As CGI becomes more prevalent in the film realm, we’re seeing a shift, or at least a blurring, of the boundaries between live action and animation. Hateful as they are, filmed retreads of cartoon classics like Yogi Bear, Alvin and the Chipmunks and The Smurfs are paving the way for the science fiction idea of the synthespian. Motion capture is a sort of halfway house towards this goal, as blokes in leotards covered in ping pong balls create the base movement for the characters that will eventually end up on screen. Andy Serkis has made something of a career of this, which is a shame. It’s always a pity to see one of our most mobile and expressive actors peeking out from behind a monkey mask.
Yes, I know Disney have been doing this sort of stuff ever since Bedknobs and Broomsticks. If you were to really track the idea back, interaction between live action and animated characters goes back to Winsor McKay’s Gertie the Dinosaur in the early 1900s. Yes, ok, Who Framed Roger Rabbit. For gods sake, let’s not mention Cool World. The conceit now is that the characters are supposed to look photorealistic, as if they belong in the mise en scene. The fact that they don’t, and that we are ushered even more quickly into the uncanny valley when they appear, shows that this technique still has a way to go.
The fluid state of the boundary becomes even more pliant when live action directors move into animation. Tim Burton has always moved easily between the two disciplines, but then he started as an animator in the first place. Now other directors are trying out the medium, and the results are, to my mind, the purest distillation of their obsessions and tropes.
For example, Gore Verbinsky’s CV shows a restless and fertile imagination, trying all kinds of genre work before making the film that I think is his most complete and successful work: this year’s animation epic Rango. Here, his dark imagination is allowed full rein, and he gives us a film that is equal parts hilarious, horrific and lysergically surreal. It feels as if it sprang fully-formed from his brow and simply materialised on the screen – which would of course be an insult to the hundreds of talented people that worked on the film. But somehow it feels complete, free from studio interference. A pure, cool shot of water in a desert of mediocrity.
Similarly, Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox has all his retro hipsterisms in full effect, creating a world that owes more than a little to Nick Park’s chunky steampunky look. His decision to animate in stop-motion is another cue to the analogue aesthetic. It doesn’t matter that the fur of Fox and his friends ripples under the skilled fingers of the animators. That’s kind of the point. The film looks hand-crafted, because that’s exactly how it was brought onto the screen. A world built in miniature, down to cotton-wool smoke and cellophane water. For all that, though, it’s the Andersonisms that shine through. It’s a coolly urbane film, despite being set in a rural world of farms, fields and tunnels.
Of course, the idea works both ways. Andrew Stanton, director of the upcoming John Carter, made his name at Pixar, notably on Wall-E. He points out one of the advantages of working with actors instead of animated characters. Making a note on performance and then seeing it in action is a matter of moments, rather than weeks. His story-oriented approach, where most details are solidly locked down before a frame is shot, is a positive advantage in an effects-heavy movie like John Carter, and shows that the skills and philosophies learned in one film-making realm can have surprising effects in another.