Are Creative Risks Worth Taking?

Animation has always had a strong creative streak with plenty of variety to it. If you didn’t like that Walt Disney was chasing realism, all you had to do was look across town to the Warner guys on Termite Terrace and see cutting edge character comedy in full flow. Today is no different; while major studios have become increasingly bland in their offerings, there are plenty of others taking up the creative mantle. Is what they’re doing worth the effort and risk involved?

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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.

The One and Only Reason We Don’t See More Diverse Animated Films

 The Secret of Kells most definitely counts as diverse animation.

On Sunday, Nora Lumiere posted a very passionate call to arms with a wonderful post that expounded the very many areas that we have yet to see in theatrical animated form. Far from a wistful wishlist, it’s a well thought out look at the various genres and styles that are rare or unheard of in animated form.

Hinting on the success of Tangled’s “painterly” style, Nora rattle off style after style that could easily be used on a theatrical scale today thanks to modern technology.

The only caveat with her post is that she is speaking for theatrical animation. We already see plenty of diversity in shorts for the simple reason that they are inherently more independent examples that are created at the whims of the animator themselves. Nora touches upon one reason why we don’t see more diverse animated films (emphasis mine):

It’s time to dare to push the animation envelope and break out of the children’s toy box.  Forget about box-office profits for a minute, hire some innovative scientists and adventurous animators to research new artistic software.

Ah, therein lies the dilemma. As much as we like to think of theatrical animation as an artistic market where the dreams of the artist make it to the silver screen, that is the view that is presented to the great unwashed masses. who truly believe that Hollywood is a “dream factory”.

Not to say that Nora’s post does not acknowledge this, it does, however the fact remains that no matter how right she is, unless there is enough (notice I said enough, not any) money in it, the main studios won’t touch it.

The Big 6 will only ever play within a safe set of boundaries when it come to films because they are incredibly risk averse, and justifiably so. If you were coughing up in the region of $500-600 million (including promotion/marketing) you’d be making princess movies all the time too.

That’s the current problem with the way things are set up at the moment. Independent, inspiring and mould-breaking movies are well within arms reach. Sita Sings the Blues was done by one person, ONE! Why on earth don’t we see many more films like that? The simple answer in this case is that Nina Paley busted her butt and her bank account to get the film made and released. There aren’t too many people who are willing to make that kind of commitment, let alone do it regularly.

Since cost/risk is arguably the main problem when it comes to genre-defying films, there is a logical argument that subsidies could be a potential solution. This is true, certainly in the case of The Secret of Kells, which benefited from a few grants from the European Union and tax credits from the Irish government.

Such subsidies are the sad reality of the style of films that Nora calls for. They are too risky for mainstream, commercial studios, but they clearly have more than enough potential to succeed based on their many merits.

That is the reason why we don’t see more diverse animated films. The unholy mix of risk and cost which combine to make most films that are outside the mainstream too much of a hot potato. Hopefully in the future, as traditional distribution shenanigans break down, we will see more daring films that push the envelope.

Using Neuromarketing for Animation: Good or Bad?

 Via: Fast Company

The other night, we watched the Morgan Spurlock documentary POM Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. It was an entertaining enough look at how products get into films and how studios use them to help pay for and promote them.

Interestingly enough, there was no explicit mention of animation. Not to say that it doesn’t go on of course. Pretty much every animated film contains promotion to some extent. Yes, the film itself is a form of ‘promotion’, it being the vehicle that drives all the ancillary sales of merchandise and DVDs. Need proof, look no further than the final Harry Potter film. It contains no advertising whatsoever apart from on, the Harry Potter itself.

However, one aspect of the films that I found most intriguing/disturbing, is the whole idea of neuromarketing. In the film, Spurlock is basically shoved into an MRI and shown images of products. During the analysis afterwards, he is shown how his brain reacted when shown an advert for Coca-Cola: it released hormones that indicated he wanted the Coke.

As scary as that may sound, its been known about for years. What is not so well known, is that movie studios use it to perfect their product before releasing it. In the course of the documentary, we see Spurlock having a look at the schedule for the day of the neuroanalysis firm he visited. The film right before his: Toy Story 3.

Now you might say to yourself “But Charles, Toy Story 3 had an emotional story to begin with!” Well, yes, it does. However keep in mind that even stories can be analysed to make sure they extract the right emotions from the audience. Fast Company discussed the practice back in February when they took a look at the rise of “neurocinema” and how it is likely to affect future films.

Animation is not immune as this quote regarding Rango from Steve Sands, head of neuroanalysis firm Sands Research demonstrates:

Often animation can be more engaging for the brain than real actors. Look at the strong response to Avatar,

And check out the image below that shows brain activity while watching the trailer for Rango.

 Via: Fast Company

The downside to all of this? Well for one, now you know that the opening montage in UP was nothing more than a tightly crafted, artificial play on your emotions. There was no need for skill in the writer’s room because the data told them exactly what they needed to do in order for you to well up. Michael Barrier hits it right on the head when he calls it “emotional manipulation” because that’s exactly what it is. The images flashing before you were specifically and intentionally made to engage your emotions. You just can’t help it!

Now, you could argue that that is the case with any such scene in any movie. Films are supposed to engage emotions after all, that’s why you watch them. However, Mike nails it again when he compares UP to Dumbo (emphasis mine):

The difference between, say, the opening sequence in Up and Dumbo’s reunion with his mother can be summed up in one word, the old Disney shibboleth “sincerity”.

Why rely on your own or your team’s judgement when you can just do a neuroanalysis and have the data tell you exactly what you need to do. That’s not filmmaking, it’s sheer laziness and insincere because the emotions are not meant, they’re demanded. Major studios would rather have it that way though, because if you’re going to cough up $300 million on film, it had better perform as expected, and the data never lies*.

Will this result in better films? Meh. However I would much rather see a film that allowed me to control my own emotions rather than having them dictated to me. It’s practically cheating with your film and nobody likes a cheat.

*Garbage In Garbage Out applies but it’s safe to say that the marketing firm knows what it’s doing.