Sunday, May 25, 2008

Final post on Horton

Part IV: cartoon poses, specific expressions and motion blur
As I wrote at the end of my first Horton post, the thing that intrigued me most about this otherwise uneven movie was the decision to treat the characters in a real cartoony way.

There are two informative AWN-articles on the technical challenges the makers were facing:
http://mag.awn.com/index.php?ltype=pageone&article_no=3580
http://mag.awn.com/index.php?ltype=search&sval=horton&article_no=3577&page=1

Cartoon poses
While the story modernization (adapting it for the global warming area) might not be that successful – after all there still is a vulture with a russian accent – the rigging development obviously pays off. The animals of Nool – especially Horton – move like classic cartoon characters and the animation of the Whos even hints at pre-classic rubber hose style which is very much in keeping with Dr. Seuss’ curvy drawing style. Of course some key elements of real rubber hose animation – the absence of joints and the possibility to elongate any limb to whatever length a gag demands – don’t work with rigging-heavy on-model-animation. It still is a long way for 3D to something like Clampett’s Baby Bottleneck (1946).

But all of the motion arcs are a lot more exaggerated and rounder than in average CG features. This simplicity leads to strong and organic animation. As a biped Horton even shows a pear shaped body like any 40s character. There are great poses that recall Chuck Jones’ pose to pose films. Fortunately it didn’t feel that zippy to me like in Dreamworks’ Madagascar (2005) for example.




One of the highlights to me is the handling of Horton’s ears in acting poses. They not only reflect the general idea/line-of-action of a pose (as in the middle picture on the suspension bridge), they actually serve as an acting device like gesturing hands.
They also take on the form of various hats throughout the movie.

Expressions
Of course there are lots of stock expressions involved. Particularly the most basic “thinking gesture” (one eyebrow up, the other down) is massively overused although this could be one of the not-so-healthy Jim Carrey influences (Yes, he does it even in his live-action films).So I was quite positively surprised to also experience some fantastic cartoon acting. I remember the Councilman to have some very specific expressions. Of course clarity and readability are key factors of facial expressions but this does not mean that the audience is only able to understand the most basic emotions such as “happy”, “sad” or “angry”. While specific expressions tend to distort a face in unsettling way, the animators usually only seem to get away with complex facial expressions of minor characters (the shark in Finding Nemo (2003) for example). It came as a surprise to me then, that a character as important to identification as the Mayor of Whoville actually gets some fine acting scenes. Most of his scenes are pretty standard but some of them, like the ones down below really stand out. They are pulled off quite expertly.

Look at these faces. Aren’t they wacky?



Motion blur
One thing that really stroke me was the amount of motion blur applied to some of the wilder animations. What essentially simulates the way a fast moving object is recorded by a standard camera is used here in yet another way. In lesser animation it would be welcome as a device to disguise ugly inbetweens in blurry frames. But here it accidentally diminishes some funny poses.The apparently visible motion blur during zippy motions like Morton’s running around also help to highlight the organic arcs. The way Morton starts and stops reminds me of Chuck Jones’ Rikki-Tikki Tavi (1975).


By the way, look at the rubbery treatment of the arms that still look bony when hitting poses.
I assume that motion blur also serves as an unobtrusive way of bringing back the quality of dry-brush smears and “elongated inbetweens” (a Richard Williams term). When I look at these pictures I can’t help but think of what Michael Barrier calls Rod Scribner’s “Lichty style” (Hollywood Cartoons, page 436). At present motion blur might be the only way of achieving a looser off-model style of 3D-animation. So there are two solutions: It is only a matter of time until someone discovers a way of integrating real Lichty style poses into 3D. Or: this is finally recognised to be one of the crucial arguments to favour hand-drawn animation for certain stories…


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