Monday, June 1, 2015

An Elegy for Dirt

The process of animation today is faster, more precise and more efficient than it's ever been before. The reason for that, of course, is computers.
"Shall we make a cartoon?"
I'm not talking about CG animation, with its 3D-modelled characters and environments (as in the Pixar and DreamWorks stuff that's dominated the box office since 1995). I'm talking about the traditional, hand-drawn animation seen almost exclusively on TV these days. That, too, is now done inside computers.

Today's animators draw on touch-sensitive screens, their markings captured as digital information. Color is added the same way. The editing, the sound mixing, etc., is all done using computers. The finished product is rendered as a digital file. It's broadcast as a digital signal. And finally, your digital television decodes and displays it for you. At no point has anything you're seeing been exposed to the Earth's atmosphere.

And it looks amazing! Cartoons have never looked better than they do using modern methods - all pure, flawless, saturated colors in eye-popping HD.
But it's all a little too perfect, isn't it?

Even as a kid, I always liked seeing the seams in the stuff I was watching. Not too much, of course. But the occasional imperfection in a TV show or movie is a good reminder of how amazing it is that we can make moving pictures. In a way, this was the beginning of my film education.

One of the first things I picked up on in cartoons was the difference between an object painted on the background versus an object that was about to start moving. You could tell, say, what door was going to open, or what item was going to fall off a shelf, because it looked slightly different than everything else around it.

The tiniest mismatch of paint color, or the use of different material for foreground cels versus background cels (causing the paint to dry differently), or reduced detail in the object that's going to be animated leads to items standing out visually before they actually start moving.
Which plank is Odie going to break?
Where is Uncle Scrooge going to emerge?

Another thing I noticed as a kid was cel shadows. Have you ever noticed a small drop shadow ghosting the contours of a cartoon character? (Not to be confused with shading and shadows that animators intentionally add for mood, style, or dimensionality.) These shadows occur when a cel is slightly raised above the background. Because of the small scale of animation, these shadows are microscopic in real life but are much more noticeable on your TV screen.
And then, of course, there's just plain dirt. Specks of dust or hair that inadvertently get trapped in between or on top of cels during the animation process. Or sometimes in the gate of film cameras, back when we used film. Not to mention that every once in a while the film itself could get scratched.
Of course, the things I'm describing are things that animators always tried to avoid. And sure, you want to do your best to make your show look as great as possible. But little flaws are bound to get through, and I always enjoyed catching them. It humanized the whole process, helped me appreciate the handcrafted nature of it.

But that's all gone now. And I miss it.

Look, I'm no Luddite. As I said before, cartoons look great now. The technology for making cartoons has to evolve, has to progress. That's the natural course of things, and it's good.

But it's a bit odd that there's literally nothing physical about cartoons anymore. There's nothing that anyone can pick up and hold and examine and appreciate.

As a birthday gift this year, I got a production cel from an episode of "The Simpsons" that's 25 years old! That's as good as gold for someone who's a hardcore fan of classic "Simpsons" episodes, as well as animation as a medium.

Today's 10-year-olds won't be able to collect production cels from "Adventure Time" or "Gravity Falls" 25 years from now, because no such thing exists.

Of course, all is not lost. There will always be concept sketches, production artwork, things like that. As long as spontaneous creativity exists in the world, precious artifacts will continue to be made.

It's just different now. And I really like the way my "Simpsons" cel looks on my wall.