Tag Archives: Editorials

Pencils to Pixels – The End of Hand-Drawn Animation?

I have been a fan of animation for as long as I can remember.  My friends growing up would always refer to me as the “Disney” kid, and that’s mainly because I was an unashamed fanboy at an early age.  I made an effort to soak up as much as I could from the Disney company’s output during my formative years, and now I am an expert in all things Disney.  Nowadays, I’ve moved beyond just animation and have come to love films of all kinds.  I still do share a special fondness for Disney animation all these years later, however.  To me, it was my gateway drug into the world of cinema.  Unfortunately, as I’ve gotten older, the state of animation has moved away from the stories and the styles that I grew up.  Today, computers have replaced the artist’s sketch pad and hand drawn animation is almost non-existent.  What troubles me most is that Disney, the studio that set the standard for quality animation, has also been forced to catch up with the current trends and they’ve gone on and replaced 2D with 3D.  As a student of film, I understand that the market dictates what goes into production and right now hand-drawn animation is not as commercially viable as computer animation, and it makes me concerned that that style is now truly gone.
As far as the history goes, animation has been as big a part a of cinema as anything else.  In the early days, cartoons were mainly experimental in nature, and were usually thrown in-between feature films at the local cinemas as time-fillers.  But in the 30’s, pioneering filmmakers like Walt Disney proved that animation wasn’t just entertainment, it was art as well.  With films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Fantasia, Disney animation proved to be just as popular a draw as a John Wayne western or a James Cagney gangster pic.  Other studios also added to the mix, with Warner Bros. hilarious Looney Tunes series and UPA’s experimental use of limited animation.  In the 60’s and 70’s, animation started to fall back into relying on a niche audience, mainly dismissed as kid stuff.  Disney still made features, but they were few and far between, and usually done with limited budgets.  This led to the departure of many artists who felt that animation was not being taken seriously enough, like famed independent animation producer Don Bluth (The Secret of NIMH).  In the late 80’s Disney considered ending all animated productions, after their film The Black Cauldron (1985) lost a lot of money at the box office, but new talent and management decided on a wait and see policy and that led to the production and release of The Little Mermaid (1989).
The years following the release of The Little Mermaid are what is commonly known as the Disney Renaissance, and this occurred just at the right time for a fan like me.  Mermaid arrived when Disney was starting to release their catalog of films on home video, and I had already seen a bunch of them already at this point.  I had developed a sense of what a Disney film was and what it can be, and The Little Mermaid showed me that the Disney style was not only still around, but thriving.  In the years that followed, I eagerly awaited every new Disney feature; from Beauty and the Beast (1991) to Aladdin (1992) to The Lion King (1994), each a bigger success than the one before it.  These films were my childhood and to this day, I am still an avid fan, as I am collecting each of these films on blu-ray.  This success also spawned a great revival of animation throughout Hollywood.  There were numerous attempts by other studios to make feature animation at the same level as Disney and they range from brilliant (The Iron Giant) to admirable (The Prince of Egypt), to mediocre (Rock a Doodle) to un-watchable (Quest for Camelot).
Unfortunately, The Lion King was such a colossal hit, that it ultimately set the bar too high to match.  Even Disney struggled to follow that success, as the budgets got higher and the returns got lower.  By the time I was in high school, hand-drawn animation had once again started to recede into the background.  At this same time, we began to see the rise of Pixar and the success they achieved with the new advances in computer animation.  The turn-of-the-millennium brought about a big sea-change in not just what animated films were being made, but a change in the perception of what an animated film was.  Today, children are growing up believing that an animated film should look more like Shrek and less like Sleeping Beauty.  Which makes me worried that the end truly has come for hand-drawn animation; to where not even a mermaid princess can save it now.
There are other people out there, like me, who still hold hand-drawn animation close to their hearts.  In 2009, after Disney’s acquisition of Pixar, there was a noble attempt to bring back the traditional hand-drawn animated musical with The Princess and the Frog.  Unfortunately, the film under-performed and the revival turned out to be only a momentary reprieve.  Princess is a good film, and it did okay business; just not Pixar-sized business.  Audiences did say they were nostalgic for the Disney films of the past, but recreating that same kind of success is something that you can’t manufacture.  The Little Mermaid was the right film at the right time, and the success that followed was built upon the goodwill that the film delivered.  Princess had too much riding on its shoulders and that caused the film to suffer in the story department.
One thing that hand-drawn animation needs is a genuine and honest surprise.  One of the last big hits Disney had at the box office was Lilo and Stitch (2002), a film that many of the studio brass brushed off initially until it found a big audience.  It showed that animation doesn’t need to be a fairy tale to be considered a Disney classic.  Really, if you look at all the Disney films overall, there are only 7 or 8 fairy tales among them.  Also, the reason why Pixar’s films are so successful is not because of the quality of the computer animation (though it does help), but because they put so much emphasis on getting the story right.  That’s something that you find lacking in most animated features.
Overall, the reason why I prefer hand-drawn animation, even over the best Pixar films, is because of the human touch.  When you watch traditional animation, you are seeing something that was drawn out by actual people.  Not that computer animation is easy; and I know a lot of computer animators who put a lot of work into what they do.  But, when you watch a CG-animated film, you are watching something that was put through a computerized intermediate before it’s put on film.  Some of it looks nice, but I find most of it artificial in movement and texture.  With traditional animation, everything is exaggerated and less bound to reality, which helps to makes the drawings look more interesting.  There is subtlety in character movement that you just can’t get in computer animation.  Would the Genie from Aladdin have been better if he was animated in a computer?  There is a clear fundamental difference between these styles, and neither should replace the other.  Unfortunately, computer animation has claimed victory in the feature department.
Hand-drawn animation has however survived in unlikely places, such as television.  There are only a hand-full of fully computer animated shows out there, as many of them are still 2D.  The Simpsons and Family Guy are still animated by hand, as are many shows on Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon.  Even shows entirely animated in the computer, like South Park or the Flash-animated Archer, create a hand-made look in their presentation.  Also, hand-drawn animation is still going strong overseas, with the success of Anime.  Asian artists seem to have found that perfect medium of embracing the mechanics of computer effects, without abandoning the hand-drawn style altogether.  Hayao Miyazaki’s films in particular represent what modern Disney films could be with the tools that are available today.
 
But, as things stand, animation now belongs to the digital world.  I hope to someday see another revival of hand-drawn animation, but that seems less likely as the concept of an animated film changes over time.  Seeing this sea change has made me feel more like an adult than anything, as I find my childhood ideals transforming into nostalgia.  I am grateful that Disney still treats their film canon with a great amount of reverence, and my hope is that future generations are able to accept the animated classics of the past as something equal to the films of the present.  It may be a drought right now, but good art always manages to stay timeless.
  

Little Troublemakers – Why the controversy around Django Unchained was unnecessary.

 

django unchained
Last week I purchased what I thought was the best overall film of 2012 on blu-ray; Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.  Watching it all over again, I couldn’t help but revel in the way that Mr. Tarantino was able to put his own spin on the Western genre, with vivid characterizations and instantly quotable lines of dialogue that you will only find in his body of work.  Anyone who hasn’t checked this movie out yet should do so, because it has to be seen to be believed.  But one inescapable thing that you will encounter in this movie is the near constant usage of a very derogatory word: nigger.  I’m not going to sugarcoat it here and refer to it as the “n-word”, because it defeats the purpose of my argument in this post, which is the importance of free speech in film-making.  It is a hateful word, no argument there, and I usually am disgusted when I hear it used so casually in popular culture; but Django Unchained is a different case.  I believe that the controversy that surrounded Django’s release, with regard to it’s use of the word nigger, represented an unnecessary condemnation of an otherwise thought-provoking film and only highlighted some of the hypocrisies that are apparent in the media.
One of the first things that you will see made obvious upon watching Django is that it not meant to be a serious examination of slavery.  It does represent the Antebellum South as a horrific place and time, with sometimes hard to watch cruelty towards African-American slaves depicted on screen.  But to say that Tarantino’s movie was trying to deal with history seriously is clearly missing the point.  The film makes it’s farcical tone apparent right from the get go, once we see the bouncing tooth on top of the wagon belonging to Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz).  From that point on, it is clear what kind of movie Tarantino is making.  And by the time you reach the “baghead” scene, you’ll not only be invested, you’ll be laughing your ass off.
But somehow it’s the use of a single word that got people upset, and that was before the movie was even released.  Director Spike Lee, a filmmaker that I do respect, commented in VIBE magazine that, “I can’t speak on it ’cause I’m not gonna see it.  The only thing I can say is it’s disrespectful to my ancestors, to see that film.” (December 12, 2012)  Now I can’t fault Spike Lee for taking a strong position on the use of the word nigger.  It obviously affects him a lot more than it does me.  But what bothered me about what he said is that he called the film “disrespectful,” after clearly stating that he wasn’t going to see it.  I think it’s hypocritical to condemn a film publicly that you haven’t seen personally.  Mr. Lee isn’t new to making ill-informed judgments about other people’s work; he’s condemned Tarantino before for using the word in Jackie Brown (1997) as well.  It’s unfortunate for a person as talented as Spike Lee to take such a low blow towards something he hasn’t watched.  If he put aside some of his own pride and take in the film objectively, he might have come away with a different perspective.
It goes to a much larger issue that I have with the media in general; the way we easily condemn people over the use of language, without understanding the context.  Tarantino wrote the word nigger into his script mainly to represent the way people spoke in the Antebellum South, and not to be shocking or crude.  There’s a context for it to be there.  It’s highlighting the hurtful nature of the word and the way it demonizes a whole group of people.  But at the same time it’s also highlighting the barbarity of the whites who use it so casually.  Much in the same way that Blazing Saddles (1974) dealt with the word nigger, Django walks that fine line between humor and harsh reality.  This movie plays with people’s emotions like a grand piano, and Tarantino is a pro at it.  He’s often stated that he deliberately plays with people’s sensibilities as he builds his scenes.  A typical Taratino scene can often be described like this: Laugh, laugh again, keep laughing, now stop laughing, disturbed, horrified, really horrified, now laugh again.  But unfortunately Django exists in a more sensitive time, where people will now hold you accountable for what you say, even when it’s in jest.  There are several examples now where comics, of all people, are getting in trouble for things they have said in their acts.  Whether it’s Louis C.K. getting in trouble for his jokes about AIDS, or Ricky Gervais getting slammed over a rape joke, there’s a disturbing trend of people being punished for things they say, without anyone looking at the context.
But, thankfully, Django Unchained weathered the storm of controversy.  It earned $168 million at the box office, the most for any Tarantino film; it was almost universally praised by film critics; and it won two Oscars, including Best Screenplay for Mr. Tarantino.  The film’s controversy died out fast, thanks partially from the support of the film’s African-American stars Jamie Foxx (Django) and Samuel L. Jackson (Stephen), and mainly because most of the audiences got what the movie was about.  It’s a love letter, not just to the Spaghetti Westerns that Taratino grew up with, but also to the blaxploitation films of the ’70’s that addressed issues of race, but with a clear mocking style that subverted the norms of the period.  There were many blaxploitation Westerns too that Tarantino had to have been inspired by, like The Legend of Nigger Charly (1972) and Boss Nigger (1975).  And yes, those movies were released with those titles.  There’s a trailer below if you don’t believe me.  Personally, I’m happy that Taratino won out in the end.  There’s no word yet on whether Spike Lee has seen the movie by now.  Hopefully he will someday.  I certainly loved it and I hope it will be considered a classic in the years to come.
Well, this was my first official blog post.  Sorry I took on such a harsh subject the first time around, but it’s what’s been on my mind this past week.  Next week I plan to give all my readers something more upbeat to look at, as I give thoughts on the upcoming movies of the Summer of 2013.  Until next week, it’s time for me to Ramble off.
“MY NAME IS DJANGO.  THAT’S D-J-A-N-G-O.  THE “D” IS SILENT.” – Django (Jamie Foxx)

Welcome to CineRamble.com, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Movie Blog

Hello Everyone.  My name is James Humphreys.  I am the author and creator of this humble blog.  It may look amateurish now, but this is my first foray into internet literature, so I hope to get better as time goes along.  In any case, this will the first post that I’ll ever write on this site, so I better make it count.  (Sits alone at the computer)…………(time passes)………. Is it time for work already?  Shoot.  That was a waste of time.
Okay, seriously, I do have a plan for what I’m going to write here at CineRamble.com.  In case it’s not obvious already from the title and picture I put up, this will be a blog about movies.  I’m very opinionated when it comes to films and filmmaking, and I enjoy sharing my thoughts with anyone; friends, family, and sometimes just the person I’m sitting next to in the movie theater.  Yeah I’m that guy.  I always try to stay informed and keep up with all the current trends in the media, as hard as that sometimes can be, and I always try to keep an open-mind and look for new and exciting things that are developing in Hollywood.  Until now, I’ve had a lot of things to say, but no place to say it, hence my decision to start a blog.
My mission on this site is to present my views on a variety of subjects within the movie realm, through an entertaining and often informative personal perspective.  My posts will mostly be opinion pieces, where I will share my own two cents on what’s currently happening.  But, I also plan on writing movie reviews for this site, both for current releases and movies already out on video.  I will also write reports about my experiences in the film world itself.  I live in Los Angeles, just over the hill from Hollywood itself, so there are plenty of potential things for me to report on, such as special screenings, premieres, or exhibitions at the local museums.  I also plan on doing top ten lists and retrospectives for this site; whatever I think would be worth writing about, I will bring it here.
In any case, I’m not looking for agreement on everything I say on this blog; in fact, if you disagree with me on something, I welcome it.  I’m always looking to inspire discussions about movies everywhere I go and I hope that this website is able to do the same.  If I can inspire a passionate rebuke that is able to change my perspective on things, it will be incredibly worthwhile.  My hope is that I can bring people’s attention to movies and ideas that have sometimes fallen through the cracks, and help shed new light on them.  I welcome feedback, because frankly, I’ll need it if I am ever going to get the hang of this.
So, having said all this, I’m going to formally welcome everyone to CineRamble.com and I look forward to actually getting this thing off the ground.  Expect my first official post in the next week, or so.  Hopefully it expands from here into something special.  So, it’s time to take that first step down this rabbit hole and see where it goes. “LOOK, MEIN VIEWERS, I CAN WALK.”