There is a moment in the computer-animated film The Incredibles that I love because it is impossible to see. Our hero, Mr. Incredible, has snuck into the island hideout of the jealous and deranged inventor, Syndrome. Mr. Incredible discovers the room that all evil geniuses in superhero movies seem to have: the dark, cavernous space in which a bridge leads to a platform suspended high in the center. Syndrome’s big, empty room contains a massive computer, from which Mr. Incredible learns of Syndrome’s dastardly plan to attack a major city. Incredible rises to action—to do what, precisely, we never discover, because just as Incredible turns to the bridge, he triggers an alarm.
“Intruder alert, intruder alert”, says a metallic voice. Lights snap on. The room, we now see, has no bottom. High, flat stone walls turn over to reveal several rows of cannons. These are strange guns: spherical and metal, with wide circular muzzles. One fires, hitting Mr. Incredible on his left bicep. A black, gooey ball sticks to his costume. Incredible tears it away from his arm. It sticks to his glove. The ball does not budge. In fact, it inflates, already twice its size from when it first struck. Another ball slams into Mr. Incredible’s shoulder and begins growing. Our man is in trouble.
The rows of guns now fire an incessant volley. Incredible makes for the door, the balls flying all around him, several hitting the bridge in front and behind. Many hit on target. Incredible’s legs, arms, hands and back are quickly covered. A ball hits him on the side of the face, knocking him to the bridge. The barrage continues. Incredible struggles forward—our hero, valiant to the last.
Then we see a quick series of shots. The spherical cannons firing. Our fallen hero. The balls landing around him. More cannons. Balls flying. Landing. Incredible covered. His hand raised. Eyes wide. Blackness. Then calm. The scene ends from Mr. Incredible’s point of view, the balls inflating around his head, nearly blocking his vision. We see enough to be aware of the approach of Syndrome’s henchwoman, Mirage.
The entire scene lasts only 37 seconds. It contains about eighty individual cuts, most of them in that single, quick series. Actually, “quick” is a vast understatement. The shots go by so fast that they cannot be seen, only sensed, like the discolored image after you have stared at the sun. Still, the sequence is a brilliant display of editing, and for that reason, it encapsulates a truly ingenious film.
Released in 2004 by Pixar Animation Studios and Disney, The Incredibles tells the story of a family of superheroes who at first hide their powers from a world that no longer appreciates them, using them again as they are called into action. Part satire, part adventure story, part children’s tale about the cohesion of a common family, the film takes its visual cues from a variety of sources: comic books, James Bond films, film noir, science fiction and American design in the 1950s. Painted in vast swirls of reds and oranges, it looks and feels like an autumn day: the great release of energy that comes from letting go at the end of a warm season. Once Syndrome strikes and the Incredible family has to test the limits of its powers, the pervading emotion is not exhaustion or an anxious sense of danger, but joy and excitement—a chance to get it all out, to finally see what these heroes can do. The film’s blistering pace, typified in such scenes as the one in Syndrome’s computer room, or the “100-mile Dash”, in which the family’s super-quick son, Dashiell, races Syndrome’s goons through an impressive variety of landscapes, is in keeping with this “what we can do” motif. As a result, The Incredibles is a breathtaking display of the possibilities of a new, ongoing age of computer animation.
Beyond the marvels of The Incredibles, American animation is enjoying a rebirth, inspired by the renaissance of Disney animation in the 1990s and recalling an earlier Disney animation period that began with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937 and lasted through the 1950s. In 2006, at least 14 feature-length animations were released in the United States, a record for any kind of animation. This year, more than a dozen are expected to hit the screens, and at least 16 animated films are already scheduled for release in 2008 and 2009, including a fourth Shrek, a third Toy Story and animated or partially animated films directed by Wes Anderson (The Fantastic Mr. Fox) and James Cameron (Battle Angels).
Yet contemporary computer animation displays a major aesthetic change from the feature-length animation of the past. The stories are different, but more critically, the visuals chosen to relay those stories have become faster, more detailed and more precise, such as that quick scene in The Incredibles—a benchmark for how visceral, evocative and emotive animation can now be. In short, the key difference between traditional cell animation of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s and computer animation today is the subtle but essential distinction between believability and realism. The Incredibles is realistic—in terms of its environments evoking a world we can all recognize did or does exist—but not believable in its visual presentation of actual human beings. Snow White, on the other hand, is believable, but not realistic.
Here’s the reason: As a process, animation has changed fundamentally. In the 1940s, a great amount of consideration was given to timing an animated film before any animation was done. Snow White danced across the frame first in the minds of animators, imagining and even acting out how long it would take for a given action to be completed. Then they drew the key moments of her movement—where she started, the midpoint in her motion, and her final stance—adjusting the length of the scene as needed. Only then did they fill in the gaps to make a fluid scene with a proper pace. The idea was to predetermine everything: lengths of scenes, postures and lip movements. Once these animators began drawing, there was no turning back. The characters had to match with the action and sound of a film precisely, their mouths speaking in concert with the recorded dialogue. In other words, if Pinocchio was singing, he needed to look like he knew the lyrics.
In the current computer age of animation, Woody—a living toy like Pinocchio, created for the first feature-length computer-animated film, Pixar’s Toy Story—was not drawn walking (though undoubtedly the discussion and role-acting continued). In computer animation, after the character’s look is sketched and decided upon, the character is modeled in three dimensions, often in clay first—an actual, real sculpture—but always on a computer at some point. Animators called riggers come in and give their new puppet its “strings.” They design skeletons and install joints, called avars, that will allow a character to move realistically on a computer screen. They give computer users controls to adjust character features like facial expressions, posture and arm and leg positions. Placing him in scene and incorporating other characters or backgrounds as needed, animators move the character through his actions and gestures frame-by-frame, capturing as an image all the poses needed to make the scene work in a smooth, seamless motion. This process is closer to puppetry and stop-motion animation (a famous variation of which is Claymation) than to hand-drawn animation.
Compared with cell animation, the differences in aesthetics created by this process are staggering. Classic-era Disney animations like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Dumbo or Cinderella have a particular look: flat but expressive characters, bright foreground color, and hazy or indistinct backgrounds. Most of those films had humans or humanoids as central characters, since technology like the rotoscope camera and the animation practices of the day made human figures easier to create. Human stories also gave Disney animators a simple means of evoking the audience’s sympathy, since a fair heroine is someone with whom an audience readily identifies.
When Disney’s animation studio tried to extend the possibilities of its own medium by experimenting with realistic animal forms in 1942’s Bambi, they did their jobs too well: Bambi’s characters display a hyper-realism, an anatomy of animal motion so well-studied and presented that the film has little time for anything but a rudimentary narrative. Memorable as the death of Bambi’s mother is, only brief moments of the film are spent on Bambi’s passage into adulthood and the encroachment of man into his forest, compared to the lengthy waking sequence that begins the film and showcases the various animals of the forest as they run to see the newborn Bambi at his mother’s side.
At about the same time, Disney’s animators turned to circus and fairy-tale worlds and two of literature’s most fantastic environments, Peter’s Neverland and Alice’s Wonderland, leaving behind their prior visual realism. Fantasia (1942) attempted to visualize and contextualize music. Even movies based on more child-friendly themes contained psychedelic moments, like Dumbo with its alcohol-induced “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence and Alice in Wonderland’s marching playing cards.
The culmination of all this creativity was 1959’s Sleeping Beauty, the first Disney animated film done in widescreen, the first done under the art direction of a single man, and the last to be entirely hand-inked, as opposed to a copying process which was developed shortly thereafter. The result: Sleeping Beauty is the Disney animated film with the most consciously crafted visual design. Based on gothic frescos instead of traditional animated imagery, the images in the film are unrealistic: flat environments, with distant objects appearing in focus, as if in the extreme foreground. Sleeping Beauty never nods toward an accurate portrayal of space. When the film’s story moves to the woods, for example, the trees are rigidly vertical lines, and against them, the horizons cut mathematically precise right angles. The environment appears as an unnatural grid. While the colors are gorgeous—rich but foreboding greens, blues and browns—the sense is still unnatural. It is artful without being practical. It is, in every sense, a fantasy.
This unreality doesn’t affect one’s suspension of disbelief in the film, since Sleeping Beauty ends with one of the most unforgettable moments in animated fantasy. Prince Philip, fleeing the witch Maleficent’s castle with the help of the three good fairies, races toward Sleeping Beauty’s bedside to wake her from the witch’s evil curse. Suddenly, he finds himself in a dense thicket of thorns and brambles. He hacks his way through, but Maleficent appears before him. She laughs and erupts upward into the clouds, becoming a vicious dragon, towering over the scene with glowing yellow-green eyes and green fire curling out of her nostrils. She breathes a flame down onto Philip, igniting the brambles and inspiring in both Philip and the audience a sense of genuine panic. The heroic fight ensues, knight against dragon, with the knight victorious only at the last gasp when the good fairies, in desperation, bless his sword so that it can be flung through the air like a dagger.
The scene is terrifying, and its emotion flows from the animation itself: the stark black and purple in the body of the dragon, its glowing eyes, the claustrophobia induced by the thorns and fire, the suspense created when Philip finds himself cornered at the edge of a cliff, and the shock that washes over us when the dragon, not Philip, tumbles over the edge. Even with its more stylized images, the essential visual style of Sleeping Beauty did not change from earlier Disney works. The images are still flat, and the world of the film looks like it cannot exist. But the audience still believes that Maleficent and her dragon could exist, at least within the brackets of this fantasy. Disney animators were not after realism with Sleeping Beauty, nor were they trying to instill a sense that this fairy-tale world was grounded in a place with which an audience immediately relates. Instead, the Disney studio focused on creating worlds that an audience believed, that allowed viewers to be taken imaginatively away. Certainly, creating beautiful heroines and their dashing rescuers helped them to do that. Believability was the goal, and the stark and endlessly memorable nature of Disney’s earliest animated films proves that their style was well placed in that cultural idiom.
Times have changed, along with the audiences. Animation is now, for most studios, the mandate of computer artists. Attempts to create believable worlds have now been replaced by attempts at true realism. Take character design. While Snow White, Bambi, Dumbo, Cinderella and other early Disney characters had a small team of animators assigned to each of them, the look of the character was fixed and drawn by a single person: the lead animator. With computers, and with the dimensionality of characters enabled by them, a character like Mr. Incredible now goes under the supervision of a lead animator to modelers and riggers. From there, he goes to the materials department, which designs the texture of his clothes and skin. The hair department then decides the color and placement of every hair on his head and body (an impressive feat considering the furry or feathery animals of other computer animated films, like Ice Age’s mammoth Manny, Monster’s Inc.’s bear-like monster, Sully, or Finding Nemo’s pelican, Nigel). After Mr. Incredible, dressed and haired, is placed on Syndrome’s bridge by a layout artist, the lighting department decides how the light in that given frame will interact with his hair, eyes, clothes and skin. The point of all this effort is not merely to invoke the audience’s belief; the point is to re-create reality.
Modern technology can do reality as never before. It allows for more to be done in less time. Computer-based characters are retained for every frame rather than redrawn, while close-up shots of distant backgrounds can be taken in massive computer-generated environments. It now takes two to four years to produce a feature-length computer-animated film, rather than the four to ten years Disney was pulling in the 1940s.
Despite needing less labor and time, the visual structure of computer-animated, feature-length films is more complex. No classic Disney film ever had, in half a minute, eighty “cuts” (the immediate jump from one shot to another in a film). Dumbo had about 700 in all. Pixar’s Finding Nemo, also a tale of a young animal separated from its parent by a human interloper and struggling with a physical deformity, had well more than twice as many. Finding Nemo is also 36 minutes longer than Dumbo—greater length being another advantage of computer technology—but the difference is still significant: Nemo has on average four more images per minute than Dumbo, making the visual effect seem smoother and fuller.
This visual sophistication is not merely the result of animators flexing their technological muscle. Almost every modern film genre is more quickly edited than were similar films fifty years ago. Recent action movies, period war epics, fantasy films and animations all feature sequences of shots presented so fast that their images become a visual blur to an audience. This comes from a culture now accustomed to bombardment by multiple stimuli: camera cell phones, video iPods, high-definition home movie theaters, news or sportscasts with streaming information, moving billboards. Media-driven, we expect quick editing. It has become our reality. Slow-paced scenes appear to us as unrealistic, even awkward.
In the same vein, computer animation has become a hub for cinematic experiments with familiar or old techniques intended to improve realism, creating several new directions for animation, and film itself, in the years to come. Producer/director Robert Zemeckis and Sony Pictures Animation have spearheaded the use of motion capture technology in feature-length filmmaking. The process, which has its roots in filmmaking but is most recently borrowed from video game designers, places actors wearing specialized suits or sensors in front of a camera that digitizes their performance into a computer. Tom Hanks’ bizarre re-creation as several animated characters in 2004’s The Polar Express, followed by 2006’s Monster House, proved that the technology can work, though its blurring of the line between reality and animation—taking character creation entirely out of the hands of animators—has led to criticism and wonder: If you’re going to pay Tom Hanks to be a physical presence in your movie, why not film him as you normally would?
Even more recently, DreamWorks Animation head and former Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg has vocally and adamantly championed 3-D. This coincides with the release of his former company’s Meet the Robinsons, which uses a 3-D technique largely developed by the Beverly Hills-based company, RealD. Decidedly more advanced than the gimmicky 3-D of the 1950s, modern 3-D uses digital imaging rather than film to project a movie onto the screen. The screen itself is painted with silver oxide to direct more light at viewers, who wear special polarized lenses to separate the film’s stereo images. These glasses are much more durable than the blue-and-red cardboard frames nostalgic 3-Ders will remember, but the effect is largely the same: Characters climb out of the screen, sweeping overhead in a visible but nonetheless kitschy change to the usual filmgoing experience.
Still, according to the Associated Press, RealD plans to have about a thousand screens operating with their technology by the end of the year, and such high-profile filmmakers as Zemeckis, George Lucas, Peter Jackson and James Cameron are planning projects or re-releasing old films to take advantage of expected demand. Katzenberg has gone so far as to suggest that this innovation will restore flagging movie theater attendance numbers, while hinting that his company will be releasing its films exclusively in 3-D, beginning with 2009’s animated feature, Monsters vs. Aliens.
These changes and advancements represent bold and uncertain steps at a time when there are few certainties in the movie business. The release of The Incredibles marked a turning point for computer animation’s contemporary progress. More than any other computer animated film, its individual scenes provide stellar examples of the excitement provided by computer-animated filmmaking. And now that computer animation as a genre is enjoying almost unparalleled popularity, the film should be used as a definitive model, though, given the time it still takes to plan and make computer animated features in Hollywood, we will not be seeing its influence until at least this fall, with Pixar’s newest film, Ratatouille, written and directed, like The Incredibles, by Brad Bird.
The storyline of The Incredibles was the first in a major American computer-animated film to be cut from Disney’s classic animation style. Its characters are good examples. Mr. Incredible is overweight and pudgy, adding bulk to his already massive physique. His wife, Helen (who goes by the superhero moniker Elastigirl) is shorter and much thinner, with an exaggerated hourglass figure that emphasizes her hips, which have endured three childbirths. Her two oldest children are Violet, a gangly, awkward teenager who hides from the world behind her hair, and Dash, the obnoxious little brother built short and low to the ground.
As human figures these characters are all highly stylized in appearance. Their features are meant to suggest the powers each secretly possesses: Mr. Incredible’s super strength, Elastigirl’s ability to stretch and change her shape, Violet’s power to turn invisible, and Dash’s super speed. Their figures are not meant to be anatomically correct, nor does the overall 1950s design of the film offer any sort of contemporary grounding. “Design” is the key word: The Incredibles is an artful film, with a specialized look and color scheme very similar to that of Sleeping Beauty.
What makes The Incredibles unique is its recognition of the limitations of computer technology. The Incredibles was one of the first computer-animated films with humans as central characters. Computer animation’s dependence on blockish modeling software and the complexity of human form and movement prevent human characters in computer-animated films from looking as convincingly real as everything else in the film. In 2001, video-game-based Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within offered a bold first try at realistic human characters, though their bulkiness failed to impress viewers and critics alike. DreamWorks came close with plausible if decidedly cartoonish figures in Princess Fiona and Lord Farquaad in Shrek and Shrek 2. This year’s Meet the Robinsons is a step forward, especially in the lanky design of its villainous Man with the Bowler Hat. In service to story, though, most of the film’s individual character designs are all too similar, driving home the film’s point about the importance of familial connection. Its look is visibly derived from Pixar’s earlier efforts, especially since Robinsons is the first Disney film released under the complete creative control of Pixar founder John Lasseter, now head of Disney’s animation division. The most visually stunning film in the genre is still Pixar’s Finding Nemo, where superbly defined and visualized fish overshadow the fact that the human characters in the film do not attain the same level of visual realism.
If Disney’s earliest animated films stressed fantasy worlds—not real but still believable—current computer animation sweeps audiences away with how precise and perfect its surfaces and spaces seem to be. Yet where Disney’s classic films embraced human characters, computer animation still only rarely attempts to portray convincing human characters. How real, then, can computer animated films be? Perhaps very much so, as long as the films don’t attempt to portray humanity through realistic-looking humans. Finding Nemo, with an underwater panoply of sea creatures that worked as much as a character as it did as a setting, was astonishingly convincing. Charming if less critically successful films like Blue Sky Studio’s Ice Age (2002) or Disney’s Chicken Little (2005) take up the old short-form animation banner that animal characters can deliver in human contexts. The difficulty is that the desire to create figures with which audiences can readily identify strongly influences the kind of stories animators, and for that matter storytellers, want to create, and the most identifiable figures are humans. Disney proved that with its heroines. But until computer technology gets better, computer animation will be hindered by its difficulties in producing realistic human forms.
This is not an insurmountable obstacle. It simply requires a change of mind, from animation that strives for visual realism to animation that supports good storytelling, the way Pixar did with the purpose-driven human figures of The Incredibles. That is ultimately the greatest advantage of animation: Every detail can be conceived and then constructed with story in mind—tailored to fit, if you will. When that is done well, computer animators will create real artistic masterpieces, not just whiz-bang technological marvels of baroque complexity.