Mar 15, 2006

On Story: no reason to sacrifice characters to a pile of pages or plot

Michael Barrier makes some sharp--and challenging--comments about the point of great character animation in his most recent post. He describes his friend, animator Milt Gray, flipping some of Ollie Johnston's animation of "Jock" from Lady and the Tramp, and being startled by the amazingly lifelike performance that sprung off the pages. Barrier continues:

"The great virtue of Disney films like Lady and the Tramp was that they showed that such animation is possible. Their great vice was that they seemed to say, in a louder voice over time, that such animation is possible only in children's films.
As a result, the temptation, if you're making more "adult" films, is surely to shrug off the Disney animators' lessons; but there's no way, if you're doing that, to achieve the emotional strength of their best work. A lot of animated filmmakers seem to think that they can work around that problem by making "story" their mantra, or by simply ignoring the question of how to give animated characters a vivid presence on the screen. But such dodges never succeed. It's only by meeting head-on the challenge of making the characters in their films as real as the best live actors that animated filmmakers will ever escape from the ghetto to which they have been, so far, rightly assigned."

Tough words...but I know what he's talking about, and I suspect most of my colleagues do, too.
To turn Barrier's premise inside-out, though, there have been some Disney films where "story" took a backseat to characters. In that category I'd put "Sword in the Stone" and "Jungle Book", both films I saw and loved as a kid and still love--but mainly for the performances of such as Shere Khan, Archimedes, Merlin and King Louis--not for the relatively weak story/plot and the corniest gags that are in them. Were the characters in those films not as entertaining and real as they are, there'd be pretty much nothing there but color and movement.

It's been said by wiser heads than mine that in the latter days of the nine old men, they were actors without a worthy stage, much like Laurence Olivier giving it his all in "Boys From Brazil" or "The Betsy". Feature animation was in a general doldrums; the kidvid ghetto was going full bore on TV, and there was no guiding hand at the world's most sophisticated animation company. It seemed to operate on the inertia of a more energetic time.

I think there are definitely pitfalls in having a story "mantra" that ignores just who's doing what in a film, though it's never intentional to sacrifice personality for plot--the aim is almost always the opposite, in fact.
Maybe there's a perception among non-artists of animation as having some sort of special needs, since our characters aren't seen in early development as castable flesh and blood actors, but are drawings and designs.
Of course the very, very early, embryonic beginnings of a feature film are a story's premise. If there isn't any story there to tell, well, that's trouble. It needn't be at as big as an epic, it can be small and even personal--but in the end it has to connect with a wide audience, and more than plot it's characters who carry that burden.
So to continue and develop that premise, assuming the story has something to work with it really does depend on the characters(that goes for the great shorts as well: Bugs Bunny trapped on a desert island is a hell of lot more interesting than Barney Bear trapped on a desert island or a Genericized Rabbit in that situation).

The story of a father fish looking for his lost son...okay. The story of a terribly neurotic, xenophobic, keep-to-the-reef father fish forced to plunge into deep seas, teamed up with various creatures he'd never want to deal with, but does it anyway, struggling all the while? Much better.
One doesn't want the plot running the characters, one wants the characters to be the plot--to make it their own one of a kind story, if you will. But(remembering "Sword in the Stone")they still need something worthwhile to do, and in a long-form story it probably can't be a one-set premise(never say never, but to generalize). No "Waiting For Godot"s. Pinocchio should get out of Gepetto's workshop. But personally I don't see any way forward in any story without nailing down the characters first. I have to know this person if I'm going to make drawings of them, and especially if I have to have them do or say anything.
Ideas come from drawing; good drawings--great drawings--come out of acting, the old "acting with a pencil" canard. It's really true. The more you know and love the characters, the more options for entertainment you'll have. They'll take over a scene in the same way novelists describe, with their characters. If you're taken in an entirely new direction, and it's going to work, it might be a very good thing when strong characters hijack you.


Anonymous said...

Yes, indeed. --Action is character and the nature of the character defines the action. It's rather like the snake biting its own tail to roll down the hill. The two work together to provide momentum.

Unknown said...

beautiful drawing!

Unknown said...
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Anonymous said...

Bill Peet put it best when he said that you can have the most beautifully structured plot in the world, but if the audience doesn't care about your characters and what happens to them in the story, who gives a damn. Well told stories are the end goal, but without those characters that the audience can emotionally invest in and root for all the way, you've got zilch...

Kevin Koch said...

Great, thoughtful post. For me (and I think we're talking about the same thing here) part of the problem is in the popular rhetorical question and answer, "What are the three most important parts of an animated feature? Story, story, story." I think that's wrong, and that the answer should be "Storytelling, storytelling, storytelling." There seems to be a quest for the bullet-proof script, one with a premise and plot and dialog so compelling that it could be animated by Chinese prison labor and still be a wonderful film. But in live action, is there any script that is so great that the director's choices, the actors, the cinematographer and editor, are all irrelevant? Of course not. Change any of those ingredients, and it becomes an entirely different film. And not just different, but much better or much worse.

In animation, we have such control that there is absolutely no excuse for every element in our films not to enhance the storytelling. Everything from character design, layout, backgrounds, color styling, you name it, and that especially goes for the animation. Yet we often pay no more than lip service to that goal. The current trend in CG features is to labor over the story process, then blast through the subsequent stages as fast as possible. In animation we no longer have character leads, so the individual animator never masters any single character. You see the same acting choices cropping up in distinctly different characters. Or you have different animators with differing takes on the same character. We get caught up in the question, "Is this shot moving right?" and not "Is this progressing and enhancing the story we're telling?"

I think that's why I had step away and take some time off. I felt like I was becoming a technician and not an actor. Not that the last several films I worked on weren't good films, but I felt we were missing out on taking them to the next level.

Luca Tieri said...

Interesting post like always Jenny.
I'm totally agree with you. We need characters with own life, free from any story cages.

Anonymous said...

A perceptive post, Jenny. I do think though, that there are other important elements you haven't mentioned -- elements besides story, character, and performance. Stuff like tone and pacing. For instance, I don't think the story is the problem in SWORD & STONE. After all, the advent of King Arthur is one of the great stories of all time...something like "Cinderella for boys." Disguised as STAR WARS the same plot truly soared (Luke's thoughtless relatives even call him "Wormy" in early drafts...too close to "Wart" to retain, it would seem). Anyways, I think the real problem with SWORD & STONE is in the tone; a classic quasi-religious fable is given a jokey, vaudeville treatment which is essentially unsuited to the material. If they really were trying to make a legitimate film of ONCE & FUTURE KING then the tone should have been more like THE HOBBIT or LADYHAWKE. Wry and lighthearted yes, but still mythic. But if, on the other hand, it really was a gaggy burlesque of the middle ages they were after then they should have chosen a different story -- CANTERBURY TALES, perhaps, or even one of Shakespeare's comedies. As it is, the story and the treatment are at war with each other.