Comparing Brad Bird and Andrew Stanton’s Risk Tolerance

Mark Mayerson recently posted (with apologies for the delay, I’ve been without my RSS reader for the past fortnight) about the contrast between he efforts of two first-time live-action Pixarian directors. While the post does not go into much detail, the comments which follow raise a number of points in regards to risk and the nature of it.

As Mark points out, Brad Bird went with a familiar face and an existing franchise in stark contrast to Stanton who went for an unfilmed, 100 year-old book. Were either one of them right, or wrong?

No. Both took on a level of risk that they were comfortable with. Bird clearly wanted to have more certainty whereas Stanton was clearly comfortable loading all his reputation eggs in one basket.

That risk was of course shared by the studios. FOX (or whoever it was) that did Mission Impossible were clearly risk-averse. I mean, why else would they greenlight the fourth film in a series that has had the same star for dangerously close to 20 years. Disney on the other hand thought they had the man with the golden touch in Stanton, previous director of cash cows Wall-E and Finding Nemo. Both studios’ decisions are evidence of their relative tolerance of risk.

Animated films are just as susceptible to such risk, perhaps even more so, given their long lead times and inability to simply “do another take”.  Both Bird and Stanton have proven themselves with multiple successful animated films. A switch to live-action was obviously going to contain a certain amount of risk for both of them. It’s probably safe to say that one had a better idea than the other about what they were getting into; I don’t have to tell you who that is.

The only problem with all of this is that the public and critics constantly complain about repetition in Hollywood movies but at the same time clamour to strike down an effort to do something else. Is John Carter a terrible movie? I don’t know as I haven’t seen it. But for his efforts I would give Stanton the benefit of the doubt, for now.

Brand Bird on the other hand, received a gimme in Mission Impossible. Now that he has proven himself to Hollywood and the public/critics, he will hopefully advance to more innovative live-action features, or return to animation. Either way, he is the one to keep and eye on.

Violet Parr Does NOT Grow Up Within A Single Scene

Caution: This post deals with mature themes (but in a mature way).

On Sunday, while searching for a suitable picture of Mr Potato Head for that day’s post (yes, really), I managed to stumble across the rather intriguing blog that is ANIMadams, which focuses exclusively on women and females in general and how they’re portrayed in animation (and a few related markets).

Sadly in hibernation since this past June (2011), the blog would take what many would consider to be a feminist view/approach and while I’m no masculine feminist (Jerry Springer can keep that title), I’ve come to appreciate what the three contributors have to say (to a certain extent).

Which leads to today’s post concerning The Incredibles, a film that remains firmly within my top 3 all time favourites. The post from ANIMadams deals with Violet in particular. Now Violet is certainly my favourite characters in that film for many reasons. Chief among them is that I see a lot of myself in her and how she struggles with her shyness.

Entitled “Let’s Talk About Sex-ualization” the post discusses how the writer views the transformation of Violet during the course of the film from an insecure teenager to an assertive super hero:

It’s not until Helen can be honest with herself and the family, being the superhero she loves to be, that she can properly model for her children. She has a heart-to-heart with her daughter after which Violet strikes a stronger pose than the audience has become acclimated to. It is after this that she begins to be much more active, coming out from behind the veil of her own hair.

It’s safe to say that yes, Violet is portrayed in a different light after this talk with her mother, she’s more assertive, she no longer hides away from real life and she can see clearly with both her eyes the challenges she faces. It’s partly why the film is so fantastic; it exhibits the power of individuals to change themselves for the better.

Then, we get to this line:

Violet is then inadvertently sexualized and objectified. While suggesting to her parents – taking charge like an adult would – a way for them to escape, Violet’s rear is placed directly in the foreground of the camera as her parents bicker in the background. Her entire rear and only her rear.

Here is the offending shot:

 

And here is the argument:

Let me emphasize: I do not believe this is intentional. But I do find it to be a very odd coincidence that once Violet has decided to step up and into adolescence, she is immediately sexualized, even for a few seconds.

No, it is intentional, just not in the way youbelieve. Brad Bird is one of the best animation directors out there at the moment and he’s the kind of guy who knows exactly the kind of shot he wants. This one in particular is meant to be seen from a low angle because the rocket has to be shown in the background. It is where the family are ultimately heading. Placing the Incredibles above the level of the viewer also suggests that they have regained/attained their status as superheroes, they’re not superior, but we do look up to them.

The nature of the scene dictates that Violet propose the solution to the family’s problem. Now you could say that having her voice her opinion could easily have been conducted off-screen, however that would result in some jerky direction of the kind that Brad Bird isn’t known for. Having Violet appear in the scene reminds the audience that she’s present before she makes a suggestion. Based on the alignment of the shot mentioned above, it would seem natural that we would not see her head but the lower part of her figure instead.

What the ANIMadams point alludes to is the rapid maturing that Violet’s character leads to her “sexualisation” in this scene. This I disagree with on the grounds that while she does a lot of growing-up in the course of the film, she isn’t sexualised in the slightest during any of it. She is interested in Tony Rydinger before and after the events of the film. The only difference is that she gains the courage to actually talk to him.

Having her butt on-screen for a few seconds does not constitute turning Violet into an object. If anything, the viewer’s attention is focused on Bob and Helen and is only vaguely aware of Violet’s intrusion until both parents turn around, at which point we immediately cut to Violet’s face. Besides, we’re more concerned at this point in the film with how the family is going to stop Syndrome anyway, right?

The ANIMadam’s post over-simplifies the rather complex developments that teenagers undergo in course of a number of years down into a single shot, and not even  a long one at that. While it’s completely fair to say that Violet does begin her path to womanhood during the film, it is completely unfair to say that she was thrust down that path without her consent by the director.

Do you have any thoughts comments? Feel free to leave them below. 🙂

Three Solid Steps To Encouraging A Kid To Take Up Animation

Via The Animator’s Survival Kit.com

Animation is kind of a funny industry in that a vast majority of its ultimate customers have no idea about the nuts and bolts of the products or even the industry behind it. OK, granted, that could be true about any industry, for instance, do you know how roads are designed? Perhaps, but could you tell me how to lay out a road profile, complete with PVC, PVT, K, SSD, HSD and e values? You could! Oh I see, you were pulling my leg, well, shame on me.

One difference is that adults can generally go and read about how to do it but the real difference is that adults have a choice about whether they go and read about it. Kids (for the most part) do not care.

This morning as I sat down to write this post, it occurred to me that the path to my current career was pretty much laid out in advance, school-wise at least. I mean, civil engineering isn’t a spectacularly complex career; it’s not like we’re competing with the medical or law colleges for the best minds in the nation so planning for a career as one was fairly simple.

Which got me thinking, how would you encourage a child that seems hell-bent on doing animation? It’s a bit of a tricky one because plenty of kids love animation but only a select few can understand it and reproduce it.

The first way would be to find the signs. Do they enjoy watching cartoons? Do they doodle all the time? Do they make rudimentary comics? Have they created a universe for their comic/characters? These are all traits of a creative mind at work. I distinctly remember the kids at school who were always drawing or doodling. During the intensely competitive newsletter market in 5th class, there were one or two comics floating around trying to lighten the atmosphere a bit.

Now that you’ve noticed the talent, how do you go about building the foundation for a career? It can vary, but most animators I am aware of (and have talked to) strongly hint that their parents had a fairly large bearing in their early days. This ranges from buying the necessary supplies to, in Brad Bird’s case, driving two and a half hours to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in a hokey-poke cinema in Oregon. So the answer would seem to be to encourage creativity and to ensure that the kid has plenty or opportunities to experience the artform.

The third and I suppose final way would be to ensure that the kid receives some sort of formal education in the field. I mean, it is one thing to have natural talent but more often than not, such a skill can run wild and some instruction can go a long way to channeling that energy into something truly creative. There are plenty of good schools out there, both expensive and not so expensive. What matters is that the child at least has the option of going to one.

The ultimate point of this post is that you sometimes hear the stories out there of how parents almost admonish a kid for drawing or doodling in the false belief that they could never earn a living from animation or the creative arts. Such a mindset is defeatist and such discouragement is a sign of ignorance on the part of the parent.

I kinda feel like I’m preaching to the choir on this one, but as a non-animator, this is the kind of stuff I see animators complaining about or regaling in stories about themselves or people they knew. There is no excuse for it so hopefully this post will serve as a bit of a reminder to everyone that we should be encouraging kids to take up the skills if they have an interest in it.

Animation Directors Moving to Live-Action: Jumping a (Sinking) Ship?

It has been a topic of debate for quite some time and even within the animation community, there is suspicion that many students who study the artform are really looking for an easy leg-up into the film industry. While this may be true for some, it does imply that animation really is a second-class citizen in Hollywood, despite the proven track record of box-office receipts.

Michael Barrier has an insightful post on the topic of animation directors and the opportunities open to them at the present time. I highly recommend you head over to his site and read it.

In the post, he singles out Brad Bird for not only being perhaps the greatest director of his generation, but also for moving onto live-action and the unliklihood that we will see another animated film from him in the foreseeable future.

In that he may be correct. Brad is no longer at Pixar, where he developed my favourite, The Incredibles, and the somewhat drama-strewn Ratatouille, but is in line to direct Mission Impossible IV. Michael Barrier speculates that Brad may have moved on for the simple reason that he is unable to find a studio that is willing to create his kind of film.

In this he may be right. I wrote on the topic previously and it is fair to say that of the main animation studios in Hollywood, none bar Pixar are suited to Brad Bird. Barrier hints that Brad did not figure in the long-term plans at Pixar, which may be true. In this I am reminded of one of David Ogilvy’s maxims:

If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. But if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants.

Brad is one of the most creative guys in the industry and the reality is he has been left to fend for himself in a sea of sharks. Directing a live-action movie may well be putting bread on his table but it is a real loss to the industry as a whole when one of its best people ups and jumps ship.

Animation directors are a enthusiastic bunch. The vast majority have a genuine love for the artform, and Brad Bird is certainly no different. He has three films to his name and each one is superb. In a way, he’s the Quentin Tarantino of animation, putting out a film every couple of years that wows people every time. The fact that he has a fine attention to detail is secondary.

With just three main studios and smaller independents (although even Henry Selick, director of Coraline has joined Disney in order to develop projects for them) the source of jobs is scarce to say the least.

Live-action represents a bigger pool to swim in with more variety thrown in for good measure. Unless and animator goes the personal or independent route, they are unlikely to be able to create an adult-orientated (i.e. serious) animated film. This is a shame but we have only ourselves and the studios to blame. They will never take a risk with animation, even Pixars supposedly ‘brave’ and ‘experimental’ film Wall-E was still well within the unspoken walls that imprison animation in the family-friendly market segment.

Time will tell how this trend develops. In the meantime, I agree with Michael Barrier in that studio head must make a dilligent effort to retain and nurture key creative talent, not insulate their favourites into an old-boys club of sorts. Fresh faces, even those better than you, will only serve to increase the studio as a whole. Their loss only serves to decrease the gene pool, with a corresponding drop in quality.