Rise of the machines

Filming with real actors is a dying art, as cartoons and computer-generated features rule the multiplex. David Thomson laments the deadening grip of the animators
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The animated feature film thunders on. The new Fox picture Robots was the most successful movie of its opening week in America; it opens here today. Meanwhile, in the US, The Incredibles - the most recent film from Pixar - has just been released on DVD as the obvious Easter present for children. As I write this, my 10-year-old son is intensely engaged with a Japanese animated series on television, for which he eagerly buys souvenir cards. And, week after week, The Simpsons is reckoned to be one of the wisest and wittiest shows on television (as well as a commentary on all that archaic "live action").

The animated feature film thunders on. The new Fox picture Robots was the most successful movie of its opening week in America; it opens here today. Meanwhile, in the US, The Incredibles - the most recent film from Pixar - has just been released on DVD as the obvious Easter present for children. As I write this, my 10-year-old son is intensely engaged with a Japanese animated series on television, for which he eagerly buys souvenir cards. And, week after week, The Simpsons is reckoned to be one of the wisest and wittiest shows on television (as well as a commentary on all that archaic "live action").

There are people who will tell you that The Incredibles was actually the best movie of 2004. But the same faction takes it for granted that the Academy will always regard "animation" as a separate category, seldom intruded on by the major awards (that's why there was so much pressure a few years ago for a special Oscar for animated pictures). The things that win the best picture Oscar, they say, are serious dramas with live action and human faces going through introspective agonies.

Well, I know what they mean, but at the same time there is actually less and less film material that is pure live action, and more and more that has undergone the kind of non-photographic processes that were once called animation in those far-off days when "animation" meant Walt Disney - because nobody else did it.

Think of it this way. At a certain stage of movie history, cinematography prevailed: the sheer wonder of the lifelike moving image was sufficient to entertain audiences. In that era, the camera was trusted to record the action organised in front of it: the rays of light burnt into the photo-sensitive emulsion; a print was made from that negative; and the print was then projected in theatres all over the world. And so the movie-going public was given life itself - whether it looked like the desert in Death Valley or the gloriously beautiful face of Greta Garbo.

In practice, there were usually some distortions of the reality, or some modest improvements made to it: in Death Valley, the cameraman may have used a filter to make the sky a little darker or more primeval than it really was. In filming Garbo, a long lens may have been employed, enough to leave the background blurry - an effect that makes her sharp focus all the more ethereal. And Garbo may have had a good deal of dental work, plus lots of gymnastic exercising and a little surgical assistance here and there.

Still, when animation arrived in movies - really in the late Twenties - it was appreciated as a quite different way of doing things. You did not film life. You drew life and filmed that, one frame at a time, and thus brought a herky-jerky motion to toy-like creatures or cute animals. Some people even drew or painted directly on the film stock - after all, any piece of old film acquires its unique abstract animation in the form of scratches on the film. In the English-speaking cinema - above all in that of America - it was taken for granted that that kind of animation or cartoon characterisation was most naturally aimed at children, because it seemed less serious or dramatic than live action.

Walt Disney didn't actually create and own all those "lovable" characters. But his company pioneered Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, and 10 years or so after the first efforts, they launched animated features. There was a good deal of doubt expressed over this adventure. Some pundits felt that animated movies had to be brief - that there was almost a degree of eye strain in watching them - and that they couldn't really sustain long stories, let alone adult interest. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) defied that pessimism. At 83 minutes long, it cost $1.5m (six times the original estimate), but it earned $8m and won an honorary Oscar (one full-size statue and seven smaller ones) for having "pioneered a great new entertainment field". Its success promoted the Walt Disney company from a limited area of film entertainment to the foundation of a strange kind of empire for children - or childishness.

Despite some honourable and brilliant competitors - like the work of Chuck Jones at Warners (Bugs Bunny, Road Runner, Daffy Duck, Tweety Pie) and William Hannah and Joseph Barbera (Tom and Jerry) - Disney had decades on their own. In that period, they kept on doing shorts, but their features went from Dumbo and Bambi to Lady and the Tramp and The Jungle Book. Television seemed to increase their hold, and in 1956 Disneyland was opened in Anaheim, California - the first great theme park.

Of course, there was another kind of animation, and it was most evident in Eastern Europe and in Canada. Taking just two exponents of it - Jiri Trnka and Norman McLaren - it was clear that animation did not have to be childlike. The forms could be astonishingly beautiful or sinister. The films could be of any length, from fragment to epic. And there was no intrinsic reason why animation could not be a form for adult entertainment and mature themes. McLaren (a Scot who went to Canada) was a genius of abstract animation, especially of films set to music. His Begone Dull Care (1949) is only three-and-a-half minutes long, but its use of coloured forms to imitate the music by the jazz pianist Oscar Peterson is still exhilarating. In Czechoslovakia, Trnka mixed puppetry and animation in full-length features such as The Good Soldier Schweik (1954) and A Midsummer Night's Dream (1959).

Even in America, Ralph Bakshi attempted to make animated features that were satirical, X-rated, tough and aggressive - Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic and Coonskin were his dangerous works, but it was at least 20 years before their example was picked up.

Famously, in the Eighties and Nineties, Disney lost its monopoly over animated films for children. By then, that empire was doing many other things, like making live-action feature films, getting involved with ABC television and Miramax, and venturing into Euro Disney - in a word, diversifying. The company found real competition in DreamWorks, one of whose founders, Jeffrey Katzenberg, had quit Disney after a dispute with the chairman Michael Eisner. The guiding spirit behind such films as Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King at Disney, Katzenberg now proclaimed the express intention of surpassing Disney's quality of animation. DreamWorks' output includes the Shrek films, and the company has recruited or stolen several animators from Disney.

Then there was the added rivalry with Pixar, a northern Californian company that has so far released its pictures through Disney, from Toy Story through to The Incredibles. And now there's also Fox, which entered the arena with Ice Age (2002) and now has Robots.

Still, the quality of animation (despite computer assistance) has not improved very much. The rainfall and the fire in Bambi may be unsurpassed still: that was an age when the immense labour of drawing every frame seemed to stimulate the artists. And if you were to ask which is the most interesting animated film from America in the past 20 years, I'm not sure that I wouldn't name Robert Zemeckis's Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), which managed at the same time to be brilliantly inventive, a fond history of animation and a continuation of Chinatown.

But if you really want to see the best current animation, go to Japan, especially to the work of Hayao Miyazaki, Spirited Away (2001). There's an example of how easily the field of animation could be claimed by a dazzling new breed of visual artist. It can't be long before someone who might once have been a painter begins to take film to fresh heights.

Many of the recent American animated features have used star actors, or their voices, in a new way. Once upon a time, the voices in animation were unique creations. Today, stars are delighted to bring their lustre to animated pictures. Tom Hanks was prominent on Toy Story. Shrek has Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy and Cameron Diaz. Finding Nemo used Albert Brooks and Ellen DeGeneres, and on Robots you'll hear Robin Williams. Of course, they're paid for the work, but I think they are willing simply because of that feeling that successful animated films are now at the forefront of the business and are seen by "everyone".

That is a brief history of feature animation in America, and of a world that hasn't changed much since Disney's heyday. But the prospects have altered dramatically. Television has found an broader range of tone and thrust in animation: The Simpsons may delight kids, but it has a large adult audience. South Park is often unsuited to children because its satire is entirely grown-up. I'm sure one motive behind South Park is to shatter the trite equation of animation and children.

Then consider the enormous increase in importance of "graphic novels" in the last 20 years - essentially the comic-book format, but often very violent, noir and sexy, or philosophically challenging. A new young generation has come of age convinced that the graphic novel is more relevant to them than literary novels.

Finally, there is the huge growth in interactive video games played on the TV set in which the imagery is vaguely lifelike but actually animated, and in which the old-fashioned flicker of movement has been replaced by a very suggestive "swimming" motion.

Is it therefore any wonder that, as we look at our supposed feature films - the old stronghold of live action - we actually see so many instances in which cinematography has given way to computer-generated imagery or to a kind of animation in which the lifelike can be reproduced? There are some of us who lament this shift in direction - I admit, I am one of them - and its loss of real time, real space and real expression, which make the worlds of Jean Renoir, Orson Welles and Max Ophuls so meaningful.

But the historian will not change the facts by simply ignoring them. And mocking imagery generated by computer may blind one to the new sensibility it ushers in. In all the questions one hears about where cinema is going, I think one has to face up to a kind of modern disdain for archaic virtues - credibility, character, story and so on. It's as if a generation has come into being so overfed on movie fiction that it needs to transcend it. So many kids today refuse to be moved by stories and prefer to study the motion. That's not just a play on words: it's an observation of where we are going that amounts to a fatigue with the lifelike and a willingness to be far more playful with film.

Even I can begin to get the feeling that photographed faces are old hat, stale and actually subject to a limited repertoire of "sincere acting" that was always codified (and implicitly moved) in the various expressions possible in animation. That's one reason why the drawing in The Simpsons and South Park is deliberately quick, crude and limited - it leaves Bambi looking as if it might have been drawn by Poussin. In some interactive games, of course, the faces are resolutely blank, as if to signal a kind of existential impossibility: it does not matter what you think or feel, expect to kill or be killed.

You may ask (and in many ways I want you to ask): but how could anyone ever accept or believe in a great love scene done in animation? Except that I think that question comes too late, because love scenes are exactly the kind of emotional crisis that the young audience now shrugs off. There is a way in which they have come to believe that action transcends all motivation, or the debate over it - let alone the feelings that might inspire it. It's a part of that new numb approach that is never impressed by acting, in that acting is usually an attempt to make you believe, to make you share the sincerity of characters and situations. Whereas maybe the new movie is just an opportunity to follow spectacular action - like driving in a simulated Grand Prix game (you may have a head-on collision, but you only lose points. Then you can start again, at full speed).

No, I am not happy with this, and I hope you will feel that I am being alarmist - but don't give up your capacity to be alarmed. And don't be surprised if I opened at least a door on the future here in which there may be far more animated material than ever - or, at least, material that is not simply photographic or representational. One great benefit of this could be the final sundering of that ridiculous fallacy that animation is linked to childhood. I say ridiculous, because I fear that the larger ministry of the Disney empire has been to extend and protect childishness in America, even against education. I think animation does offer a great deal in the way of satire (it's not just South Park that is scathing, but Gillray and Hogarth). It could even become a basic form of television. Aren't talking-head shows increasingly drab and monotonous? Don't news programmes feel antiquated, with nice-looking zombies trying to be neutral? Couldn't a drawn face, a real model face, with six degrees of interest, service us and our news more efficiently?

I leave it to you to judge how far I'm teasing, and how far I may be constructing a future for film and TV. Not that the older generation, still sentimental over stars and their stories, will determine this future. It will come increasingly from the binary system inherent in all computers, where everything is one thing or another - but nothing beyond that. In other words, we have been used to pictures of life for hundreds of years and yet it may be that we are moving towards a culture in which illustration material is diagrammatic. If you think of it, one of the great insights of Cubism was that a face is usually one thing or the other - so why not both at the same time?

Pie in the sky? Or the end of the world? Let's just say that animated film - despite the early cult of Mickey and Bambi - may signal the real life of film, as an information-bearing system. At this moment in time, "animation" still means Mickey Mouse and Disney, but it has had to stretch to contain the beautiful anime work of Miyazaki as well as the merchandise-driven craze for Pokemon. It means Nick Park and the Quay brothers, as well as The Triplets of Belleville. Yet it also creeps towards all those film or TV things that are not exactly "filmed" in "live action". Don't be too surprised if, in the next 10 years, the imposition of design on the frame becomes the mainstream of what we once called movies.