How CGI Transformed Animated Storytelling

How CGI Transformed Animated Storytelling

In 1937, Walt Disney released the first feature-length 2D animated film, kicking off a filmography that remained thematically consistent for decades, and in the process, defining what we think about, when we think about animation. They are brightly colored, musical, public domain, fairy tale adaptations. Usually about a woman yearning to be free, who finds that freedom in the only way a woman can, by marrying a dude. Wait… what? And even the movies that weren’t explicitly fairytales, like the ones based on novels or historical events, were treated as fairy tales. By doing this, they made some of the greatest films of all time, but they are also stories that are very conservative. And I don’t mean that in a good or bad way, only that these movies believe in the idea that “things should stay about the way they are.” The stories will usually end with the restoration of a previous order, typically they’ll even be a shot returning the setting to whatever it looked like in the first scene, because change is bad.

But when 3D animation arrived, a new generation of storytellers shook up that formula. Why did that happen? Well, to answer that, we have to figure out exactly what these movies became. They stopped being conservative fairy tales, and became liberal allegories, which brings me to: Part One, What On Earth Is A Liberal Allegory? By this I just mean that the take home message of these films is often that society can change, and that an individual can be the instigator of that change. These films are concerned with civilizations as much as they are individuals. In fact, tell me if this sounds familiar: in a typical 3D animated movie, we’ll be introduced to a society that appears to be a utopia.

This is an orderly society with a very strict hierarchy of characters, but one where almost everyone is more than happy to be doing their one specific job. We’ll usually have a scene where the main character gawks at how amazing this all is. It’s like a buzzing bee-hive that looks out of control, but where everything hits its mark with the efficiency of a Rube Goldberg machine. We’ll usually get one of two types of main characters and sometimes both. There’s the master of the universe, and the outcast. The master of the universe archetype is less common, but the idea is whatever makes this world unique, they’re pretty much the best at it. And everyone in the world admires them for it, but they’re also a flawed person, who will inadvertently do something that will threaten to destroy the Utopia.

By overcoming their own shortcomings they will save the world from destruction. So you’ve got Woody, Sully, Lightning McQueen, Mr. Incredible, and Joy. These stories are ultimately about accepting change, but the more common protagonist, and the more explicitly political and liberal one, is The Outcast. Whatever it is that makes this world unique, they’re the furthest thing from it. They’ve got a totally different outlook on life, but with a little work, they’ll develop from Outcast to Rebel, to Leader, totally transform the world in their own image, unite every warring faction, and live a happy life.

You’ve got Wreck-it Ralph, Shrek, Remmy, Mumble, Judy Hopps, and sadness. And if your protagonist is a robot, an insect, an inventor, or some combination of those things, then you can bet they’re an outcast living in a society that doesn’t appreciate their unorthodox ways. So the flaw that needs to be fixed here is in the world itself, not just the character. Whether that’s the class system of a Bug’s Life, Antz, or Robots. The conformist social codes of The Lego Movie, Happy Feet, and Ratatouille. Or the prejudice in Wreck-it Ralph, Shrek, and Zootopia. The structure is so familiar, that the emoji movie was basically able to hijack it as a disguise for product placement. You don’t need to rebel against a conformist society to express your individuality! All you need to do is buy a phone and play Candy Crush! Just like everybody else.

But you might be thinking… Part Two: Hold on aren’t Disney protagonists outcasts too? Yes, many are, but it’s in a different way. You see, the theme of identity is pervasive in Disney movies and we’ll usually have characters grappling with two dueling identities. But this issue is solved when the main character affiliates themselves with a pre-existing group. The outcasts in 3d animated movies often reject that binary and chart their own paths. Think about this: Ariel is unhappy being a mermaid, and wants to join the human world.

In the end, she does just that, but the two worlds remain separated. Compare that to Ratatouille. Remmy is dissatisfied with rat culture, and becomes a renowned chef. At the end, the two worlds are blended together. Rat society has fundamentally changed. Or even better yet, look at How To Train Your Dragon, where humans and dragons are at war with one another, but in the end, everyone is riding a dragon. Mulan goes against societal expectations, and the film definitely has a more liberal message than most Disney films of that era, but her actions don’t lead to widespread acceptance of women into the military. In Zootopia, on the other hand, Judy Hopps goes against societal expectations, and through her actions, the relationship between prey and predator is fundamentally changed. You see, many of these movies, and Zootopia most of all, are intended to be read as political allegories in a way that the creators of the earlier Disney movies simply weren’t cognizant of.

The political messaging of the story was at the core of the idea from the very beginning of the production. “He wanted to tell a story of the bias human beings can use towards one another, and tell it through an analogy or metaphor with animals.” And the film was even rewritten in order to hit those thematic points of exploring the enduring issues of racism. In comparison, consider The Lion King one of the most successful and critically adored movies of all time that if you spend a couple minutes looking at it can easily be read as a segregationist allegory. Scar, the intended villain, is guilty of a lot of things like well…assassination…but the thing the film treats as one of his worst crimes, is integrating the hyenas into the rest of society. The land even dries up as if nature itself is saying that integration is wrong. And Simba, the hero, is celebrated for re-segregating society, kicking out the only characters who speak in accents coded black and hispanic.

Now did Disney Studios mean for the movie to be read this way? Of course not. It’s a byproduct of the story they wanted to tell about family and growing up. I just think there’s far more awareness in these newer films about what the political substance of their stories are that just didn’t exist before. Part three: but this didn’t happen in Finding Nemo or Ice Age or… Keep in mind, this is not every 3D animated movie. This is just one trend. A lot of the more commercial animated franchises don’t really engage with this because they’re aimed at a much younger audience. But it’s important to recognize trends and tropes when they happen, because they reflect on us. In this case, I think it’s no coincidence that these films came at a time when social movements that challenged traditional values became stronger and stronger. These films fit the political climate they were born into. But, I also think that there are other reasons they turned out the way they did. After all, we’re talking about thousands of artists across several generations. But I think one of the underappreciated factors is the medium change itself.

You see, 3D animation incentivizes certain storytelling decisions, and one thing all of them have in common over their 2D predecessors is… Part four: more movement! Ouch 3D animated movies have a lot in common with action blockbusters nowadays, and that’s because it’s a lot easier to make things move in computer-generated animation, than it is in hand-drawn animation. Here’s a couple of reasons why. Modelling: when you animate in 3D you don’t draw every frame. Instead, you create a model of the character, tell the computer what the model will look like at the beginning of a movement and at the end of a movement, and the computer just fills in the rest of the frame. It’s a huge time-saver, and gives the animator a lot more control and flexibility over what they animate. Copy and paste: 3D animators can duplicate a moving object with the click of a button on the computer. That’s why even the hand-drawn Disney movies incorporated CGI in the movies whenever there was a hoard of something, like the wildebeests in the Lion King, the Hun’s in Mulan, or the Hydra in Hercules.

Moving Camera: In this shot from The Lion King you can see the animation sort of straining to pull off this circular motion. That’s a hard shot to animate in hand-drawn animation, but in 3D it’s really easy, because you’re not animating the character, you’re animating the camera. Doing this, you can have sequences where the camera pans and dollies and swoops and twists and everything in between relatively easily. Again, Disney incorporated this in their hand-drawn films for certain scenes, like this one of Tarzan swinging and surfing through the jungle.

This is an effect called deep canvas that allowed them to move the camera around while painting the branches of the trees, and then drawing the animations for the character by hand. Now there’s still a ton of movement in hand-drawn Disney movies, particularly during the songs, but the point here is that it’s just a lot easier to do it on a computer. And this has a ton of storytelling ramifications, because with a greater ability for movement, many Studios started setting their stories in places that could take advantage of that movement. We move from the mostly rural environments of Disney movies, to bustling cities. Cowboys were out, and Space Rangers were in, so to speak. But it’s important to note that it’s a lot easier to animate movement when it has some order to it, as opposed to being totally chaotic.

So we end up with worlds that move like clockwork. From that it’s logical that these settings produce characters and conflicts centered around conformity versus individuality. The medium often influenced the setting, and within the setting, the characters, themes and conflicts, are implied. I love the old Disney movies, but when they were the only game in town, their thematic possibilities were narrowed by their goals of creating easily digestible conservative stories. So I’m glad that when Pixar arrived on the scene, they didn’t just put a 3D skin on the same old tales, because children need a wide variety of nutritious stories.

The old Disney movies often tell us to look at the wisdom of the past, while newer 3D movies teach us to trust in the future. And like so many of these characters realize at the end of their films, we don’t have to make a choice between these two perspectives when both are vitals. So this video focused on American animation, but there are plenty of other animated movies from around the world that might affect the way we think about this evolution. So if you’ve got one in mind let me know in the comments below.

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How CGI Transformed Animated Storytelling