Wednesday, April 30, 2008

A few thoughts on Horton Hears a Who

“I’m too close to this movie,” admits [supervising animation director Michael] Thurmeier. “When we are working on a film, we have no perspective of how it will be perceived. We concentrate a lot on how it looks and how the characters move.” (from an AWN-interview)

This is the first of a few posts on Blue Sky’s Horton Hears a Who. I wanted to write about this movie for quite some time. Although constant hyperactivity couldn’t prevent me from noticing its tedious storytelling suffering from old jokes and disparate influences I still enjoyed a lot of the animation. So the latest Horton is worthy of closer analysis due the work of Blue Sky’s rigging and animation team. After some thoughts on narrative aspects (Part I) I will have a closer look at animation related stuff in future posts.

So here is…

Part I: An Elephant’s Faithful One Hundred Percent – or: there is nothing left to the imagination

Although its message of tolerance and sense of community is timeless, Dr. Seuss’ children’s book does not translate too well into the dramaturgical structures of a formulaic blockbuster feature. Childlike poetry and static characters have to make way for fast-talking and psychologically rounded characters with motivations and the potential to learn something for life. Of course this collides more often than not with the cartoony approach of the animation. Hayward/Martino’s film departs in two different directions from the original: artistically it overcomes some of the limitations of conventional CG-models while content wise it emulates standard blockbuster formulas by over defining everything.

While Horton is faithful and tolerant, he is not calm and easy-going for sure. Jim Carrey might be the ideal actor for providing the animators with improvisation that really stimulate their fantasy but in the larger context of the story he is totally miscast because he makes a zippy clown out of a character who is supposed to be solid as a rock (but lovably so). Symptomatically Steve Carell’s Mayor of Whoville is not all that different from Carrey’s Horton because each represents the same kind of guy in their respective world. Contrast in character relationship thus has to come from the characters surrounding the protagonists. So we have the Sour Kangaroo mirrored by a rationally manipulative council man in Whoville, Hortons superfluous friend Morton (a garish turquoise mouse voiced by Seth Rogen) performs essentially the same functions as the Mayor’s wife and so on. Among all the additional characters the one interesting (because he is not susceptible to peer pressure) son among 90+ daughters, Jojo (the Shirker as Dr. Seuss called him), regrettably does not get more attention by the writers than by his father.

Although most of the subplots are thematically motivated they just seem to distract from the main thread’s thinness. By introducing Horton half-heartedly as a teacher to the kids of some gossipy jungle animals (strictly female parents I guess, no Wickershams’ sons seen in his class), at least the rational Kangaroo has a reason for lobbying against Horton on the grounds that he teaches “rabbits to use their imagination”. But sadly the scene comes across as a lukewarm mixture of Finding Nemo’s beginning and the Bare Necessities.

Dr. Seuss’ playful sense of humor is coming through now and then but often gets covered by not so fresh prat fall type gags and the above mentioned annoying hyperactivity. That is also where all those pop references come in that threaten to destroy the believability of so many cartoon worlds ever since Aladdin (1992) popularized them. How can an elephant quoting Henry Kissinger or Apocalypse Now (1979) be consistent within a cohesive world of childlike imagination?

As I would like to reinforce: all of the shortcomings mentioned above refer to the filmmakers’ obvious attempt of streamlining Horton into a formula the elusive story wasn’t made for. The better and more interesting part about it is that they also made a cartoon out of it at the same time.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

my first take

Here’s my first attempt:

I started out trying to capture the expressions on my face in the mirror. It sure does not look like me. I know, ultimately I have to go further than just attaching human mouth shapes to cartoon animals. But this is how it came out. Maybe at some point I can get past the “realistic-looking” style and really push the expressions into more cartoony realms without losing the essence.

(Click on any of these images to enlarge)

As you might see I'm still not sure whether I should do caricatures for the cartoony versions or whether I should apply the expressions to a completely different character. Right now I've just made up some generic cat character without much emphasis on overall design.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

What this blog is all about

In my never ending endeavor of learning about character animation one of my central concerns is to become less dependent on stock movements/gestures and especially facial expressions. While absorbing everything about animation principles and acting it is always hard not to follow the heroes (such as Milt Kahl, Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, Bill Tytla, Dave Hand, Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, Ken Harris, Rod Scribner or Bob Clampett to name but a few) too closely and ending up with inferior copies of their once original poses. It has often been said that character animation is mostly inbred and not inspired by real life as much as it could be.
I certainly believe in analysing great animation and practicing the basics. But in order to force myself not to use too many stock expressions I’ve decided to start this blog posting expressions I derived from live-action movies and other sources. I’m still trying to get a grip on this, so don’t expect any miracles…
This way I will hopefully create some kind of a library of specific expressions for myself as well as inspire others to do the same or simply criticize my work in the comments.

Since I know that I won’t be able to have drawings to post too frequently, I’ve decided to also include reviews and analyses of animated movies. Since I’m certainly more advanced as a scholar of film than as an animator, there will be a lot more on that side. Among other things my focus here – as this is mostly overlooked in many reviews – will be on color in animation. Hence the title of this blog: Colorful Animation Expressions.