Friday, May 09, 2008

Speed Racer Learns from Manga, Can Teach Feature Animation a Few Things



I'm generally not a fan of live-action adaptations of animated TV shows, because they almost always disappoint. The problems usually start with the choices the filmmakers make in order to get animated (or animated-looking) characters into a live action universe. The Flintstones had fake-looking rock sets; Alvin and the Chipmunks and Scooby Doo had CGI critters in an otherwise realistic universe; Fat Albert had the TV characters coming to life in the real world.

In Speed Racer, the Wachowskis do what none of the creators of these other films had the will to do: they created a cohesive universe in which all of the elements in any given frame look like they belong together. In the process, they also highlight something that's been missing from mainstream animation for quite some time.

As I was sitting in the cinema watching Speed Racer, it occurred to me that I already knew how most journalists were going to describe the movie's look. Some would say that it looks like a video game, or that it's anime come to life. They're dead wrong. Outside of some race scenes the movie looks nothing like any video game you've actually played, and outside of a few Akira-like shots and a nod to the original series opener, it looks nothing like any anime you've ever seen. Really, these are just phrases that reviewers use when they want to say that there are lots of things moving around very fast, or that have bright-coloured, futuristic-looking elements.

In a strange way, however, they're also right. Speed Racer, like many video games, demands that its viewers process a lot of visual information at once. Like anime, it stylizes motion in a way that isn't entirely realistic but is believable within its own reality.

If anything, Speed Racer's filmic cues come from green-screen/digital-set movies like the most recent Star Wars trilogy and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, along with shorts that feature heavily processed and manipulated live action, like Gaëlle Denis' City Paradise. But the Wachowskis' real inspiration here is manga. This doesn't just apply to the racing scenes, but to just about anything set outside of the Racer family home. Take a look at these images, and pay special attention to how they put the focus on certain foreground objects or characters and use the backgrounds to denote movement, atmosphere and mood, These compositions are pure manga:







Better still are the transitions, in which the camera moves around a foreground character's head and the backgrounds change to show scenes either as a transition or as a flashback to the past. Some of these scenes are multi-layered, including audio from both the current time and place and the location or time being referenced. There's even one scene where one character tells Speed about about something that will happen in the future; as the camera whirls around Speed, the background shifts to show scenes that highlight what the other character is saying—and eventually we discover this isn't speculation, but what actually happens in the future. The whole sequence interleaves between the present moment and flash-forwards, kind of like an episode of Lost on, well, speed. (Lazy journalists will look at all this and make references to audience members with short attention spans or ADD; the truth is, you really have to pay attention if you want to follow it all.)

I'm just scratching the surface here. All in all, Speed Racer is a visual effects spectacle that doesn't reserve its inventiveness for eye-candy money shots; rather, it's a carefully constructed, dynamic reality that is unlike anything seen on the big screen. All of which brings me to the question I kept asking myself when I left the cinema: why haven't I seen anything like this in feature animation for so long?

It's a cliché these days to say that effects-heavy summer movies are cartoon-like, and there's some truth to that. But it's also true that live-action movies have, through the heavy use of CGI, taken animation's "anything can happen here" mentality and run with it. Meanwhile, feature animation has largely concerned itself with looking more realistic, obsessing over things like realistic fur and hair. Even those productions that aren't so fixated are, relatively speaking, conservative. I've very much enjoyed Pixar's films, but when you get right down to it they mostly fit into a niche best described as "Talking ____s," with the blank filled in by toys, bugs, fish, rats or what have you. The Incredibles was an exciting departure, but so far the new direction that it signalled appears to be a dead end.

Where's the wow? Where's that moment when you jump up in your seat, excited because you've been shown something you've never seen before? Speed Racer provides that in spades, but in feature animation it's been sorely lacking. I remember seeing Tron in 1983, Akira in 1988 and Mind Game in 2005 and each time feeling like someone had redefined what was possible in animated cinema because I was being shown things I hadn't seen before. I've had that same feeling many times over since then, but when it comes to animation it's generally been in OAVs, shorts and—much to my surprise—television.

I'm all for the blurring of boundaries, but to me movies like Speed Racer indicate that feature animation is ceding ground to live action. Something is very wrong with this picture.

[Cross-posted from Frames Per Second.]

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The "Censored Eleven" Problem



For years (and years, and years) I've been reading the same tired arguments about racist cartoons, particularly those that use black stereotypes. It's a problem that's as old as cartoons themselves; John Stuart Blackton's Humorous Phases of Funny Faces, considered the first cartoon short, made fun of blacks and Jews (Blackton's lightning sketches include two images labelled "Coon" and "Cohen") in 1906, and the image of big-lipped, Stepin Fetchit-inspired characters didn't lose steam in popular American cartoons for another half a century.

The problem began when networks stopped airing these cartoons in their regular lineups, and larger companies were slow to include them in videocassette (and now DVD) compilations unedited. Not that they were never released—I still have my Tex Avery laserdiscs with Uncle Tom's Cabana and a handful of shorts that use blackface gags, for example—but some Warner Bros. cartoons have been considered so over the line that they haven't been aired on TV for decades, and never released by Warner Bros. on any kind of home video. These shorts have acquired a mythical status, and a name: The Censored Eleven.

Talk of these shorts (and similar ones not so blessed as to be tagged with such a dramatic moniker) invariably brings up discussions of the shorts' historical significance, the fact that they were made in a different era, and, at some point, an exhortation to the rightsholders that the shorts should be released unedited. My longstanding complaint about these arguments is that, for the most part, it's a bunch of white guys standing around arguing about what black people should and shouldn't find offensive. (Books like That's Enough, Folks: Black Images in Animated Cartoons, 1900-1960 are a step toward rectifying that problem, as well as the more recent The Colored Cartoon: Black Representation in American Animated Short Films, 1907-1954, which I'll be reviewing soon; I've also done my bit with essays on the subject and, most recently, a 2006 guest blogging stint on ReFrederator.)

In light of a recent re-emergence of the discussion, Thad Komorowski has nailed the other complaint that I've never fully given voice to: that many cartoon fans, in their desire to own these films, have bent over backwards to claim that these films are not racist. Because, let's face it, they most emphatically are. If a joke is being made with the understanding that something is funny because a character is black, then it's racist. It's a pretty simple equation. (And please spare me the "I have a black friend who loves these cartoons" argument; I think Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs is one of the funniest, snappiest, and most brilliant cartoons Bob Clampett ever directed, but denying that it's entirely built around racist imagery is like denying gravity.)

I am more than pleased that someone has come out and called it like it is, and urge you to read Thad's frank commentary. And hey, if you've been itching to see the Censored Eleven for yourself, he's also posted them there for your edification.

[Cross-posted from Frames Per Second.]

Labels: , , , ,