Are animation directors being underestimated? [Spoiler: Spielberg thinks so]
Frustrated at the ongoing argument around whether animators are 'real' filmmakers, and armed with the backing of Steven Spielberg, Chris Page, the owner of animation company Jelly, examines the power animators have as storytellers and explains why the medium should be taken more seriously.
I saw the other day that the perennial ‘animated films aren’t proper films’ discussion had reared its ugly head again.
It happened on Twitter, of course, with the inevitable result being that each side of the argument falls back to their default, entrenched position and then sticks to it, as is everyone’s wont on social media.
The basic premise is that ‘animators are not real filmmakers’ and that the growth of CGI spells the death of cinema as we know it.
The basic premise on one side is that ‘animators are not real filmmakers’ and that the growth of CGI, digital effects and other out-of-camera filmmaking, spells the death of cinema as we know it. Most of this school of thought is an understandable push back against the never-ending proliferation of the big CGI franchises which, given their ubiquity, does make it feel like the alternatives to the Marvel/Disney Universe rote movies feel few and far-between.
Above: The debate around whether animators are 'real' filmmakers kicked off on Twitter again recently.
Martin Scorsese poured fuel onto this fire back in 2021 when he said: “I don’t think they’re cinema, I was asked a question about Marvel movies. I answered it. I said that I’ve tried to watch a few of them and that they’re not for me, that they seem to me to be closer to theme parks than they are to movies as I’ve known and loved them throughout my life.”
Film criticism is hampered by nostalgia; the desire for what used to be, but I think that flagging the old as being ‘better’ is a mistake.
I understand this view, and I can have some empathy when discussing the Marvel Universe, where a great deal of the movies created do tend to sit in a very narrow band of the entertainment spectrum, which is aimed foursquare at a very populist demographic, and is easy for highbrow critics to be sniffy about. But that is a script and concept issue, rather than a technical one. CGI is used in all sorts of films and, in some great examples, you don’t even know it’s there. Film criticism is hampered by nostalgia; the desire for what used to be, but I think that flagging the old as being ‘better’ is a mistake. Film is a technology-driven business, it is constantly evolving, otherwise we would all still be watching hand-cranked black and white films in a travelling tent.
The critics fear that the ‘Death of Reality’ is nigh, but it is not yet upon us, although the augmentation and enhancement of reality is definitely here. But these tools, if used well, only serve to enrich the art and the visual experience of the viewer, not ruin it.
Above: Martin Scorsese was critical of Marvel movies and their reliance on CGI animation.
However, SFX and CGI mixed with live-action isn’t really the axe I want to grind here because, whether you’re using live-action, animation, or a hybrid of the two, all filmmaking craft principles still apply: storytelling, cinematography, sound, casting, a director with a vision at the helm, etc.
Jelly is, first and foremost, an animation house. Our directors specialise in pure animation, whether that be 2D, 3D, digital or cell. We aren’t producing Marvel-like enhanced product, we represent animation directors, lots of very good ones; are they not filmmakers or storytellers? We might not produce long-form content or any series yet, but I don’t want any of our directors to feel ‘lesser’ to any other filmmakers.
I would argue that Pixar/Disney/Ghibli are responsible for some of the finest films of the last 20 years, in any medium.
As far as I’m concerned, they have the same skills, they just use different tools. In fact, the directorial skills are eminently transferrable, they are just combined with a singular set of amazing craft skills too. Pretty much everything that they do as storytellers - from storyboarding, shot framing, lighting, working with characters and editing - has a value in both animation and live-action, but their pre-planning has to be impeccable and their approach to the pitch process, including character development and style frames, is arguably tougher than in live-action.
I would argue that Pixar/Disney/Ghibli are responsible for some of the finest films of the last 20 years, in any medium. The amount of storytelling nouse displayed has been incredible, which has been combined with amazing technique and some jaw-dropping feats of imagination. Why are these achievements deemed to be lesser? Different, of course, but not cheaper, easier or less labour intensive to create. And look at the range of styles and techniques that are covered by these studios and directors - there is no limit to imagination.
Above: Pixar, Disney and Studio Ghibli are responsible for some of the finest films of the last 20 years.
Let’s focus on pure direction for a minute, this is where we focus on a well-known speech by no lesser alumni than Steven Spielberg, who said that “the hardest thing for a director to do is to know what he wants, not just how to get what [he] wants” – and that’s why he said that he was in love with animators: “animation is the father of live-action cinema”, Spielberg said, as well as, most importantly, “all directors should be animators first”. He was saying that true direction comes only from impeccable planning and vision, an ability to pre-visualise what it is that the director has in their mind, not just capturing on the fly without planning.
Directing live-action and directing animation have an inherent equanimity, and neither skill should be denigrated at the expense of the other.
I am not going to argue with Spielberg, I don’t think I’m qualified (no shit, Chris), but I can see that there is another side to this argument, that capturing human performance is an art that deserves all the plaudits and recognition that are available. Directing live-action and directing animation have an inherent equanimity, and neither skill should be denigrated at the expense of the other. The two can co-exist, as they already do, so let’s celebrate them both without looking to find one of them to be superior to the other.
But then, of course, maybe I should just ignore petulant Twitter-spats and carry on enjoying any film without worrying about the relative technical merits of it. My one, last point is that animated films should be eligible for any Best Picture award without having their own separate category but, hopefully, as the lines continue to blur, this will one day become reality.
Want to argue about it? See you on social media.