Is CGI Really Animation, or is it Puppetry?

Via: MattTrailer

CGI and puppetry. They aren’t as mutually as exclusive as you might think. One would think  that CGI is animation first and foremost, right? It certainly shares a lot of history with our favourite technique, but its continued development and technological improvements seem to be pushing more towards the realm of puppetry.

A great analysis by Lei Adeline over at Smart When Shouting takes hard look at the similarities and the distinctions between the two camps with a conclusion that the reliance on puppetry (especially with motion-capture films like Ted) will spur audiences to better connect with them than films leaning more towards traditional animation.

I agree with Lei insofar as their is a distinction between animation and puppetry that does require audiences to relate in different ways. Animation is inherently “imaginary” whereas CGI (particularly live-action hybrid films) are inherently attempting to make things “real”, as a puppet is.

So is this advancement of CGI to be considered a potential pitfall? I would say not yet anyway. Pixar has become successful by focusing on distinctly non-human characters with which there is much more room for traditional, ‘cartoony’ animation (look at Presto as an example). Heck, even in the Incredibles, Elastigirl was anything but a puppet. However, with other studios and even Pixar itself focusing more on human characters, it is inevitable that they will move towards using puppetry as a base for their characters.

This is sad in many ways, not least because the wonder of animation is in making characters move in a life-like fashion while creating the movement one frame at a time. In exchange for this weakness in the production process, we get some wonderful walking cycles (and in the case of the Nine Old Men, some eccentric ones too).

The worry is that characters will have a propensity to move in more predictable ways, like real actors rather than animated characters. Although it should be noted that Flint Lockwood in Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs was animated with the Muppets in mind, he was the exception, even in that film.

I still cringe whenever I see Flash animation where the characters move on hinge points unnecessarily. A nod of the head sets off a motion that somehow ropes in the rest of the characters body. It drives me daft that such antics are what we are potentially heading towards.

Traditional animation is freedom from such “rules” in that the animator has complete control to do as they pleased (relatively speaking of course). That freedom is seen in every movement (even the bad ones or the screwed-up ones) and adds an extra dimension that puppet-CGI eliminates.

It remains to be seen how things will eventually turn out. Maybe we’ll see CGI animation technology advance to the point where it too acts in a more traditional manner. But until then, CGI is still on the fence.

5 thoughts on “Is CGI Really Animation, or is it Puppetry?”

  1. What’s stop motion then? Is that not animation?

    To me- animation is creating life one frame at a time. Puppetry is a live- real-time performance. Motion capture could be defined as puppetry, more or less, but CGI animation – no way.

    1. Hi Ezra,

      I was thinking more along the lines of influences. Human CGI characters tend to move in a very realistic way whereas animated humans tend to exaggerate their movements a bit (most of the time) for emphasis or comedic effect.

      CGI can still be considered animation, but whether it takes its cues from puppetry or traditional animation is the concern.

  2. “Animation is inherently “imaginary” whereas CGI (particularly
    live-action hybrid films) are inherently attempting to make things
    “real”, as a puppet is.”

    A puppet is real, but not necessarily (or even often) realistic. Marionette theatre quite often depicts imaginary worlds with highly stylized movement. Czech and Japanese puppet theatres are both great examples of this, and both of these have been highly influential for stop animation. I’d also add that puppet animation lacks some of the freedom of traditional animation, but people like Barry Purves, the Brothers Quay or Jiri Trnka have done some beautiful things working with the strengths and limitations of the physical puppet.

    Really, I think the issue is whether CGI artists create interesting, compelling things, or whether they take an unimaginative, mechanical approach to their craft. CGI is still new, and people are still exploring what it can do. I hope that those working in that mode are inspired by but not limited by the norms of traditional animation, puppetry, or any other mode of production.

    1. Thanks for your insightful comment, Elle 🙂

      I agree that we’re still at a relatively early stage in CGI animation and there’s till plenty of opportunities for people to experiment with new ideas.

  3. Manually-keyframed animation is animation, not puppetry. I consider mocap to be more similar to puppetry that the former.

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