Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Why Hand-Drawn Animation?

The Skeleton of an Argument and Some Examples

That question’s been on my mind for awhile now, six months, a year, likely more. I’m convinced that hand-drawn animation is important and that it would be a serious cultural loss if the medium were to disappear. But I don’t know why.

That is, I can’t formulate an account I find convincing. Is the problem that I’m not sufficiently adept in using the appropriate concepts? But just what ARE the appropriate concepts? Do they even exist?

Academic film criticism, for example, certainly doesn’t have the concepts. It’s derived from literary criticism and is mostly about meaning, meaning so abstracted that it’s medium-independent. That won’t do. The concepts I need must be specifically about the medium. Such concepts, while they do exist in our intellectual culture, are relatively rare and not generally given much weight, so besotted are we with meaning.

Perhaps the concepts don’t exist. If not, well, it’s not the first time I’ve set out to answer an impossible question. But, sheesh! this is getting tiresome! For once I’d like to tackle a Big Question that has the Right Answer waiting Just Around the Corner.

* * * * *

A traditional rationale for hand-drawn animation, as opposed to live-action films, is that it allows you to do things that are somewhere between difficult and all-but-impossible in live-action. That’s a start. Now all we have to do is establish that those things are interesting and valuable.

The material on animals I began exploring in my work on Dumbo (e.g. HERE and HERE) gets at that, though it needs more work. I may have to think explicitly about what happens when animal images are interpreted through neuro-mental systems tuned for humans. That leads me into the psychology of ontology, which could be rough sledding. But if that’s where I have to go, well, at least I’m relatively familiar with the topography, rocky and swampy though it may be.

The widespread use of the infant schema is in the same ball park. It’s common in animation, but would require expensive make-up or even masks and rigs in live-action. This too is manipulating neuro-mental systems.

But then any effects you’d want to invoke to explain the virtues of hand-drawn animation would HAVE to affect neur-mental systems. Because that’s the mind, isn’t it? Yes. But these effects operate at a basic, shall we say, architectural level.

For what that’s worth.

* * * * *

But what about anime, which has relatively few animal stories? Let’s look at an example one of my favorite series, Azumanga Daioh, and which also uses limited animation, very limited.

Here’s Osaka thinking about an up-coming competition involving buns, which are suspended in the air:


She’s only imagining that bun hung on a fish-hook, which is also being described in the dialog:


Now she’s imagining herself getting caught on that fish-hook:


And there’s this—which depicts some dramatic realization that nature of which I forget:


That’s Osaka on the right. Notice that she’s more simply and rigidly drawn, and that her eyes are blank. Chiyo-chan, in the center, is drawn in a similar reduced style; her eyes have become slits and she has no fingers on her hands.

That’s quite common in anime, the use of a regular style and a reduced style. It appears in manga too. For all I know it may have originated as a time-saving, and hence cost-saving, measure. But it’s not used randomly or erratically. It tends to be used to depict characters experiencing strong emotion or a sudden subjective discontinuity. It’s about what I’ve been calling behavioral mode.

And THAT gives it something of an ontological cast. In fact, the effect is a bit like that of the infant schema. I wonder about the extent to which these reduced depictions call on innate social releasers and how much they’re cultural conventions.

Now let’s look at some frames from Isao Takahata’s Pom Poko, which is about tanuki, raccoon-like animals traditionally regarded as shape-shifters. Here we see them rendered in a naturalistic style:


Now they’re in a more cartoony style, their dominant mode in the film:


And here we see one in a reduced style:


Very reduced. He’s dead, killed in battle.

As they are shape shifters, we also see them shifting shape. Here’s one turning himself into a soccer ball:




The big shift, though, is when they turn themselves into humans:


It’s very exhausting, and not all of the tanuki manage to master this shift.

There’s a spectacular sequence in which the tanuki manage to shift into just about anything and everything, as though the world were make out of tanuki-substance, as though the tanuki were Anaximander’s apeiron, or Disney’s pink elephants. Except, of course, that the tanuki aren’t Greek and Takahata isn’t Disney.

By the time the film’s over you begin to wonder whether or not your next door neighbor is in fact a tanuki who’s shape-shifted to pass as human. And, you? Might not you be a shape-shifted tanuki who’s forgotten your true nature?

So now, in Pom Poko, we’ve got a big distinction. Shape-shifting is something the tanuki do as an act of will. But the shift in rendering style—naturalistic, cartoony, reduced—has nothing to do with tanuki will. Nor is it at all arbitrary. The film-maker is signaling something.

* * * * *

This is not, of course, an actual argument. But it’s the kind of material out of which an argument can be constructed.

And, it’s all about ontology. Trust me.

As for 3D computer animation, well . . . I don’t count myself among those who believe that the medium is inherently flawed and so will NEVER, in the very nature of things, equal the glories of hand-drawn animation. But I do wish they’d get past their obsession with naturalism. That’s fine for special FX in James Cameron and Peter Jackson epics.

There’s more to reality than realism.

* * *

ADDENDUM: Yesterday I visited a daycare center. On the way out I noticed a chart on the wall that consisted of several rows of small cartoon figures. Each was expressing a different emotion, which were labeled in both English and Spanish. But the chart was not teaching language. It was teaching how to recognize emotions. Does watching cartoons help kids learn to recognize their emotions? Has anyone done the research?

ADDENDUM 2: I forgot something very important, synchronized sound. In cartoons you can have music that mimics the action, exactly. This, of course, is not specific to hand-drawn animation.

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