Sunday, April 7, 2013

Animated Acting

We all know that Marlon Brando was a Method actor, and that The Method has roots in the work of the Russian director, Stanislavski. You know who else was a devotee of The Method? Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and the three little pigs, the whole Disney stable of characters. That's what Donald Crafton argues in Shadow of a Mouse: Performance, Belief, and World-Making. See, for example, this passage about the Disney animators and Donald Graham, who taught a long-standing course on action analysis at the Disney's studio (p. 48):
The animators and Graham were pursuing a Stanislavskian ideal of embodiment, trying to inject human thought, motion and emotion into their formerly figurative hieroglyphs, but the result was more complicated than they intended. They constructed lifelike movements and gave their characters the illusion of sentience, free will, and human frailty without the visible strings to the animators or their techniques. Inadvertently, though, they introduced ambiguity and increased the likelihood of unintentional meanings. [Quoted from Adam Weaver Animation HERE]
Here's the publisher's blurb:
Animation variously entertains, enchants, and offends, yet there have been no convincing explanations of how these films do so. Shadow of a Mouse proposes performance as the common touchstone for understanding the principles underlying the construction, execution, and reception of cartoons. Donald Crafton's interdisciplinary methods draw on film and theater studies, art history, aesthetics, cultural studies, and performance studies to outline a personal view of animated cinema that illuminates its systems of belief and world making. He wryly asks: Are animated characters actors and stars, just like humans? Why do their performances seem live and present, despite our knowing that they are drawings? Why is animation obsessed with distressing the body? Why were California regional artists and Stanislavsky so influential on Disney? Why are the histories of animation and popular theater performance inseparable? How was pictorial space constructed to accommodate embodied acting? Do cartoon performances stimulate positive or negative behaviors in audiences? Why is there so much extreme eating? And why are seemingly insignificant shadows vitally important?
I've not yet read the book, but it's plausible on the face of it. Henry Jenkins has a four-part interview with Crafton which goes through the argument without all the (I'm sure) fascinating detail: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

* * * * *

I believe that I first encountered the notion of acting in animated characters in a post where Michael Barrier criticized Hayao Miyazaki:
The downside of a preoccupation with effects is that everything in between turns into a sort of stuffing, the character animation in particular. In Miyazaki's films it suffers from Japanese animation's endemic reticence where the illumination of personality is concerned. This or that character may express extreme emotion, but always with the stylized extravagance of kabuki. Too many of Miyazaki's characters—the doll-like heroes and heroines, the raw-boned comic-relief pirates and laborers—look and behave too much alike. I felt often in watching these films that Miyazaki was struggling dutifully to fill up the time until he could get back to what really interested him.
I was, and am, an admirer of Miyazaki's work, and so Barrier's remarks puzzled me. After all, I had no trouble understanding and even feeling Miyazaki's character. But I came to see that he was right. However it is that Miyazaki works his magic, it's not through the character animation of classic Disney, or Warner Brothers, for that matter. Something else is going on.

In that context, this passage from the fourth part of Jenkins's interview is worth some thought:
Although the economic troubles associated with WWII usually are given as the cause of Disney’s troubles in the 1940s, I point out that the studio’s commitment to highly labor intensive and mechanically sophisticated apparatus succeeded in producing films that rivaled Hollywood, but the acting in these expensive ventures like Bambi didn’t please the public as in the old days. In fact, critics complained that the emotions were saccharine and over the top, especially the shooting of Bambi’s mother—which still sets my students weeping.

The embodied performances were becoming unsatisfying or even detrimental to the films’ popularity. At the same time, the simplified visual style of mid-century modern art is being picked up by art students and disseminated to the public through many outlets. Even in the Disney product, one sees infusions of “New York Style,” not only in Dumbo, but also in the compilation films released during and just after the war, starting with Saludos Amigos and Three Caballeros.

After the war, Disney films slowly start looking more like Warner Bros. cartoons and even UPA cartoons. I think that the studio realized that embodiment did not necessarily require massive engineering, and that visual minimalism could still generate emotional engagement and audience participation if the story was good.
Note that: "if the story was good." And if the story is not good, all the embodied character animation in the world won't save the film. It'll will come off as mere virtuosity.

Or, so I think.

1 comment:

  1. Really interesting, fruitful area I think.