Can You Engineer An Animated Film?

Engineers are a funny bunch; it takes one to know one. They operate in a peculiar way, often envisioning something that is perceptible only to them. They also tend to love the art of engineering, and it’s way of solving problems using logical hypotheses and rational guesses. If it sounds boring, it kind of is; all forms of engineering operate at a slow pace. Given that an animated film is a problem of sorts, is it therefore possible to engineer it to succeed?

What Culture Ice Age 4

On the one hand, it’s nearly incomprehensible to think that art an engineering can come together to create entertainment, and yet it does so on a daily basis; just ask any Disney Imagineer.

Creating the actual content though, is something that has long been the preserve of the artist. Applying engineering principles to animation has brought us such lovely things like limited animation in the past, but what about the story and animation itself? Surely they can’t be engineered, or can they?

For the record, we’re not talking about, say, stock footage, formulaic stories, toyetic properties or even anime. No, this is all to do with original content and how it can be created, and be successful, thanks to a reliance on data and data alone.

Why would a studio want to engineer a film? The answer, quite simply, is money. Studios already engineer films insofar as sequels. Ever wonder why they always re-use the best parts of the original? They’re creating a new film based on the data that points out what worked for them in the past.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that; it’s the nature of the business to mitigate risks. Original films are a bit of a different beast though. They’re untried, untested and rely more on the ‘hunch’ and ‘gut’ factors to see them through.

That’s all starting to change though, we’re starting to see a pattern in animated films whereby they are created, not according to artistic decision-making, but rather to precise specifications, protocols and designs. In other words, they are being engineered.

Consider the lastest film in the Disney lineup: Frozen.

Is it an artistic masterpiece? Sure. Has it been successful? You bet. Was it engineered to win? Absolutely.

It’s easy to poke fun at Frozen as merely Tangled on Ice, and yet it’s tough to watch the former and not be able to shake that notion from your head. Regardless of the quality of the film itself (most critics liked it), is the fact that Frozen does contain many traits and themes that are known winners with the public.

Almost all the big budget animated films released today are calculated risks and are engineered to some extent. Given that Ice Age 5 was just announced, it’s very hard to argue otherwise. That series of films continues to bring in a shocking amount of revenue for the simple reason that it knows its audience and gives them what they’re looking for.

That’s the engineering approach; an acceptable solution at an acceptable price.

Looking back at all the animated films of the past 20 years, it’s easy to spot patterns. Pixar may have been innovative, but even then they’ve engineered their films based on the winning formula established by A Bug’s Life.

With the voracious growth in data, it’s become easier than ever for studios to create the perfect film and to target the perfect audience (see any recent superhero film.) It’s almost sad in a way to think that real art is disappearing from mainstream cinema screens all because studios are afraid of the odd failure that art tends to create in favour of the reliable yet monotonous engineered approach.