Friday, August 17, 2007

Jim's Law of Animation, Comics, and Puppetry


I'll admit that Jim's Law of Movies is not particularly profound. I
hope to redeem myself with this post.

Jim's Law of Animation, Comics, and Puppetry stats that: A story
should only be animated, a comic, or a puppet show only if it has an
element of the otherworldly.


It's best understood through examples.

The Muppet Show is appropriate for a puppet show, because it
features talking caricatures of anthropomorphic animals.

The Belle of Amherst, a one-woman play about Emily Dickinson,
should not be a puppet show (which is why the suggestion was funny in
Being John Malkovich) because there is nothing otherworldly
about it-- there's just a human woman telling the audience about
herself. What's good about it is the story told and the acting.

Spirited Away should be animated because it features radish
spirits and a host of other fabulous beasts.

The Graveyard of the Fireflies, also by Studio Ghibli, should
not have been animated, because it was a realistic story about human
beings.

Y: The Last Man, should not be a comic because it's not
particularly visually interesting. It's a about the adventures of the
last human man on earth amongst all the women. It's otherworldly, but
not in the important sense. None of the images in the comic are
unbelievable. It should have been a novel, or possibly a film.

The Flight of the Osiris, the first film in the
Animatrix is completely computer-generated. What's the problem
with this? Well, it's depicting the same kinds of things the movies
do. There are people in the matrix and on Earth, etc. If a mix of live
action and computer graphics (CG) was appropriate for the movies, then
why should animation be appropriate for this short film? And in fact
it suffers from bad acting and the uncanney valley.

Okay, enough examples. I'm someone who dabbles in multiple art forms,
and when I get a good idea, I think about what medium it should be
in. Should it be a play? A screenplay? A short story? A novel? A
comic? A drawing? A painting? A poem? A dance piece? I understand that
the different media have costs and benefits.

Animation has the benefit of being able to feature otherworldly
characters and places in motion. Loony Tunes were a fantastic example
of the best use of the genre. They features anthopomorphic animals
getting into impossible physical situations, and the humor was largely
based on timing, which can only be approximated in comics and novels,
for example.

Comics allow incredible otherworldly scenery and characters, allow
careful frame composition, encourage re-reading, and can elegantly
communicate thoughts through text. Both comics and animation allow
pictured scenes to contain details that do not have to be described in
words. The comic Fables is a good example of the use of
comics. In the first collection, a detective is looking over an
apartment. All the clues he uses later are shown in the frames early
on. Describing these in a novel is possible, but takes considerable
finesse to not draw too much attention to them.

Puppetry has the enormous benefit of being three-dimensional, adding
to the illusion that the puppet is alive.

All of these genres take a major hit on acting, however. That is, you
cannot get acting in these genres that is as good as the best human
actors. In a story where good acting is paramount, one should try not
to use animation, comics, or puppetry. Someday, perhaps, computer
graphics and AI will have excellent actors, but on my understanding of
the field this is still very far off.

All media have good and bad things about them.

Novels have a terrible time with acting. There's only the barest
description of "acting" in a novel. There's no intonation, no facial
expression (aside from "Ted smiled.") Some of what novels have going
for them is that they can be arbitrarily long, and can feature inner
thoughts and exposition very well. Part of the reason reading Stephen
King is still worth doing even if you've seen the movie is because
they feature lots and lots of interesting inner thoughts that can only
clumsily shown in a film (recall the voice over in Lynch's
Dune.) Jurassic Park is a fun film, but much of the
scientific content is lost because communicating it in a film is
clunky.

I saw The Upside of Anger with my friend Daniel, which is a
pretty good movie. I'm going to spoil the plot it in this paragraph,
so if you want to see it, skip to the next paragraph. In it, a woman
thinks her husband left her and the kids to be with his
secretary. She's bitter and angry throughout the film, and at the end
she finds out he just fell in a hole and died in the woods behind her
house. Near the end of the film you see her in terrible pain over it.

When she's in terrible pain the acting is good, but you don't get to
see the fascinating inner thoughts that you would in a novel. At the
same time, the story benefits greatly from the acting in the
film. It's kind of sad-- no one medium does this story justice!

Television shows are terrific because they have the benefit of novel
in that they can tell long stories in which you can really get a
chance to explore a world.

2 comments:

Dustin said...

Why choose one form of media to express yourself?

Alan Moore regularily intersperses his graphic novels with large chunks of written text in novel format. Usually these are written by one of the characters in the story, and it is a great effect to hear their inner monologue put on the page. You can go through a novel, however, without reading these passages if you are impatient. No essential facts or events are there, just supplementary character development.

Tember said...

Saw the preview for the new Beowulf movie recently and it made me think of your blog. Obviously haven't seen the movie yet so I may be premature in judging but it looks like it has uncanny valley problems and bad use of animation. I mean why ya gotta animate humans like Angelina Jolie - it's not like it could possibly make her more hot! Will be interested to see how it all works out, though. See for yourself: www.beowulfmovie.com