Words: N Emmett
Animation has long been part of the special effect artist’s toolbox. For many decades – and, perhaps, still to this day – the most significant example of this was the sight of King Kong running amok in New York back in 1933: the main cast of the film may have been live actors, but the real star was as much an animated character as Gromit or Jack Skellington.
For many years, stop motion was the dominant form of effects animation. It was stop motion that brought King Kong to life, and was later used by Ray Harryhausen to create all manner of aliens, dinosaurs and mythical beings. This tradition lasted for more than half a century, but the nineties saw a shift towards CGI animation.
1993’s Jurassic Park is traditionally seen as the great milestone, but the symbolic turning point came a little earlier, in the Terminator films.
The climax of the original 1984 film showed Arnold Schwarzenegger’s robotic character losing his artificial flesh and becoming a juddering stop-motion skeleton; he may have been made of metal, but in spirit he was little different from the skeletal swordfighters seen in 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts.
In 1991, however, Terminator 2 saw Schwarzenegger’s old-fashioned robot butting heads with a more up-to-date model – one with an array of CGI effects at his disposal. The computer-enhanced Terminator was defeated at the end of the film, but in the long run it was his ethos that came out on top: stop motion creatures no longer had a place in live action films.
The switch from stop motion effects to CGI ushered in a larger change. Stop motion always left seams: when a Harryhausen monster picked up a human character, you could easily tell that the actor had been replaced with a miniature puppet. High-end CGI, meanwhile, prides itself on covering all of the joins when it slips in amongst the live action.
In animation circles, general consensus is that King Kong and Jason and the Argonauts are fundamentally live action films, albeit ones that have brilliant pieces of animation slotted into them. Nowadays, however, the process is often reversed: live actors are inserted into worlds of CGI animation. This has sparked a large number of debates amongst animation enthusiasts: at what point does an effects-heavy movie qualify as an animated film?
Some people would answer this by saying that a picture would have to be entirely animated to constitute an animated film. One problem with this definition is that live action can creep into surprising places: Wall-E and Happy Feet, both of which were presented and received as animated films, used CGI for environments and imaginary creatures (robots, evolved humans and dancing penguins) but also contained small amounts of live action footage to portray ordinary people.
The rules for the Oscars state that, for a film to qualify for the Best Animated Feature category, “a significant number of the major characters must be animated, and animation must figure in no less than 75 percent of the picture’s running time“. This would cover Wall-E and Happy Feet, but would also include James Cameron’s Avatar – a film generally classed as live action. The Academy regulations draw a rough line in the sand by arguing that motion capture – the technique in which a performer’s movements are transferred into computer graphics, which is generally used when the CGI character will appear alongside actors – does not constitute true animation. However, the aliens in Avatar (and the penguins in Happy Feet) are combinations of both motion capture and frame-by-frame animation, the latter method being used for smaller details such as the faces; these films would therefore still fit the Academy’s definition.
This month saw the release of another film that sits on the borderline between animation and live action: Gravity.
Set almost entirely in space, the film naturally makes heavy use of CGI in creating an extraterrestrial environment. During production, the filmmakers made a wholly CGI mock-up of the complete picture; previsualisations of this sort are often used for individual scenes, but Gravity took things further, as noted in this Wall Street Journal article:
First, a complete version of the movie was made inside a computer. The animation process called previsualization is a way that many filmmakers plan scenes, as a step beyond illustrated storyboards. But it’s unusual for an entire film to be “prevised.” Here, they essentially created a Pixar-style animation of the movie containing everything but the actors. The simulated spacecraft and tools other objects needed to look ultra-real rather than cartoony. Rather than just serving as a reference and planning tool, detailed imagery created in the previsualization became the movie
“You start very simple,” says [director of photography Emmanuel] Lubezki. “You have the Earth and the spacecraft and the astronaut. Then you start adding more elements. Wardrobe. Props. Light. Then texture. Just layers and layers until it looks so good. It doesn’t have the actors yet—it has animated characters.”
The article goes on to demonstrate just how much of the film was created using animation, even after the live action was inserted:
In some scenes in the film, the only thing on the screen that’s a “real” camera shot rather than something computer-generated is Sandra Bullock’s face. The spacesuits often are computer imagery. A couple of physical ship-console sets were built, but actors also interacted with white cardboard panels just to give them something to touch. Even a third astronaut who appears briefly is computer generated, with an actor providing only his voice.
This raises an interesting question: when the Oscar guidelines mention animated characters, would this category include CGI spacesuits with actors’ faces inserted?
Perhaps the neatest answer to that question has already been provided by the late Dick Arnall. In 2005, Arnall argued that the term “animation” was no longer useful: films such as Sin City and The Matrix had left the boundaries between animation and live action irrevocably blurred. His conclusion was that we should abandon the concept of animation but keep hold of its thoroughly unpretentious cousin, the cartoon. By this logic, Snow White, Toy Story and Wallace and Gromit are all cartoons; The Matrix, Avatar and Gravity are not.
Arnall’s clean-cut terminology never caught on, however. For the foreseeable future, enthusiasts of cartoons and animation will be debating the exact point at which the medium ends. But filmmakers will always be one step ahead, their experimentation constantly shifting the boundaries – and spurring new debates.