A lot of people think that the best style for an animation film is the style that Disney and Pixar have established and mastered over the years. And true, their films often come close to perfection and are an example of excellent craftsmanship, but animation has so much more to offer… or shall I say, less to offer… Reduction is a powerful tool to make your animation stronger. Not every film needs the fluid motions of a Disney masterpiece, not every CG picture needs realistic light bounces and waxy skin shaders of a Pixar blockbuster.
Every country in the world except the US (and maybe Japan) seem to have severe difficulties building up their animation feature film business. At least in Germany part of the reason is that the investors expect a Pixar or Disney look, which is easy for said studios to do with budget above $100 million, but in Germany studios can be glad if they can scrape together $10 million. And you know what… some of those actually almost look like a Pixar film with fur and water and crowds and what not:
You never heard of this film called “Animals United”? That’s because instead of watching this film you could do things that are more fun… like an endoscopy. I could rant for hours about what is wrong about this movie and this way of movie making, but let’s focus on this: Their primary goal was to create a successful movie, so they stole the look and some characters from other animated features. They ended up with a movie that played okay in the German theaters, but soon will be forgotten forever. No heart, no soul, many talents wasted years of their time. I was so angry after watching this.
Now look at this:
Doesn’t this look horribly bad compared to nowadays? Neither the character nor the background look anywhere near as pretty as anything in “Animals United”, but Toy story 1 is a classic, one of the greatest animated films of all time (and this is not because it was a milestone in CG history). Why is that? Because the story is so great, you don’t care how it looks – even if you watch it today! The story (or at least some kind of point) is the most important aspect of a film – not the style.
Okay, my argumentation is a little wild because I compare old Pixar with recent Pixar, but I think you get my point. A good film doesn’t have to fulfill all the recent beauty standards, to be good. And now we get to the main point of the article. It’s good news that a film doesn’t have to look like whatever insane sum Hollywood can afford. It can be extremely beneficial if you no longer (more or less successfully) copy a style, but come up with a new one. A reduced, affordable one that supports your point. You will have more time to develop the aspects that you actually want to spend time on.
Deciding what you don’t need can be much more powerful, than deciding what you do need to have in your film. It not about the absence of something, it’s more about the power of a condensed selection. If you only left over what needs to be there, your film will leave a better (and, for you as a filmmaker, a more controllable) impact.
If you realize you only need very simple stick figures to tell your tale, you don’t have to set up a complicated skin shader and you can use that time to improve posing and timing. Maybe you know some of the highly entertaining Flash shorts by Bruno Bozzetto. The “characters” often consist out of simple shapes and the timing, music and sound design sell it (like this one) – that’s all he needs. Yes you could do this in a Pixar style, but you really don’t need to.
Also think about TV shows like South Park where it is not at all about a high-end look, but a very reduced style that fits the dialog-focused and sometimes very gross humor that you really wouldn’t want to see any other way.
“But these are example of short animations”, I hear you think. And I have to admit, for some reason people rather make a poor Pixar imitation than to create an original style for their feature film, but it has been done. The animated feature “The Secret of Kells”, tells a story all around the creation of the holy book of Kells. And because it’s centered on said book, the design of the film looks like it could be illustrations pulled straight from it.
Medival celtic and irish drawing styles influence, no, determine the look and feel. Big no-nos like tangents are part of the design and it all fits together perfectly with the quite decent story. Yes it’s not super-smooth Pixar, but isn’t this just as appealing and even more interesting?
I want to end with an example of how far you can pull the reduction. This music video for the song “Splitting the Atom” by Massive Attacks sets most of the elements that normal animation has aside. Very reduced color palette, mostly low-poly mechs, no cuts and… a lack of actual animation. Nothing except the camera moves.
And I don’t know about you, but this thing blows my mind every time – and I think it’s not just because of the music. It’s because for their “story” it was the best way of telling. Hah, isn’t it amazing how this thing has a story? How you want to know where the camera is heading and later wonder what’s going on?
I hope I could give you some motivation to think outside the box. This has nothing to do with being more artsy and less mainstream, but with finding your own style or an style that fits to what you want to tell…
What do you think about this? Is the Pixar/Disney bar the one that you want to reach every time? Do you know other films that successfully did their very own thing? I would be very happy if you join the discussion and leave a comment.