From the Zoetrope to Toy Story: Is Animation a Broken Art Form?

ZoetropeVacations with a toddler are never complete without the viewing of a few animated movies, as any parent knows.

My recent foray into the land of lazy summer days was no exception.

Lately, however, my son and I have grown somewhat weary of the seemingly endless parade of computer-generated features that are high on technical bravado and lacking in artistic merit (Flushed Away comes immediately to mind).

So we’ve been going back in time and discovering some animated classics, most of which seem to come from Disney.

Along the way we’ve learned that just because a film is built using computers doesn’t mean it’s better.

Instead, that can often be a drawback.

Pretty much every new animated feature film today is developed on computers.

In 1995 the then-independent Pixar Animation Studios pioneered this method of filmmaking with their classic, Toy Story.

More than just being a showcase for a new technique, however, Toy Story had everything required in a truly great film: outstanding plot, memorable characters, and award-winning performances from its actors.

It seems that the producers of many contemporary animated films that are generated by computers forget that their work requires these other elements to be even borderline bearable.

Last year even my son grew frustrated with the clumsy and distinctly unfunny Barnyard and insisted we leave part-way through — an action I fully endorsed.

So it’s been with great relish that we’ve been consuming classic animated features like Peter Pan, Tarzan, and Lilo & Stitch lately.

It’s indisputable that each of these Disney pictures has the basic makings of great cinema that I mentioned before.

But what’s more, and what differentiates them from even great computer-generated flicks like Finding Nemo, is that, visually, they have the human touch.

In the backgrounds of Lilo & Stitch, for example, at times you can make out actual brushstrokes that are clearly the result of a physical human process. And there are sequences in that film that literally sing with the fluidity and grace that only the human hand can bestow on animated characters.

I particularly love watching Bambi. The story is bold and emotional. The scenery is painted with a strong expressiveness that I’ve never even seen attempted in a modern animated film.

The entire being of the film emits the tension of young Bambi’s struggle to come to terms with his place in the cruel reality of his forest home.

And although the film is populated solely by animals, every scene in the film radiates with the pure humanity of its message and craft.

I’m not knocking computer-generated films here.

In fact, Pixar’s 2001 masterpiece, Monsters, Inc., is probably my favourite animated film.

It just seems to me that contemporary animated cinema is stuck in a rut. The past couple of years have borne witness to an endless rash of computer-generated animated films, most of which are, well, totally lame. (Does any other word describe Shark Tale?)

It seems that the animated film industry is being drawn onto the rocks by the siren call of a fancy technology. The call of those mythological sea nymphs? “Make it look really, really, really, really real!”

Works like The Polar Express and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within clearly demonstrate this effort.

But if you consider the origins of the craft of animation, was reality ever a quality it aimed to capture?

3-D computer generated animation, after all, is really just another way of practicing an art that is arguably nearly 2 centuries old (if you can consider George Horner’s Zoetrope a form of animation).

20th Century animation spent most of its time trying to draw audiences as far away from reality as possible, into fantastic, impossible realms where unbelievable events occur. Fantasia is really the culmination of this.

Nowadays animation seems to be all about the manufacturing of synthetic realities at the expense of good storytelling and filmmaking.

It just seems time that animators step back from their medium and re-evaluate the computer’s role in it. Is impressive, hyper-realistic imagery the ultimate goal for animation in feature films? Or do they want to express something more than just their technical wizardry?

In Pixar’s Cars, the VW bus character, Fillmore, sports a bumper sticker that reads, “Save 2D Animation!” It’s an honest cry for help emanating from a world that seems to have been manufactured from glow-in-the-dark sugar-plastic.”

In 2010 Disney and Pixar will release Toy Story 3. Lets hope they can craft the film to capture the spirit of Disney’s animated film legacy and combine it with what made the original Toy Story so groundbreaking: that perfect combination of technology and art.

And, heck, here’s to hoping we see some hand-drawn sequences that will remind us of the people behind the craft. I’ll look forward to enjoying that with my son.

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, August 31, 2007.

It’s an Ad, Ad World

EyeballsEarlier this year I took advantage of a subscription offer from Wired magazine.

$12 got me a year’s worth of colourful dead trees sent to my door.

This sounds like a great deal, but after just a few issues I’m feeling ripped off.

Wired reads like an über-chic mail order catalogue.

There are only a few interesting stories mixed in with a barrage of ads and PR pitches.

I feel like they should be paying me to read this stuff.

But that’s the reality of being a media consumer today: it’s an ad, ad world.

Nowhere is this more true than on the internet.

Slated to reach $40 billion this year, the online advertising industry exists in an environment seemingly designed for its never-ending growth.

The search giant Google is a case in point.

Google’s entire digital empire exists based on its massive advertising and promotion platform.

This is how the company can afford to give away its products such as Gmail and Docs.

People that use these products have eyeballs, which Google can resell to advertisers.

Of course, Google’s not alone in the game.

Microsoft is late to this realization and has been playing a near desperate game of catch-up lately.

And Yahoo is threatening Google’s lead with some innovative new approaches to serving up advertisements online.

But for the time being, Google rules the ad roost.

And they may be extending their lead in an unexpected fashion soon.

A tasty fruit growing on the internet grapevine claims that Google is on the verge of releasing the “Gphone,” a mobile phone they’re going to give away for free.

Waitaminnit… free cell phones?

What’s the catch?

The same as with all Google product: ads.

Google will supposedly give anyone a free handset as long as they’re willing to submit themselves to an endless barrage of advertising in and amongst their text messages, voice calls, and internet browsing.

One must wonder, then: is the Gphone to be an innovative, customer-oriented service, or is it just the Google Ad in search of a new medium?

And this question leads me to wonder about the quality of ad-supported products.

When we use “free” tools such as Gmail, do our expectations drop?

Or, in other words, would we pay real money for Gmail?

Typically, I find people begrudgingly use free products and services on the internet.

Very few Gmail users “love” it. They more put up with the services because it permits them to keep some money in their pocket.

Because dollars are the easiest way for us to build a sense of value around the tools we use.

We have a harder time valuing our personal time and energy, or other similarly ephemeral assets.

As a result, we view the quality of those products with a greatly reduced critical capacity.

And so, thanks to ad dollars, mediocre products have a bountiful marketplace.

As a further result, innovation suffers.

For if zero dollars is the governing benchmark for the cost of internet-based products and services, then how can great new ideas flourish and grow?

They can’t. Unless they get bought up by Google, that is.

The simple fact is, beyond its search tool, there’s not much of Google that was developed in-house.

The majority of the products and services currently offered by Google were acquired from independent developers.

And while it might seem that Google is working to build some killer web software platform that will bring down Microsoft, the guiding spirit of Google’s behaviour is much more mundane.

With every unique product acquisition, Google draws more unsuspecting eyeballs into its lair to feed that perpetually famished beast in the corner: its ad machine.

In the end, advertising is what supports the Google empire and it’s the tie that binds their wide and disparate collection of online properties.

And it’s our eyeballs that are the fodder for that system.

But that’s nothing new.

For the low, low price of just $1 a month, I submit my own eyeballs to Wired’s catchy, kitschy, and glossy pulp and paper ad machine.

And you know what? Deep in my consumerist soul, I kind of like it.

Climate Change Needs to Get FUD Up

Scientific Climate Change DiagramMaybe it’s just me, but climate change isn’t very scary.

The scientific community has done a tremendous job of documenting and proving that our world is undergoing change as a result of human activities.

They leave little room for doubt.

Unfortunately, they fail to make that actually matter to anyone other than the intellectual elite.

Likewise, pro-environment mouthpieces Greenpeace and the Sierra Club are great at spewing patronizing hippie-talk, but not so great at delivering a message that actually concerns the general population.

In the end, the climate change community’s proselytizing efforts are too heady, and lack heart.

Don’t these people realize that they have to deliver their messages to the very depths of our souls, not our brains?

Climate change needs a serious dose of FUD (that’s fear, uncertainty and doubt). Normally considered a relatively reprehensible communications technique, climate change may just be the single most qualified subject for FUD’s application.

FUD brings high-level concepts down to earth, and makes them matter to us as individuals, generally by scaring us to death.

FUD generates an emotional response by kicking us in our collective gut with information.

How do you think President Bush managed to trick the American populace into supporting his War of Terror?

That’s right: FUD.

It’s time the climate change movement got seriously FUDed up.

The most obvious opportunity lies in the globally ongoing series of freakish weather events: flooding, high winds, changing temperatures, and major shifts in regional precipitation and drought.

These are all patterns that climate change scientists have been warning of for years. Yet that same community is failing to stand up and proudly proclaim: “See? I told you so!”

The media is reporting on climate change events such as Hurricane Katrina, extreme flooding in the UK, and icy weather in Australia.

But the media is failing to draw a clear line back to the source of these events (human activity) because the scientific community is not actively promoting this link.

Do they expect us to figure it all out ourselves?

Earth to scientists: hire yourselves a public relations firm. Begin marketing your work, start exercising your right to FUD, and make your research mean something to us on a personal level.

Blame us for our actions.

Like, hey you, with the idling SUV in the SuperStore parking lot: it’s your fault that the southern lakes in the Yukon are flooding.

You, Hummer-driver, you’re to blame for Hurricane Katrina.

And, you lazy bastard over there who drove your car just two blocks just to get your kid to day care, it’s your fault this summer is so cold.

Oops, that was me, actually.

Sorry for screwing up the season, everyone.

The lofty concepts of climate change need to be drawn down to the base mental level of us rabble.

A fear of climate change must be implanted in our collective belly right here, just beside the spot that inexplicably makes us crave something as nasty as Coca-Cola.

Make us think twice about driving to work by building an overwhelming sense of guilt in our souls.

Make climate change a brand of fear, and make me want it more than I want my car.

Because right now, clearly, nobody really gives a crap about the environment.

Trendy cloth shopping bags aside, the earth can gasp its last breath in a cloud of carcinogenic bio-diesel for all we seem to care.

I mean, there are countless old beaters running around Whitehorse spewing black oil smoke and sporting that ridiculous “Save ANWR” bumper sticker.

It’s irony on wheels.

(Whose daft idea was it, anyway, to try and save a natural resource by sponsoring advertising on the very instrument of its destruction?)

Your predictions are coming true, sage scientists.

The earth is suffering around us, just like you said it would.

But its pain is being represented in the public eye as little more than a series of inconveniences that occur seemingly inexplicably.

But there is an explanation: it’s just trapped in all those lengthy, incomprehensible research reports you’ve generated.

Set that data free, and give it teeth.

Treat us like the ignorant children we are and spell it out in black and white.

Evolve climate change from social issue to reality.

It’s here and now, it’s happening around us.

Make us realize that this isn’t happenstance: it’s our fault.

Like the wings of a butterfly, our drive to work this morning may just cause a tornado in Japan.

Scare us into walking.

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, August 3, 2007.