Caroline, and a Brief History of Animation.

My darling wife and I saw Coraline last night. I loved the hell out of this movie. I can’t get over it. I want to see it again, and then again, and then maybe one more time after that. So, for those of you not in the know, here’s a trailer:

I do have to say that the trailer seems to market it to the really young, maybe 6+, whereas it should have been marketed to the 12ish+. There were a number of smaller children there who got pretty scared, and I can honestly see why. The trailer doesn’t show you some of the scarier things: like a guy who gets really fat and twisted, or another guy who has a smile stitched into his face. I kind of think that maybe the team that made the movie went to the executives and the executives thought that the only way to recoup their investment was to market it towards young kids because, as we all know, cartoons are for kids. Duh. You’d have to be some kind of retard to not pick up on this simple universal truth. I mean, if cartoons aren’t for kids, try to explain the existence and populairty of South Park or Beavis and Butthead (this last statement is an ironic one meant to show the ridiculosity of thinking cartoons are for kids, and semi-bemoaning the fact that there are few cartoons made today that don’t bring themselves down to the level of a 4 year old).

Mis-marketing aside, it was good. Probably the best cartoon I’ve seen since 1998’s Iron Giant. Even better than Wall-E, and I really loved Wall-E. Mostly. In fact, I think I’ll compare Coraline against what is probably my favorite animated movie of all time, the Iron Giant, the last cartoon I saw before Coraline, Kung Fu Panda, and the last good cartoon I saw before Coraline, Wall-E, to give a sense of why Coraline was the better (if only slightly [though it’s more than slight in some cases]) movie. I’ll start with the art, or the style of the movie, move to the story, and then the part that I hate the most: the moral of the story and how it’s portrayed. I’ll even talk about the other animated features that had trailers before Coraline and how I think they’ll play out. I’m going to warn you that this was originally an analysis of Coraline versus other animated movies, but it kind of just kept expanding and expanding until it became more of an analysis of the history of animation.

With the style, Wall-E was actually pretty stylish for a Pixar cartoon. It had some very intelligent and interesting designs while maintaining a level of functionality. Even things like the ridiculous and overblown the machine used to launch EVE had purpose in addition to the design. But the people were typical Pixar, that is to say that they were incredibly generic and almost devoid of life. Back in the 40s, there was no standard of animation. Animators were being very experimental and constantly playing with ways to make things work. Eventually, Disney figured out a sort of “canon” for doing it. The types of shapes to use, and Walt was a very conservative guy, so he had his animators develop a sort of universal way to do things. Pretty much a template that could be applied to any character, no matter their size or shape. Even the characters were boiled down to types: the young boy type, the princess type, the evil fat guy type, the bumbling idiot type. I guess a way to think about it might be like creating a character in a game like WoW or Tony Hawk: it might boast this robust engine for creating many different characters, but it’s all based on types and templates. Disney even went as far as to specify facial expressions. Happy smiles can only look like this, mean eyes can only look like this, a laugh can only look like this, and so on. Disney became very popular because despite having a generic universalized system of animation, it was very high quality and very smooth. This was still back in the day when an animation team’s color palate still had more options than brights and pastels, so the cartoons were able to achieve rich, earthy, complex color mixtures. Observe:

This is a shot from Sleeping Beauty. The colors are rich and earthy and have a decided thematic palate with just a few pastels thrown in to help bring visual continuity to the picture. the first thing you notice is the owl’s eyes, follow it up to Aurora’s face, over to the birds, along the branch and into the background. Very subdued and matured.

Here we have Meet The Robinsons. It’s one of Disney’s latest. The colors are a train wreck. The scene is so busy with no hierarchy of form or color. Everything is competing for your attention, and there’s no starting or ending points for your eyes to rest on, nor is there a logical path for your eyes to follow. It might be unfair to apply this same method to a live action movie as there’s much more room for incidentally crappy shots, but in animation, every scene has been pored over something approaching 100 times.

At some point in the future, probably the 70s because that’s when all taste started to deteriorate, companies began distilling this Disney style. The California School of the Arts became a big proponent of (what I refer to as) The Disney Distillation Style, where they use Disney’s formula and distill it one more to make it even more bland, and turned out such folk as Don Bluth, who in turn made the style even more popular and people began mimicking that style, which was already a mimic, so then we had people mimicking the mimic. Pixar also mimics this mimic, and as a result, they can churn out a movie that’s brilliant in every regard, but has people that are completely uninteresting, such as Wall-E, The Incredibles, or the incredibly awful Ratatouille and Cars. This isn’t to say that you’re a bad person if you like these cartoons. Most people probably don’t even realize this level of distinction even exists, and most people would argue that you’re some kind of loser if you do realize it. Those people suck, but having said that, I like more than half of both Don Bluth and Pixar’s cartoons. The stories generally make up for the crappy art, and they’re generally fun. Here are some samples:

The Incredibles family, all of them with the same smile, just different degrees of open to represent “different” facial expressions.

Charlie from All Dogs go to Heaven, with a very similar smile to Mr. Incredible

Po from Kung Fu Panda with a clone of Charlie smile.

Focus on the boy here, but he’s got the same smile as everyone else, and half of them are different species.

4 different movies, and 2 of them I’d even call favorites, yet they still suffer from Disney Distillation. A case of the DDs. Compare to these:

Above we have bugs. All three the same character, all three types of smiles, but each very different and very specific. Two of them even by the same artist. Again, compare:

Again, 3 different smiles, the same characters.

Coraline by necessity didn’t have this Disney Distillation Problem. Since every puppet had to be custom made, and probably half of them had to have a unique expression made for every expression, the expressions tended more towards the unique than the predictable. Of course, puppets like Coraline and Mother had repeat expressions because the puppet had to use the same expression heads. For those of you not in the know, that’s how it’s done in stop animation (of which Coraline is). For puppets like Jack Skellington, Sally, Coraline, and Mother, each head holds a static facial expression (one head might be a toothy grin, another a frown), and not just facial expression, but mouth motion too. So that means they have to make a head for every possible phonetic sound per puppet. Not only that, but every phonetic sound per emotion. So a P sound for happy, sad, and angry. And some shapes can double for others. You can probably use the P mouth for B as well. All said, you have something like 50 different heads, all with empty eye sockets as the eyes you can just pop in and out, substituting in the eyes for different emotions and motions like blinking or looking back and forth. In the course of the movie, they are continuously popping the heads on and off to create speech for the puppets. Pretty laborious, but it means that each character is going to have uniquely fashioned expressions exclusive to that puppet. Other puppets, such as Father, have a moldable mouth. It’s a mouth with a wire running inside of it that you just adjust to create the different sounds, and this adds a whole different layer of exclusivity because a person can’t mold the word “cat” in the same way twice ever. The overall look is eye catching speech and specific motion.

All that aside, Coraline was intensely creative. Every object in the movie was custom made by hand. No prefab anything in the entire movie as far as sets, props, and characters are concerned. It had a very intelligent use of color, applying brights when it was necessary to dazzle, and not just as a method of operation, and the designs were just simply cool. In the beginning you watch a hand made out of needles, regular sewing needles, stitch together a canvas doll. Later, a giant mechanical Praying Mantis is used to plant a garden. Everything was very stylish and Burton-esque, though Burton himself wasn’t involved in the movie. I think for Halloween, I want to dress up as the character YB. Such a simple and eye catching design.

What I can’t find is Wybie’s helmet which was a welding mask with a skull painted on it.

I honestly didn’t expect this blog to be that long, so I think I’ll cover the rest in another blog. Maybe 2 if each of the three categories takes this long.

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6 Responses to “Caroline, and a Brief History of Animation.”

  1. Very interesting. I will be looking forward to any follow-ups.

  2. giraffemilkshake Says:

    that’s good, because i think you might be the only reader.

  3. Nope. Todd’s not the only one. I was really sucked in (and I don’t usually bother finishing long blog posts). And I know Steve read at least most of it because he tipped me off to check my Google Reader for this post.

    I thought this was really interesting, informative, engaging… I’ll definitely read more as you write.

    • giraffemilkshake Says:

      That’s good to know. Even though I have fun just writing these (when I do), there’s definitely a sense of futility when I feel like no one else is paying attention.

  4. I just now read the whole thing; I was initially put off by the length. Personally, I think your over-analysis of animation is merely a method of stifling enjoyment. I hate late Disney as much as the next guy, but sometimes formula works. Power to the indie animators though. I’m looking forward to seeing Coraline.

  5. giraffemilkshake Says:

    sometimes formula does work, or else it wouldn’t exist. the problem is when we use nothing but the same formula. if you read the other two parts of this argument, that’s what i try to drive at. we need variety. i mean, to make this more personal, are you just going to go to the store and pick up any rock or metal, because analyzing is just a way to kill the enjoyment? no. because nickelback is all the formula in the world, and as a result, it sucks a whole bunch.

    i think most people feel the way you do, which is why my third post makes an argument for why i feel this kind of thing is important.

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