How Animation Lost It’s Wonder
Winsor McCay didn’t invent the animated film. Nor did the inventor of the animated film come up with the idea of moving drawings. The concept in fact has origins as far back as cave paintings, and toys utilizing the concept of persistence of vision were created as early as the 1600’s. The thing that drove Winsor McCay to make some of the earliest and greatest examples of animated shorts, though, is the same thing that has inspired artists to pursue animation for hundreds if not thousands of years. It’s the simple fact that animation allows you to bring life to whatever you can imagine. There are no limitations but your vision as an artist and your skill as a drawer. If you can imagine it, and you can draw it, then you can create a moving version of it. McCay knew this which is why his most famous film is one used during his vaudeville acts of the 1910’s. It was designed to awe audiences, to fill them with wonder at seeing something they never believed possible. This short was called Gertie the Dinosaur, and it seems rather primitive by today’s standards. But at the time most people had never seen an animated film or ever imagined that they might see a dinosaur in motion. Gertie’s debut came over a decade after the very first use of animation and was not even McCay’s first animated film. But it did inspire artists around the world to create animated films and it was because of McCay’s Gertie that the animation industry was born.
I bring up this piece of history not just because it is interesting but because it serves as a great counterpoint to animation today. While we mostly think of animation in the form of fully animated films like the works of Disney or Dreamworks Animation, most animators actually work on live action films, which year by year are becoming more and more animated. The battles and sci-fi vistas seen in this year’s Guardians of the Galaxy were the work of animators. So were the apocalyptic floods of Noah, or an (overly) large portion of the final Hobbit movie. That last example brings me to the point of this piece: For decades animation has been used to create things that couldn’t be done with live action special effects, but as time passed the drive to create what are essentially animated films with real life actors in them removed an important element of what makes animation so exciting. It’s the fact that in animation anything is possible. Your protagonist doesn’t have to be a human being. He can be a mouse, or a sponge, or a piece of raw meat, or a freaking toaster. And nowhere is that more apparent than in the world of 90’s video games.
Take the SNES/Genesis game Cool Spot for example. In it you play as the 7-Up logo, also known as “Spot”: a red dot with arms, legs, and a cool pair of sunglasses. It’s ridiculous but it proves the point that in animation you can give life to literally anything. Look at Super Mario Bros. You are a plumber who travels across a world ruled by a giant turtle beast who has captured a princess and sent an army of sentient mushrooms and bullets to destroy you. That came out of someone’s head. And that same individual, Shigeru Miyamoto, would go on to create a game where a Fox travels the stars with a team of other anthropomorphic animals, one where a tiny spaceman uses an army of sentient flowers to fix his broken ship, and other equally insane and brilliant ideas.
During the same period, the animated film industry was in shambles with Disney still unable to rebuild its studio following the death of founder Walt Disney several decades earlier, and numerous attempts by Steven Spielberg and Don Bluth failing to catch on. It was in this dark period that a desperate Spielberg brokered a one of a kind deal that would change the course of film history. For years Spielberg had wanted to create a film that merged live action and animation. Others had tried this tactic before, most notably Ralph Bakshi, but no one had been truly successful. Up until that point it just didn’t look real. The film Spielberg envisioned would eventually be directed by Robert Zemeckis and was called Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. It featured the various animated stars from the libraries of Disney, Warner Brothers, and numerous other major movie studios. It was a massive hit that proved that animation and live action could work together side by side.
In 1995 Sony released the original Playstation and Sega released the Saturn. These were some of the the earliest consoles capable of rendering games in three dimensions. The added dimensions let designers create games featuring more realistic worlds, but the crude nature of these early machines meant that most games still focused on animals of fantasy creatures. But the tides were turning, and Steven Spielberg was once again at the forefront.
That same year Spielberg released the film that would signal a changing of the guard, a movement away from the practical special effects that had been used in filmmaking for 100 years and into the world of computer animation. It is fitting that this film would be attempting the same feat that Windsor McCay had 80 years earlier. Jurassic Park aimed to bring dinosaurs to life. If you were a kid in the 1990’s, or even if you were an adult, you remember one of the most iconic scenes in movie history. In it, Sam Neill’s Dr. Alan Grant stares at something offscreen while Laura Dern’s Dr. Ellie Sattler drones on about the science at hand. As she’s talking, Alan grabs her head and turns it towards what what is looking at. Ellie stands up in the jeep they are riding, mouth agape, and finally the camera cuts as park founder John Hammond utters the famous line, “Welcome to Jurassic Park!” And there, in front of both the characters and the audience are dinosaurs. All but indistinguishable from what one would imagine the real thing being. The simple black and white 2D drawings of McCay had given way to photorealism. Spielberg had achieved what man had been attempting since it first learned to draw thousands of years ago. He had brought fantasy into reality. And it was obvious he was as in awe with his animators’ creations as any person watching the film. This was wonder. It was real life magic.
And at that moment everything changed. Suddenly the goal became not to merely create things of fantasy, but to make them feel real. At the same time games began to focus on stories involving humans. Metal Gear Solid might have an amateur sounding script but it attempted to tell a story about real world issues in a game. This drive towards realistic stories in games, along with the drive in the film industry to create more realistic looking animation might not have lead down the path they did until an event shortly after the turn of the century changed the outlook of both the American people, and with them, the rest of the world.
In 2001 two films were released that redefined the capabilities of computer animation. The first was Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. An entire book could be written on how the story of Harry Potter changed with the times. In this first film, though, the sense of awe and wonder were still intact. Harry, and the audience along with him, were seeing things that before they had only dreamed of. And it was a dream almost all children have. In the world of Harry Potter magic really did exist. And it wasn’t used for evil but to perform all the mundane tasks that the average person wishes they had a magic wand to perform. Magic cleaned the dishes and did the laundry. It mended torn clothes (and skin) and fixed broken items (and bones). But it did more than that. Magic created flying chocolate and jelly beans of the most absurd colors and flavors. It was astounding. It was, in a word, magical. But later that year, on September 11th, the world changed when terrorists destroyed New York City’s World Trade Center. In a moment the feeling that anything is possible that had permeated so much of the 90’s was shattered. Boy bands and pop princesses gave way to raggedy voiced rock stars. Crash Bandicoot and Mario gave way to SOCOM and Metroid Prime. And that amazing sense of wonder was lost, replaced by endless helpings of cynicism and fear.
When The Lord of the Rings was released later that year it would be one of the last times a film felt in awe of its own existence. It was the pinnacle of a half decade’s worth of work mixing real life and computer animation. And it was glorious. It was unlike anything that had come before it. And it took eight years before another film would capture that same feeling in audiences. During that time war and tragedy shook the country and the film industry turned dark. You need only to look at Tim Burton’s Batman films and compare them to Christopher Nolan’s to see how Hollywood had changed. Films were darker, as were games. By the time the last generation of consoles launched, computer graphics had reached a point where they could realistically render human characters. This let game designers create stories with greater emotional heft and more realistic settings. Activision found great success with Call of Duty, EA with Battlefield, and Ubisoft with its Tom Clancy and Assassin’s Creed series. Naughty Dog left behind Crash Bandicoot and Jak to create Nathan Drake, and eventually the grisly world of The Last of Us. The wonder in games was all but gone. The concept of utilizing animation to create the impossible had been replaced by the concept of creating things only impossible due to technological limits. Avatar would be the last film that truly stunned audiences with its vision of a world beyond most human’s imaginations. It was the last film that seemed so startled by its own ability to exist that the sheer absurdity of it was infectious. Meanwhile, in games, more games started to move towards realistic portrayals of humanity or at the very most dark and disturbing versions of sci-fi and fantasy. Then, in the past couple of years, something seemed to snap.
I first noticed it with the online browser game Frog Fractions. It was a game that pushed back against the serious nature of gaming. It was absurd. It made no sense. But somehow someone realized that it didn’t have to. That’s what makes animation so exciting. It doesn’t have to make any sense, neither from a story standpoint, or a physics standpoint, or even a basic visual standpoint. Then we saw Goat Simulator. But instead of actually simulating the life of a goat, the game dumped you into a world of ridiculous nonsense where a goat could have super powers and roam freely causing havoc in a town. Could a goat do any of that? Of course not. But it didn’t matter. It was fun and it was a game so being a realistic portrayal of anything didn’t matter. Then, most recently, we had the masterclass in absurd game concepts. I Am Bread casts you as a piece of bread trying to be toasted. It’s absolute nonsense. You move a slice of bread around a room, trying to find a toaster or a pan or some other instrument you can use to toast yourself. To increase your score you have to roll around in butter and jam, and avoid dirt as much as possible. You control the game by flinging the bread around utilizing a strange control scheme and odd physics system. In its unfinished state the game is all but unbeatable. Before writing this article I tried to beat the second level for hours before giving up. But the quality of the game isn’t what’s important here. And it is unfinished so it isn’t fair to judge too harshly yet. What’s important is that a designer sat down and said, “You know what? Our protagonist doesn’t have to be human. It doesn’t even have to be alive. It can be anything!” And they ended up with bread. And I applaud them for that because despite the noblest of intentions Spielberg took the animated medium he so dearly loved and changed it in a way that is not entirely for the better.
Great things have come from Spielberg’s efforts in merging real life and animation. But with those great things we have lost something important. We have lost the idea that animation is a medium where anything is possible. And our drive to make things look more and more real is the exact antithesis to everything that makes animation so damn special. That’s not to say there is no place for realistic animation in film and games. There absolutely is. But the issue is that this drive for realism has come at the expense of creating pure flights of fancy. Making a photorealistic tiger for The Life of Pi is a truly amazing feat of engineering and artistry. It took hundreds of animators to make that film. Outside of the actor himself pretty much everything in that film is the work of animation. It is an animated film with a real life human portraying the lead character. And I don’t deny how amazing that is.
But by putting real life humans in next to your animation you force your artists to create things that could theoretically exist in real life. They have to be believable. And that limits what the artists can create. Absolutely amazing films have come from this style of animation.
But I can’t be the only one that misses a time when a silly coyote could stand on nothing but air for several seconds before dropping hundreds of feet to the ground and being no worse for the wear. It doesn’t matter that none of the physics in The Looney Tunes bears any semblance to actual physics. In fact it is exactly because of the physics that let a rabbit and duck get shot in the head numerous times in a ten minute episode without being hurt at all that Looney Tunes works. But you can’t put crazy physics like that into Call of Duty or even into a Marvel Superhero movie. Because in those worlds there are actual laws of physics. And while those laws are stretched and extended for the sake of entertainment, those laws still prevent true insanity from occurring. And I miss those days. I really do. I miss the days when animation was used to create the impossible, to create things that made audiences mouths drop just at the sight of them. And not because they looked real from a technical perspective, but because they made the impossible a reality. They took our dreams and our imaginations and let us see them with our own eyes. You can be in awe of a technical feat, but eventually that feat will be one-upped. But when you create something that inspires and astounds because of its artistry and its creativity, well then you have something that will last forever.