"What's New" Archives: September 2005
September 21, 2005:
MULTIPLE PERSONALITY DISORDER, CONT'D: Milt Gray wrote in
response to my postings about casting by character on August 26
and September 1:
"While I fully understand what you are saying, I must
admit that although I consider myself an above-average cartoon fan
in terms of being knowledgeable and thoughtful about the subject,
I do find it difficult to imagine how much better the character
animation could be without seeing some examples of it. Are there
some scenes that you feel are particularly exemplary of what you
are advocating? Maybe Ilike so many other cartoon fanshave
seen for so many years what has been done that I have just grown
to accept that the best that's been done is the best that can be.
Or to put it another way, it may be that if the concepts and stories
were better, then we as an audience would be less bothered by tiny
inconsistencies in character acting.
"In your book, the differences in character acting
of Captain Hook that you cite could likely have been overcome not
by using a single animator but by discussing the character more
in the story stage, to get a more focused idea of exactly who Hook
is. Then the animators would have a better defined target to aim
for, and the noticeable differences in different scenes would simply
"Another reason that the differences in Hook's animation don't
bother me is that I find in real life that one person will behave
quite differently from one day to the next, depending on what mood
he is in.
"In live-action movies, tiny details are unavoidablethey
are always seen by the camera and shown to the audience, and so
having more than one actor playing the same character is unavoidably
noticeable. But the mechanics of animation production are such that
only broad generalities are possible, and so it is more a matter
of how those broad generalities are dealt with that determines how
successful a cartoon will be, both artistically and in how it evokes
real world realities.
"I have long advocated that the one thing that animation shouldn't
even attempt is to re-create the real world. It's just a different
medium. The real strength is in the concepts and writing being inspired
enough to stimulate an audience, and the purpose of the animation
is to explore alternative ways to symbolize or parallel real world
"Ultimately, I think we get back to the discussion we were
having a couple years ago, about whether the animators during Walt's
time were actually as skilled as some of today's best animators
are at drawing and moving the human figure. Walt's animators had
the handicap of trying to create a new art form, whereas today's
best animators grew up as children absorbing the best of Walt's
animators' achievements, and as children practicing illustration
drawing (with a passion) and observing human actions, both in real
life and in a constant stream of movies on TV. By the time the best
of these people became adults, they could draw and animate with
skills utterly unknown to the original Disney animators. Most of
us today don't notice this advance because the concepts and stories
of the Eisner-era films are so poor that we can't relate emotionally
to anything on the screenand on some unconscious level we
blame the animators. (After all, it is their work we are watching
on the screen.)"
I don't have time, unfortunately, to deal with all the interesting
points Milt raisesI'm still hip-deep in my Disney biography,
and I will be for a few more weeksbut I do want to respond
in general terms.
A question lurking in this discussion is this one: What is a cartoon
character anyway; and more specifically, is there any sense in which
a cartoon character has an existence apart from the films in which
Sometimes the answer is yes, but only with those characters so
superficially constructed that everything about them can be reduced
to formula. Some very good cartoons have been made with such characters,
like the best of Jack Kinney's Goofy sports cartoons. To the extent
that Goofy exists at all in those cartoons, it's as the sketchiest
sort of character, so that to speak of "casting by character"
in connection with those films would be to speak nonsense.
Other characters exist largely as roles that different directors
(not so much animators) can play in very different ways. Bugs Bunny
is less a character than a role, one played brilliantly by Chuck
Jones in particular, problematically by Bob Clampett, and not so
well by Bob McKimson, when he was directing. Friz Freleng, on the
other hand, abdicated too much of the Bugs Bunny role to his layout
men and animators; he conceived of Bugs too much in formula terms.
And then there are those characters that simply do not exist, except
as a design and maybe the sound of a voice, apart from the work
of a particular animator. Dumbo and his mother, in Bill Tytla's
animation, are such characters. Tytla's is the kind of animation
that I value most: the characters have the unique presence on the
screen of live actors, but are themselves inconceivable as live
action. I talk so much about casting by character because I think
that only rigorous and intelligent casting of that kind can give
us animation of such depth.
Captain Hook promises to be an exeptionally rich character in the
best of Frank Thomas's scenes, like the seduction of Tinker Bell.
I don't see any "broad generalities" in that animation,
which is remarkably fluid and subtle in its transitions from frame
to frame. But the effect of Thomas's animation is diluted through
its juxtaposition with Woolie Reitherman's much broader presentation
of Hook. The better the animation, the more such "tiny inconsistencies"
are magnified. I don't know how tinkering with the story could have
made the two animation stylesand the two different conceptions
of Hookcohere. What should have been sacrificedReitherman's
gift for broad comedy (he was an leading animator for Kinney's Goofy
cartoons) or Thomas's for psychological subtlety? Me, I'd much rather
have a Peter Pan in which Hook is less of a clown and more
of a menace.
I don't think all animation needs to be as acutely felt as the
best of Bill Tytla's, or as delicately probing as the best of Frank
Thomas's. But there's no substitute today in what we have in such
quantity: highly sophisticated and technically adept animation that
is, at bottom, just as much indebted to formulasand just as
superficialas the animation in Kinney's old Goofy cartoons.
The difference being, Kinney knew what he was doing; and he wanted
his audience to laugh, and not shed a wholly undeserved tear.
BILL WRAY: A book I've enjoyed dipping into repeatedly is Everyday
Life in California: Regional Watercolors, 1930-1950, the catalog
of a 2004 exhibit at the California Heritage Museum in Santa Monica.
Many of the watercolors are by artists with animation connections
of one kind or anotherLee Blair, Art Riley, Millard Sheets,
Charles Payzant, Elmer Plummer, Phil Dikeand they're immensely
evocative of Southern California as it existed more than a half
century ago, in animation's "golden age."
it turns out that a contemporary animator, Bill Wray, is making
paintings of today's California that are very much in that tradition.
He works in oils, and the influences he cites are not the watercolorists
I've mentioned, but he's with them in spirit: "I love the early
2Oth centurys art and architecture," he says on his
Web site, "and work hard to invoke comparisons to that
period in my work. I love the idea of capturing what's left of a
bygone era; recording it before its gone, replaced by a new
Visiting Bill's site is like taking a vacation to a bygone Southern
California, one that I find far more congenial than today's traffic-choked
megalopolis. Try it, you'll like it.
September 9, 2005:
DUBBED MIYAZAKI: From Joshua Wilson, in response to my comments
on Howl's Moving Castle:
"Your analysis of the issues concerning dubbing in
the Miyazaki films seems to be spot-on. I have not seen Howls,
but I recently had the opportunity to view both Castle in the
Sky and Spirited Away on DVD. The English dubs on the
trailers alone were enough to put me off from attempting to listen
to the whole movie that way. I had resisted for a long time watching
these films, because the stylized character designs and acting (doll-like,
as you put it) seems distracting and a bit wearying to me. After
all, you can just about get the gamut of all the expressions
they use in five minutes of any afternoon TV cartoon block these
days. Where I think Miyazaki succeeds (and those horrid TV cartoons
miserably fail) is in allowing these aspects of character to be
an abstraction so as not to distract from the components of the
film that are important. In my judgment, this includes the designs
of creatures, machines, and architecture that make these films so
beautiful and oddly intriguing. In these two films that I have watched
(and enjoyed), Miyazaki is successful in creating an alternate world,
transformed substantially but with nuance. When he maintains a point
of familiar reference, such as Gullivers Travels in Castle
in the Sky, it becomes something strange and unfamiliar, mythologized
and ripe for new interpretation. I wonder if much of the stuff is
not just plain weird (as Chihiro herself says in Spirited Away)
only for weirdness sakebut still it does capture my
interest, and this despite my skepticism going in."
September 1, 2005:
MULTIPLE PERSONALITY DISORDER, CONT'D: Mark Mayerson writes in
response to my August 26 posting:
"I understand your position on animated acting, but
I think that all acting is constrained in a way. No performance
is pure. Every performance is a mix of the actor and other people
on a production. The only question is the degree of the mix.
"Stage actors are stuck with a text and direction that
they may not agree with.
"Movie actors are stuck with the same but have additional
handicaps. Camera angles have an impact on the significance of each
moment. Editors (with or without director input) choose takes and
impose pacing. Editing can improve a performance but it might just
as well destroy one.
"In animation, the animator is saddled with someone else's
voice performance. The voice actor's interpretation is a major constraint
on an animator, even if the animator is going to do all of a character's
scenes. This is in addition to the same constraints that affect
a live action performance on film.
"Finally, there's the issue of rehearsal. On stage, it might
last months. Film directors, especially those from the theater or
with acting backgrounds, routinely try to get several weeks before
shooting. Some live action directors (Hawks and McCarey come to
mind) were known for heavily re-working scenes on the set. There
is no equivalent in animation. It's too expensive for animators
to try different approaches to characters or scenes with the same
freedom as live actors. If animators are lucky enough to get months
to do test animation, the best they can hope for is to try out a
sequence or two.
"For that reason, rehearsal has migrated upstream into the
story reel. That's the cost effective place to try variations and
see what works. But this means that animators aren't hired to create
a performance, but are hired to create a predetermined performance,
one which has been shaped by the voice and the story reel.
"I think that animators are up against a much tougher challenge
than live actors in film, which may be why animating acting is so
often disappointing. However, I'm still not convinced that casting
by character is the only way to get a good performance.
"You're on record as liking work by Clampett, Jones and Brad
Bird, all of whom are directors who dominate their films and who
cast their animators by scene, not by character. Perhaps your disappointment
in the films where Thomas and Johnston animated by sequence is not
due to their approach so much as it's due to Reitherman being a
"The quality of an animated performance may have more to do
with the relationship between the script, director, voice performance
and animator than whether an animator is cast by character or sequence."
It's true that circumstances often conspire to prevent actorswhether
they're appearing "live" or working as animatorsfrom
performing at their best, but that's not what I was talking about.
Let me circle back around to my point by talking about an imaginary
production of, let's say, Othello, in which everything (physical
facilities, rehearsal time, direction) is ideal. Let's suppose further
that Othello is played each evening not by one actor but by two,
perhaps Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles (both of whom played the
Moor memorably on film). The actors are made up to look as much
alike as possible. Moreover, they have agreed on an interpretation
of the role, so it's always clear that they're trying to play the
character the same way. It's Olivier in one scene, Welles in another,
each actor taking those scenes that actor and director agree bring
out his strengths. Could all those steps render the differences
between the actors irrelevant?
Of course not. Any such production might be intriguing, but we
can't help but be aware of even subtle differences between actors,
and so Othello would inevitably seem less like one character than
two. The same is true in animation, and that's why I speak somewhere
in Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age
of the sensation that a character's place has been taken by a "not-quite-right
It's only through casting by character that the necessary identification
between character and animator can be made as strong as possible.
Such casting is the more important the more distinctive and original
the animators involved, as with some of the early Disney animators,
and the more a film's director cares about bringing his characters
to life as complex individuals.
When casting by character isn't feasible, for whatever reason,
the alternative is for the director to, in effect, play all the
parts, by controlling the animators' performances so thoroughly
that differences between animators are minimized. That is certainly
what happened in the best Jones and Clampett cartoonsin very
different waysand I'm quite sure it's what happened in Bird's
For that matter, it's pretty much what happened in Snow White
and the Seven Dwarfs. Walt Disney pioneered casting by character
in his mid-thirties cartoons, but he stepped back from it in work
on Snow Whiteit must have seemed impractical, with
so many characters involvedand he had to make up for that
mistake through the most painstaking scrutiny of the work of his
In most animation, however, the casting problem has been finessed
by settling for only a superficial consistency. That happens most
obviously in TV stuff (where characters are usually nothing more
than forced voices, crude designs, and perhaps a few mannerisms),
but the same expedient has been adopted in much more ambitious films.
In Disney's Peter Pan, for instance, Captain Hook looks
and sounds much the same from scene to scene, but he is simply not
the same character in Frank Thomas's scenes as he is in Woolie Reitherman's.
The differences may not be jarring, but they're real; and they exist
because Hook was ultimately defined less as a character than as
a voice and a design.
When a character is defined that way, as so many are, casting by
character can indeed seem like a pointless extravagance. But it's
this reliance on the superficialsanctified by decades of practice
and, more recently, by authorities like Thomas and Johnston and
Richard Williamsthat has drained most animated characters
of screen presence and trivialized the films themselves.