Saturday, March 29, 2008

Speeding Towards Unreality

John Kricfalusi has said that the main advantage of live action over animation is the depth of expression in the human face. The strength of animation's exaggeration shows up better in bodily movement and contortion than facial contortions, which is why we want cartoon faces and bodies to do things human ones cannot. One of the worst casualties in the gradual de-cartoonification of cartoons since the 1960s has been the insertion of "realism" into design, leading to such thrilling expressive acting mugs like this...

Even when done skillfully, as in Disney films, the attempt to render realistic human performance in animated form is boring as hell: who's more fun to watch, Snow White or the Seven Dwarves?

Also, no celebrity voice actor, comedic or dramatic, can make a cartoon character more compelling than his animation does. Not Jerry Seinfeld, not useless Alec Baldwin. Celebrity voices in animation are for people who wouldn't go to see animation normally, which is why every studio animated film has them.

I was reminded of these concerns upon seeing the trailer and some stills from Speed Racer, which seemingly seeks to push the practice of putting human actors in near-total CGI green screen cartoon worlds to the logical/illogical breaking point: meticulous live action re-enactments of cartoon nostalgia.

Take a look at the lead actor plugged into his 200% fake environment. Sorry no image here, link protected.

Everything is distinguishable from reality but his little human face. The shiny pseudo-realistic surroundings are fake as hell, and look good in the sense of deliberate fakery, but if the actor were to be congruous with all of that he'd need to look like one of those hideous Polar Express or Beowulf mutants.

The Wachowski Brothers made live-action cartoons with The Matrix movies and in the parts 2 and 3 helped make the best case why no one should be making those types of movies. V For Bush Derangement Syndrome later, they have arrived at the decision that if Matrix style means cold and sleek, black and green computer screens, the live action adaption of a 1967 anime should be as multicolored as possible. As a result, it looks like barf, much like The Cat In The Hat or any faux-psychadelic kids movie monstrosity.

That's not a new problem. The newly minted awkward feature of Speed Racer is to throw in anime staples for their look alone - for the memory trigger of animation details within the broader context of a movie that has no purpose but the evocation of kitsch nostalgia. Ie,

a) Those thin background lines that imply speed

Live action version.


b) split screens with other graphical effects that seem utterly gratuitous in live action

From Entertainment Weekly, who don't let me swipe their EXCLUSIVO publicity stills:

''Everything in the film just pops a little more,'' Hirsch says of the picture's frenetic, cascading visuals. ''Larry and Andy do this thing with animation-style focus control, where two things can be in focus at the same time — it makes the movie pop like a comic. It's kind of cool and funny and iconic and quirky.

Juicy as this still looks, I refuse to believe that anyone would be taking so much care to make hyper-stylized fantasy movies like this, or that people would be going to see them, if the animation industry hadn't been mercilessly murdered on film and television. The explosion of fantasy films themselves simultaneous to the dearth of dramatic films for emotionally mature adult actors is like some twisted yearning howl for the time when American culture could separate the two and excel at both.

Note how most these kids-movies-for-"adults" (superheroes, Lord of the Rings, etc) are based on pop culture up until a certain point in history...the 1970s. For those keeping track, hippies destroyed Western Civilization by indoctrinating my generation into believing that because taste is subjective, so are standards of quality and skill.

Another EW quote from some techie, regarding this picture:

"Do you remember the 1980s video game Outrun with the palm trees flying past? A lot of the movie looks like that. But instead of using painted elements that they used in the early days [of anime], there are actually photographic elements flying past the road."

Look, in all honesty, I will probably be amused to see basic animation tricks like shifting background loops "on the big screen." But I can't pretend that this is progress. Our pop culture has been eating it's own tail for so long that it's emerging out the asshole.

In the same article, Christina Ricci is quoted as saying "You'd walk onto an empty neon set and they'd be like, 'Today the cliff is over here, over there is where the cars are parked, and your helicopter is in that direction." What's astonishing is none of those things were from The Wizard Planet or The Virtual Reality Computerverse. They're perfectly real things that the Wachowskis preferred to fake for the sake of fakeness.

Unlike a monkey.

W.C. Fields famously advised never to work with children or animals. A live-action monkey is the one thing I would've expected them to do in CG and they didn't. I guess that makes a monkey out of me! Article over!

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