Rango – and new ways of directing animated films

A behind the scenes featurette for Gore Verbinskis upcoming animated movie Rango has been floating around the web for over six weeks now.

Verbinski is the fourth live action director who, in recent times, tried his hand at directing an animated feature – if you leave out folks like Robert Zemeckis and James Cameron who worked with Perfomance Capturing. Like his three predecessors, George Miller (Happy Feet), Wes Anderson (Fantastic Mr Fox) and Zack Snyder (The Legend of the Guardians), who also weren’t raised in an animation environment, Verbinski brought an interesting new directing style to the table.

As the featurette shows, he actually gathered the actors together on a small sound stage and let them act out the movie with a few basic props. This, apparently, made it easier both for the actors, because they could interact with each other (while usually vocal recordings are done with one actor at a time alone in a booth), and for Verbinski himself, who could actually direct a cast rather than keep the complete puzzle of recordings in his head and stitch it together afterwards.

The featurette also mentions that the material created during the shoot served as a reference for the animators. The question that arises in this context is, how much of that is true. Pierre Coffin, one of the directors of Despicable Me recently debunked the featurette myth that video footage from actors recording voices in a booth is important for the animators’ work.

Live action reference footage has been used in animation since the early Disney days (for some great insights into the process, watch the bonus material on the latest DVD edition of Pinocchio), but even Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, in their Disney Animation Bible “The Illusion of Life”, explain that

Animators always had the feeling they were nailed to the floor when their whole sequences were shot ahead of time in live action. Everyone’s imagination as to how a scene might be staged was limited by the placement of the camera (…).(p. 331)

At the beginning of the chapter on live action footage they note that

Live action could dominate the animator, or it could teach him. It could stifle imagination, or inspire great new ideas. It all depended on how the live action was conceived and shot and used.(p. 319)

I had the rare pleasure of seeing storyboard artist Christian De Vita give his talk on the development process of Fantastic Mr Fox at eDIT Frankfurt last year. He explained that the “direction” of the film consisted mostly of Wes Anderson, De Vita (who would sketch out Anderson’s ideas) and a film editor holed up in a hotel room in Paris. Anderson would act out every character in every scene and the editor would stitch the footage together in order to create reference footage for the animation studio in Britain, who had to animate from that footage and wasn’t always too happy about it.

In a way, this did create a similar situation to the one that Verbinski used on Rango – with the difference that all actions were staged and performed by one person, the director.

What all of this shows is, once again, how the field of feature animation has changed in its second coming of the last decade. Live action actors have pretty much replaced trained voice actors for principal roles. The Pixar process has put a lot more emphasis on animation as a director’s medium – whereas in the Golden Age of Disney and Warners, the industry stars were basically the animators and animation supervisors (e. g. the Nine Old Men). And now live action directors bring approaches from their background into the game that diminish the recognition of animators as the true artists behind animated films even further. On top of all this, there is the ongoing hybridisation of live action and animation through visual effects and performance capturing.

It will be interesting to see what the animation industry will make of this and if there will at some point be an oversaturation of live action elements in animation that will result in a return to more pre-Disney, i.e. liberated, animation techniques in the future – or if the two approaches will just continue to co-exist like they do now.

eDIT 2010 – Three Quotes (and what they might mean)

A lot of interesting aspects of filmmaking in the current era were discussed at the recent eDIT Filmmaker’s Festival in Frankfurt and I could only cover a few of them in my podcast. However, I picked a few select quotes from some of the other panels during the festival that, I believe, offer some insight into the film industry as it stands right now, wedged between 3D, digital imaging and a marketing-driven economy.

It’s been a pretty crappy time for imagery in the past 10 years.

John Mathieson
Director of Photography, Robin Hood

John Mathieson said this in response to my question about whether he considers the digital intermediate process a part of cinematography these days. I guess he pretty much doesn’t. Before, Mathieson had given a presentation on Robin Hood, in which he spent most of his time making fun of the movie and championing Gladiator, which he also photographed. Mathieson, born in 1961 but apparently a bit old school when in comes to filmmaking, not only lambasted Robin Hood for being shot on uninventive locations, he mostly criticized its look – for which he was partly responsible.

Films shot in the digital era, he said, look overly grey and desaturated, featuring ashen flesh tones and lighting that, while it’s a lot more cohesive than before, is boring and lacking life. He blamed not only the Digital Intermediate process, which is a popular target for ridicule and worry but also the newer film stocks that, apparently, no longer result in satisfying images. I would love to explore this topic further and see what other cameramen think.

I didn’t change my cutting style one iota for 3D.

Ken Schretzmann
Editor, Toy Story 3

Ken spent a lot of his excellent presentation explaining the inside-out process of editing animated films. While everyone sat glued to their seats watching him piece together dialogue from dozens of takes and laughed at the opening scene of Toy Story 3 as it was originally planned, the fact that the movie was planned and executed in 3D didn’t seem to enter anyone’s mind. It certainly didn’t enter mine until after the Q&A, but I managed to ask Ken afterwards and the above quote is what he told me.

This was news to me, especially since I have heard a lot of people tell their stories about how 3D demands a different style of filmmaking. Come to think of it, though, producer Mark Gläser, just two days earlier, had said that while he did wear a t-shirt saying “NO FLARES, NO WIPES, NO WINDOW VIOLATION” on his first 3D-shoot, the team quickly found out that in fact they could make a lot of things work which are supposed not to work in 3D.

Ken Schretzmann added that 3D at Pixar was handled in a completely different department. His editing of the film happened in 2D, he said, not least because everyone knew that the film would spend most of his lifespan on 2D media (i.e. DVD and BluRay). So: will 3D be “only” an evolution or will it be a revolution in cinema – apparently, both approaches work.

In animation featurettes, animators always explain that they desperately need the footage of the actors recording their lines as reference. It’s all bullshit!

Pierre Coffin
Director, Despicable Me

I loved the fact that Coffin debunked one of the favourite myths about animated filmmaking with a wave of his hand. His witty, self-deprecating presentation was definitely one of the funniest of the festival, and brought some welcomed European chaos to the well-ordered Hollywood parade that took up a lot of the spaces before him (nothing against well-ordered Hollywood filmmaking, by the way, Despicable Me suffers immensely from the fact that it’s all over the place in terms of storytelling).

While I don’t believe that it is really “all bullshit” – there are always moments where you can see that the voice actor inspired the (animated) acting of a given character – it does shed some light on the fact that the production of films, as presented to the audience in featurettes, has become immensely streamlined in terms of the story it tells. The production of almost every movie, it seems, does have a certain stereotypical narrative that is repeated over and over again for marketing purposes until it perpetuates itself. The story of “We need the footage of the actors to develop our animation” has been told so many times now that it has become a truism, making a chaotic artistic process like animation both more accessible for audiences and more flattering for celebrity voice actors.

The marketing of movies has never been as important as today, especially with every studio eyeing every movie for the possibility to turn it into a franchise. Marketing gone stale can not only result in promotion sickness, it can also, on a less annoying note, produce these kinds of narratives that journalists are all too happy to repeat over and over again.