Sunday, September 11, 2011


In 1927, while preparing shorts Plane Crazy and Steamboat Willie, one of the first animated films 
with synchronised sound, the Walt Disney studio invented the storyboard, a form of writing in pictures, similar to comic book panels.

The storyboard quickly caught on and now most live action films are boarded as well as written.  Looking at the example, you can see why a storyboard has many advantages over a written script. With a few expert lines the highly specialised storyboard artist not only indicates mood, expression, intent, dialogue and movement but also body language, camera angle, camera moves and type of shot. A drawing is worth a thousand words that a screenwriter could, very often, not even imagine. Storyboard artists are really writers and masters of animation language: the exaggerated flexibility of characters, the eyes popping out on stalks, the jaw dropping to the floor, the double take, the swirls, lines and little puffs of smoke that indicate speed, the sad-eyed, shoulder-slumped dejected expression, the leap of exaltation. 

A writer could use words to explain all these things but words are open to interpretation, whereas a drawing tells you exactly what’s going to happen on the screen. Visual thinking is one reason why there were 29 "writers" on LION KING and it worked; most of them were artists and animators who knew their stuff.

When screenwriters were hired to work on animated features, there was a great deal of friction between directors, storyboarders and the writers. The writers felt they were working on inferior material, animation being held in a certain amount of contempt by the literary establishment, especially Hollywood screenwriters and they were indignant when their stuff was thrown out and radically revised by storyboarders and directors who knew exactly what they wanted and had quite a bit of contempt of their own for hoity-toity literature and writers who wanted to intellectualise animation.

 Here's Chris Sanders' famous, thinly veiled, beautifully illustrated story: The Big Bear Aircraft Company, on the subject of writers and animation.  Chris has moved on to direct the wonderful Lilo and Stitch and How to Train Your Dragon which both have his inimitable connection to the audience, unwriteable and undrawable, a personal magic.
    Animation has grown a lot technically since then, but not much intellectually; it’s still considered a jokey medium exclusively for children. A few adventurous feature films have proved that it’s not. Animation is a medium and a medium can be used to express anything.   
    Maybe prejudice on both sides could move aside so animation could evolve and expand and Disney, who does animation better than anyone's, could consider developing what they’re good at instead of doing mediocre CGI*, recycling old stuff in 3D and considering a sequel to Roger Rabbit in CGI and mocap, shudder.

PS April 2016 - *Disney has, of course, since moved on to make breathtakingly excellent CGI films like FROZEN and ZOOTOPIA, even more reason to consider doing an animated feature for adults.

Sunday, September 4, 2011


     Since we know that mocap and CGI characters have a creepy, disturbing effect on audiences because they look like corpses, zombies and prosthetic limbs, wouldn’t it be logical to explore and develop an art that everybody loves and that doesn’t creep anyone out: traditional animation?
    How about bringing great art to life?  Even more radical, how about bringing great literature to life with great art?  The way Disney brought great music to life with beautiful art in Fantasia and Fantasia 2000.
    Animated films don’t have to be restricted to whimsy and children’s stories anymore.  Today’s animation is a sophisticated medium that can be used to tell any story.  Most traditional animation incorporates quite a bit of CGI these days it's not as old school as you might think 

(the above CG backgrounds in Tarzan for example),  so an even closer collaboration of the two media might produce surprising results.
     Imagine an animated feature of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, for example and Gogol’s The Nose and The Overcoat.  Joseph Brodsky’s graphic poetry would be especially interesting to animate, as would Boris Vian’s l’Ecume des Jours and Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions.  There’s plenty of blood and guts, historical and costume drama and sexy intrigue in literature, as well as philosophy, satire, fantasy, horror and other juicy stuff, so let’s move on to more thoughtful adult animated films.  I know many beautiful animated shorts have been made of literary subjects, including Caroline Leaf’s The Metamorphosis of Mr. Samsa, but I’m talking about fully developed feature films here, with identifiable adult characters and plots.  Persepolis and Waltz with Bashir have proved that political repression and wartime atrocities can be successfully done in animation, so how hard would it be to make a successful animated feature of Jennifer Egan’s A visit From the Goon Squad?  The same care and talent go into top animated acting, lighting, camera angles, set decoration, costume design as go into top live-action films.  Look at any Disney feature and you'll see this. 
    Digital tools to render generic oils and watercolors already exist, but I’m pretty sure scientists could do better and make specific painting styles for CG tools, a Matisse model, a Léger model, a Hopper model, and even a Picasso model, why not?   This was already attempted by Kyle Strawitz and Glen Keane at Disney when they invented a lovely painterly software for the film Rapunzel/Tangled based on Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s painting  Les Hasards Heureux de l’escarpolette but Disney never even mentioned it in connection with the film after they decided to make the story less girly and add a boy and a horse to appeal to the twelve-year-old-boy demographic.  They recently sold the software to someone else, what a shame.  While the software wasn’t exactly Fragonardesque, it was much softer than the usual photo-realistic CGI images and it was an evolutionary step away from the same old treadmill. 

    Animation producers, the fairy tale, comic book heroes and ogre markets are saturated and audiences comprise more than the twelve-year-old-boys.  Many adults also love animation and discerning adult animation-lovers will buy many DVDs and much animation art, so why limit your market?  It’s time to dare to push the animation envelope and break out of the children’s toy box.  Forget about box-office profits for a minute, hire some innovative scientists and adventurous animators to research new artistic software.  And some bold writers to write animated scripts for adults or adapt great authors like Nabokov, Morrison, Barbery for adult animation.  Give great art and literature a shot. There could be a big payoff later from a whole new market.

    Picture Flaubert, Houellebecq and Beauvoir animated in the style of Edmund Dulac, Jacques Rousseau, Marcel Duchamps or Fernand Léger:

Imagine Dickens, Pinter, Lessing, Joyce, Burgess, Dahl animated in the style of Arthur Rackham, Peter Max, Roger Dean:

Nabokov, Pasternak, Bulgakov animated in the style of
Orinyansky, Billibin and Vasnetsov:

Annie Proulx, Fran Lebowitz, Chuck Palahniuk animated in the style of Hopper, Pollock, Lichtenstein:

    Of course we don’t have to match the literature to the artist of the same nationality, it’s just a thought and, if you don't feel that adventurous, it doesn't even have to be an existing book or art, just an animated feature film for adults.  Or you could start with a best-seller with a built-in audience, like The Help - after all, animation is not inherently silly or funny, it's the animators who make it so and they can also make it serious, dramatic, thrilling, romantic and sad.
    There’s so much exciting stuff to be done in animation, we shouldn’t leave innovation to the Iranians and the Israelis only, everybody needs to get involved.  Sylvain Chomet, Andreas Déja, Caroline Leaf, Bill Plympton, Richard Williams what do you think?
    Audiences, what do you think?   Demand more intellectually challenging animation from the studios: DreamWorks:
@DWAnimation /   @blueSkyStudios / @DisneyAnimation  /  @Sonyanimation