In Defense of Hand-Drawn Animation

The NY Times' Manohla Dargis has written an excellent review of Ponyo, very lyrical and intelligent and just the kind I like. I'll leave it for you to read, and if you're curious, no, I won't be highlighting every major newspaper review. But I will highlight those who make very good points that inspire discussions. That is the true mark of greatness.

This paragraph should be highlighted by Michael Sporn and other defenders of hand-drawn animation and argued on their own blogs:

Like the other characters, with their clean lines and bright splashes of color, Ponyo tends to pop slightly on the screen. Although Mr. Miyazaki eschews the deep space of 3-D animation (over his dead body, as he recently suggested), he is acutely sensitive to texture, an awareness that translates into different visual designs for individual scenes and which intensifies the emotional register of those same scenes. The softly smudged field of grass that surrounds Sosuke’s house like a blanket is striking partly because you can see the touch of the human hand in each blade. The blurred pastel quality of the grass, the softness of this green mantle, convey a feeling of comfort that in turn summons up words like warmth, home, love.

Ponyo, above all else, is an animator's film; it is an artist's film. This is Hayao Miyazaki's stirring defense of the lost craft of hand-drawn animation, a skill that has been all but abandoned throughout the world. Studio Ghibli is the lone holdout against the computers, it seems. Of course, the reality is more complicated than that, and I don't think the artform is in the same danger of imminent extinction as, say, Yuri Norstein's paper cutout animation form.

But it's clear to all that there are no major champions of traditional animation on the world stage, save Studio Ghibli. And Miyazaki has made it his cause. Audiences will be dazzled with the skills of the human artists and their hands, and perhaps they will realize that there are things that CGI simply cannot express.

In that sense, this reminds me of the grand crusade ushered in 40 years ago, with Horus, Prince of the Sun. That movie was Isao Takahata's first shot across the bow in defense of animation as an equal to live-action movies. Horus threw down the gauntlet, and Heidi, Girl of the Alps pushed the idea even further, staking animation's claim over neo-realism, the French New Wave, the sensibilities of Jean Renoir, Orson Welles. Animation was not to be treated as second-hand or second-rate. The painters were the equals of the cameramen.

Now Ponyo is making a similar defense within the animation realm itself, as hand-drawn form is replaced by flashier, newer computer technology. I don't believe this has to be an either-or situation; both forms can coexist, and there are elements that favor one style over another. But the idea that we must arbitrarily scrap traditional animation for no good reason is absurd. This car still runs. This car has a full tank of gas in the trunk and a bag of M&M's in the glove compartment.


Chris said...

One of my biggest criticisms of CGI animation is that it is striving so hard to duplicate the realistic world. In fact, the final goal of CGI seems to be to duplicate the real world so perfectly that viewers will be unable to tell the difference between animation and reality. But my question is why not just film your movie completely live action? Moreover, CGI is a wonderful tool for live action films that require realistic effects. The Star Wars prequels and The Lord of the Rings trilogy show this masterfully.

However, animation has always been a way to bring art (static pictures) to life. It is a way to take an artist's or cartoonist's pictures and give them movement and voice and then tell a story. Historically, we had newspaper strips evolving into comic books evolving into narrative animation. People will tell me that traditional narrative animation (hand drawn, stop motion, cutouts) has evolved into CGI. And that's definitely been the view of American film producers and, following the product available to them, American audiences. But isn't CGI merely another form of animation along with hand drawn and stop motion? Why must it be the next step eliminating all previous steps (like the automobile eliminating horse drawn carriages)? America's perennial view of progress is at the heart of the matter here. It has skewed the issue and has confused people.

Also, I think most Americans believe that live action film is the ultimate form of story telling. Every time a superhero is brought to the screen we have live action films. (The recent Batman movies even if exactly as they are now would not have been even half as popular if they were animated.) In this way, CGI, as I said, is much closer (and getting closer) to live action. I think this mentality is also playing a part in the push for CGI. Unlike the Japanese and the French, animation has never been (and probably will never be) a serious form of filmmaking in America.

Hopefully, with Ponyo and Disney's The Frog Princess, more major studios (Am I kidding myself that there are others than Disney?) will get back to offering all kinds of animation and not just CGI.

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

Great insights!

I was telling Marcee tonight how lucky we are that the comments on this blog are so much smarter than the comments you typically see at Youtube or message boards. This little community is definitely growing, but the conversations are always so whip-smart. It always keeps me on my toes and keeps us all thinking.

Long story short - thanks for the comments. It's always appreciated.

As to the hand-drawn vs. CGI issue, I remain optimistic that it is largely an issue of money and profit. If Hollywood can see that there is a hungry market for intelligent hand-drawn animation, there will be more movies in that vein. This is why it's so crucial that we all turn out to see Ponyo this weekend.

Heck, maybe even the suits would be convinced to release Studio Ghibli's next movie here in the States, Isao Takahata's 2010 film... Ah, who am I kidding? That'll never happen. But it should.

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