animation, such as cel animation and stopmotion, being considered “a dying art” (Depp, 2005); and the increasing cost of traditionally animated film-making had led Walt Disney Feature Animation to convert from its traditional cel animation technique to full-CGI (StudioBriefing, 12th March 2004). This is verified by Jill Goldsmith (2004) who reported that Chicken Little would be Disney’s “first computer animated picture sans Pixar”. As a result, Disney’s animation studio in Orlando was shut down after the completion of one of its last hand-drawn films Brother Bear (StudioBriefing, 25th March 2004). Meanwhile a seperate report stated that Walt Disney Feature Animation (now known as Disney Animation Studios) “will sometimes produce hand-drawn toons (sic), such as 2009's The Frog Princess” (Garrett and McClintock, 2007).
The fact that Disney - possibly the world’s best-known traditional animation company - chose to abandon cel animation shows that CGI is becoming so dominant within today’s animation market that it threatens the existence of traditional forms of animation.
Excluding the two stopmotion films from 2005 (Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-rabbit, and Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride) it personally seems - through looking at the List Of Animated Feature-Length Films on Wikipedia (16th March 2008) - as though the last major/notable traditionally animated feature film (that does not rely on lots of in-computer drawing and colouring) from out-with Disney or Japanese animation was produced in 1996 with the cel-animated Beavus & Butt-head Do America, or the stopmotion/live-action film James And The Giant Peach (produced by Tim Burton).
The decline of traditional animation techniques in any format (whether being adverts, children’s television, a cartoon series, or feature film) can mainly be attributed to the breakthrough in 1995 of the world’s first completely CGI animated feature film Toy Story, created by Pixar. Since then, it seems as though almost every major animation studio has attempted a CGI film (Holson, 3rd October 2006), or at least heavily incorporated the use of computers into their animation process (either for drawing, colouring, compositing, or post-production editing).
Although CGI can produce animations of a fantastic quality (any work by Pixar would be a fine example) it is also all-too-often responsible for producing work which, despite its sophisticated graphics, is heavily compromised (Hittle quoted in Frierson, 1998. Pg 183) by a lacking sense of character or life (Svankmajer quoted in Steinhart, 2002) that traditional techniques almost always exuded. A simple comparison of the different methods employed in creating children’s television shows is a perfect example of this now that several of the old, traditionally-animated shows that were once popular long-running series have recently been re-created in CGI and began to lose their original personality (Magic Roundabout, Scooby-Doo, and Mickey Mouse are examples of recent CGI conversions that have, to various extents, failed to recreate the original magic).
Unfortunately the large attraction for companies to switch to CGI is because it is usually quicker to produce and a lot cheaper than traditional animation techniques. As a result, CGI is now so commonplace that only the few large-budget CGI productions that can afford to invest in both the aesthetics and the narrative will ever be huge blockbusters – only 3 from the Top 20 computer animations, based on Lifetime Gross, were produced by a studio other than Buena Vista or Dreamworks (Box Office Mojo, 2008); the remaining majority with their smaller budgets, recycled stories, and standard plastic-looking aesthetics will just merge together on the rubbish heap looking like Lego bricks in Legoland.
This is why, when a cel animation or a stopmotion project emerges from between the triliions of pixels that we are subjected to each year, it always feels fresh and ‘new’ (despite having a much longer and more interesting history than CGI), and why we jump at the chance to see it in the cinema; re-hear the same old story of how a stopmotion animator is actually some sort of life-creating God:
"Animators have… recreated for each new generation of filmgoers a myth of the artist as Pygmalion: an ingenious creator who can breathe life into the inanimate using a kind of magical process that is extremely laborious and inaccessible to common people…" (Frierson, 1994. Pg1)
and why we can wallow in nostalgia by watching Blue Peter once again just to see their feature about the stopmotion process (which I remember watching in 1995 when Wallace & Gromit appeared in their third short film A Close Shave, and again in 2005 just before the premiere of their first feature-length film: The Curse of the Were-rabbit).
This point of how we almost always seem to disregard the primitive old world in favour of our exciting, high-tech new world is beautifully portrayed - although rather ironically in this context - within Pixar’s 2006 CGI feature film Cars.
Cars was the 7th feature-length CGI film released by Pixar following on from a number of award-winning animations by Pixar, including Oscars for Finding Nemo and The Incredibles. (AMPAS, 2008)
In Cars we follow the protagonist Lightning McQueen (a rookie racecar challenging for The Piston Cup in a large corporate stockcar championship similar to NASCAR) who gets lost during his transportation to the championship-deciding race, and who ends up trapped in a desolate little village called Radiator Springs, somewhere along Route 66. Despite constantly struggling with his attempts to escape from the quaint little village and get back to his buzzing, high-tech, corporate world of stockcar racing; Lightning gradually realizes that it is “nice to slow down every once in a while” (McQueen, 2006) after having formed close friendships with its simple old citizens, and discovering the beauty of the past.
The film, based on life-experiences of director John Lasseter (2006), is a long winding road of discovery but is essentially just a nostalgic nod back to when the world was simpler and more pleasant, based on the history of American transportation and community.
Although the film - through looking at the deterioration of communities along the now “Historic” Route 66 as a result of the construction of the interstate - is based on Western societies abandonment of our past, it also shows how we can find beauty and solace in the past because it offers an escape from the frantic pace of life in the 21st century, and suggests to us that all those gadgets and materialistic goods do not make us happy.
This theme from within Cars offers an accurate analogy of stopmotion’s place within an animation market saturated by CGI in the 21st Century: we are living within a market filled with modern luxury cars (CGI) where technological advancements make them obsolete within a couple of years, and where simple old classics (stopmotion) are being disregarded, apart from the rare renovation - which in comparison to the modern luxury cars paradoxically looks new, fresh, and exciting.
This analogy reveals that most forms of animation will always have a place within the market as long as producers are prepared to invest in the time and costs involved in using the specific technique, and as long as the market is not already filled with just that one type of product (like CGI has become at the moment).
Due to the high costs, long production time, and precise nature of stopmotion, it has found itself being readily replaced by CGI for convenience. It is fitting that the opening song in Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride says:
“It’s a beautiful day... Assuming nothing happens that we don’t really know; that nothing unexpected interferes with the show; And that’s why everything, every last little thing; every single, tiny, microscopic little thing must go; according to plan”.
Although it is a song about the wedding rehearsal for Victor van Dort to Victoria Everglot, the content of the song reflects perfectly the nature of attempting a stopmotion feature in the age of CGI.
“It’s a beautiful day” may be seen as a reference to how nice it is to see a stopmotion feature (or two considering that Wallace & Gromit’s first feature was released a few weeks earlier) within all those CGIs that were released the same year including: Chicken Little – Disney’s first CGI film; Hoodwinked; Madagascar; and The Magic Roundabout – a CGI film version of the classic stopmotion TV series. (Wikipedia, op. cit.)
The rest of that passage could refer to how much planning went into making Corpse Bride, and why if anything went wrong, regardless of how minute the problem, it would have had bigger repercussions on the rest of the film.
John Halas (1987. Pg 166) wrote that for Burton’s earlier stopmotion film, The Nightmare Before Christmas, they had produced 3300 storyboard images amounting to a sketch for every 1.5 seconds of film. That shows just how much planning can be involved in stopmotion projects.
The issues pertaining to stopmotion today have resulted in a perceived willingness by producers to settle with CGI instead of stopmotion. These producers could be linked to lines later in the same opening song of Corpse Bride where it says, “How could our family have come to this? To marry off our daughter to the nouveau riche”. At this point, the ‘family’ would symbolise stopmotion, the ‘daughter’ represents the animation project, and the ‘nouveau riche’ would be a reference to those producers who have acquired wealth through the cost-savings available by giving away stopmotion to CGI.
Despite the modern problems of stopmotion, there are many critics who argue that CGI cannot recreate the textures or even the life that is present in a stopmotion film (Purves, 1996). The ‘life’ in stopmotion perhaps comes from the spontaneous way in which things occur while filming and because, as Purves is quoted as saying (in Furniss, 1998. Pg166), “even the animator cannot exactly predict where the puppet will go”.
Due to this, stopmotion has a “great group and rare group of people” (Burton, 2005) that are still specializing within its field, rather than moving to CGI.
Tim Burton is perhaps one of the most prominent film directors today, and it is his creativity and interest in stopmotion that has helped to bring traditional animation back into the public eye. (Saunders, 2005. Johnson, 2005).
The cult status of both Tim Burton and his various stopmotion projects has shepherded conversations about animation away from the zoo of talking animals that we have been constantly revisiting over the past decade (Holsen, 2006), and has hopefully renewed public interest in both the animation process and the creativity behind it.
Corpse Bride for example, has utilized the old-fashioned method of stopmotion – a technique that is often associated with early cinema’s special effects thanks particularly to the extraordinary work of Willis O’Brien & Ray Harryhausen – but Burton has executed it so flawlessly that it feels as slick as a CGI production (Abbate, 2005) and along with the release of Aardman’s Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit the same month, stopmotion should have had a strong effect on the audience.
Just like in the conclusion to Cars when we see the two modern vehicles (in the form of Lightning McQueen & Sally Carrera) “just going for a drive” along the twisting old roads of Route 66 through the beautiful countryside, and reveling in nostalgia; we can only hope that some of the big CGI studios will divert from their usual highway of modern animation, and try traveling on the back roads of traditional animation where they should not “drive on it to make great time…” but “… drive on it to have a great time” (Carrera, 2006)
But even if those two popular stopmotion films do not encourage a breakaway from CGI in the coming years, at least we have seen that the traditional animation techniques still have a charm and a quality within them that we will always be able to revisit.

Written by Andy Macpherson,
Edinburgh College of Art, 19 March 2008

- Abbate, A. (2005) Interview appearing on the bonus feature section titled The Animators: The Breath of Life from the Region 2 DVD version of Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride (2005). Directed by: Mike Johnson & Tim Burton. UK/USA, Warner Bros. Pictures [video:DVD]
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