VIDEO: Are cartoons becoming too realistic?

With more and more computer-animated movies, and non-animated movies that rely heavily on CGI, does this mean that cartoons are now all striving for realism? …Joey doesn’t know, but here are his thoughts on “realism” in animation, anyway!

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  • One thing I notice with CGI vs drawn animation is that CGI characters are rarely deformed the way 2D ones are, for example character’s eyes flying out of their head or limbs stretching. I think it’s because in 3D animation the audience perceives what they’re seeing as closer to reality so the uncanny valley can come into play to a certain extent even with films that are not aiming for realism. A good example of this would be in Son of the Mask, when the cartoon CG dog’s eyes fall out of his head and the staring visage of the rest of his face is terrifying.

  • danbreunig

    This is an interesting theory, Joey. Like many other things now there isn’t so much black & white of how to properly define anything.

    One example for me is Andy Serkis’ performance as Gollum in the LOTR/Hobbit films. He’s made quite an impression as a motion capture actor but couldn’t be nominated for his role because Gollum was technically considered an animated character, even though there was the real man truly acting through voice, expression, gesture, and energy. I would call that true acting, with the CGI just being a new modernized form of costume & makeup.

    The last bit–I’m already curious about what you’re working on. I’m guessing you’re an animation major, huh?

    • tedzey71

      Exactly. When we try to establish rules in animation, often times there will be artists that manage to create exceptions. It’s something that’s happened for years, and it’s why the academy has changed their rules as often as they change their underwear 😀

      As for the last bit, it’s a little something I’m working on for a short. However it will take a while to complete, so I only have bits and pieces now.

  • Joelkazoo

    Yes, you do smell like pastrami! Take a shower!

  • Dennis Fischer

    While there have been attempts to make animation more photo-realistic, I believe they have tended to backfire beyond a certain point. If you’ve seen the FINAL FANTASY movies, you know how creepy these characters can get. I think Brad Bird had the right approach in THE INCREDIBLES, in which cartoon characters maintain cartoon dimensions while being able to convey complex motions and emotions. In other words, Joey, I do think you are on to something.

  • Mike

    It may just be an amazing coincidence that you post this just a few days after the Nostalgia Critic released his editorial on the overuse of CGI that touches on many on the same ideas. Remarkably I just became aware of the Uncanny Valley concept after I inspired by that editorial to read up on some of computer animated features mentioned by in your video and the comments below. Now THIS is a strange coincidence.

    In both cases I was reminded of a special the late Roger Ebert did in the summer of 1999 on the history and future possibilities of animation called “That’s Not All Folks!” One argument he elaborates on about 10:23 minutes in: is that something should only qualify as animation is it seem somewhat fantastically, If it looks realistic enough to appear seamless to live action it should just be called a special effect. Like you said, there is no perfect rule because new idea men keep coming up with new possibilities, but it’s an interesting the way he tries to illustrate how LOOKING real may not be quite the same as FEELING real. He follows up the argument I repeated on one of your earlier videos Joey; that certain kind of stories seem better suited to animation that live action.
    Watch it here: http://siskelandebert.org/video/N6AAN54MDMUW/That8217s-Not-All-Folks-1999

    • tedzey71

      Heh. I actually wanted to release this earlier last week, but couldn’t find all the movie clips I needed! So when I saw that editorial, I thought “Damn… now i’m going to be viewed as the knock-off!”

      • Mike

        I figured it was probably a coincidence. At least it lead me to prepare for the concept of the Uncanny Valley which is totally unfamiliar before hand, though you do a good job of explaining it for the uninitiated.
        Joey what did think of the Roger Ebert animation special? Particularly his statement that as a kid animated movie felt MORE real life action and his funny in hindsight suggestions about the potential of the than upcoming Play Station 2 for making high quality home made animation.

      • Mike

        Hey Joey, did you just get back from visiting family this Thanksgiving? You never answered my questions. Not that I’m complaining. Just don’t what to think of been inquiring for nothing, if you now what I mean

        • tedzey71

          My apologies. I’ve seen the special, and I found it “uncanny” that both Roger and I share the same views as animation extending the gamut as an art form. Especially the statement that animation seems more alive, even though it’s all part of the illusion.

  • MIstwalker

    I think this ignores the huge amount of cartoons that don’t try for a more realistic style. For each of these “realistic” uses of animation, there’s an Adventure Time, Gravity Falls, or Bee and Puppycat (which is wonderful, by the way). Animation can be used to create whatever the people behind it want to create. All that’s happened is that new kinds of animation have come into being, allowing for more modes of creative expression than ever before.

    • tedzey71

      Did you miss the part earlier on when I mentioned that Hand-drawn cartoons are naturally more exaggerated as drawings as opposed to computer models that try more to strive more for realistic proportions? The video mainly focused on computer animation in contrast to hand-drawn animation.

  • Gallen_Dugall

    Interesting. Could be seen as the inevitable maturing of the medium making it more complex. My knowledge isn’t as complete as others, however I remember the uproar over the original highly stylized animation used in Star Wars The Clone Wars and how over time as the show ran the level of detail increased. At least in part this was “because they could” but I have to imagine that customer demand had something to do with it.

    On the other hand there’s an upcoming Superman/Batman film and does anyone doubt that it will fall short of the made for television “World’s Finest”? But “live action” is more respectable so maybe animation has fallen under the sway of peer pressure to look more like it’s “sophisticated” sibling.

    Like I said – interesting – yet another thought provoking episode.

  • CBob

    Interesting as a POV study. I’ve always considered stuff like the Gieco gecko, the CG movie Chipmunks and Avatar’s… everything, as “live action” special effects in the same vein as animatronics and practical models, not cartoons. It was actually kinda bugging me up until about halfway into the vid when you started talking about that sort of distinction.

    Granted with CG that’s a distinction of artistic intent rather then technology/method, but it’s one I’ve always felt was contextually implicit, whereas in the vid it kinda comes across as a recent epiphany for you. Like as if to you all CG in live action films have always read as a “Roger Rabbit” mixing of live action and cartoon, and you’re only now trying to grip the distinction between CG as a special effect, and CG as a cartoon. That may be inaccurate, but it’s the impression I got since you kept referencing to what (to me) seemed clearly intended to be live action special effects as “cartoons”. Particularly with straightforward cases like the Life of Pi tiger, which is clearly supposed to be treated by the audience as a “real” tiger, not a cartoon tiger.

    Then again you also referred to The Dark Crystal as “animation”, even though it’s all done live with practical puppets and costumes, not animation, which kinda makes it seem like you’re already drawing the distinction according to artistic intent rather than method. That is, you see anything rendered in a stylized way as “cartoon”, regardless of whether it’s animated or not. So , say, the Caddyshack gopher would be as much a “cartoon” to you as the Gieco Gecko is “live action” to me.

    What do you think of the Jurassic Park dinosaurs? Do you perceive those as live action or cartoon? That’s probably a better example of unambiguity than Life of Pi I guess, since Life of Pi has the whole flashback/lie/parable excuse to blur realism visually.

    That said, stuff like the Polar Express or Tintin, which are definitely intended to be “cartoons”, yet are done to an almost live action special effect standard of detail, do seem strange to me as well. It has a wierd feeling of indecisiveness to it, as if the people making it want to be making a live action movie and a cartoon at the same time, and can’t properly reconcile that so they just sort of smoosh the two together and try to launder the uncanny valleyness of the result by labeling it an art style. And admittedly stuff like the Chipmunks and the Smurfs (and the Caddyshack gopher) really do push the line between live action and Roger Rabbit as far as they can stylistically, so stuff like that may well be very debatable in its intent.

    Sorry if that’s a bit TL/DR, or if it’s inaccurate or offensive in any way. Chalk it up to my own awkwardness, if that’s the case.

    • tedzey71

      It’s fine! If anything this is an opinion piece that started with me asking myself why the trend in live action as well as fully animated films would venture into the uncanny valley. It isn’t something that’s occasional either. There seems to be a growing reliance of computer animation blurring the lines of live action and animation film-making… however it wasn’t always the case since that blurring has always coincided in the past.

      Looking at the history of animation on a whole, defining what a cartoon is has always been a problem. Some go to the first Fleischer short that used the word as a pun-on-words for “Car” tune. Others have defined it by an animation that’s over-the-top slapstick done in hand-drawn animation. Then again George Pal and Norm McLaren were experimenting with stop-motion and making what people described as “cartoons.” The thing is when Pal was working with physical puppets, McLaren played around with humans and stop-motion along with step-and-repeat printing that further blurred the lines between what constitutes live action to frame-by-frame animation.

      Put it simply, we create more problems when we define animation under certain categories. Animation is part of the illusion of film, and should be treated as. When I use “Life of Pi” and “Gravity” as examples of highly defined “cartoons,” it’s not derogative. Because of the constant changing terms for a cartoon, it’s eventually just became inter-changable with saying it’s animation. A cartoon to an animation has become a comic-book to a graphic novel. One sounds prettier, but even those illustrators admit they are one in the same. It’s part of the problem when the Academy has constantly changed the definition that alienates movies like “Alvin and the Chipmunks” getting considered for “Best Animated Film” while nobody bats an eye when James Cameron doesn’t have “Avatar” considered.

      As for the “Dark Crystal,” even before film animation is the process of bringing in-animate objects to life. The film relies heavily on that concept, so to me it’s like a real-time animation. Some of which has been the problem for motion capture because it’s set to film and not frame-by-frame. At the end of the day, Blue Cat People and Fairies are not real… but are prompted by the illusion to become real. Different methods to achieve it has always been part of my appeal to animation… there is no right answer.

      • CBob

        I see what you’re saying, but I think you’re falling a bit into the old trap of privately stretching and/or redefining a term in the course of exploring it. Your definitions of both “animation” and “cartoon” appear to have been expanded/altered well beyond the common use definitions, almost to the point of meaninglessness. The logical conclusion of what you’re saying comes close to making anything outside of a Cinéma vérité (or, *shudders*, Dogme 95) style qualify.

        I think the Academy labeling the Chipmunks as an animated film really says more about the academy than it does about either the Chipmunks or what constitutes an animated film animation (or cartoon).

        • tedzey71

          No… I just like to read deeply into things. In the grand scheme of things, when technology changes and artists find new ways to tell stories; definitions of pre-existing notions change as well.