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.

What If Disney Had Produced Pixar Sequels Instead?

Via: Bob & Rob

The answer may be found over on the blog of Bob & Rob, otherwise known as Bob Hilgenburg and Rob Muir, screenwriting duo.The image above is from their version of Toy Story 3.

They’re recently been posting some of their work from what was known as Circle 7 over on their blog. Don’t know what that is? Never mind, I didn’t either until recently. Basically, Circle 7 was set up by Disney after their relationship with Pixar began to go south with the goal of producing sequels to the five Pixar films released under the original agreement of which Disney owned he rights to. Circle 7 was shuttered when Disney bought Pixar and was quickly swept under the rug as if it had never happened.

It is only now that we are starting to see some fragments of what could have been. While there are only stills and a short animatic-esque sequence to be had, you can piece together the jigsaw puzzle to come up with a rough idea of what things could have looked like.

Having said that, it is impossible to tell how these films would have turned out like. It’s quite possible they could have been good, like the recent Tinkerbell films, or they could have gone the other direction, as in the many, many sequels to Aladdin.

Either way, it seems that Pixar has been handed the reigns for producing the sequels now, as if to give them a sheen of authenticity and pedigree. I remain to be convinced however.

Crying at Animated Films

By way of Animated Views I came across this Time article which discussed the tear factor of animated films, in particular Toy Story 3. The reason the article was written in the first place was the rather astonishing number of reports that came out after Toy Story 3 was released in which adults openly admitted crying during the film.

There is next to no reason why adults shouldn’t be afraid to display their emotiond during an animated film. The Time piece focuses on the fact that adults were crying at a children’s film. So what? Are they supposed to hide their feelings or are they supposed to be able to realise that what is on screen isn’t real? Poppycock! Just because a film is aimed at kids does not in any way prohibit adults from enjoying the full range of emotions that a kid does.

So the film ‘looks’ different, that is a pathetic excuse to pre-suppose that it is somehow unworthy of adult emotions. An animated film is still a film. it has a plot, characters, setting and climactic conclusion no different from any other movie you see out there. In fact, I’d go on to say that an animated film is more deserving of adult emotions for the simple reason that adults, while more mature and experienced when it comes to films, tend to suppress displaying such emotions, especially in public. On a related note, the fact that the animator’s hard work can be related to by both adults and kids alike is a sure sign of their skill.

I freely admit that I welled up during Toy Story 3 but not during the incinerator scene. instead what got me was the one where Andy was standing in an empty bedroom as he leaves for college. It brought back a simlar memory for me when I had all my stuff packed for my move to the States. In my case it wsn’t anything to do with the plot or the characters, it was simply the thought of my mother having an empty room in the house that did me in.

it’s fair to say that animation excels at stirring emtions in the audience. The artform’s longevity means that films such as Dumbo continue to extract responses from the viewer despite the fact that live-action films of the same era do not have near the same impact as they did when released.

it would be nice to think that Toy Story 3 has set some sort of a precedent in the area of adult emotion. Perhaps we will see more animated films that dare to branch out from the safety of the kiddie genre.

Toy Story 3's Record-Breaking Box Office Haul

It hit the news over the weekend that Toy Story 3 is now the highest-grossing film of all time, with $920 million overall in the bank. While it is commendable that it has achieved this level of success, all is not what it appears to be.

There is a fairly comprehensive article over on Forbes.com that establishes how TS3, as successful as it is, has not quite broken the ultimate record for an animated film. That belongs to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which, when adjusted for inflation, raked in over $800 million at the US box office alone!

Of course there are a number of factors at play besides inflation. For one, ticket prices for 3-D movies have resulted in higher gross figures from smaller audiences. The latest Shrek film was blatantly pulling off this trick by having a higher gross than its predecessor with only half the audience.

Besides that, studios these days make more money from the likes of DVDs, broadcast rights, merchandise, etc. than back in the 30s, when a film had to make all its profit at the box office if its financiers stood any chance of keeping their shirt.

The best part of all this hubbub, is that the focus will once again be on animated films and their usual success. This can only be good for the artform as a whole and will hopefully encourage others to take a risk on an animated feature.

Anomaly Appraisal: Toy Story 3, The Bittersweet Finale

 

You know, I’d planned to write an epic, three-part review of the entire trilogy, but the more I reflect on it, it becomes clear that it would not be practical. Comparing a movie made 15 years ago with one from today is kinda cruel in more ways than one, not least on the quality of the animation.

No, this is a straight-up, honest account of how I hated about 95% of Toy Story 3 and how it all worked out in the end, sort of. If you want an animator’s perspective, I highly recommend reading Michael Sporn’s thoughts on the film. I agree with most of his points, which is why I’m linking to it.

Starting with the animation, it is superb. The fact that just the textures on the characters can be seen is proof how far CGI has come in 15 years. The levels of detail that can be created nowadays makes the original film more akin to a student thesis! It is the little things like these details that has set Pixar apart from other studios, they really do take the time to focus on things that affect the movie in ways that may not easily be perceived at first glance.

As for the directing, I would say that Wall-E is easily superior in that it was more in tune with the character. In TS3, the opening sequence is over-dramatic despite its content. Plenty of shots in the films seemed to be set up as if trying to prove something. None detract from the viewing experience, but they are grossly over-wrought in the context of what Toy Story is. That being said, there are no real pointless shots in the film, save for maybe Mrs. Potato Head’s eye.

This films is perhaps one of the most realistic that Pixar has released. Compared even to UP, the level of detail is stunning, from the largest detail (entire rooms) to the smallest (Ken’s wardrobe). One can’t help but feel that the charm of the original and sequel has been lost in the meantime. Compared to The Incredibles, which seemed realistic despite trying not to be, TS3 seems unrealistic because it tries to be too much like the real world and in the process overreaches its goal. Again, it ain’t the end of the world, but it may be connected to my thoughts further down.

The story itself was OK. It was certainly of a much higher standard than what Hollywood is known to put out. It is clearly the completion of the toy’s time with Andy. He’s grown up and heading to college, the toys are neglected in their chest, although they do acknowledge that Andy could have binned them many years ago and did not. The writing as usual was absolutely superb with jokes-a-plenty for adults and kids. The theatrics of Buzz Lightyear manages to steal the show were certainly enjoyed by the audience.

Do I agree with all aspects of the plot? Well, not quite. The villain lacks motivation. Sure he has some, the flashback sequence certainly indicates that but what ran through my mind while watching it was that Jessie went through much worse and was not nearly as resentful. Lots-O-Huggin Bear is also the first villain in the series to get his cumuppance. Why is that? Sure, Al got his in TS2, but he clearly was not a toy, even Stinky Pete got sent off to live with a little girl, not, well, I won’t spoil the surprise.

The characters in the film are the same we know and love. They are all here, but as we’ve seen before, they change subtly between films. In other words, Woody from Toy Story is still the same Woody in Toy Story 3, but he is ever so different. Perhaps in this movie, it is the situations that he is in differentiate him from the first two films. I couldn’t help but feel that the presence of an evil segment of toys soured things for everyone. One could argue that the first two films were too devoid of such characters, but here, I felt they went a wee bit over the top (secret, late-night gambling session anyone?).

Sigh, I guess my issue is that Toy Story is not near as innocent as Toy Story, or even Toy Story 2. Whereas the latter contained only a few grandstanding scenes, this latest film is pretty much one big sign begging for the audiences sympathy. It plays on our fondness for the characters, who don’t feel they need to prove anything any more. There is no soft treading, characters are shown as-is, no justification given. The simplicity of the first two films is also missing. In the first, Woody and Buzz get lost and need to find Andy, in the second, Woody gets stolen and his friends try to get him back. In this film, the whole gang gets tossed about all over the place and we’ve no idea what it supposed to happen to them by the end of the film, their ultimate goal does not become obvious until the very end.

Which leads me to another sticking point. The toys themselves. Did you notice that in the first film, they were extremely careful not to let anything they do make things appear out of place? That meant they tiptoed around and were careful to be just as they were left. In Toy Story 2, the rules were loosened a bit and the toys began to interact with their surroundings, especially Woody, who moved around frequently. This does not include the scene where the toys cross the road, that is simply the what happens when they do move about.

However, in this film, all of that is lost as the toys haphazardly move around as they please, moving things about and turning things upside down. can they really be considered toys any more if they are altering their environment in a way that would clearly be noticeable by a human? Methinks not. It is as if the humans in this film are oblivious to what’s going on right under their nose. That seems a bit of a stretch and somewhat spoiled the film for me. The first film made me believe that my toys were doing stuff when my back was turned. Toy Story 3 makes me wonder if they were doing anything at all.

Perhaps I am too harsh on Toy Story 3, it is after all (hopefully) the conclusion to the story that the writers intended. In that respect, it does commendably. How it gets there is a different matter entirely, but that should not putting you off seeing one of the year’s best films thus far.

The Toy Story 3 Soundtrack: Where Disney Pinches the Pennies and Leaves You Short Changed

I learned yesterday that Disney plans to release the soundtrack to Toy Story 3 as a digital download only. This is not a good development on a number of fronts. Although I’m risking turning this into a gripe blog (which it isn’t!) it is a shame that Disney have decided to go down this route for the sake of saving a few cents.

Admittedly, most music is consumed nowadays in the form of music files rather than physical media. This is fantastic as it cuts out a lot of the cost of producing a record. I have long maintained that mp3 was the best thing to ever happen to the music industry. It set the music free from the restrictive media that are CDs and tapes. Suddenly, you could put your music anywhere and copy and share it easily. No more high-speed dubbing cassettes over at your friends house!

The only downside to mp3 and other lossy formats is that they compromise the quality of the recording. You may not know it, but plenty of audiophiles scoff at the humble CD. The basic reason is that the sampling rate for a CD or any digital medial for that matter, results in a waveform that does not accurately reflect the original analogue wave. In order to do that, you’ll need to dig up some vinyl records, either at your parents house or the lone record shop in your area that’s still open. Despite the apparent shortcomings of the CD, it has proven over the last 30 years to be a suitable successor to the vinyl record for the masses.

As for soundtracks, well they’re normally contain a fair amount of orchestral music. That is, if it really is a soundtrack with actual music from the film and not just one with a bunch of songs relating to the film. I’m looking at you Space Jam!

With natural music, I feel that you can only get the best experience from the best recording. With a CD, our in good shape, unless you know where you can find prerecorded SACDs. By using mp3 files, you are getting shortchanged, even if the music costs less. Don’t even get me started on the DRM they slap on there to stop you doing stuff with the music you bought.

If, like me, you enjoy listening to your music pretty loud, on a nice hi-fi, then you are out of luck. Mp3 sound like shite when you crank the volume up. A CD isn’t nearly as bad. Something along the like of EVE Retrieve from Wall-E need the highest bitrates to sound good. Anything less is in danger of leaving the listener feeling disappointed.