Since Pixar’s release of the groundbreaking blockbuster, “Toy Story” (1995), computer animation has become hugely profitable and popular with audiences. The 3 dimensional cartoon platform engages audiences in a variety of ways. At first glance they act as an unworldly ‘kidified’ visual spectacle, however once you dig deeper you understand a true care and precision placed into the filmmaking that attracts audiences through other means. The social commentary that runs throughout these family oriented films encourages audiences to challenge their own moral integrity.
Likewise, an engagement through humor, both slapstick and implicitly adult makes watching such features with children a satisfying experience, rather than a parental endurance. In my essay I will cover potential social, economic and political factors that contributed to the genre’s development and question why audiences continue to respond to these features in such a positive manner. The “Golden Age of Animation” was the ‘remarkable period in the late Thirties and early Forties, when Walt Disney transformed the movie industry with a visionary zeal and unbroken string of [cartoon] hits” (Lee M, 2009).
His artistic creations helped animation thrive, in a way that granted it commercial recognition and popularity from the public. Unfortunately, soon after this booming era, which brought us unforgettable classics such as ‘Bambi’ (1942) and ‘Pinocchio’ (1940) the animated film industry faced a serious downfall in both reputation and sales. Some argue this was caused by ‘Chuck Jones at Warner Brothers [placing of ‘Looney Toons’ (1930-present)] on at children’s hour. (O’Harra H, 2007) Although the movement from cinema to television made cartoons popular with children, it unintentionally created a ‘60’s and 70’s [parental perception that] Saturday morning animation was just for kids. ’ (O’Harra H, 2007) This meant that adults rarely invested money in animated features, especially when their children could watch these comically entertaining ‘distractions’ at home for free. It was debatably not until the 90s that animated features made a profitable come back.
This was arguably because John Lasseter, the creator of the ‘innovative, self-shadowing 3d animated short Luxo Jr’ (Garcia C, 2013) joined Steve Jobs’ pioneering computer Animation Company ‘Pixar’ and created ‘Toy Story’ (1995). The combined forces of Jobs’ ‘PhotoRealistic RenderMan’ (RenderMan, 2013) programming skills and Lasseter’s belief that although ‘art challenges technology, technology inspires art’ (Lasseter, 2012) there was no doubt the first feature length computer animated movie would be a huge success.
A ‘3 Oscar nominated,’ (IMDB, 2013), rare 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes’ (2013) and ‘$200 million domestic grossing’ (Box office Mojo, 2013) success, to be precise. The CGI (computer animated images) offered audiences a unique visual spectacle that ‘people got excited about initially because it was generated with a computer. ’ (Garcia C. 2013) This made viewers feel like a privileged insider, and satisfied their ‘self-esteem needs’. (Maslow, 1943) In application to Maslow’s needs theory, audiences felt a sense of trust with the moviemakers as they were provided with a sufficient cinematic experience unlike any other.
Additionally, Pixar, ‘the first and remains the most successful animation company’ (O’Harra H, 2007) continues to retain the trust of its audiences and distribute brilliant movies: 12 out of 14 were Oscar nominated, and a majority of them are on ‘IMDB’s top 250 movies. ’ (IMDB, 2013) The ‘commitment-trust theory of relationship marketing’ (Robert M, 1994) can be applied to Pixar. This is because the well-established production company continues to provide audiences with consistently quality films.
Hence, they maintain their brand identity, cater to consumer demand and sway audiences to watch their films over others. Furthermore, with this new style of film’s success, computer animation has spawned what John Lasseter ‘who is currently Disney’s animation chief creative officer [believes is] a second golden age of animation. ’ (Lee M, 2009) He goes on to say in an interview, after Disney bought Pixar ‘for $7. 4billion’ (La Monica P, 2006) that ‘people began to think for the feature animation business, it is impossible that more could be less. ’ (O’Harra H, 2007)
The backlash of computer animations popularity is that in recent years 2D animation has fallen significantly in Hollywood cinema. As of early 2013, Bob Iger the chief executive of Disney, stated ‘to my knowledge we’re not developing hand drawn animation as it’s largely for television at this point. We’re not necessarily ruling out the possibility [of] a feature but there is not any in development at the company. ’ (Child B. 2013) One would believe that this meant ‘the general consensus [was] that audiences [do] not want to watch hand-drawn animated films. ’ (Child B. 013) Potentially because computer animated features offer more appealing textures, backgrounds and animated physics which although cartoony are generated to look realistic. Warner Brothers’ ‘Happy Feet’ (2006) like many others CGI films use renderings that make every single piece of fur on the penguins move, as if wind was hitting it.
Supporting ‘Blumer and Katz, uses and gratification theory’ (Blumer J, 1974) this natural movement on screen helps audiences identify with the characters on a deeper scale as their ‘appearances has been deliberately altered to provide a cute, wide-eyed look that appeals to humans ideals of beauty. (Grahame J, 2006) Their delightful expression helps audiences relate to characters because they are at awe at the aesthetically pleasing animation. On the other hand, Lasseter believes that blaming the fail of traditional animation solely on visuals ‘is completely ridiculous [and in fact, the true reason was] unfortunately 2D became an excuse for poor storytelling. ’ Todorov’s narrative theory states ‘all stories begin with equilibrium, face disequilibrium, and then end with a resolution. ’ (1978) In order to make animated films follow this narrative structure characters need to be relatable.
This is why most characters within animated films, whether it creatures – ‘Monsters Inc. ’ (2001) or inanimate objects – ‘Cars’ (2006) are personified. Such a personification then allows an emotional bond to form with universal audiences as these characters troubles and triumphs are ‘merely represented as a projection of human desires. ’ (Grahame J, 2006) These narrative arcs also allow writers to lace these films with intertextual-references and adult jokes, which both media literate parents and young children from around the world can enjoy, even though they interpret the humour differently.
On top of this computer animated storytelling also provides more leeway for unique creative storytelling, which perhaps could never be achieved cheaply in live action filming. However, one could oppose this by arguing these methods of film making have always been associated with animation, since the earliest form of 2D animation such as Walt Disney’s’ debut ‘Steamboat Willie’. (1928) Other factors also contribute to the genres popularity. Shark Tale (2004) is a computer-animated movie with a wide range of A-list celebrities ranging from Will Smith to Robert De Niro.
The hiring of famous stars to voice characters helps market films because audiences tend to determine a movies success on the reputation of the cast and company involved in its creation. Additionally, characters being voiced by actors who are typecast in certain ways, helps establish animated personalities. For example audiences immediately associate Smith as being urban and street smart, and understand De Niro’s association with Italian American organised crime, whether or not they are in an animated fishlike shell.
Likewise, directors are as eager to get involved in the production of these features as celebrities are. Spielberg’s film ‘The Adventures of Tin Tin’ (2011) uses computer animation along with in studio motion-capture to give his animation a more realistic feel, yet retain the traditional ‘Tin Tin comic book’ (Remi G, 1929- 1976) look. This way of filming is hugely popular because it mirrors realism, but reminds the audience it is a fictional story made to ‘entertain. ’ (Blumer J, 1974) Raymond Chandler once stated ‘modern film tries too hard to be real.
Its techniques of illusion are so perfect that it requires no contribution from the audience but a mouthful of popcorn. ’ Supporting this, although certain animation looks genuine, Lasseter insists a ‘good animator must not provide films that are realistic; a good animator must tell stories that are believable. ’ (Lee M, 2009) By following this approach to filmmaking audiences are allowed to fully immerse themselves in fictitious worlds, thus catering to their ‘entertainment needs’ and ‘evoking a sense of relaxation and passiveness that only ends when [the film] finishes’. Shrum. L. 2004) However, motion capture movies [similar to Spielberg’s] are sometimes unappealing for child audiences and the blunt realism tends to appeal to more adult demographics. A prime example would be the certificate15 ‘Beowolf’ a CG animated feature that clearly shows the famous cast in their animated form.
The film’s acclaim was that ‘by imagining the distant past so vividly, Zemeckis and his team prove that character capture has a future. (Corliss R, 2007) Unfortunately, this is still the case as there have been under 10 Hollywood produced character capture feature length films to date. Arguably, the only problem with computer animation is that since the constant success of previous CGI films, audiences are more critical of the new. This means that independent animated films seem to be less successful at the box office.
The lowest grossing animated release was ‘Freestyle Realsings – Delgo. ’ The film had a ‘$40 million budget [yet] didn’t even manage to make $1 Million. (Steven N, 2009) Perhaps the film was unsuccessful due to its ‘unoriginal civil war storyline’ or ‘boring battles and flat jokes’ (Horwitz J, 2008) however winning the best picture in the ‘Brazilian film festival Anima Mundi’ (2008) revealed a lack of promotion contributed to its fail. Lasseter states ‘merely being a computer animated movie is no longer enough to ensure bumper box office’ although they were once seen as ‘the safe, flop proof arm of Hollywood toon’s take as much fortitude as the rest of the industry. ’ (O’Harra H, 2007)
Correspondingly, around the years of the global recession, (2007 – 2009) there was a significant downfall in cinema attendance. (Theatrical Market, 1995 – 2013) This meant audience’s began to become more selective of the movies they paid to watch. Walt Disney once said ‘you’re dead if you aim only for kids, adults are only kids grown up anyway. ’ (Lee M. 2009) This could be applied to most modern computer animated films as they are deliberately made so that the whole family can enjoy.
The efficiency of going to see family movies in the cinema appeals to viewers, as it is a cheap way of socializing. Love needs’ (Maslow, 1945) are interpersonal, and this time spent with ones family at the cinema makes individuals feel a sense of belongingness, and feel cared about. The interaction therefore caters to ones ‘self-actualization’ needs, which Maslow states are ‘fundamental to our motivation and personality, hence leads to our happiness. ’ (Maslow, 1945) Cinematic companies such as ‘Vue’ even offer ‘Kids AM’ programs in an attempt to encourage families to watch (CGI) movies at the cinema for discounted prices.
This benefits institutions like Pixar and DreamWorks as even during the financial crisis they unite fragmented audiences, thus gaining higher revenue. Most importantly, as modern computer generated animation has become so reputable and respected, animation is no longer considered to offer audiences a ‘reconstructed world of lines and colours, which subjugates and alters itself at your command. ’ (Grahame J, 2006) They instead capture relevant grounded scenarios, in the hope that global audiences understand the moral messages laced within and apply them to their own lives.
An ideology of filmmaking that was inspired by Walt Disney’s death wish: that his fiction ‘should be something that improved societies not distract them. ’(Simon B, 2010) Most computer-animated narratives tend to take subjects and turn them on their heads. The satirical subject of a robot showing mankind how to live in the ‘postmodern masterpiece’ (Dreher R, 2008) ‘WALL-E’ [taking aside the exaggerated sci-fi storyline] teaches an audience the importance of looking after our world, instead of succumbing to the lazy life technology has made for us.
Such a ‘critique of modernity’ (Dreher R, 2008) allows these seemingly childish movies, to have an influential power that contrasts social preconceived conceptions, and creates political awareness, whilst still being entertaining. There are various theories that ‘film is imploding. ’ (Spielberg, 2013) The film industry as a whole has faced a serious loss of sales to competitors, the games and television industries. Alongside the global recession, which occurred in recent years, now more than ever it is important for filmmakers to generate a unique engaging cinematic experience that is not ‘just TV in public. (Tarantino Q, 2012)
I believe that computer animated and motion capture features ‘have a future that is only just emerging’ (Goodridge M, 2008) and can be the way to bring fragmented audiences back to the cinema. However, although we have advanced in technology, bringing us the wonders of computer animation, what makes global audiences enjoy animated movies is the combination of a well thought out narrative and in depth identifiable characters, not just the visuals employed in front of them.