Sunday, March 6, 2011

Fantastic Mr. Fox: Prolific Limitations: Understated Acting (5/5) Part I

It was a last-minute decision to divide this final chapter on Fantastic Mr. Fox into two parts (I like to refer to it as a Deathly Hallows decision) because I didn’t want it to become as long as the last one. This first half is entirely concerned with acting while the next one will be about the limited color palette. 

Nevertheless, let me start with an addendum to Mr. Fox post (4/5): Now that The King’s Speech has won the Academy Award for best picture, chances are even more people are going to see it if they haven’t already (at least around here it is still playing in theaters). Anyway, if you happen to see it (again): Inkeeping with stern royal protocol, the film contains a good share of central perspective shots with Geoffrey Rush sometimes almost looking at the audience (e.g. the film’s closing shot). There’s an early dinner table conversation in the 90° style (without the whip pans, of course). Also note the patterned wall paper in the therapist’s apartment and a few “chameleon” effects. Slightly to heavily distorted wide-angle lensing is visible in many scenes, especially the ones that transport the reluctant king’s uneasiness with his new “profession” of “kinging”, as they say. (No pictures to back that up since I don’t have access to a DVD and the publicity stills show nothing of this, I’m afraid.)  

Regardless of these superficial similarities, the film’s overall style does not even remind one of an Anderson film. I just brought up this example to make sure that these stylistic devices are in no way exclusive to Anderson’s films and in a more conventional drama their use is hardly noticed. 

Understated Acting
I didn’t think of Fassbinder when I started writing about acting in Anderson films, but thanks to a lucky co-incidence, I’ve just seen Fassbinder’s two-part science fiction drama Welt am Draht (World on Wire, 1973) the other night and a couple of influences/similarities suddenly became clear to me (e.g. I can see now why Wong Kar-Wai claims to be influenced by Fassbinder). Michael Ballhaus’ manierist camera choreographies are among his most elaborate even measured by the standard of his works for Scorsese

So as a starting point, look at the following Youtube-Clip from Welt am Draht that not only anticipates part of the camera move from Life Aquatic (excerpted in Mr. Fox post 4/5) but also includes some of the more static and artificially understated acting and dead pan dialogue delivery:

Within this movie about virtual reality and deceptive appearances the acting style works very well. The actor playing “Fred Stiller” is the same Klaus Löwitsch whose acting I’ve analyzed here before.

We have already seen that characters in Anderson’s films are often emotionally paralyzed and have difficulty breaking out of their habits and, visually speaking, their geometrically organized environments. This is reflected in how Anderson directs his actors. Part of the comedy comes from characters who deliver their zany lines nonchalantly even in moments of great turmoil or in deeply emotional situations.

Whether they are melancholy like all those played by Bill Murray or rather optimistic like the Owen Wilson characters, they hardly raise their voices and are usually speaking rather slowly. His films have been described as “slowed down farce or souped up tragedy”. Either way, Anderson has a great, unique sense of timing that grows on you with repeated viewing.

Watching the following excerpt from Life Aquatic, keep in mind that Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) has just met a man who claims to be his son (Owen Wilson).

By the way, one reason among others why Life Aquatic never really lifts off, I believe, is the fact that the one-note Murray character for once is the protagonist who is so full of self-pity that there’s not even dramatic tension in the confrontations with his antagonist played by Jeff Goldblum. 

Animating internal conflicts
A lot has been written about Anderson’s decision to take the actors to a farm and record the dialogue “on location”. That’s the part most “making-of” features and interviews cover, so there’s no need for me to recycle it here. What’s interesting from an analytical point of view is the further development of Anderson’s trademark style with the unique tools of animation.

The voice acting style of Fantastic Mr. Fox is closer to Anderson’s live-action films than to the average animated feature. If anything, the dialogue pacing is slightly faster, in fact, George Clooney talks pretty fast for an Anderson film at times. This is picked up in Mr. Fox’s movements which are often a little faster for comic effect, like a film projected at a slightly quicker speed. The voices themselves sound relatively close-miked and thus pretty intimate while still being firmly embedded in the sonic environment of the locations.  

Henry Selick who served as animation director in Life Aquatic (and was cast as animation director of Mr. Fox before being replaced by Mark Gustafson due to scheduling conflicts) once talked about the challenge for the animators to adjust to Anderson’s vision. As can be seen in Mr. Fox, the director wanted the characters to be animated rather differently from the prevailing standard of organic pose-to-pose style.

When you look at scenes from Mr. Fox, strong line-of-action changes are rare. Although animated expertly with attention to subtle details, the puppets themselves remain relatively stiff and upright, which sharpens our perception for the subtle motions possible with this kind of puppets. This not only reminds me of the Eastern European stop motion tradition that Anderson cited as a key influence, it also translates his understated acting into animation while taking it even a step further by incorporating the characters more naturally into the geometrical compositions.

Since the story is mainly driven by Mr. Fox’s internal conflict between domestication and animal instincts, the animators have found a brilliant way of visualizing these “wild animal” outbursts contrasting the domesticated acting. Animal instincts prevail whenever the animal characters are eating, digging or fighting. These outburst erupt suddenly and not without comic effect as you can see in the following clip:

Interestingly, the “wild animal” movements are even more stylized than the understated acting scenes. It’s clearly neither a case of natural animal movements vs. restrained domesticated gestures, nor are the animators applying the Disney technique of smoothly combining natural animal movement with exaggerated human behaviour.

The digging especially is rather iconic: instantly readable without a hint of realism. Just look at the following frame grabs:
Nine consecutive frames of digging.
The arm movement is a mechanical loop which is performed by all the characters behind Mr. Fox without a physical effect on the wall. It is just a symbol for digging, not an actual depiction.

One of the advantages of the iconic digging movement is that it doesn’t get in the way of the conversation. Because it appears so mechanical we focus on the dialogue delivery. Note how the dirt in front of Ash is vanishing although he is busy blocking his ears with dirt:
Six selected frames of a digging close-up.

Overall the animation style is so different from what we expect from American animation that the animators couldn’t hardly revert to clichée acting and poses. Once you get past the initial “awkward animation” feeling you’ll see that the animators have done a very fine job of specific acting – also on the human characters.

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