MOTION SAVVY – the art of animation!

Where’s the Whimsy Gone? — Modern Kids’ Movies

Posted in Uncategorized by K. on July 30, 2013
Tags: , , , , ,

Working for a theater, or even just enjoying movies, means that at some point in your life, you’re going to be looking at movie reviews, right? It’s bound to happen. Recently I had the singular misfortune of trying to read some reviews from, of all the random things, the 2012 animated color-fest that is The Lorax. Let me tell you, some of these reviews can make a person angry. Why? The single phrase: “this is a movie that kids will enjoy,” or, more to the point, “this is a movie FOR KIDS [so don’t judge it too harshly].”

Why is this phrase, and this line of thinking, a problem? Because I don’t think it’s always okay to be just “good enough for kids.” What kind of expectations does that set up?

I think “tolerable” is a fairly common word people use for kids’ movies. “Tolerable” meaning that adults can tune it out easily and it holds the attention of a child, right? But is “tolerable” really good enough for kids? Sure, they have less discerning taste, usually. They’re more forgiving of what can be, in frank terms, really bad movies. But they’re also molded by the world around them. By presenting them with movies, music, and play, we’re impressing things on them that will shape their view of their society. So here’s the question: is “tolerable” what our society is all about?

I’m not saying all kids’ movies have to be War and Peace, here. I’m not even saying that all of them have to be good. Fun, mindless entertainment is healthy sometimes — it gives your brain a break. But when everything you absorb is mindless, that break turns into atrophy.

Let’s look at The Lorax, for example. You may know already that The Lorax was originally a short story by Dr. Seuss, that warned about the dangers of not caring about the world around you. In it, a child goes to seek out the Once-ler to hear the story of where the trees have all gone. This all sounds quite similar to the film, until said film starts to throw in all sorts of wacky info-padding. Suddenly the story is all about Ted, the kid who has a crush on his environmentalist neighbor Audrey, and goes to find a real tree to impress her with. (I won’t even go into some of the very valid points people have had about how seemingly unacceptable it is to have her seek this out on her own, how the story has to be all about this boy trying to impress her and yet it’s too much to actually give her a role where she does something) The rest of the film is padded with a stereotypical “corporate bad dude” who twists the very simple message of “care about this” into “corporations are evil:…oh, and some singing.

One thing that’s quite memorable about many Dr. Seuss stories is the way they’re written. His style was dreamy, whimsical, and often included rhyme, right? They took all of that out in the film version. I’ll admit, I’m not crying about the fact that the whole movie doesn’t rhyme. I think that would be a bit much. However, it’s worth noting that one of the few rhyming lines in the film is met by the main character commenting, “You do know that you’re talking in rhyme, right?” in a kind of deadpan voice. There’s also the fact that the one line they left from the film is also met with that kind of reaction: “The touch of their tufts was much softer than silk, and they had the sweet smell of fresh butterfly milk,” says Audrey, to which Ted replies, “Wow, what does that even mean?”

So I have to wonder, why make a film about a story if you’re just going to mock that story and the way it’s told? And what is that saying to young audiences? Dr. Seuss’s stories are full of these strange, whimsical ideas. Are we saying, to kids, that these are no longer valid? If a child happens to be strange and whimsical, are we alienating them because they find that line poignant? Are we systematically stomping out that kind of whimsy?

By no means do I feel that this is the only film that does this kind of stuff. It seems to happen a lot — as a culture, we’ve become obsessed with constantly updating the classics, “modernizing” them. Like we’re trying to rewrite our own history. I find it alarming, not just because adding so much pop-culture to classics really dates a film, but because so many of these so-called “re-imaginings” completely lack imagination, personality and charm. Compare rehashes like these to some of the more classic animated films — or even some really good modern kids’ films. Which of these films would you go back and watch over and over again? I could barely get through The Lorax once, but I have absolutely no trouble watching films like The Lion King or Ratatouille any time, even as an adult. I think these films, and others like them, prove that there is such a thing as a good kids’ movie, a genuinely good one, and that it can be done.

So, by churning out all the Madagascars, all the Ice Ages and the Loraxes, are we depriving kids of the encouragement they need to really stretch their brain muscles? Are we helping them develop their imagination? By creating a movie that makes fun of the whimsical and the weird, are we telling them that anything weird is different, uncool, and needs to be made fun of? Is it really more important to make as much money as possible, than it is to create a good film?

Most importantly, what happened to good storytelling?


I have several other post ideas at the front of my mind to write soon, including a cool behind-the-scenes look at some special effects. So hopefully some of those upcoming posts will make up for this very long-winded opinion piece!

Animation for Grown-Ups

Greetings and salutations! My, how long it’s been. I do apologize for falling off the grid; I’m settling into a new job and my life has been full of twists and cul-de-sacs ever since. It’s wild! In any case, my subject for today is near and dear to my heart, so let’s just dive right in.

Do you ever feel like some things get categorized a certain way just because of their medium? Or an actor (“This has Ben Stiller in it, so it must be a comedy!”)? Like typecasting for genres. I get that way about animation a lot, and I’m embarrassed to admit that I get kind of passionate about it. It bothers me to see films labeled as kids’ movies simply because they’re animated. Sure, a lot of animated films are for kids. But the medium is so much more than that. So my topic today is animation for adults. (No, not THAT kind of adult movie!)

I want to preface this by saying that I love movies for kids, and I also love movies made for adults. I think both have their place and their merits. But I also think that genre typecasting is both misleading and a little insulting at times. Animation isn’t just for kids anymore. The whole purpose of this blog is to talk about animation as an art form, and I think these films are a great example of that side of the coin.


Sita Sings the Blues
A lot of reviews I see for this say “her body is a little curvaceous for a kids’ movie…” but I’m not sure how anyone can say it’s directed at kids at all. It’s a look at a woman’s life and marriage, as it parallels with an ancient Indian folktale. It does look bright and colorful, and it certainly seems like it would be a great educational piece to show to younger audiences. But it has some deeper levels (Rama’s relationship with Sita, for example, and his questioning of her virtues) that adults can really resonate with.

The Secret of Kells
Kells was nominated for an Oscar back in 2010, and ever since then, it’s become one of my favorite films. It’s beautiful, mystical and has a very strong theme of Irish beliefs and folklore. This is a film that could be enjoyed by older kids, but the second half of it is definitely more grown-up. It’s kind of like a coming-of-age story in that sense, I think, but I think adults will have an easier time understanding, conceptually, what’s really going on when shadowy figures in black start attacking the abbeys of Ireland.

Another Oscar nominee and another very personal story about being a young woman in Iran. This film is done with a lot of subtlety and is a really intimate look at a very powerful personal narrative. It’s based on a comic of the same name and is presented mostly in black-and-white. The animated version is quiet and introspective.

The Thief and the Cobbler
Richard Williams’s masterpiece was in production for 31 years, and even then, it wasn’t entirely finished. Its long and troubled history is pretty fascinating, and to be honest, it’s still not really finished. I could write an entire post on this film alone (in fact, I might — you never know!) but it’s quite beautiful and strange. I recommend finding the Recobbled Cut that floats around the internet (I found it on Youtube), which is probably closer to the original cut than any of the commercial releases.

I hate to say it like this, but the Japanese really seem to understand the concept of creating animation for multiple demographics. Many directors aren’t afraid to tackle deep issues in an animated film — the late Satoshi Kon was one of those people, and remains one of my favorite directors. Paprika deals a lot with the concept of dreams versus reality, and trying to access a person’s deepest desires and feelings by accessing their private dreams. His movies often deal with the darker side of people: the need to control others, the need to escape (physically or mentally).

The Triplets of Belleville
I’m sad to admit that I have never actually seen this film aside from various clips, but it’s on my list, so hopefully that won’t be the case for long! Belleville is a French animated movie about a zany adventure story highlighting a couple of real characters, including a trio of aging lounge singers. Apparently it was the first animated film with a PG-13 rating to be nominated for an academy award, which should tell you a bit about the intended audience.

I mention all of these movies not because I’m scandalized at animation being marketed to young audiences, but because I think that animation can be so much more than what people think of. Nothing against the Madagascars and the Shark Tales, but just like film, animation is an art form. I wanted to pay tribute to the creators who treat it as such.

There are plenty more films that are intended for older audiences that I haven’t mentioned here, too. Anime, for example, is such a wide field of animation that there are series marketed to all kinds of different age groups. What about you, readers? What are your favorite grown-up animated titles?

A Daring Quest — Studio Ghibli and Ni no Kuni

Studio Ghibli is extremely well-known, not just for their beautiful movies but also for the lush, intricate worlds they create for their characters. If you’ve ever seen one of their movies, you know how painstakingly beautiful these worlds are, from the magical undersea world of Ponyo to the modest portrayal of modern Japan in Whisper of the Heart. The lush, detailed settings are part of what the studio is known for, and are part of their signature style.

Now imagine that quality of visual appeal in a video game. Is your mind blown yet?


This is exactly the vision that game company Level5 had, and in Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, they achieved it. Released as a Nintendo DS and Playstation 3 title, NNK tells the story of a young boy, Oliver, who loses his mother and is asked to save an entirely different world from his own — saving his mother in the process. Level5 worked in collaboration with Studio Ghibli to create this game: Ghibli animated the story cutscenes, and the in-game animation is done in a style that imitates -with incredible success- their art style, right down to spots of sunlight filtering through tree leaves. It’s really incredible.

This is an in-game image. No, seriously.

Joe Hisaishi composed the game’s score — you’ll recognize him from Ghibli films like Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle. His music adds richness to the game and makes it even more enjoyable to play. It’s tempting to run around all over the world map, and around towns and cities, just to keep listening to the beautiful background music.

It’s easy to see that this game was lovingly crafted. Not only is it beautiful, it’s genuinely really, really fun to play. Level5 creates a world where you want to explore and collect and fight baddies — it’s just that much fun! I can definitely recommend this game to anyone that likes RPGs. If these images don’t convince you, check out the trailer below…

Additionally, I think it’s important to note that a lot of people worked extremely hard on this game, and it shows. Buying used games is certainly cheaper, but when you buy games new, it ensures that the profits from the sale go to the companies that worked in the game, not to the store that sold it. If you want these companies to continue producing good work, it’s important to show support for them!

Christmas Miracles — Tokyo Godfathers

Posted in Uncategorized by K. on December 26, 2012
Tags: , , , , , ,

Someone asked me recently what my favorite Christmas movie was, and to be honest, I had a lot of trouble coming up with one. I’m not big on holiday movies, I usually think they’re too kitschy and cheesy. So you can imagine that it’s a tough one for me to answer! But then Tumblr came to my rescue and reminded me of one of my favorite movies: Tokyo Godfathers.

Directed by the late Satoshi Kon (Perfect Blue, Paprika), Tokyo Godfathers tells the story of three homeless people that find a baby on Christmas Eve, and the the events that ensue when they try to find the child’s mother. It’s a comedy that deals a little with soul-searching and family issues for the main three characters. What I like about it as a Christmas movie is that it’s subtle – it doesn’t beat you over the head with the so-called Christmas spirit. Check out the trailer here:

Please excuse the link, I’m getting used to a posting app!

I always find the English version trailers for foreign movies kind of tacky, so I would certainly recommend checking out the movie for yourself…even if it isn’t Christmas anymore! (Or if you don’t celebrate.)

And of course I’m pretty predictable with the kind of things I like to post…so have a behind the scenes featurette about the movie. It features an interview with the director and some insight into the voice actors’ experience working on the film:

Watch on YouTube!

The feature is in Japanese, but subtitles are available through the closed caption (CC) button in YouTube. I have to warn you, though, that they’re in pretty bad shape…sorry about that!!

Happy holidays, no matter what -if anything- you celebrate.

The Dangers of Procrastination — Whiteboard Stop-Motion

Every so often, you come across a movie with a compelling story that really speaks to you…that really speaks about you.

I feel like a lot of artists are like this (myself included). Would you agree?

This really is ultra-cool and I love the idea of using the whiteboard. In a world where everything is becoming digital, I think it’s really awesome to bring animation out into the real world. To make it tangible. It reminds me a little of William Kentridge, a South African artist who creates charcoal stop-motion animation. Never heard of him? Take a look at one of his pieces:

It’s pretty mind-blowing to think about, but his method is to go into a charcoal drawing again and again and again to create this kind of beautiful stop-motion animation. Can you imagine creating one beautiful drawing like this for the sole purpose of going back into it and repeatedly changing everything about it? Hundreds of times, even? I think it’s incredible. And you know how I am about incredible things — naturally, I poke around until I can find a bit of a behind-the-scenes peek. And here we go, a bit from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art:

This is what I love so much about animation: it’s one little pocket of the world where absolutely anything and everything is possible.

Life in the Wire — Digital Characters (Wreck-it Ralph and ReBoot)

To be honest, I wasn’t expecting a whole lot out of Wreck-it Ralph. It’s been getting rave reviews, I know, but I guess I tend to be a doubter when it comes to Disney these days. Boy, was I wrong. In fact, I was completely blown away by the job Disney did with this one — the story was tightly pulled together, it was emotional but not saccharine, and it was easy to relate to on so many different levels. I left the theater giddy, and that’s not something I often feel!

The idea that characters in video games are real is such a fascinating one for a lot of gamers, myself included. How would they feel when you make them hop up and down while you’re thinking? Do they get impatient when you have the game paused? What if the villain really does want to change? It’s a fun concept, but it’s certainly not new.

Maybe you other 80s babies and Toonami kids will remember ReBoot? It was a staple of my Saturday morning cartoons, and has the distinction of being the first half-hour fully 3D animated cartoon. Ever. (Pretty cool, comparing the first 3D cartoon to the latest 3D movie!) The show centers around sprites that live inside of a computer, battling viruses and their adventures in computer games. The difference being, they’re the characters a computer player fights against, the villains and NPCs. I thought it was a really neat concept, you know? Life, so to speak, inside your computer. Take a look at the first season opener:

Pretty old school, right? Some people say there’s no school like it. The first season, and to an extent the second as well, are very much meant for young kids. But, like some other kids’ franchises the third season is intended for a little older audience, and that means the storyline becomes more complex, intense, and dark. Which is awesome. If you just can’t take this style seriously enough to sit through the entirety of it, there’s an excellent musical summary here:

ReBoot was produced by Mainframe Entertainment, which went on to become Rainmaker Entertainment. You can find their site here, and it looks like they’re up to some neat-looking stuff these days. It’s neat to see where they’ve gone from where they started, and I’m excited to see what they’re planning for the future. Of course, ReBoot fans have long been hoping for a sequel or a movie –the series was cancelled mid-way through season 4, leaving a cliffhanger– but there’s been no recent news. Oh, well. A girl can dream, right?

If at first you don’t succeed… The nature of spectacular failures.

Today’s post is very, very different. I’ve been doing some soul-searching lately, not just about the blog but about life in general. Every artist goes through periods of blockage and frustration, and I’ve really been hit by that lately — badly. As one of my favorite bands says in a song, “givin’ up’s got me down.” (For those curious, the band if Carbon Leaf, and they’re amazing) The best advice I’ve gotten and failed to comply with is “buck up and get through it.” Seems simple, but it really is the only way. But so often the end result is disappointingly far from what you want it to be.

Lately I’ve been addicted to Pinterest. It’s new and different for me, as well as a little surreal. At first glance, it really does seem like a Stepford Wives social network, right? All of these perfectly-done projects and perfectly-baked goods, [perfect cleaning advice, perfect decorating ideas, all designed to be as simple and easy — not to mention cheap! They’re even perfectly photographed. How frustratingly perfect. How can anyone expect to live up to that, right? Sounds a little like the art world — I’ve seen plenty of artists make comments like “I should just give up, I’ll never be as good a [this artist].”

And then you see blogs like this one: Pinstrosity.

What I like about it is, it’s a healthy dose of reality without being a put-down. A reminder that not everything goes perfectly every single time, and that that’s perfectly fine. Even the blog writers have plenty of stories about accidentally lighting things on fire, baking projects gone wrong, and things that generally go awry. Because that’s life, that’s how we learn and that’s how we grow. It might be terrifying to think of wasting supplies when you’re on a budget, or embarrassing to think of accidentally adding too much of the wrong ingredient, but it’s going to happen to you at some point regardless. I think artists are terrified of making mistakes sometimes because they see these perfect projects and these perfect studios and they want to be like that. But the company isn’t perfect, they just don’t put the mistakes up for everyone to see.

To make this ramble a little more animation-related, I’d like to tie it into the unending search for an art job. Especially in the current economy, I’m sure plenty of you have gone job-hunting only to be turned down or ignored by plenty of people. That’s been my experience, at least, and it’s quite frustrating! But Mark Pullyblank, of Animation Mentor (an excellent tool for anyone wanting to learn animation), has some of the best advice I’ve ever seen put into words: check it out here!

It all boils down to that age-old saying: “if at first you don’t succeed, try again.” Failure can be a beautiful thing and an excellent teacher, so long as it doesn’t stop you from trying again.

We’ll be back to the animation talk soon. (I’m excited — I’m going to see Wreck-It Ralph over the weekend and I’ve heard it’s amazing! In fact, it’s giving me ideas for my next post…) For now, I hope everyone’s doing well. 🙂

Something Wild — Disney and Computer Animation

Most people think of Pixar when they hear the words “computer animation.” They think of The Incredibles, Up, Shrek, Bolt — the list goes on and on. This is what “computer animation” means now, but put this into perspective: Toy Story, Pixar’s first full-length animated film, wasn’t produced until 1995!

So what did computer animation mean before that? Not only did it mean 3d animated shorts (have you seen Pixar’s short animation DVD? It’s definitely worth checking out!), it also meant mixing mediums to make hand-drawn films easier to produce. Take a look at Beauty and the Beast, produced in 1991. The entire background for the famous ballroom scene was digitally created. Even The Little Mermaid used 3d animation at points!

I’ve always been fascinated with this media mix, so to speak. If you take a look at most traditionally animated films, like Mulan, Treasure Planet, and The Road to El Dorado, you’ll find some 3d thrown into the mix. It just makes things easier for animators, especially in scenes with complicated, moving backgrounds (like in BatB) or large numbers of things happening all at once (such as the Hun charge scene in Mulan).

Disney used to be the cutting edge of animation, so to speak. They’ve been experimenting with this stuff since –brace yourself for this– 1983. That’s almost 29 years! And speaking of 1983, take check out this clip of a “pencil test” for one of these mixed media projects…directed by Pixar’s John Lasseter, this clip features characters from Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, and gives a brief run-down of the process that goes into creating a mix between digital and traditional animation. Take a look:

I love looking at stuff like this and comparing it to what they do later, especially projects like Atlantis and The Emperor’s New Groove, where the digital aspects are really well-incorporated. To me, this looks like a really rough sketch for some genius work later on.

How do you guys feel about mixing mediums like this? What are your favorite examples of it?

Like a Fairy Tale — Rusalochka, or, The Little Mermaid

I love Youtube. It’s an awesome source for finding things you would normally never know about — old films, obscure TV shows, stuff like that. You can find some cool stuff even without looking for it …in fact, I’ve found material for my next post just by using the recommended links for this one!

Old films are the hot topic for today. If you watch an old Disney movie or an old Looney Tunes cartoon, you’ll notice that they have a different feel from the movies and cartoons produced today, or at least I think so. They feel a little more…handmade. Hand-touched. You can see the paint strokes in the watercolor backgrounds. The lips don’t always synch up, but being technically perfect isn’t the point of them, and I find that beautiful. So many movies today get lost in making things look polished, instead of focusing on the meat of the story. Looking back at old things reminds me to look past the appearance and see what the film is actually saying, to find beauty in the heart of the story instead of in the effects.

What I have for you today is a short Russian interpretation of The Little Mermaid, made in the 1960s. It shares its title, Rusalochka, with a 1970s live-action film about the same subject. (I’ve heard the live-action version is also beautiful, albeit different and unaffiliated with this one!) It’s short, 25 minutes, so you could easily sit through the whole thing during lunch or a break after work. It’s beautiful enough (not just the visuals, but the music as well!) to be quite worth it. You can find a subtitled version here (in lower quality, unfortunately), but honestly, it’s not like we don’t know what happens, right? The visuals are the main attraction, and for that reason, I didn’t even bother with them.

Here’s the unedited, unsubbed video. Pay close attention to the visuals…some may be quite familiar for those that’ve seen the Disney version. Tell me what you think!

Anything but Normal — Behind the Scenes of ParaNorman

ParaNorman, the new feature film from the studio that brought us Coraline, hit theaters not long ago. I’m extremely sad to say I haven’t had the fortune of seeing it yet, but things I’ve heard about it keep getting better and better. All it’s serving to do is get me more pumped to finally see it!

The thing I like most about the promotion of this film is the number of behind-the-scenes features that have been coming out. Check out this time lapse video of the animators at work:

It looks so easy when you’re watching it like that, doesn’t it? But each frame, each movement, is painstakingly put together frame-by-frame, second-by-second. Now that you’ve seen the animators putting a scene together, check out this feature on the facial expressions:

I really like seeing technology meshing with old school animation techniques, so watching them model expressions in 3D, then printing them out to use in the real world, blows my mind.

If you’re hungry for more behind-the-scenes goodness, check out this link, which has a series of B-roll shorts detailing the making of the characters, the world, and the voices of ParaNorman. And if you’re planning to see ParaNorman in theaters (I know I am!), take a minute to wrap your head around the fact that this whole feature was made by hand, one picture and one puppet at a time, by some crazy talented artists.

Animation is so awesome.

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