Aug 12, 2007

Dog days of summer-animal analysis

Michael Barrier has quite a few interesting emails and links lately; one that pushed one of my animation hot buttons grew out of his and others' reactions to "Ratatouille". It involves the handling of animals as characters in animation. Mike links to a post by caricaturist, Sheridan College instructor and blogger Pete Emslie. Pete's thoughts are fairly brief but clear and pointed, and as he says, there are many permutations to the types of characterizations he lists in his post.

Barrier himself writes something I couldn't put any better:

"To me, anthropomorphism like that in so many Hollywood cartoons has most often been a sign not of infantilism—the common accusation—but of an openness to the potential of artistic devices that more fastidious minds reject out of hand. You can do things in animation and the comics with animal characters that you can't with human characters; and as Pete's handout suggests, the more alert the artist is to the possibilities and limitations inherent in the different kinds of animal characters, the better the odds that something exceptional will result."

Boldface is mine. The misuse or dismissal of this truism Barrier mentions has frustrated me in the process of doing story on a couple of projects in the past, before my present job.

There were instances where opportunities to add something special were missed, involving animal characters that while able to "talk" didn't ever speak to human beings and were supposed to be real animals in a "real" environment.
Those projects worked from a script, but there was (supposedly) ample room for some visual, physical interpretation and ideas from the story artist. In some cases, however, I found myself thinking that the characters--instead of being birds or dogs--could have been mice, cats, horses or buffalo and virtually nothing but the character design would have changed.

There was literally no thought given to how a dog would react to a situation versus a parrot. It was all plot and dialogue, all the time. The fact that a story might revolve around a canine in a human household was only a gloss, not the crucial factor it should have been.
As someone who's lived with dogs, parrots, horses, fish and cats(to name a few), this really drives you around the bend in its waste of potential animation gold just sitting there waiting to picked up, drawn and presented to the audience. So, whether it makes it into the film or not, you continually try to insist on not just having a character get from A to B, but have him get there the way a puppy would. This doesn't mean cramming all kinds of diversions and asides into a scene but being judicious about where, when and how much depending upon that character at that moment.

Few films achieved this as brilliantly as in the handling of all the animals in "Lady and the Tramp". It's a lesson in thinking along those lines, and in the process turns scenes that might be a heck of a tough sell today("they put the puppy to sleep in the kitchen with a newspaper, but she won't stay put") and turns it into the universal, lovingly familiar experience that everyone who's ever raised a dog has experienced--and as a bonus we get to see it from not only the humans' but the puppy's point of view. It's scenes like that, just as much as the old "Bella Notte" number or "He's a Tramp" that make this a classic. Incidentally, those musical numbers are both examples of the story crew really pushing the limits they've set for themselves in terms of how anthropomorphized the dogs are--but (in my opinion at least) they get away with it as they do all through the film by never leaving out the "dogginess" they need to sustain the fantasy and tether it to reality.

This isn't to say that degrees of "faithful" anthropomorphism can't be mixed within a film with success in the best efforts of animation. I stumbled on a bit of "Dumbo" on TV yesterday, and the crows, Timothy Mouse and the Stork have little relation to their real life counterparts other than the use of their wings-those that have them-and the fact that they have beaks or tails. In "Dumbo" the brasher characters are also "free"--free of the strictures of being working circus animals, they can come and go as they wish and boss about or rag on human beings and animals alike, acting as a Greek chorus. They exist in a kind of limbo between the "real" elephants and kangaroos and tigers and the full-on humans such as the ringmaster. Timothy would gain little or nothing to push more elements of real mouse onto him--he doesn't need it. He's more [Fred]Moore than Mouse.

images courtesy of this site
Obviously one could go on about this all day--"Ratatouille" offers a lot to chew on on this subject, and I've already written a bit here and elsewhere about how well I thought those animals were handled, with attention paid to extreme subtleties of rats that made for an almost subliminal layer of reality to Remy and the others(but especially Remy). I don't know how much was instigated by the animators, but knowing Bird I would surmise that there are no accidents in anything on that score; the phrase "with a gimlet eye" was invented for Brad Bird, believe it.

Still, there are some shots where I'd sure like to wring that animator's hand.


TS said...

I see where ya'll are coming from but I suppose the question of how to treat animal characters is really dependent on the time and situation as well as "does it add anything to the overall story".

I think to some degree story ideas for animal characters are only as good as your observations of real life (ie if you are going to be telling a story about Rats in a sewer you might want to seriously look at rats in a real sewer as much as possible). But research aside many animal characteristics are hard to translate to characters that convey human emotions. For example, Dogs are essentially greedy little bastards with no inhibitions and they only understand basic emotions like reward and punishment. All of the complex emotions that we would like to transfer onto them are essentially creations of our own psyche.

I think you can try to deduce how animals might react if given the ability to talk and emote, but I also think that it is easy to try and read to much into some characters. Remember that even complex characters on screen are essentially a distillation of very basic human emotions and are not at all complex compared to reality.

It can be very easy to over complicate a character by adding to much detail.

Pete Emslie said...

Hi Jenny,

First off, thanks for the kind mention of my blog regarding this topic. It really is an important subject to consider before getting too far into a story for film. I agree with you that some traits of the animal should be incorporated into its cartoon counterpart whenever possible, as there should ideally be some reason for having "cast" that particular animal in the role in the first place. Although, as in the case you cite of Timothy in "Dumbo", sometimes it is not pragmatic to overstate these animalistic qualities. I think that with Timothy, just the fact that he is a tiny little animal who has had to survive in this human-size environment is enough to justify his streetwise, somewhat scrappy persona. (That and the fact there's this myth we've developed about elephants being inherently terrified of mice!)

A film clip I always show in class when covering Anthropomorphism is the animated soccer game sequence from "Bedknobs and Broomsticks". If you analyze the humour in that clip, you'll notice that every gag is built around either the physical aspects of the beast, its particular way of moving, or its personality (or at least, perceived personality) traits. Some examples: the trail of flame created by the speedy cheetah; the kangaroo hopping down the field as it dribbles the ball with its feet; the ball becoming impaled between the tusks of the warthog, etc. Also, the choice of animals to represent each team was considered carefully, so you've got the relatively docile animals as the meek "True Blues", while the "Dirty Yellows" team is comprised of aggressive,vicious beasts who would likely be their predators in nature.

I also like this clip as it's a perfect example of what I've defined as category #3 on my handout sheet, in that all of the animals retain their distinct animal physique and appropriate size relationship. (Notice how even the elephant is allowed to keep its big clumsy drum-like feet, rather than attempt to turn the front ones into hands.) In fact, you could take any one of them, strip off the soccer uniform, place them back down on all fours, and they'd be animal characters that could work just as well in a film like "The Lion King".

It is attention to things like this that makes me appreciate just how much thought went into the development of so many of the Disney features.

Anonymous said...

I think perhaps we're overlooking the obvious.

In Walt's day, the story artists were the screenwriters. We understood animation, and how to use the medium. Today, most animated films are written by Hollywood screenwriters who simply don't get it.

That's been my experience, anyway.

mark kennedy said...

An interesting topic that nobody ever seems to think much about. One of the other articles on Michael's site that relates to Ratatouille is Ed Hook's article about "inter-species communication" where he points out how strange he thinks it is that in an upcoming animated movie a bee has a conversation with a human woman. Not to start a controversy or anything but if I remember correctly Jiminy Cricket talked to Pinocchio (who wasn't a human, I know) and also talked to Lampwick as well (who was human, for a while). It seemed to work out okay for that movie, anyway.

Robert said...

In most films animal/human communication seems to depend on some premise that permits it to happen. The Blue Fairy appoints Jiminy Cricket to look after Pinocchio and being magical, we can presume she done something to enable him speaking ot humans. In Doctor Dolittle, he has studied very hard and acquired the knowledge of animal speech. But in Ratatouille, there is no magic fairy to enable speech and Linguini hasn't studied hard enough to learn Rat. Perhaps there will be some device in Bee Movie that creates a premise for the bee talking to a human.

Vanwall said...

I've never been too picky about whether non-humans talk to humans in animation - the medium seems tailor-made from the beginning to be a Puss-in-Boots kinda experience, but I don't like the lack of basic, good writing in so many new animated films. If you have a reason for talking critters, for chrissakes have good dialog come outta their mouths, not just weak-ass jokes and rapid-fire blather. As a kid, it wasn't important to understand the why of it, just as long as the characters had interesting things to say - I lost interest rapidly if talking animals were there just to be there.

I do appreciate the detail movements that good animated films have - there was plenty of "rattiness" to Ratatouille according to my rat-owning sis-in-law, not to mention the approval of foodies regarding the kitchen scenes, which together of necessity were most of the film. I would go to see a Brad Bird film in a heartbeat just based on his previous work, but so much of the other dreck is repetitive and looks like it came from a massive swipe file somewhere. The other aspect I find grating is the inability of the producers and writers of many of these lame efforts to understand lasting value - a film that can be watched as a generational experience, and not be so tethered to smart-ass, marginal current events, musical trends, and personalities that will prolly be in the dustbin of history way too soon to be appreciated by the viewers' grandkids. A rat will always be a rat, and badly written animation will always be just that, and slamming the two together just to sell a product wouldn't result in a masterpiece like Ratatouille - it would just be another waste of time and money like so many other attempts lately. Sorry, rant over.