Voice acting isn’t Hank Azaria’s only talent. He’s also an actor and comedian who just happens to excel at creating great characters. One of those creations got him into a bit of difficulty when it emerged that someone else had created something very similar first. Cue a lawsuit to sort it all out that also reveals (at least in the legal sense) what defines a character.
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When creating ideas. concepts and pitches, it’s invariably easy to assign or endow characters with certain traits. They can be upbeat, melancholy, feisty (although I’m still not sure what exactly that means), or funny. There’s no shortage of descriptive terms to define what kind of a character a character actually is.
However, it’s all too easy to get sucked into a trap like that. Simply draping terms like the ones above over a character doesn’t really define them, or make them fully-formed. Instead, the require a lot more information and back-story to be relatable. Hence what makes Asaria’s lawsuit so appropriate.
The gist is that Azaria and another person called Craig Bierko used to play around with the concept of an old-timey baseball announcer. When the former wanted to develop it further in 1997, the latter was against it. Fast forward to 2010, and Azaria creates a Funny or Die video featuring such a character. Ergo: lawsuit to figure out whose copyright was infringed.
The ruling and opinion provide the parts we’re interested in (emphasis mine):
Reviewing the record, U.S. District Judge Gary Feess says the Jim Brockmire character qualifies as such. The judge rules that Azaria has expressed particularized character attributes including Brockmire’s marital relationship, lucky pen, career arc, volatile temper, affinity for specific cultural trivia, plaid jacket, red tie, the rose on his lapel and a classic sign off to his wife. “It is therefore like those character driven movies where audiences watch more for the character – Tarzan, Superman, Sherlock Holmes, or James Bond – than the story,” writes the judge. “For these reasons, the Court finds that Jim Brockmire is sufficiently distinct to warrant copyright protection.”
If you read through that slowly, you can start to form an idea of what the character of Jim Brockmire is like without ever hearing a single word of his voice or even laying eyes in him. The judge is right that going to these kinds of lengths is sufficient artistic effort to warrant copyright protection.
So where does this play into animation? For one, do animated characters these days even have such depth and complex characterisations? If animated TV shows are anything to go by, the answer is almost certainly no. Even current hits like Adventure Time place more emphasis on things like the setting and back-story to the character than the characters themselves. Jake the Dog is complex, but he remains relatively flat compared to his voice-actor’s other paying gig: Bender from Futurama.
You can extend it to features too. For a medium that really requires character traits to be defined and developed in a very short space of time, recent animated features are shockingly lacking in that regard. Consider Frozen. Can you name anything, even a singly solitary thing that defines either of the lead females in terms of their character outside of what you see on-screen? Nothing is inferred, nothing is left to the viewer to decide. The characters come pre-formed after the title and are fully inflated before the end of the first act.
Is this a problem with creators simply not putting in a suitable effort or the fact that viewers simply don’t care is hard to say. However the slide in characterisations of pretty much the entire Simpsons cast should provide some indication of how far things have fallen.