Apologies for the long hiatus, I've just been focused on other things or taking my time with blogposts, but I now have one ready, and it's on a topic that should have been discussed for some time now.
I know this is a common complaint, and I know this is also going to come as a shocker to some people, but I'm just going to say it:
I am so sick and tired of seeing 3D CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) Animation all the time.
You may think, from that statement alone, that I hate CGI. I don't. There has been a lot of great animation made with this medium. Studios like Pixar and Dreamworks have done wonders with 3D animation. It's just that, like many other people, I miss the traditional hand-drawn animation of the films of yesteryear and am so burnt out by the CGI-saturated animation industry. And I get it. Animation has to evolve and change. But I feel there's still a lot of ground left for 2D hand-drawn animation and the other forms of animation to cover. We haven't even begun to scratch the surface of a lot of this stuff. But it feels like CGI is hogging most of the glory.
I mean, seriously, not only are 3D computer graphics in animated movies, but they're also in live-action movies, video games, TV shows, web media, all that sort of thing. At this point, the fine line between live-action and animation is being blurred further because of how many CG effects are incorporated into movies. Everything's gone digital, even the film that’s being used to make the stuff, and it’s getting really tiring to the point that I’m surprised people aren’t complaining about sensory overload or burnout.
Ultimately, though, it's not so much the medium itself that I dislike, since, like I said, there's been some good CG stuff put out, but rather a few different things about it that I feel has led to a LOT of problems. Just a note, by the way, while I will be touching on the subject of CG in live-action and video games, I’m mainly focusing on animated movies, shorts and shows for my examples, because something like CG for live-action can take up a whole other article. So with that out of the way, here are what I feel are some of the problems with this CG excess:
-The Desire for "Realism"
I've heard stuff about CG animators trying to create life-like imagery. Personally, I think this is a terrible idea. Part of what makes animation so attractive to me is because it DOESN’T look life-like. It’s a caricature of life, whether it's drawn or rendered in three-dimensional graphics. It's already hard enough to make CGI appealing as is, so these steps into realism just come off as a big mistake. This mindset makes me wonder how many of these people have ever heard of the "Uncanny Valley".
|A chart representing The Uncanny Valley Theory|
The Uncanny Valley, for those unfamiliar with the term, is the sensation where something that looks almost, but not quite, realistic, causes revulsion or uneasiness from the viewer due to its creepy looking nature. It's complicated to explain, but I’ve put up a chart to serve as a visual representation, showing the relationship between how human something looks and how much people will like it. If something non-human is given human qualities, it becomes endearing, but if it’s given too many human-like qualities or trying too hard to replicate real life, then it becomes more like an imperfect simulation that people will find disturbing. It’s possible to make something that looks and feels almost perfectly human, but it’s incredibly easy to slide back down to that drop in the chart. That drop is the Uncanny Valley.
To put it basically, we can tell when something doesn't look like real life. The eye is a complex organ (trust me, my dad's a retired optometrist,) and can pick up on the littlest subtlety. A lot of people can tell when something isn’t really there, and when whatever you’re looking at looks off or unnerving in some way, chances are, we’ll be looking anywhere BUT the thing we’re supposed to be looking at.
|MERCIFUL HEAVENS, WHAT IS THAT THING?!!?|
This is a phenomenon that not even the mighty Pixar is exempt from. Their otherwise fine 1988 short, Tin Toy, was marred by a creepy-looking CG baby that looked less like an actual baby and more like a hellish abomination that menaced the toy protagonist. To be fair, though, this does effectively put us in the toy's position because we're as freaked out by this thing as the toy is.
|You'd have no idea this was based on a book by Berkeley Breathed unless I had mentioned it.|
Want to know why most of the experiments in motion capture like "The Polar Express" and "Mars Needs Moms" failed? Because of this desire for "realism". They strived so hard for perfection in “realism” that the movies fell flat, essentially melting their wings by flying too close to the sun. There have been aversions to this, like I've heard good things about that Tintin movie, but for the most part, motion capture tends to bring about a horrific looking type of CG.
Sure, a foot in realism is a fine thing to have when you're working in animation, but at times like this, it gets to be used as a crutch. I’ve seen footage of the Disney Studios filming certain scenes in live-action and using that as reference for their classic animated films. The difference, however, is that the animators didn’t completely replicate the reference down to the last detail, they studied and adapted it to animation while adding to it, like making the poses more dynamic or exaggerating certain actions. I feel this is a much better approach than just simply mo-caping everything.
The reason I don't care for a lot of modern video games is that the majority of them have this strange desire to make the characters more realistic-looking, like they think we won't be able to take it seriously if it's in a cartoony looking style, which I think is ridiculous. I'll go more into this in another article, but suffice it to say, if I had to choose between something like Call Of Duty and, say, Ratchet And Clank, the latter would win, hands down.
I like animation that is stylized and creative, and this applies to CG animation as well. One of the things I'm liking about the output of Sony's CG Animation unit, as evidenced by movies like Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs and Hotel Transylvania, is that it doesn't strive for realism, it strives to give the animation that same speed, timing and punch that is in a lot of cartoony hand-drawn animation. Some of that sort of quality does show up in the other studios' works as well, like Blue Sky Studios did a remarkable job translating Peanuts into CG, with the animation feeling a lot like the original specials that Bill Melendez made, and of course, the short film Presto and many of the sequences inside Riley's head in Inside Out have some of the most stylized, cartoony CG animation I've seen from Pixar. Still, it feels like when CG animators strive for such extreme realism, it makes one wonder why they even want to animate in the first place.
-Quantity Over Quality
Is it just me, or have CG animated movies just kept coming out faster and faster? I don't just mean in American theaters, I mean in international theaters and in Wal-Marts the world over.
I've been making a list of my favorite animated movies, and there are very few computer animated films on that list to date. Most of these computer animated films are from Pixar. Sure, studios like Dreamworks, Blue Sky, and even Walt Disney Animation have been turning out some decent CG work, but putting aside the fact that it also comes down to personal preference, (to me, Pixar still does CGI the best,) if you were to look at a lot of the output of some of the lesser known stuff, most of it ranges from mediocre to just downright awful. After CG movies started making all the money in the early 2000s, practically EVERYONE wanted to ride that train of success. The results were very hit-or-miss. We had movies that were trying and failing to be the next Toy Story or the next Shrek, like Planet 51, Happily N'Ever After, or (Lord help us) Fly Me To The Moon. And don't even get me started on those ripoff movies by the likes of Video Brinquedo or Spark Plug Animation. Trust me, the less said about those, the better.
|Not actually Ratatouille, but an unconvincing simulation. Had you been actually watching Ratatouille, you would have been substantially more entertained than from watching this.|
Pixar director Andrew Stanton once said, "A lot of people think if they make a computer-animated film, it's going to be a hit. I'm afraid we're going to see a glut of really bad films in the next couple of years."
And for the most part, he was right. While there have been good non-Pixar CGI movies made, the majority of these movies are just disposable crap that, more often than not, are made for the sole purpose of making a quick buck. And because so many CGI films have been churned out at a near constant rate, a lot of the animated movies that are usually considered the worst, like Foodfight, have come out ever since CGI started to become more commonplace. Even today, there's still third-rate 3D animation being
released unleashed onto audiences
whether they want it or not. (Norm Of The North, anyone?)
|"Rob Schneider is... A POLAR BEAR!" But no one gives a flying hoot.|
Another problem I’ve noticed with recent CG films is that a lot of them seem more like kiddy fluff, like the same brightly-colored obnoxious claptrap with different outer shells. It’s another example of that “animation is for kids” mindset that I absolutely despise with the passion of a thousand suns. These movies just play themselves way too safe and just focus on one type of movie: the family comedy. CGI animated family comedies, in and of themselves, aren’t necessarily a bad thing, but when you have a medium that’s capable of just about anything, it can get really tiring.
Illumination Entertainment, the studio behind the Despicable Me movies, is one of the worst examples of this, as well as one of the worst animation studios in the modern era. Because they’re able to keep their movie budgets low compared to other CG animation studios, they’re able to make boatloads of money with safe, mediocre kiddie comedy fluff that offers next to nothing resembling quality and getting away with it. Because they utilize these cost-cutting strategies to churn out movies that lack in substance, they so perfectly exemplify the statement that the theatrical animation industry has become quantity over quality.
An interesting case in this whole thing is Dreamworks. They're pretty much stereotyped as being responsible for many of the worst trends of CGI movies, like toilet humor, forced pop culture references, attempts at being hip, pop music hits on the soundtrack, you name it. As they've shown with the Kung Fu Panda movies and the How To Train Your Dragon movies, however, they can move beyond that stereotype and create movies that are not only beautiful to look at, but engaging and entertaining in their content. Sadly, some of their recent movies, like Trolls, are turning out to be more along the lines of the aforementioned kiddy fluff, but that’s beside the point. I've heard of smaller CG movies that have fallen into the aforementioned stereotype of toilet humor, pop culture references, and forced hipness that came out AFTER those movies. (Again, Norm Of The North.) I don't know how long some of them were in production for, but there should be little excuse for a lackluster product.
To me, I think that good CGI requires a lot of time, money, and effort. In his book "Independently Animated", Bill Plympton, who used CG backgrounds for his otherwise hand-drawn short, "Shuteye Hotel", once mentioned that it's hard to make your budget back if you use CGI for a short film, which goes to show that CGI clearly isn't cheap. I don't know the overall costs, but I figure that really good computer animation requires a budget that at least goes into the hundred thousands or millions if you're making a feature, so this is clearly not the best choice for indie animation. A powerful operating system is also a plus, because the CG needs to render properly and look pleasing to the eye.
But technology and a big budget can only get you so far. You need to have especially talented artists on board. It is really hard to get appealing images in CG without falling into the Uncanny Valley, especially on the first go. Part of the reason I'm not a fan of cheap, low-budget CGI is because most of the time the characters or other visuals don't look very appealing. They need the manpower of incredibly talented character designers and concept artists and the ability to determine what looks right or not. They need animators capable of actually animating the stuff. And of course, it needs to have a good solid story as its backbone. While I don't think story should be the only thing that matters in making an animated film, the truth of the matter is that, even if you have some of the best looking animation out there, it's not going to be worth anything if it doesn't offer some form of substance, like in its story, its characters, or its entertainment value.
I'm not sure how fast a CG production is compared to a hand-drawn production or a stop-motion production, but suffice it to say, I feel that by churning these CGI films out faster and faster, we're just going to keep getting crap. At some point, people are going to have to realize the danger of this, because if not, we might get a major crash, like The Great Video Game Crash of 1983, which came about because of an overabundance of low-quality games, like E.T. and Pac-Man for the Atari 2600. I feel something like that could possibly occur with theatrical CG animation, because of how oversaturated this market has gotten. This oversaturation has already had a tremendous impact on the industry as a whole, and not all of it is good.
Stay tuned for the next part...