ACTING for ANIMATORS
Anomalisa, written by Charlie Kaufman and co-directed by Kaufman and Duke Johnson, is a feature-length stop motion movie that cost US$8 million to make (Kickstarter) and is drawing rave reviews on the Festival circuit. Even Hollywood's industry newspaper, Daily Variety, has been stopped in its tracks. It will be released by Paramount to the general public in late December. Given that it was produced outside the Disney-dominated studio system, you will still have to search for it a bit if you want to see it. For anybody that believes, as I do, that animation is the most under-used and under-appreciated art form of the 21st century, Anomalisa is something to talk about!
Charlie Kaufman Screenwriting Lecture
On September 30, 2011, Charlie Kaufman delivered a remarkably insightful, occasionally rambling, lecture on the screenwriter's art for the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA). It is smart and worth your thoughtful time investment, especially in view of this month's craft notes. This is a subject that simply cannot be rushed. Information becomes knowledge, and knowledge, if you work at it enough (and are lucky), becomes wisdom.
"Apart from the known and unknown,
what else is there?" Harold Pinter
Upcoming Workshops . . .
Choose worthy role models . . .
Animators everywhere in the world understandably look up to Disney and Pixar. Wherever I travel and teach, it is obvious that animators consider those companies to be the gold standard of storytelling in feature animation, with DreamWorks bringing up the rear. They point to all the Academy Awards and billions of dollars in profits as proof of excellence and dream that one day they, too, will work for one of these studios. The problem is that these companies are really best defined as consumer-product operations, not as movie studios. In fact, Disney has not been primarily a movie-making company since the era of The Lion King, The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. Pixar, which began in 1995 300 miles away from Hollywood, was initially a movie-making company with Toy Story but, since it was purchased by Disney in 2006, Pixar’s creativity has been harnessed to sell the Disney brand. When international animators look at the movies being released by Disney and Pixar, they must be careful about what lessons to draw from them. It is most constructive and accurate to think of them as feature-length commercials, marketing tools. The invariable formula is to amuse, distract, evoke a tear or two perhaps and end with a big “Awwwww…” as final credits roll. None of them are classics any more, if by "classic" we mean a movie that will be seen and enjoyed fifty years from now. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is a classic, as is Pinocchio, Monsters, Inc. and The Little Mermaid. Frozen, Big Hero 6 and Inside-Out, for all their awards and massive grosses, are assembly-line product intended to motivate you to buy stuff. You really can’t learn much about movie-making and storytelling by studying them unless you understand the master they serve. The fact is that Walt Disney himself would have difficulty recognizing his own company if he could take a tour today.
As the Wall Street Journal reported (“Disney Milks Its Hits for Profits Ever After”, June 9, 2015), “Some on Wall Street no longer see Disney as a media company and see it more as a global consumer-products company like Nike.” Jay Rasulo, Disney’s former chief financial officer and current staff advisor to CEO Bob Iger, explained in the same article, “Almost every aspect of the company is now oriented around brands and franchises.” In other words, when these studios produce a new movie, their objective is to please Wall Street investors and to enhance the monetary value of the Disney brand, not to enlighten and inform the public.
Humans are storytelling animals. From birth to death, we tell stories, even in our sleep. It is in our nature to identify patterns and compelling narrative. Unlike any other animal, we learn most of our survival skills from stories. We possess the remarkable ability to empathize not only with each other but with the emotions of fictional characters. We are the only animals that, in juvenile play, can pretend to be somebody other than who we are. Hollywood's animation studios have successfully monetized our innate drive for narrative. Please do not misunderstand me: There is nothing inherently wrong, unethical or immoral in this, it is only a fact that needs to be recognized in the context of selecting role models. For Disney executives, success is measured in terms of rising stock prices and CEO payouts. This state of affairs in Hollywood has created a massive opportunity for filmmakers who, on the contrary, want to use storytelling in animation for artistic purposes, for inspiration and enlightenment. Animation, despite all of its financial success, is the most underused and underappreciated art form of the 21st century.
Director Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles) put his finger on this when, appearing at a 2013 fundraiser for California Institute of the Arts, asked, "Where's the Francis Ford Coppola or the Alfonso Cuaron of the field? ... Why can't there be an Annie Hall? … Why does it always have to be cute?" Answer: It has to be cute for the same reason that television commercials are cute. Commercials rarely leave the viewer awestruck, introspective or inspired because the plan is that the audience still be in the mood to buy stuff after the final credits roll. Aristotle, in the Poetics, observed that every human action has a purpose. For the big Hollywood animation studios, that purpose is to make money. Fine art – as opposed to commercial art – inherently has no practical purpose at all other than to communicate an artist’s ideas and feelings.
A feature-length animated movie does not have to cost US$150 - $200 million, which is what Hollywood typically spends. Since the advent of CG, technology has made it possible to create high production value feature animation at a fraction of what the big studios spend. This is why it is entirely possible to use animation as an art form and still make a profit. Make smaller movies that are designed for narrower demographics. Take advantage of the new forms of financing and distribution. Half of the movies I personally watch nowadays are via streaming, how about you? In the United States, commerce and art have always been restless bedmates. Commerce tends to hog all the blankets, leaving art to shiver in the night. The wisdom is that, if art has any value at all, then people will get out their wallets in order to see or hear it.
“The chief business of the American people is business,” observed Calvin Coolidge, the 30th President of the United States (1923-1929), during a 1925 speech. The USA is all about its citizens selling stuff to one another, and to the world. There ought to be a balance between art and commerce. In my view, The Iron Giant is art. Hollywood kicked that movie down the stairs because it was not deemed sufficiently commercial, yet today it is recognized to be a classic. Big Hero 6, the 2015 Best Animated Feature Oscar winner, is by contrast a feature-length commercial for the Disney brand and will be a distant memory 50 years from now when people are still enjoying Hogarth and the Giant.
Memo to animators in India, China, Indonesia, Thailand and South America: For storytelling inspiration, look inward at your own culture, not toward Hollywood. Find your own values, consider how those values might benefit the world at large and put those values in your movies. Just keep in mind that, if you want your movie to play internationally, you will probably have people in the audience who are not going to be familiar with your culture. It is your job to make cultures communicate with one another, to illustrate how it is that all humans everywhere in the world are the same and have precisely the same mandate: to survive successfully and to get the next generation into being.
In 1934, Walt Disney was the only person in the world who believed audiences would pay to watch a feature-length cartoon. At the time, the United States was in a great financial depression, with 20 percent of adults unemployed. Times were grim, and Walt set out to find a story that would inspire and amuse, in addition to showing what could be accomplished with the animation art form. Most industry professionals at the time considered Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to be “Disney’s Folly.” Yet when it opened in December 1937 it changed cinema history. Animators today are at a similar juncture. You are on your own in a troubled world. You are a pioneer, just like Walt Disney was, which is why you should not spend time and energy trying to copy Pixar, DreamWorks and Disney. Let the coming twenty years be your “Folly,” and you, too, will have a shot at changing cinema history.
Until next month...
Copyright © 2012-2017 Ed Hooks