Arts & Culture
New, Cutting-Edge Tech Aside, It Takes a Village to Animate a Panda
How the latest innovations drive the business of cartoons
In the year 2016, what exactly does "animation" mean? It can mean a kids' cartoon on PBS, a multi-generational Pixar comedy like "Inside Out," and even an adult-oriented Oscar-contender like the stop-motion "Anomalisa." But to some extent, the term can also apply to current hits like "Star Wars," "Mad Max" and "The Revenant": Computer-generated imagery (CGI) is used so liberally in so many big-budget movies that it's getting harder and harder to differentiate what's really "real" and what's been generated on a laptop.
"Absolutely," says Jen Yuh Nelson, director with Alessandro Carloni of the upcoming "Kung Fu Panda 3." "So many live-action movies are practically animated, with all the visual effects. What would you call 'Avatar'? They're blurring the line a lot now."
Of course, "Kung Fu Panda 3" is an animated movie by anyone's definition — along with the upcoming "The Secret Life of Pets," "Kubo and the Two Strings," "The Angry Birds Movie" and a bunch of sequels including "Ice Age: Collision Course," "Space Jam 2," and "Finding Dory"—Pixar's long-awaited sequel to "Finding Nemo." It's going to be a big year for big-budget cartoons. But the technology, employed across the board, is highly sophisticated, highly technical, slow, expensive and gets more so every year.
A Whole New Visual World
"There's a reason the bigger animation companies make only a couple of movies a year," says David Shaheen, Head of the JPMorgan Corporate Client Banking Entertainment Group, which has worked with DreamWorks Animation since its founding in 1994. (In fact, Chase is a financial sponsor of "Kung Fu Panda 3.") "The resources it takes to mount a production of that scale is enormous and it takes years to develop. The reason Pixar and DreamWorks Animation are so good is that they stay on the cutting-edge in terms of technology—things we viewers take for granted, but are innovations that create the highest quality experience."
In recent years, the innovations have included motion-capture technology, which involves actors wearing sensor-studded suits that translate human movement into digital pictures (motion-capture characters have included Gollum in "The Lord of the Rings"; Davy Jones in "Pirates of the Caribbean" and many of the evil-doers in "The Hobbit.")
More recently, advances in computer speed have made lag time negligible when it comes to rendering, the process of telling the computer what you want and having it appear. "Before, a lot of animation was done by typing code on a screen, then waiting for it to render," says Nelson, who has been involved in all three "Kung Fu Panda" movies. Besides being more artist-friendly, now, the newest processing "is lot faster," she says.
Nelson's team was also able to expand the visual world within its film the way a live action filmmaker would shoot on location. Po, for instance (the lead character voiced by Jack Black), was previously able to run only across a few rooftops and the same few shots rooftops of those rooftops kept repeating (go back and watch!). In the latest film, the visual world has expanded—more virtual buildings, more scenery, like a videogame—along with the options for Po's choreography.
Man Vs. Machine
There are those in the animation world who resist the siren song of the computer. Bill Plympton, a New York-based filmmaker, hand-draws every frame of his movies—25,000-plus for a feature film.
"People say, 'You're so old-fashioned, why don't you do computer animation?'" Plympton says. "So on one film I did called 'Shuteye Hotel,' I hired a computer artist to design the hotel. I could have drawn it in two or three days; she was working on it six months later. And it didn't look so good."
The lesson, he says, is that digital animation has traditionally been very slow, intensive work involving lots of people. "For Pixar or DreamWorks, you're talking 1,000 people. I make a film with four or six people." But it doesn't cost Plympton $130 million, the price of some animated tent-pole movies. On the other hand, he doesn't expect the half-billion-dollar worldwide gross of a film like "Inside Out."
"It's a very profitable business," says Shaheen. "Any person with a young family will tell you there's not enough quality and family fare. So if there's something that's high quality and family-friendly, people swarm to it." At the same time, he says, the mission of people like Jeffrey Katzenberg at DreamWorks and Jon Lasseter at Pixar has always been to make animation for everyone—a solid idea artistically and commercially.
John Anderson has been a film and TV critic for The Wall Street Journal, Time, and America magazine. He has appeared regularly in the New York Times and has contributed to The Washington Post, Fortune, the Los Angeles Times and The Village Voice.