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Archive for the ‘Animation’ Category

far cryIn discussions of CG and visual effects on various occasions – such as ones at mediateacher.net with visual effects supervisor Greg Butler – one of the topics that regularly arises is the particular challenge of animating people.  This involves the concept of the uncanny valley – that territory whereby the closer one gets to creating an artificial human, the creepier and more repellant that version becomes (recently confirmed through research by Maya Mathur and David Reichling).  It seems to be not such a big issue for gamers (such as with Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty, or Far Cry), but in fiction movies, the trend has been towards creating very cartoonish-looking people.  Among the most famous examples of the uncanny valley turning off viewers have been in the performance capture features of Robert Zemeckis, such as in The Polar Express and Beowulf, as well as earlier Pixar efforts such as Tin Toy (with that unintentionally gruesome baby) and Toy Story.  When reviewing the history of CG in animated features, it is interesting to track the development of animating humans as it settled into a distinctly stylized, successfully cartoonish look, such as in Ratatouille, The Incredibles, and Up.  One notable moment in CG features that struck me was with the release of the feature Monster House, in which the setting was animated in a hyper-realistic mode and while the characters were created using performance capture, the design distinctly pursued a claymation look, most visibly noticeable in the hair of the characters.

MogWhen I was watching some British holiday commercials that were highlighted by the blog Media Psychology, I chuckled at one long ad featuring the CG cat Mog (for Sainsbury’s narrated by Emma Thompson).  I wondered, “so when cats watch this, are they creeped out?  Do they experience the uncanny valley too?  And what about dogs?  Do they get a chill down their spine watching CG puppies like when we watch The Polar Express and they yell out, ‘please, just turn on Madagascar again!'”  

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Brothers Quay at work

Brothers Quay at work

Stop Motion is one of the most accessible and productive ways in which young filmmakers can explore visual communication and storytelling.  This is clearly demonstrated in the popularity of Brickfilms (for some particularly inspiring Lego work, check out Fell in Love with a Girl directed by music video maverick and eternal kid-at-heart Michel Gondry for The White Stripes) and the continued success of such studios as Laika and Aardman.  Right now at Film Forum in New York, a surprising partnership has emerged in the realm of stop-motion: Christopher Nolan, director of mega-blockbusters including the Dark Knight trilogy and Inception, has made Quay, a short documentary about the Brothers Quay and their films, and curated a touring program showcasing their groundbreaking, influential, thematically challenging*, and technically astonishing body of work.

Still from Street of Crocodiles by Brothers Quay

Still from Street of Crocodiles by Brothers Quay

Earlier posts on this blog have highlighted the work of PES, Kirsten Lepore (see Stop Motion Restarted), Karel Zeman, Tim Burton, and other stop-motion creators, and another post presents a short documentary by one of my students, Frame-By-Frame, which provides an original, compelling introduction to stop-motion (and 2D animation, by extension).  In addition, for interested educators, The Advanced Art of Stop-Motion Animation by Ken Priebe is an excellent resource for classroom use.

(*Or “extremely creepy,” as many of my students would say — although I have noted that for many kids today, anything in 3D animation that isn’t from the slick world of CG is almost automatically “creepy,” which is even more disturbing, I think.)

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nfb animationA quick note that there is a superb exhibit on animation in Quebec City at one of the most innovative and inspiring museums one can find, the Musee de la Civilisation.  The exhibit, Image X Image, leads the viewer through the key technical and creative aspects of animation as it also traces its history in Canada, particularly the groundbreaking work of the National Film Board and such important figures as Norman McLaren, Ryan Larkin, Co Hoedeman, and Caroline Leaf.  It also provides numerous fully interactive areas for kids (and grownups too!) in which they can work at all aspects of creating moving images through objects, drawings, and playing with light frame by frame.  An interesting aspect of the exhibit is that it features a number of spots where one can watch numerous short animated movies — yes, just sit down and take the time to see some of the finest animated shorts of the past century or so.  Finally, I bring this up on this blog because it can lead us to a resource that is available even if you can’t get to Quebec City: the NFB site which features a wealth of information and links to many of their best movies.  One recommendation: The Sand Castle, a classic, truly amazing stop-motion short by Co Hoedeman.

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A page from the Lost Notebook showing work on Fantasia

A page from the Lost Notebook showing work on Fantasia

Two newly released books qualify as treasures: The Lost Notebook: Herman Schultheis & the Secrets of Walt Disney’s Movie Magic by John Canemaker and Genius, Animated: The Cartoon Art of Alex Toth by Dean Mullaney and Bruce Canwell.  The arrival of Canemaker’s new book is the cinephile’s equivalent of a newly unearthed Tutankhamen’s tomb.  Many of the details of the techniques developed by the Disney studios in crafting their groundbreaking first animated features have remained shrouded in mystery until now, and the discovery of the meticulously compiled notebooks of cinematic craftsman Herman Schultheis is an major event in the history of animation.   Suddenly we are offered this looking glass view into the unparalleled work of the Disney teams of creators during a period in which they were forging breathtaking new visions in media communications.  It’s truly astonishing.  Another inspiring and instructive new work is the final installment of biographies devoted to the œuvre of Alex Toth: Genius, Animated.  In an earlier post, I wrote about this pioneer in animation and comics, and this ultimate volume in a trilogy devoted to his work reveals new aspects to his achievements.  In particular, his storyboards are a revelation.  I have to say that authors Canwell and Mullaney understate the case when they say, “While fine in and of themselves,” when introducing storyboards for the Saturday morning cartoon “Superfriends.”  In particular, the boards to the episode “Battle of the Earth’s Core” highlight the depth of thoughtfulness, visual storytelling skills, design acumen, and complete mastery of motion picture language that Toth brought to work that many others would have just phoned in.  I bring these books up as suggestions for some inspiring summer reading and for great examples of pre-production tales from which young filmmakers can learn many lessons.

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kirstenleporemountain

Kirsten Lepore making Move Mountain

In earlier posts, unique animators like PES and Norman McLaren (and Tim Burton too) have been featured, and here is something new to check out: the work of Kirsten Lepore.  As with many independant stop-motion filmmakers, a great deal of her work is in commercials.  Great lessons in non-dialogue storytelling, editing, and sound design are to be found in her shorts Bottle (a distinctly poignant love story between sand and snow) and Move Mountain (which the director describes as “a story about illness, perseverance, and our connection to everything around us”).  Along with lessons in frame-by-frame moviemaking, of course.  Both also have respective making of pieces: Making of Move Mountain and Making of Bottle.

If you are interested in more information on the topic, check out Cengage Learning’s title The Advanced Art of Stop-Motion Animation (by Ken Priebe).  While we are on this topic, you might be interested in turning to two of the masters of the form: Jan Švankmajer and Brothers Quay.  And in a few months, the very promising-looking The Boxtrolls from Laika studios will be arriving…

Update: Here’s a great interview by Girls at Library with Kirsten Lepore (who by now has also written and directed an episode of Adventure Time: Bad Jubiesabout reading and books.

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