If we’re being honest, even I wouldn’t have believed that headline if it was written even six months ago. Clearly being only vaguely aware of who Hatsune Miku is wasn’t enough and it took a proper introduction before I ‘got’ her. Of course there’s a lot of appeal to the character of Miku herself, and that forms the basis for many young fans’ devotion. That’s not what makes her appealing to me though; it’s the concept and execution of the character’s role, and what she represents from a business standpoint. To put it simply: she’s the future.
Gender is a topic in animation circles that is gaining more traction lately mainly thanks to a growing realisation that for all the talk of an industry that has less sever gender segregation and under representation than live-action, it’s still a heavily male-dominated industry. That translates into the programming and associated merchandise so easily that it’s long been simply taken for granted. In recent years, the problem has attracted more attention as viewers, consumer groups and activists look to balance the equation for women and females in animation. For an example of a possible fix, we turn to the east, and the hit anime show Attack on Titan.
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.
One of the perennial problems with starting from scratch is simply getting your creation in front of actual eyeballs. Sure there is the internet and YouTube, but anyone will tell you that just because anyone can see your work doesn’t mean that anyone will see your work. Communication software maker Viber has created a character called Violet and today, we’re going to look at how she does get in front of real eyeballs and how it’s possible to build an audience for animated content from that.
You’ve undoubtedly read the stories by now. You know, the ones proclaiming Merida’s coronation as the latest entrant in the ‘Disney Princess’ brand and (on the other side), the ones decrying her redesign into one with more than an air of sexuality about it. The point of this post isn’t to belabor either side (although this blogger leans heavily towards the latter), rather its to discuss how Merida proves how unwieldy characters can become within large corporations such as Disney and why they need to keep tighter grip of the reins.
Why It’s a Problem
So why would such a change be of issue in the first place? We all know that multitudes of artists work on these characters and the very nature of merchandise (with all its differing surfaces and sizes) necessitates changes to permit an acceptable level of familiarity across the range.
Well, normally it isn’t a problem because the characters remain relatively consistent. In Merida’s case, however, the change is near radical. In fact, all the Disney Princess have undergone some sort of noticeable change from their original appearance on film.
Another reason Merida’s case stands out is that she’s undergone not so much a redesign but a transformation. Even by comparing her looks (and her measurements) one can deduce that she isn’t likely to exhibit the same character traits as her CGI original. Such a transformation runs the risk of confusing consumers.
The Confusion Caused By Merida’s Transformation
In times gone past, the change wouldn’t have been given that much thought. After all, merchandise always lagged behind the films and the medium through which the largest audience would see it (home video) was released many months afterwards, when memories had faded somewhat.
Fast forward to today, and the omnipresence and semi-permanence of the internet has meant that fact-checking and comparison can be done instantaneously. If a corporation makes an overtly obvious change to a character, you can be sure that someone somewhere can confirm the change and indeed, analyse it to astonishingly high degrees of accuracy.
Changes in character can be easy for adults to gloss over, but kids can find it hard to reconcile the apparently unnecessary alterations. Kids place a lot of value in characters and they readily identify with them; changing the character can cause not only confusion, but also trauma. That’s not to say that Merida’s change will cause the latter, but it will not go unnoticed by kids (mainly girls) who’ve identified with a character who’s most significant trait is not fitting in with a crowd.
I’ve always said that it’s not about the movies. It’s about the bait-and-switch that happens in the merchandise, and the way the characters have evolved and proliferated off-screen.
This is true, and certainly part of the cause. The Disney Princess brand relies upon a broad range of characters to appeal to all types, but who still reside inside a statistically maximising percentage of the population. In other words, the characters can be different, but not too different lest they be marginalised and hence, unprofitable.
How To Fix It
Since the confusion and frustrations that are caused seem to be emanating from the changes made, wouldn’t the simplest thing be to just keep them the same as they were in the film (or concepts in the case of CGI)? We’re long, long past the time when merchandise had to look different on account of manufacturing technology and the like. Today, it’s possible to maintain a high degree of quality across the board. There really is no reason why a Merida doll has a different structure to her animated counterpart, or for that matter for a stock image of her on a T-shirt requires a redesign.
Heck, even the Disney Princesses themselves do not need such a standardised sense of design. What it amounts to is the merchandising or marketing division of the corporation attempting to stamp their impression on characters created somewhere else (by animators). It amounts to overstepping their boundaries insofar as they may adapt characters to their work, but outright changing them is unconscionable.
You can head over to the post itself for the full fifteen, but here’s a sampling:
It may be a man’s world, especially in the male-heavy world of superheros, but Wonder Woman boasts some serious skills. She can fly, fight like an Amazonian, and endure wearing Gaea’s waist miniaturizing girdle (even if her figure defies physics).
If her subtitle “Princess of Power” wasn’t enough of an indication, let us consider that She-Ra is He-Man’s identical twin sister. And she can lift things like rocks and buildings and commune with animals. I still want to be She-Ra when I grow up.
Princess Fiona (Shrek)
Yes, this tale is all about accepting inner beauty, but we have to admit, before she went full ogre, Princess Fiona was a babe. Plus, she had that whole Matrix-inspired freeze-in-mid-air-and-kick-all-the-bad-guys-in-the-face thing down pat. Bona fide kick ass lady.
She could rock cargo pants. Her sidekicks were a nerd and a naked mole rat. She could get her homework done AND save the world before cheer practice. Yep. She earns a spot on this list.
Everyone knows The Simpsons isn’t what it used to be, but besides the lower bar for jokes, there has been a fundamental shift in many of the memorable moments of the series too.
The picture below is perhaps a wee bit biased (no mention, for example, of the death of Homer’s mother), but it is nonetheless an indication of just how much the show has changed. The latter series’ emphasis on guest stars as the center of attention only highlights how subdued guest stars were in the earlier seasons; Tom Jones was a plot device not the plot itself.
I can’t speak for the character analysis at the top seeing as I gave up watching new episodes almost two years ago, but it is nonetheless disheartening to see the degradation of the family. When characters in kids TV shows have more depth than the show that set the gold standard, that’s a huge sign of trouble.
Anyway, click through to embiggen the gory detail.
By way of Broadsheet.ie, Electroshock is a short film in French directed by Hugo Jackson, Pascal Chandelier, Velentin Michel, Bastein Mortelecque and Elliot Maren, all working out of the Ecole Supérieure des Métiers Artistiques (ESMA, or School of Artistic Trades for those of use who prefer Anglais).
Besides being a slick CGI effort and an original take on the superhero tale, Electroshock is also interesting from a character perspective. Have a watch before we start the Electroshock character analysis:
What did you think? Pretty funny no? A nice bit of slapstick mixed with some drama of sorts always makes for a fun film.
Anyway, what did you think of the characters?
They’re an interesting bunch: the tough-guy sheriff putting on his best sales pitch for the object of his desires, the beautiful and sensitive Mady who has also managed to draw the attention of Buck, the lowly electrician.
Buck is the protagonist, he’s clumsy, he’s clearly got some low self-esteem and he’s very much on the low end of the totem pole when it comes to the ladies. The electric shock he receives from falling from the ladder opens a new facet of his character to us though. He’s also vengeful, cheerfully going about taking the sheriff down a peg or two as soon as he gets the chance.
Beyond that though, he puts forward his best effort. He attempts to do the right thing, we can see that he at least has some heart, but it is all for one reason: Mady. This is even more so the case after he sees her out jogging (in slow-motion of course). Are Buck’s actions selfless or selfish? Ultimately they’re selfish, but his selfless act of throwing himself in front of the truck to save little Niky is what eventually wins Mady over.
However, the sting is in the ending. A year later, and the photographs in the panning shot all but tell the story. Buck is really a [redacted]. He’s clearly a slob, Mady gives him the fourth degree for all his failings(they’re quite a litany), and what does he do? He slows down time to shut her up! Far from winning our sympathy, he’s earned our disgust instead. The six minutes it took him to earn it are completely wiped out in under 10 seconds as we instantly begin to see how Mady was royally duped (the closing shot says it all really).
From a character perspective, Electroshock is unusual in that it has us (the audience) turn against the hero. We’re led down the garden path only to be brought to the outhouse. Yet the short works, we get a laugh and for that we are guilted into pitying the girl. Clearly, you could never get away with this in a feature, but for a short, such a twist works quite well.
By the way, the Electroshock facebook page has a good dose of the concept and original art and is well worth having a look around.
Matthew Razak over at Flixist has a great in-depth look at Hayao Miyazaki’s seminal 2001 film, Spirited Away. That article is well worth a few minutes of your time as it discusses many aspects present in that film that are sadly lacking in many contemporary American productions.
However, while Razak focuses a lot on the animation, the direction and the over-arching themes of the film, he almost completely neglects to discuss the characters.
Yes, he talks about Chihiro and her transformation from a spoiled little girl into a more mature adolescent and his analysis is quite good in that regard. However, he glosses over the supporting characters that help her in that regard.
Like Haku, the faithful, if resentful, servant of the bath house owner Yubaba who is on a quest for self-redemption and rediscovering his identity, or Lin, the worker at the bath house who teaches Chihiro some of the realities of working life. Not to mention Yubaba herself, show imparts a tough impression of the businesswomen and her strikingly contrasting sister, Zeniba.
If it were not for characters such as these, as well as the multitude of supporting characters, from river gods to no-faces, Spirited Away would be an altogether duller film. Visuals and direction can greatly improve a film, but if the characters themselves aren’t complete, the film will feel stifled and wooden.
That is where Miyazaki excels in his films; the characters are never boring, or repetitive or simple. They are complex, flawed and plentiful; just like real people. Their importance should not be overlooked when analysing a film.
Coming once again from the Art of Animation tumblelog, here’s a few more lovely looking Kim Possible expression sheets. It’s these kind of sheets that always intrigue me. Animators excel at displaying emotions purely through visuals. Oh sure the voice actor has a large part to play as well, but sheets like these only confirm that animators are essentially actors, no different from their live-action brethren; portraying emotions and actions in ways that evoke feelings within the audience.