Thursday, December 04, 2008

Comparative Animation

Saw a pretty good little documentary about Pixar the other night. Quite an amazing outfit if you think of what they’ve put out over the years: Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars, Rattatouille, and Wall-E. Beyond the fact that these are all movies I’ve actually seen and enjoyed, (Some more than once), you realize that there’s not only no duds among them, but that they are in fact all box office hits. Try and name another studio, any studio in any genre that has done that and you’ll come up short.

The founders, led by Ed Catmull and John Lasseter, came from seminal computer graphics programs at a time when only a handful of schools even had such a thing. Naturally, they looked to the talented staff at Disney as their role models and heroes. Eventually Lasseter worked there as an animator, only to be let go in relatively short order for apparently pissing off a jealous boss. Eventually teaming up with Steve Jobs, enroute from Lucasfilm and Industrial Light and Magic where he met and worked with Catmull, the two formed Pixar and off they went.

Meanwhile, as Pixar grew and succeeded, Disney under the wise tutelage of Michael Eisner decided that 2D animation was dead and fired or laid off entire staffs of fantastically experienced and talented folks, who ended up largely at… Pixar. In 2006, the game went full circle when Disney, under new management, acquired Pixar and made Catmull President of the animation studios and Lasseter Chief Creative Officer.

What I found most fascinating though, was the fact that throughout the inception and blossoming of Pixar’s rise, it was the legendary Nine Old Men of Disney’s glory days who were held up by the 3D and feature length wizards as the true heroes of animation. Les Clarke, Ollie Johnston, Wolfgang “Woolie” Reitherman, Frank Thomas, John Lounsbery, Eric Larson, Ward Kimball, Milt Kahl and Marc Davis were the pioneers who made Mickey dance and Snow White twirl. Although kids of today have no idea who these guys were, and probably have never seen any of their seminal works, the folks at the cutting edge of animation revere them to this day. Last April, the last of the lads, Ollie Johnston, died at age 95. He and Frank Thomas had cameo roles in Pixar’s The Incredibles, a last swan song for the legendary ones…

Though flip books and the hand inked and painted cells of traditional animation seem antique today, the fact is that this is the basis of how animation is still done today, whether computer generated or not. Look at a scene of Pixar staff working on a project, and you see hand drawn frames of the same character moving ever so slightly each time, lined up on the walls and tables of their work space.
My only disappointment in the show was that there was no mention of some other pretty successful folks and methods that still survive in the 21st century: Bruce Bickford’s clay animation, Terry Gilliam’s wonderful work with Monty Python, Ray Harryhausen’s models, and Ralph Bakshi’s graphic animation come to mind as seminal works from my youth.

As more and more things become computerized and computer based, I trust that the arts community will have enough forethought, as Pixar did, and not discard the very things that make animation vibrant and diverse.