Monday, November 11, 2013

Editorial: Hand-Drawn vs. Computer Animation

Longtime fans of mine, assuming I have any longtime fans, may recall my vendetta against the Shrek series of films. I believe my review of Shrek the Third made that quite clear. After the release of the first entry in 2001, an unfortunate trend grew in the animation market. It seemed as though in order for an animated film to sell in America, it had to appeal exclusively to the lowest common denominator. Concurrently, on an aesthetic level, traditional hand-drawn animation was being phased out by the Hollywood machine in favour of computer-generated imagery. This being the case, I eventually associated CG animation with the evils that the Shrek franchise appeared to have brought upon the market, and the force that was subduing 2-dimensional, or quote-good-unquote animation.

Of course, my objections to Shrek, and everything that would claim inspiration from it, aren't just their contributions to the dumbening of our collective culture. Nope, it's also personal. I can't stand to look at even a still image from any of said movies lest I reserve a ticket for some night terrors. Personally, I chalk it up to the Uncanny Valley. You know the one. As we add human characteristics to a thing, we like it more and more, up to a point where we don't like it. (Refer to the graph below, replacing "zombie" with "Shrek" and "humanoid robot" with "any non-Gonk anime character".) It is my belief that characters like Shrek, Donkey, and most other non-humans from the films are smack-dab in the nadir of the Valley. This has nothing to do the technical qualities with which Dreamworks Animation renders its image; it's how they chose to stylise their characters which came off as creepy to my warped set of tastes. (Also I had discovered anime a few years before then and was slowly starting to identify with its animation style, but that's just coincidence! ...Right?)

The Uncanny Valley graph.
But not too long ago, I did some soul-searching on the matter. And I discovered: what is 3D animation but an extension of 2D animation? However you stylise a 2-dimensional drawing, its essence can still shine through when you use it as the basis for a 3-dimensional model. For example, I believe at an early stage of development, the first Shrek film was to be done in a traditional 2-dimensional animation style, but I can't guarantee I would've found the results less creepy. As such, let me state for the record: there is CG animation I like, for example the cutscene movies for Final Fantasy and other video games. Not to mention, nowadays I'm seeing characters in works like Disney's Tangled and their upcoming Frozen, and Dreamworks' own How To Train Your Dragon, of all things, which are stylised in such a way that I can bear to look at them for more than a fleeting glimpse out the corner of my eye -- quite more, in fact. On the flip side, there is also hand-drawn animation I don't like, for example The Wild Thornberrys, Rocket Power, and pretty much everything ever made by Klasky-Csupo which doesn't involve the Rugrats. My enjoyment of a piece of animation thus has more to do with the end result and less with how they got to that result.

So with that excuse knocked out of the picture, you might assume that I favour foreign (read: Japanese) works over the Hollywood movie machine. And for a moment, I'd be tempted to agree with you. After all, I have expressed bouts of cultural cringe regarding what the Red, White, and Blue have collectively become. But it's not as simple as that, either. The West has produced works I'd be proud of, make no mistake about that. A good part of the Disney and Pixar ouvres, obviously. Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra are not only some of my favourite animated TV shows of all time, but critically some of the best series I've ever seen (like, Dragon Award-worthy), although to be fair, they did use their Asian counterparts for inspiration. Heck, even the nefarious Dreamworks Animation has put out a movie I personally like, every once in a while. I liked Kung Fu Panda, and whilst I was less than impressed with the story of How To Train Your Dragon (mayhap the sequel will fix this?), I liked its art style and character designs, as mentioned before.

Of course, I still maintain that the vast majority of anime programming can trump the weakest (and therefore most commonplace) of its American counterparts. Maybe it's the fact that they don't feel the connection that cartoons have to be made only for children, as seems to be the case around here. This is a phenomenon known as the "Animation Age Ghetto", and I will be miserable about this to the end of my days. But the content of anime, on the other hand, is about on the level with our live-action primetime TV. In fact, the reason (as I'm aware of) why animated subject matter is so wide-ranging in Japan is that over there, it's apparently more expensive to film live-action programming than it is to make animated features. [citation needed] So I'm like, why not just run anime programming on the Big Four networks? I suppose it could be a conflict of interest with our studios in Hollywood, what do I know. Also I really should stop answering my own rhetorical questions.

But, as always, it's not as simple as "non-American = good". Look, when anime, good, it's *really* good, I'm not trying to deny all the Hayao Miyazakis and Cowboy Bebops they've given us over the years. But more so in recent years, it seems as if the anime market is falling back on fanservice and concepts like "moe". You know, stuff that makes it harder to be taken seriously. Believe me, I've got another rant in me to commiserate the directions in which anime is heading, but that rant's for another day. So in the end, I guess the only way to go is to call them like I see them, support anything which I see as good, and leave the rest hanging.

Why am I writing about all this? Perhaps I'll review one or more of the other Shrek movies someday. Or perhaps I'll just dunk my head in a bucket of frying oil instead, it would be less painful. (It would be more painful, don't do it.) After all, you could say my fury at the Shrek franchise is merely scapegoating. And you know who else is guilty of scapegoating? Hitler.


Oh my God, I just compared myself to Hitler. I immediately take that back. No one deserves to be compared to Adolf Frickin' Hitler. (Besides, Stalin was worse.) At any rate, it's my blog, and anything's in the cards. Until then...

This is IchigoRyu.

You are the resistance.

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