Sunday, October 3, 2010

Review of Flatland and Archon Defender

There's a large number of people praising independent animated features, but the 3D computer animated ones haven't gotten much attention. There's no excuse on Archcon Defender, which is available to watch for free right on YouTube.

A few notes before I begin. There's a new development of pixels which will likely undermine my idea of the computer being a color pinscreen.
There's a better article in Science News Magazine, but that's the best I could find on the web. It uses shapes other than squares to more effectively portray people's faces, and I suspect it could end up being used along with 2D computer drawing in some way. Time will tell.

Onto Flatland the film.

Flatland is based on a book by Edwin A. Abbot, directed and written by Ladd P. Ehlinger Jr. In the midst of conflict in Flatland, a land of flat shapes and lines, A Square is a defense lawyer caught up in an escalating conflict between shapes which do and don't have color, who gets whisked up into the Land of 3d by A Sphere, which is involved in a similar conflict to Flatland which lies below.

The film begins in Flatland, beginning with the politics of shapes. Males are two dimensional, and females are line segments in reference to the Victorian society satirized in the orginal book. The more angles a shape has, the better its social position, triangles being the social bottom, and circles being pinnacles of wisdom. A Sphere, who supports a family of shapes, is involved in a drama over certain shapes from a foreign country, Chromatists, having more color, and spreading their influence locally. Many of these shapes believe in a third dimension, but not A Square, until he's contacted by A Sphere who shows him Flatland from above and sends him into the Land of 3D. The Land of 3D is involved in a similar struggle, a 4th dimension substituted for a third, and there's the additional conflict over Flatland which the higher forms feel should be demolished.

Where the film gets interesting is when A Square dreams and visits a 1 dimensional lineland in a dream but none of the resident points on a line believes that he has two dimensions. Later in the film, as political controversy in Flatland picks up, he has an extradimensional encounter with A Sphere and gets to look on the controversy of Flatland from a three dimensional point of view as he's taken above Flatland. The transition from flatland to the land of 3D makes A Square a much more interesting character because he's no longer jammed into the same plane. The characters in The Land of 3D, as it turns out, are no wiser in their dimension than the Flatlanders are in theirs. There's disbelief over higher dimensions in each one of these arenas, and inherent disrespect for those who live in the lower ones.

The movie is filled with interesting contrasts. A Square, while in the land of 3D, is able to warn A Sphere of their foolishness against those who believe in a fourth dimension, but when he gets back to Flatland, he's unable to relate 3D to the native Flatlanders. There's a theme here of the inability of individuals to cope in their respective environments of differing complexities. You have to be better than the environment you live in. Then there's the ideological warnings that we shouldn't force our beliefs in others in a larger social context.

The film is a bit slow at the start, and picks up once the action gets going towards Flatland. The ending is a bit too incoherent, and detracts from the film a fair bit, but it's still quite good on the whole. The director's self conscious title cards in the Flatland sequences will likely turn off some viewers.

Archcon Defender is a very unusual independent film, directed by David T. Krupicz, an independent animator from Canada who also made some earlier lego films. Visually, it's quite simple, but manages to make beautiful use of its low budget. Dialogue-wise, the characters aren't very interesting, and the film is in the awkward position where the characterization depends on cliched dialogue to advance the characterization with the monotone computer(or computerish) voices. The amazing thing about the movie is how well it works even though the characters are so utterly lifeless. It keeps the movie somewhat interesting, but at the same time disallows it from being truly effective. Visually, it's slightly the same way. It benefits from it's computer toybox look, but its inexpressive characters don't get in the way as much as the voices.

It's a very cheesy fantasy plot, about a girl, Collete who's evacuated from a country due to her role in a supernatural war. She's taken to a country, Archcon, along with others like her, to be safe from the attacks from the kingdom of Echelon. She has magical powers and there's a magical shard, which she has magical powers from, which she learns during spiritual sessions with a priest. Corny stock material, but the director has a knack for this sort of thing that few others do. And it makes up for it by showing both sides of the story, characters on both sides of the war. The film blends 3D and 2D well, and it has a surprisingly successful low budget aesthetic. Unfortunately though, it's difficult to watch because you have to supply the character's motivations in your head as the voices of the characters don't quite work. The action scenes are very good, and the effects keep them from being monotonous.

It's the atmosphere which makes this movie. Krupicz has an uncanny ability to make cheap movies with atmosphere that higher budget films can't manage. And as cheesy as the plot is, it's unfortunately more complex than just about any similar plot in mainstream computer animation. The film is unified, largely it seems, due to Krupicz's work in every department, but ultimately it falls apart near the end because the plot just isn't interesting enough to get past the inexpressive characters.

I recommend Flatland the Film openly. Archcon Defender is free, so if you want to check it out, realizing it's an acquired taste, go ahead. I'd seen these films too long before writing these reviews, so I had to refresh a bit. A bit discombobulated, which I'll have to work on.

The next post will be about similarities between Russian and Japanese animation.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Stop Motion

Stop motion is an area in animation which doesn't get criticized often enough for its biggest flaws. It's clear that there's very little thematic variety when productions get very large, to the point of a feature film. Odds are that a film will be: A, a heartwarming tale of old fashioned moral values with great respect to __ tradition, B, a wondrous out of this world fantasy journey which explores the wondrous nature of human life, C, a humorous look at this clearly screwed up world which dares to show it for what it really is, D A horrifying, likely surreal tale of the place of humankind in a screwed up world that nobody can make sense of.

But wait. You're a hip, original creator whose film doesn't fall under one of those categories. That's because you're E, a mixed blend of many attributes of all four.

So how many stop motion feature films are there that manage to duck these ugly, even silly stereotypes? So far, I've only found 2, Piotr Kamler's Chronopolis, and Kawamoto's Book of the Dead.

And goodness, has anybody else noticed how much of an aversion there is towards the area of serious science fiction? Stop motion seems to have a sort of odd fantasy version of the subject, whether it's the mice in Clangers who are visited by an astronaut or Wallace and Gromit going to the moon. They seem to enjoy some of the mechanical aspects alright, like fancy machines, but they have a strange hesitance to commit to it wholly.

I've seen one short film which I recall had an anthropmorphic alligator or crocodile in a spaceship. Clangers, the British television series has mice on a strange planet but avoids the topic for down home fantasy. Wallace and Gromit's first short has them going all the way to the moon, but ultimately it uses science fiction elements in more of a children's book sort of way. Then there's Trnka's short film Cybernetic Grandma. The brown faced inexpressive doll characters and the slow pace kept me from finishing it. Edison and Leo goes surprisingly far with a real inventor, but again, from what clips I've seen, stops short of real science fiction. It harks back to pre-50's science fiction/horror and monster movies the most from what I've seen.

So why has this subject matter so largely been avoided? You know the annoying tendency of animation filmmakers to retreat towards their roots and science fiction didn't gain popularity until the 50's, but that doesn't explain it entirely. Burton and Selick, big names from the U.S. are exploiting German expressionism for all it's worth. The medium has long drawn its roots from it's relationship with live action special effects, and there's no recent sci fi live action films I know of offhand which have used much in the way of stop motion effects. Maybe the efforts in that direction have failed.

So what is it that skews stop animators towards farmhouse villages, forests, old monster movies, child's toys incarnate, surreal experimental works, and fairy tale fantasies? Looking at the sort of themes they seem to skew towards, I get the impression that the puppets are playing with the animators. I sincerely hope that stop motion animators manage to expand on their set of typical themes and start letting their themes dictate what stop motion allows rather than the other way around. I'm aware of stop motion's spatial, material and economic limitations, but I have issues with it that go further.

I've realized that the most interesting stop motion isn't the most popular one of puppets, or even claymation, but replacement figurines. I've become obsessed with many of George Pal's Puppetoons, particularly his Philips Showcase. I wish that this sort of technique were applied to the environment surrounding the character and taken to extremes, with characters moving in unison with proportion changing landscapes. The technique is often compared to hand drawn animation, but I'm not sure how far this comparison should be taken. Sure, the models are renewed frame by frame, but a still figurine gives a very different, and it seems, much stronger impression than a still drawing. There are moments when Pal lets the puppets lapse into still modes and curved heads, but this really counters much of the momentum of the technique. That seems to be the biggest flaw of the medium, compared to puppet animation, figurines seem to fare worse while not in motion.

The comparison starts falling apart when you think of the possibilities of limited animation with drawings to limited animation with replacement puppets. You can look at puppets from different points of view, which means that you can look at different aspects of the puppet when it's not moving, unlike a still drawing(exception made for 3D computer drawings made with SANDDE). So in this sense, replacement figure animation is not so much a 3D equivalent of hand drawn animation as much of a form which becomes analogous to it if the filmmaker uses it similarly, and full animation essentially makes this more difficult. But even with full animation, you can repeat actions, showing them from different angles. There's an argument to be made for transparent puppets too, since you can see more of the puppet.

Sometimes I look at certain forms of animation with glaringly limited capabilities and think about how a filmmaker manages to create a beautiful work within their limitations. I swear that animators are like dancers sometimes, knowing how to make an interesting story in a limited setting. It's the cutout medium where this know how seems to be most useful. Anybody who can make a dynamic character with a couple pieces of paper moved on a screen and time shots so that the blatant faults of the medium don't handicap the events on screen deserves some major respect. Especially if there's very little in the way of replacement cutouts, using mostly hinged puppets.

One thing that I think that would help stop motion animators is to stop thinking in terms of reality as captured by the camera and start thinking in reality created using the superficial look of real objects arranged specifically for the camera. Stop motion animators aren't fools, and they've heard of forced perspective, but it seems to me that there needs to be a shift in perspective here. What if you made a house in stop motion that was deliberately covered in different materials at different points in time in order to express how it looks at the particular moment? So why not start rocking the boat? For example, a dark room as seen from an outside window is represented by a black piece of cutout paper. Then when you change the view, you see something inside the piece of cutout black paper which represents the darkness of the room to see an object that's actually inside the room. Keep playing back and forth between visual tricks and you make the viewer indifferent to what's real and what's not.

But I've done too much complaining. I haven't talked about some of my favorite experiments in stop motion. Too many people seem to take stop motion at face value. Here are some stop motion films which consider it more of an area of animation than a medium. It's interesting how stop motion comes off as a medium in its own right to some people and a general area to others. With claymation, there's the people who use it more transparently and those who revel in it like Misseri Studio often does, particularly in Red and Blue. Same with the whole idea of object animation. In hand drawn animation, there's the enormous divide between rubber hose and artistic characters and characters like Snow White. In computer animation, it's largely between those who embrace the computer aesthetic and those who treat it as though it were transparent. There's no shortage of media for stop motion at the moment, but the form doesn't have very many interesting complex characters who are as expressive as those in hand drawn animation. I don't think I've ever seen one genuinely attractive female character in stop motion for instance.

To finish off the post, here are three stop motion animated films which are more material oriented. One's a man made out of wire, the other two paper cutouts, one origami the other not. Back on topic in the next post, with two reviews of independent computer animated features and more thoughts about the area of computer animation in general.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Films Missing from the List

So what's missing from the list of most bizarre animated films?

There are plenty of obmissions that would have made it, some because I couldn't change the list, and others because I'll likely never be able to see them in their entirety.

There were a few Ralph Bakshi films that would probably have made it if I'd been able to see them sooner. Picha would certainly have gotten higher. Fimfarum 2 would have been added. I'd definitely be obliged to add both of the Genius Party films. Shooting near the top of the list would be Harry Smith's Heaven and Earth Magic. I'd probably have a place for Ladd Ehlinger's Flatland the Film. Klyuch, or the Key, is certainly bizarre enough to make the list. 1001 Nights, the film from Mushi Pro, would be on here as well. The Lost Letter would manage to squeak out a spot on the list.

A couple of films I omitted for being bizarre but not particularly good: Tamala 2010, We Are the Strange, Blood Tea and Red String, Book of the Dead

I'd been too hesitant to arrange for a copy of Heroic Times, so I might never get to see that film in its entirety. Kovasznai's Foam Bath will probably never be well known. Ra Path of the Sun God might make the list if I ever manage to track it down. Ubu and the Great Gidouille has a video copy floating around somewhere but I'll likely never see it, and Adam 2 is most likely lost. Larry Jordan's Sophie's Choice was pretty monotonous to me, and its cutout approach was too similar to Smith's for me to fully appreciate it. I suspect there's a few too many good apples from the same tree in that area of experimental and photo cutout animation. Go There, Don't know Where would get pretty high on the list I'd suspect, but I'm judging from still images. Jankovics might make it another time with Song of the Miraculous Hind.

I discovered Autumn while looking over Wikipedia. It might make the list, but it certainly depends heavily on dialogue, so I couldn't have scored it..

Here's one film with a really insane cult following. That's a little too crazy for me.

The Devil and Kaca lacks subtitles, but the plot seems pretty easy to follow in general. I'd say it has enough bizarre character to make the list.

Here's trailers to the Genius Party films, which are both for sale in Australia.

I won't forget Aachi and Ssipak which Brenan reminded me of in the previous topic.

I hadn't seen Fritz the Cat at the time and it is a criminal omission being such a prominent film.

So what other sorts of lists could be or have been made in a similar vein? Commercials? Short films? Music videos? Television series? Live action/animation combinations? A television series list would be difficult to create, but correspondingly very useful. A list of short films would be taxingly difficult, but very rewarding as it would certainly feature some strange work. I like a number of animated music videos, but they can quickly become too tacky and they're so dynamic that they become grating to watch after a while. And besides, making a bizarre music video is frankly a standard choice which takes away from much of the appeal.

Next time I might try out something wildly different and engage in a fantasy exercise. What animation mediums that you don't suspect exist would you like to see?

Here's what I'll do for this post. I'll leave it open for updates below for films you think ought to be mentioned and anything which I forgot.

And here are some films mentioned by Elchinodepelocrespo.

Resan Till Melonia

Strit og Stumme

Bennys badekar, which I'd mentioned previously but neglected to bring up here:

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Realism in Animation

This post is slanted towards realistic character animation. Realism in animation is incredibly convoluted, but the general trend as well as I've been able to figure it out, seems to be this: In order for your character to be believable once it delves heavily into precise realistic detail, you have to have to start dialing back the realism in the way the character moves. If the character is less heavily rendered though, like in hand painted forms of animation realism, you can actually get away with a more realistic design approach, but have to keep the character's actions theatrical to adjust to the limitations. These distinctions alone wouldn't mean much, but I had to reconcile yet a third, more thematic, storytelling and character related approach. Both of these approaches mean that in order to have a character that looks most realistic, you're best dialing further back from visual realism in order to have characters that behave realistically in a more human sense.

For animation realism, I'd like to distinguish between full visual realism, strict realism, and what I consider pushed realism. Full visual realism is the complete commitment to portraying life as accurately as possible, a feat which has not advanced very far yet, as Beowulf and Final Fantasy show. Strict animation realism is a feat which is not so much suited for hand drawn animation as hand painted animation, I'd say. It's just about portraying what are generally realistic forms and realistic movement, though with the limitations of confining technique that keep the possibility of full on realistic detail and nuance remote. Pushed realism is more about visual styles which, while possessing a very high amount of realistic observation, aren't so much concerned with depicting real characters, but more or less, heavily stylized characters with a bent towards realism in the way they behave.

It's tough to be too specific on what is the most detailed work of art or what detail means, but I'd say that there's a general trend towards detailed works demanding a certain amount of realism simply by the observation required. In 2D forms of animation, there seems to be a general dichotomy in animation, though rarely approached too straightforwardly, between emphasizing drawing with little movement and vice versa. Sure, there's plenty of people using limited animation with very simple visuals, UPA and Zagreb for example, but I think that this is not too effective in the long term because works simply start to look alike. This is only realism of course, in a superficial visual way, but the more details you add, the more you end up looking like one realistic thing or another. But why do they do this? Useful detail. Each approach gives you enough useful detail to plant a story or general visual impression on the viewer while leaving them in the abstract in another. But what if you have both heavily rendered artwork and 24 fps motion?

It's by far the most detailed approach, but it uses up it's creative gases pretty quickly. What you start ending up with is a lot of works which are gorgeously detailed but look very similar because you're beginning to run out of the artistic choices that are essentially premade. It's like a one player card game you start playing by drawing a 45 card hand from a 52 card deck. There's not much variety to be had if everybody starts playing this card game.

Here are what I consider to be three of the best examples of strict animation realism. There's a clip from Heroic Times, Hercules Visits Admetus, and The Old Man and the Sea.

Heroic Times has some pretty exaggerated motions at times, though due to the technique, it's often hard to tell for subtle movements. Some of these jousts are not just unlikely, but the way the riders get thrown off is clearly exaggerated. The Knight's facial expression is certainly a bit exaggerated before he puts on his helmet. Some moments seem less exaggerated in animation than in lighting, like the loving embrace towards the end of the clip.

Anatoliy Petrov's Hercules visiting Admetus is an exercise in the most full blown realistic visuals I've seen in animation. The short uses Petrov's technique of photographica, which involves a layer for lighting effects superimposed over cel images for a greater emphasis on light and shade on characters than if there were only one layer. There are quite a number of glaring flaws, and I think that the film frankly works better when the viewer isn't given the opportunity to see the visuals work alone. That's not to say that I think that they're irredeemably bad, but that I think that there are some glaring flaws. There's some awkward repeated motions, shots where characters come off as haloed rubber mannequins, and frankly blatant shortcomings in character movement which slant toward flat planes. There are, like in many other films which are heavy on realism, everything from dark shots of characters to the trademarked eyeballs on static heads, and hair blowing on static heads, tricks you'll see plenty of in anime. But when you see all the personality which the characters convey when animated properly, the technique is revealed to be as legitimate as any other. The backgrounds are more oriented towards visual richness than complete realism, and the characters are certainly stylized by the way they're lit. There are some especially mythological characters, and some of them are a bit exaggerated, but for the most part, they're rather grounded.

Alexander Petrov's The Old Man and the Sea, is a different form of painted animation, paint on glass. This film isn't as faithful an exercise in straight realism as the other two are, a much more impressionistic approach. There are some points where Petrov overused his reference footage, for the sea especially, and the boat's movement, but regardless of these concessions, it's a stunning work of art. The characters are of course, distant, due to Petrov's rendering, but they are intriguing in silhouette and their hinted personalities work well with the sea setting. This film seems to be much more true to real human motion than Heroic Times, but less so than Hercules, simply because it's not as realistically rendered.

These don't show what I'd consider strict realism perfectly, but artists of course don't make their work for poor amateur theorists like me.

Now onto the twelve principles. Some of the classical principles of hand drawn animation aren't as cut and dry as they seem.

A majority of the principles, like arcs and overlapping action are sound, but there's a few that demand further examination. Always be wary of the example that proves the principle and ask why the principle needs to be there at all.

Here are the ones I'm skeptical of:
1. Squash and stretch
Squashing and stretching is a perfectly valid principle, but it's also a fairly subjective observation. You could make up a principle and call it 'warping and folding'. Squash and stretch is supposed to be valuable for allowing fluid motion, but the observation of 'warping and folding' can allow for fluid motion as well. Folding doesn't just have to apply to pieces of paper, as you fold a sleeping mattress but think of that more as a three dimensional form. When you fold a sleeping mattress, you inevitably squash and stretch the material. When an object's shape is warped, you can say that part of it gets squashed or stretched, but that's not the emphasis.

2. Exaggeration. So since you can't capture life perfectly in animation, you're obliged to consider something animated to exaggerative by comparison? Just because an animation comes off as exaggerated compared directly to real life doesn't mean it intends to be exaggerative on its own terms. And the terms 'caricature' and 'comedic' seem to have an obscure relationship that isn't fully described.

The fact of the matter is that most cinema can be seen as exaggerated from one angle or another. Even many films which are labeled as serious are often light headed or have subtle hints of comedy to lighten the mood. I can't claim that I know exactly what makes a film serious or not, but many more seriously intended animated films look ridiculous when compared to one another because they vary such widely in their content. Now here's where I'm going to talk about serious animation, because this is a subject that I've rarely seen brought up at face.

But I still haven't addressed the major point for serious and more particularly realistic animation. You can't make an animated character that emotes as effectively as their live action counterpart. No you can't, in terms of making a character with the same amount of nuanced expression, but this point can be referred to an interview with Satoshi Kon. He talks about how there's less detail in each frame, and how this guides your eye quicker, allowing you to cut faster. So by this interpretation, if you had a scene in animation compared to one in live action, you'd simply go through the scene quicker because you understand it faster visually. Essentially, you show somebody less so that they see more. This is the justification for making realistic animation of a wide variety of sorts, some more in visuals, others more in theme, like Everybody Rides the carousel.

But there's other ways that animators have come up with more serious animation. One way is simply to cut down on character expression, emphasizing the scene more than the character. This might be considered by those who subscribe the idea of caricature as a sort of 'under caricature' depending on how its done, whether it's getting rid of character's faces or deliberately under-emphasizing their emotions. After all, exaggeration goes both ways. This is a point that doesn't seem quite clear, whether it's abstraction or caricature when you start deliberately diminishing a character's presence by doing things like getting rid of prominent facial features. I'd say that this is an area that's up for contention. Other not necessarily mutually exclusive ways seem to be going for a more theatrical approach to character acting or aiming for more symbolic expressive characters. Sometimes the solution seems to be to take what seem to be more cartoony designs and just avoid funny expressions, taking advantage of their especially direct emotional appeal.

I think that the works above have shown that you can use painting to suggest forms clearly enough to bring out what resembles more of a theatrical real person than a theatrical character exaggerated from a real person.

3. Then there's the means of animating, the principles of straight ahead and pose to pose. Straight ahead I'd say is a pretty misleading term, since you can animate something from backwards to forwards or forwards to backwards. Straight behind animation is conspicuously ignored in most mentions of the principle, however, with the wording towards 'first' drawing in the scene. Why not start with the last drawing and work your way backwards to the first drawing? Maybe it's supposed to go without saying, but does it? I can deduce logically that in cutout animation, this order could be pretty important. You're animating with paper that has little detail, and you want to show a simple ball rolling forwards towards the 'camera' in a shot. If you animate straight ahead, it takes more paper to animate that action than it does if you animate it straight behind, because if you're animating straight behind, you can cut smaller balls out of the larger ball. These principles are of course, related to hand drawn animation primarily, but I still think that they need to be examined and considered.

I've brought up all my concerns with the 12 basic principles of animation because they're surely going to come up in the likely event that somebody should argue this post with a different point of view on realistic animation.

Since I've explained that animation realism is not cut and dry and cannot be construed directly, and I've clarified that it's a continuum of approaches I'm going to go a bit deeper into how it can be expressive in the animation medium. Keep in mind that this subject leans towards visual realism, not thematic realism.

Those stricter realistic animation films I showed, while artistically brilliant, don't make as full use of the more superficial aspects of visual realism as some more stylized films. One short film I want to use as example is a Soviet propaganda film, Shareholders.

The film's major characters lean towards realism, but are clearly caricatured. They exist in a stylized satirical USA. More minor characters have various levels of abstraction and the short gleefully exploits the skewed widescreen angles and limited color schemes. The characters exploit animation with their blatantly exaggerated facial features and gestures. Just look at some of character's eyes and the shape of Pearson's snout. The contrast between the more realistically rendered characters and the often simple and/or abstract backgrounds gives the short some wondrous beauty. Background characters are often flattened and silhouetted to stand out from the major characters. The characters may have form that's heavy based in realism, but they're still quite flatly colored.

There's all sorts of exaggerations here, characters jumping unrealistically high, running through cityscapes that change shape, and a skeleton with exaggerated eye cavities to emote like a human being.

I hope that by showing you this short, you see some of the things you can do with more superficially realistic animation.

You can still exaggerate the way people move, even if they look realistic. Just look at the man's jump near the end of the auto race. You could probably pull off an exaggerated jump even with a more realistic looking character. There's not so much to do with squash and stretch or other distortions, but there's still quite a lot to do with motion blur. Don't forget about growing and shrinking either.

I'll just list things that can be captured better in realistic animation than live action? For this argument, I won't be very lenient for effects. If it takes animation to do that one thing, no point in turning a fox into a fur coat.
1. Aging. You can have the character look right without being forced to one person for the part. Not everybody has the patience of Richard Linklater to shoot a film over 12 years and pray that none of his actors die.
2. Serendipity. You learn so much by trying to emulate life that you wouldn't know by just filming it, and get to use it to your advantage.
3. Selection. In some ways you can just be more selective with what you portray in animation. In the 2d forms of animation, you often have to sacrifice camera angles, but you get to put everything in the film your self. Some things you just aren't likely to pull off in live action regardless of the number of takes.
4. Don't forget about realism beyond the limitations of human sense. There's frequencies beyond our hearing, electromagnetic radiation beyond visible light, slow and fast speeds, and sizes below the human threshold of sight. A realistic portrayal here might be more valuable as these are events that are not ordinarily experienced. Call it the National Geographic effect, I guess. In a way, it's the same reason we read that sort of magazine or watch nature documentaries.
5. First person perspective. There are many things to do with first person perspective in various sorts of animation which can't be done in live action. Just look at the short film The Fly for example.
There's plenty more, but that's all I care to type right now.

Animation realism

Here's the best way I can think of to describe how stricter forms of realistic animation uses the medium. Here's what one person using this technique might say if they dared: "I can't capture real life perfectly in animation, but I can give it a different spin of imperfection at any point in time, and I can use such imperfections to justify the use of the medium in spite of the fact that it is negligible to the realism of my portrayal. I trust that the people in the audience will be able to appreciate this peculiar distinction better than animators who are, in this particular situation, bored geologists who have a predisposition to feel every bump on a rocky road."

I need to bring up storytelling here, simply because at higher levels of visual animation realism, it's a loaded design choice. You have to have a good reason to use it, especially when your characters reach the point of strict animation realism. You don't have the freedom of exaggeration that is available when you make something more abstract, which effectively weeds out most gags. It makes more sense at this point to create a work that exploits the technique for a narrative that demands the realistic look, create a more experimental work, or combine both approaches. You don't get the meat and cheese of animation, but you get the two slices of bread on the other end of the sandwich.

It goes without saying that these characters of stricter animation realism are not as essential for the media as others. Animation could live without the character Admetus but suffer with the loss of characters like Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. On the other hand though, some of the most easy to animate characters are also by extension, the easiest ones to copy in terms of basic form, which, let's face it, can degrade their individual value in the long run while it strengthens their importance. The fact is that strict realistic animated characters are not and never will be as well suited for animation as more abstracted and/or exaggerated ones. That, however, does not degrade the artistic value of the few done well, because they cannot be held accountable for these traits when the number of works remains small as they do not exhaust their potential right away.

Now I'm going to address something you've certainly been waiting to hear about. You've certainly been told that in order for animation to function effectively, motions have to be accented. Shouldn't strict realistic animation be unjustifiable as a result? Well, my response is this. Paint on film animation allows for more leniency than hand drawn animation in this regard, and where hand drawn animation is designed to be easy to understand visually, hand painted animation is better at hinting at what you see and does not require the animator to outline the forms clearly. With its extra steps towards capturing a person's look without bolding out the detail, it allows just enough freedom to portray a character which looks like somebody who's overacting in the midst of fancy cinematography.

But what about all the arguments towards simplicity in animation? Here's a few paraphrased, hopefully correctly, which I've seen people make.

1It's harder to hide your poor draftsmanship in the high level of detail that realism provides and reducing your artwork to it's simplest form demonstrates your understanding of art principles and the essence of what you've portrayed.

A valid point. It certainly is difficult to hide poor decisions made in a simple artwork because they're not masked by the complexity of the work. However, the simplicity in reducing a work to such simple form also gives the artist the opportunity to weed out details that they're not so good at portraying and focus on those which they are, which is not so feasible in a more realistic work. This point seems to come out stronger on non-human characters which members of the audience may not be entirely familiar with. Sure, if you deliberately clutter a drawing or an animation shot with details, it's possible to obscure the work's flaws. If you deliberately go from overloaded quick shot to overloaded quick shot in an animated film, it's possible to hide it's lack of quality. Heinz Edelmann admitted in an interview to overloading Yellow Submarine with if my memory serves correct, 20-30% extra detail because he knew the story would not stand up to scrutiny. Certainly plenty of realistic artists are guilty of hiding their errors and shortcomings in a forest of bombastic detail, but I think that while details don't convey as much in a realistic work due to often having so much, an artist can still show their effectiveness of craft in repetition of lines, contrast, and use of color.

2. Simpler work reads quicker and thus makes a better, more immediate visual impression. Maybe so, but this comparative inefficiency is dealt with fairly naturally. Realistic characters are less easy to exaggerate, and it's less appealing to do so, which in effect means there's more time to study them in their greater complexity due to the greater consistency in their appearance. Silhouettes can read well enough with realistic characters for an observer to tell the difference between a good and a bad pose, so I say it's simply good enough. On the other side of the equation though, what is the character good for after they catch your attention? Simply rendered images may be more iconic, but I'd say that there's another side to this, that simple images can be distinct but not distinguished. Plenty of type fonts can be bold but scarcely distinct from one another when compared and so can an overwhelming number of simple cartoon characters. Plenty of cartoon characters from Disney and Warner Brothers from the 30's and early 40's manage to come across as united in their simplicity of form in spite of being very different characters.

In having to rewrite this post as Blogger's save function fails, the internet malfunctions, and accidental erasures stemming from the first, I've been able to rethink this post half a dozen times. I apologize for the blatant shortcomings in this post, because it's been a real nightmare.

Now I'm going to explain how I feel about full visual realism in animation. First, how should it be done? The obvious answer, at least at the moment, is that it would be done with computer animation. Motion capture I think is good for little more than reference and maybe not even that. I think that characters ought to be completely virtually developed, from every aspect of the way they look to the artificially produced sound of their voice. I think that the technique if successfully pulled off, would be a completely different form of animation than we think of it right now. It would be best for more of a treacherous realism, so to speak, where everything would look real, but in a way that's entirely unusual and unfamiliar to us. There would be bands playing unusual instruments, unfamiliar vehicles, fictional ethnicities of people, nonexistent breeds of dogs, stop lights with different colors, and best of all, characters with more legitimate conflicts than those that are perceived in real life.

What would you think of you saw an animated film that seemed completely realistic in every last visual detail where you saw characters emerge from inside of wombs, age and die realistically, and stop at purple-orange-blue traffic lights? With characters that don't look quite look like anybody you've seen before and never appear again anywhere else, and everything you're familiar with appearing in an unusual form? I think that full visual realism, while limited by the aesthetic standards of animation, would counter its limitations by the ways it takes your everyday familiarity and twists it to unparalleled advantage in a way that visually simpler art does not attempt.

This would be an outrageously difficult feat to achieve, but if it worked, would it really degrade animation? I don't think it would be much more valuable than an intriguing antithesis to what's done in most of animation. Would it really make most animation less entertaining by comparison? I personally don't see it adding up to anything more than a black sheep compared to the rest of what's done in the medium. Much of the hype and resultant worry about motion capture I think has steered people off course to how virtual realism would happen. Motion capture only captures the data of one person, so how's it supposed to make much progress in the long run? It seems to me that we've mistaken the superficial realism from motion capture as the way full visual realism (regardless of animation)would be achieved. It seems to me though, that artificial evolution in virtual environments presents a far greater long term possibility of achieving the higher levels of faux realism. How else but by artificial generation can somebody dream of mimicking life to the fullest degree? Link to example In the long run, this seems like it would provide more possibilities for figuring out how to simulate virtual environments which look real because the knowledge gained is additive.

If you wanted to go underwater, it would be easiest to start with a suit and air hose, but eventually if you want to go deeper, you'll need a submarine. I suspect it's the same way with animation realism. Sooner or later, the hallmark of artificial realism means departing from real people into creating fictional computer generated people, from the way they look from the way that they talk. At that point, motion capture would be worthless because imitating real life does not make you better suited towards entirely inventing it from scratch.

Animation realism is extremely convoluted. When it looks almost completely photorealistic, rendering and all, you have to use motion accents. When it's in the general direction of photorealism and hinted at, you do not necessarily need motion accents. Since it's so difficult to make a character at extremely high levels of realism, less realistic characters can actually behave more realistically because the audience accepts them more easily.

So that's 3 different sorts of realism embodied by very different depictions. It's no wonder that people are confused. If you look realistic, you can't move completely realistically, if you move realistically, you can't be completely realistically rendered, and if you behave realistically then you have to take a few steps back from realism altogether. What a conundrum. Throw on the laziness of filmmakers cheating the technique, the lack of proper plots for much of it, experimental filmmakers who blow boundaries, conflicting sorts of animation realism, and lack of recognition for the best works, and you've got utter madness.

So, wrapping this up as best I can. There's plenty else to say. Russian animation has plenty of examples of poor strict animation realism and Americans scarcely have done it right. The Japanese seem to have avoided strict realistic character animation in 2D, but they've done some brilliant work in other areas. Just look at some of the scenes in Wings of Honneamise and Akira. My ideas on realism in computer animation stem largely from the post of Ward Jenkins where he shows how to handle the characters from Polar Express better with a few tweaks in Photoshop. I've got too many things to say and too little time.

I suspect I'll be making adjustments soon, but here's what I have to say for now. Onto a less intense subject.

edit-confused abstraction with under caricature, a stupid mistake

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

50 Most Intriguingly Bizarre Animated Films I've Seen

Now it's time to belatedly publish that list. I'd wanted to have a point system, but the points were in a notebook that was thrown away, so I can't remember all the points or how I'd scored everything. I remember that the scale was out of 40 points and that each film had to get at least 25 to qualify. The highest, The Cosmic Eye, got 38.

The general rules were:
1. Must be 45 minutes long
2. Must not be derivative of a television series
3. Must not tread too far on rotoscoping/live action
4. If it's just deliberately being strange for its own sake with no good reason, it didn't make the list.

The film must be 45 minutes long, meaning 45 minutes completed. One film on this list stretches the rule. Waltz with Bashir could be argued to stretch the rules on rotoscoping. I've discovered many films after the point system got screwed up, and will mention many of them at some point in the future. Many of the film's orders I'd reconsider, and the list is quite short on stop motion entries which would be fixed if I still had the numbers. Be forewarned that a very large number of these films are not suitable for children, and that this list was not made with druggies in mind. A couple films which you might like were originally on the end of the list but got knocked off when more suitable entries appeared. Enjoy the list, however patchy it is right now. Somebody will surely make a better one at some point in the future.

50. Little Nemo's Adventures in Slumberland

49. Puss 'n Boots

48. Sea Prince and the Fire Child

47. My Neighbors the Yamadas

46. Aladdin

45. Heavy Metal

44. Twice upon a Time

43. Yobi the Five Tailed Fox

42. Little Prince and the Eight Headed Dragon

41. Waltz with Bashir

40. The Triplets of Belleville

39. Wizards

38. The Tune

37. Alice in Wonderland

36. Everybody Rides the Carousel

35. Akira

34. Neo Tokyo

33. Hair High

32. Gwen the Book of Sand

31. Sita Sings the Blues

30. Fantasia

29. Johnny Corncob

28. A Soldier's Tale

27. Tekkon Kinreet

26. I Married a Strange Person

25. Robot Carnival

24. Uproar in Heaven

23. Night on the Galactic Railroad

22. Krysar

21. Hugo the Hippo

20. The District!

19. The Adventures of Mark Twain

18. Fantastic Planet

17. Nezha Conquers the Dragon King

16. Midori

No Footage Available

15. Of Stars and Men

No Footage Available

14. The Adventures of Prince Achmed

13. Angel's Egg

12. Dead Leaves

11. Time Masters

10. Yellow Submarine

9. The Thief and the Cobbler (recobbled)

8 Paprika

7. Beyond the Mind's Eye

6. Mind Game

5. Belladonna of Sadness

4. Son of the White Mare

3. The Cat who Walked by Herself

2. Chronopolis

1. The Cosmic Eye

No Footage Available

I'll see what I can find for these films, but for now I have to post this list because it's been so long. The next post will be about realistic character animation, and to a lesser extent, serious animation if anybody happens to stumble by this blog. I need to write a bit more about each one at some point, so I'll either edit this post or I'll describe them more in future posts.

edit-clip now available for Everybody Rides the Carousel
edit 2-Waltz with Bashir was not rotoscoped as I originally wrote.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Know the store. Know about more than the store.

I've mentioned the names of many films on here, but I've neglected one crucial thing, how to find them and how to understand the whole of animation history. It seems that most people are either uninterested or incapable of looking at animation from the scope of all its history, and I'm addressing this urgent problem right here now. It's time to push back against these neverending cults of personality.

1. Anticipate and understand that there's more than just what you see in front of you. There's always good films which you haven't seen, even if nobody you know is aware of them. Avoid exaggerative use of the word 'everything'.
2. If you want to discover more films, features especially, start with a timeline of the history of animation and a world political map and work your way down. Break out from what's presented in front of you and heavily advertised. Just start by going over to Wikipedia, and looking at their list of feature length films which you can reach by following this link:
3. Don't just wait for a copy of the film to be given a legitimate release, because odds are it won't happen. Fans come before distributors if the distributors come at all.
4. Do not under any circumstances declare one medium to be the only legitimate form of animation nor any philosophy to be the whole of all worthwhile animation. Do not use the term 'traditional animation' except to apply to animated work which was mostly or entirely produced outside of a computer. Understand that even if animation is traditional, that a computer or computer animation may likely have contributed to its existence in some other way.
5. Be the person with the answers even when they aren't pleasant, and give your best advice to where the answers may be found if you do not have them.
6. When you're introducing the person to the films on Wikipedia, expect indifference and plan accordingly. Mention the article, and then give them a second source, a place where they can watch a large number of films that they never heard of for free.

Phrase it cleverly like this, with the important parts first, :
Did you know that all you have to do is think in terms of the timeline of animation's history and the countries that have been around since? You can look up nearly any film on Wikipedia and find something good to watch elsewhere on the internet. Here's a website with some free movies from ___ to get you started.

If somebody says just something simple like "Thanks!" as so often happens, they reaffirm the first two statements while they're almost certainly, truly interested in the third. Then they've got the first two statements sealed with the third in their head, and somebody might confuse their decision and look for their self, and they can always come back to it later if they remember.

7. Please stop assuming that mentioning a few token names like Sylvain Chomet and Yuri Norstein makes you literate about worldwide animation. It does not.

And finally, here's the basic info, the maps with the timeline and websites to find all the films.

Most convenient, films that are mostly available
Most Adequate, but too dry for newbies

Look a bit further on the Animated Divots site, and you'll find even further information, like sites where you can buy more films and all sorts of things. The European animation site will take you to further information on new releases.

The rest you can find on video sites, web stores, and such, which you'll likely arrive at through a simple web search. Here's search engines for nearly every country. This should help get you started if you're not familiar, and I hope you benefit from having all these things in one place. At some point in the future I hope to have a post card or something to pass around, just to disseminate the information quicker.

Actual Post Date April 13, 2010

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


If you look at the label for this post, you might accuse me of being postmodern, but that's not what I'm going to write about. I'm going to write about a very disturbing truth of our society that's proven by the evolution of women's swimwear. I'll write about women's swimwear since I'm not interested in talking too much about mankinis.

At the turn of the 20th century, women wore long swimwear and it was the social norm. If you'd asked a person then they would have told you that wearing anything less long was indecent. Nudity is a bit of an anomaly here, since inconvenient swimwear surely convinced more people to swim nude, but people swimming nude probably didn't have much of an impact on the course of swimwear. As for things like swimwear that allows for partial or whole nudity, those are anomalies that are made to drive overanalyzers like me nuts. Not a word on monokinis.

Nowadays, though, swimsuits are much shorter on average, and the smallest, bikinis, are far shorter than that swimwear, a radical polarization from those attitudes. What once wouldn't have even been construed as sufficient clothing is now normal.

Here's why I believe this happened. There wasn't anything left to do but shorten the swimsuit. If you wanted to try a different set of materials, but they were expensive, you had to make a smaller swimsuit. If you wanted to be more creative with its design, you were guided towards creating a smaller swimsuit. The shortage of materials during wartime helped contribute towards smaller women's clothing in general, but this was a hard trend to avoid and such shortages could likely have come from somewhere else.

And let's face it, men liked seeing women wear shorter swimsuits. And that's what our culture is all about right now, getting more for less, or at least, letting the people who desire to do little do it. Nowadays you can wear any size of swimsuit and it's considered if not desirable, acceptable. Now we get to let people wear what they like, the way it should have been all along, right? But it won't last. The game's gotten old and there needs to be a new game to sucker people along, so we've got surfing suits and diving suits. Sure they don't mean much now, but wait until they become a little bit cheaper.

Headline from tomorrow! If you aren't diving 20 feet under the water, then you aren't swimming and we've got a fast maglev train to get you there to the beach quicker than before. Aren't you tired of all the people showing off skin and doing the same old strokes? Meet more people like you who are athletic but like to have fun and help us help you set the sharks on beach bums.

This doesn't mean that a catastrophe can't happen and keep people out of the water or that the people making swimsuits and diving suits aren't talented. You can still bring progress to a halt even in the most mainstream of activities. I'm also not saying that this is the only way to be progressive. But what I am saying is that if nobody's playing this game, there can be no progression at all.

People aren't all that different on the whole, so we have to keep dressing up in new ways to maintain our interest in each other. That way political figures can throw out the word unity without making us all feel cheap. If your neighbors keep dressing up in new outfits you won't have to meet anybody new, and right now we've got a general idea of how many neighbors there are in the world. All we can do if we don't like having so many neighbors is to like less neighbors and hope that the neighbors we don't like are somewhere else. I'm convinced that if every person in the world could stand in a place where they could see each other nude, that would be the end of the world.

All there's left to do is to put on the mask that hasn't been put on yet and keep the costume party going. Find some people who are pretending different things, then keep looking and see where the party game's falling short. No nudity and a name just helps to play the game and helps to spread the blame and all to keep alive the flame that brings us here and lets us call ourselves ourselves and keep us all the same.

It's the material truth that matters, our best guess of what things truly are, what they've been and what they're going to be.