In a recent piece published on the New York Times website, Armond White (chief film critic of City Arts) makes the plea that the level of computer animation in mainstream films be reduced, lest moviegoers lose all sense of realism. The article is a short one, but it manages to mangle many of the myths surrounding animation into points with which to bash the technique.
It Kills A Movie’s Credibility
In this post-“Avatar” culture, Hollywood relies on digital effects to emphasize lavish other-worldly environments to give audiences what they want: escapism. But there’s also an escape from credibility happening here. Special effects used to bring us closer to realism; now they douse us in artifice. “Speed Racer,” anyone?
Don’t all audiences want escapism though? Surely that’s the reason they even watch films in the first place; as an alternative way to spend time than doing something in the real world. Does White purpose that animated special effects make films seems unbelievable? Because in the case of the two films he calls out, that’s precisely the point.
It’s hard to articulate his line about being driven away from realism though. Animated effects can do both in exactly the same way that makeup can. Makeup has been used since the dawn of cinema to facilitate an audience’s faith in constructed realism. Animated effects are no different; they manufacture realism when it is necessary and compliment reality when it is not.
It Pushes Technology Over Narrative
Technological excess has overwhelmed narrative meaning. This digital grandstanding suffocates what I — and D.W. Griffith and Andre Bazin and past generations of theorists, critics and cinematic practitioners — once considered the essence of cinema: nature and the human face.
This would be an appropriate statement if, and only if, computer animation was applied to every single film released in the manner that White describes. A scenario that patently doesn’t exist. The Hunger Games is a film that utilised CGI when it needed to (in Panem) but quite happily took in all the nature it could once the setting changed to the arena.
“Oz the Great and Powerful” has been digitized to look like a hyperactive coloring book
While Oz may or may not be an artistically significant film (this blogger leans towards the latter), the decision to rely on large amounts of computer animation for the look rests entirely with the studio that produced it. Said studio (Disney) has been noted as relying on so-called tentpole films that contain a lot of CGI for the precise reason that it draws in audiences. Artistic credibility is sufficiently absent from the list of goals for such films that emphasis star performers, grandiose plots and visual spectacle. To bemoan the lack of cinematic credibility in such films is comparable to decrying the dearth of opera on ESPN; it’s looking for something that will never be.
It’s Turning Us All Into Kids
Yes, unfortunately this tired argument gets rolled out yet again:
The further Hollywood gets from that essence, the more computer-generated imagery we will get. “Animation Domination,” as it’s advertised on the Fox network. It almost seems as if Hollywood’s emphasis on digital effects aims to turn moviegoers into children rather than aesthetically responsive viewers.
Yup. Animation is turning us all into kids because that’s what animation is meant for, right? NO! Just because the technique is prevalent in content that is suitable for young viewers in no way means that it is responsible for turning viewers into delinquent juveniles. If you want to make that argument, blame the content itself; how it is formed and presented has next to nothing to do with it.
Animation is capable of the full range of dramatic cinema that live-action film is and this fact is something that Mr. White should be aware of, but he has regretfully glossed over this in favour of using animation as an excuse for Hollywood’s risk-averse business decisions.
You Can See His Point Though
I do empathise with White when it comes to mainstream cinema though; a market where most big releases are increasingly following a formula (they always have of course, but it is obvious now more so than ever) and that formula just happens to call for lots of CGI and banal plots.
I cannot agree with his statement that we are “are suffering from digital effects overload, plain and simple”. The rise of the internet as a distribution platform and the plummeting costs of filmmaking equipment and technology means that there is a burgeoning independent scene that is all too happy to rely on the good old fashioned style of cinema that caters to artistic minds
Animation is not the source of cinema’s current slate. If anything, it is holding it up.