Monday, February 7, 2011

Ask the Audience: How Can You Tell if Animation Is Good?

*This post contains clips (and spoilers) from Toy Story 2, How to Train Your Dragon, and Up

Wow, I haven't made a new post in... 2 weeks, it looks like. I've been crunching a lot on my last few assignments and just couldn't pull myself away from them long enough to write a post. But, I've still been getting comments in all that time, so thanks to all you guys for continuing to read this sparsely-updated blog. And I promise that I'll be making more frequent updates soon :)

Today's post will be short, because it's mostly a set-up and asking of a question. So get your notebooks handy; you'll be quizzed at the end of this.

I want to start by sharing a few clips for you.

First, here's a sequence from Toy Story 2 in which Buzz, Ham, Rex, Potato Head, and Slinky are trying to make it to the top floor of an apartment building. But the toys don't realize that this Buzz is actually a new one from the toy store. So he still has all the mannerisms of something like a cop who takes himself far too seriously. And, I think that the stuff he does in this sequence is some of the best animation ever.

Continued here

The relevant stuff (for now) ends at 2:50.

I mean, from an animation standpoint, this whole sequence is just fucking brilliant. Aside from the dialogue which is also hilarious ("Help me prop up Vegetable Man or we're done for," is the motto I live my life by), but Buzz's animation is fantastic. I'll elaborate in a second, but look back at that second Youtube clip. Watch from 2:50 to 3:45. (By the way, 3:07 to 3:22 just might be my favorite shot in the movie. It's phenomenal work by Doug Sweetland)

Completely different character style, right? I mean, the contrast here is amazing. Buzz was hitting very over-the-top and staccato poses (he takes himself so seriously that if he tries to point in one direction, he can't just use his finger; he uses both arms, all 10 fingers, and his entire upper body). Contrast that with Woody coming out of the box. It's so fluid and subdued. he's still hitting over-the-top poses because he's sort of playing an egotistical character in this moment, but they're over-the-top in a completely different way. Whereas Buzz's poses had a lot of sharp angles, Woody's poses here are very relaxed and curved, and his transitions between them have way more arcs and fluidity.

Pulling away from that very cartoony sequence, here's a clip from one of the best scenes in How To Train Your Dragon (I tried to find the entire scene but I couldn't :( However, the actual shot I was looking for IS in this clip, so it'll work).

Wow. Fucking wow. The shot from 1:30 until the end would be high on my list of best acting in animation. The subtlety here is just breathtaking. When I saw HTTYD in theaters, this shot completely blew me away. Watch Toothless at 1:44. His eyelids close for a half a second. He completely wants to touch Hiccup's hand, but his pride won't let him. He moves in a few inches, considering it some more. And then he finally humbles himself and touches his hand.

Moreover, watch Hiccup's equally amazing performance from 1:30 on. He knows that dragons are supposed to kill humans, but he wants to trust Toothless. He holds out his arm and he's clearly scared shitless. He's not moving at all but you know exactly what he's thinking. Toothless touches him, and it hits him that he's still alive, and he exhales and lets go of his tension. I mean, fuck, you can feel his relief. When I saw this in the theater, I exhaled with him. Incredible.

Continuing the subtle animation, here's a clip from Up (my favorite animated movie of all time). In this clip, Carl has managed to make it to Paradise Falls (and fulfill the lifelong dream he and his late wife had), but in the process he has also alienated the boy and dog who were helping him. He goes inside to look through his late wife's childhood scrapbook, which he's never looked at entirely, knowing that the last few pages were blank.

I just can't even say anything about this sequence. You want to talk about subtlety? This is the sequence. There's so much here, and it's so minimalistic at the same time. Just mindblowingly beautiful. It gets me every single time, without fail. And without dialogue. It's pure character animation.

Wipe off your tears, time for the pop quiz. Pixar has always generally been considered as having the best animation, and Dreamworks (especially since HTTYD) has been quickly becoming equals. Within the animation industry, movies like most of Pixar's library, HTTYD, anything Glen Keane or James Baxter or Doug Sweetland worked on, stuff from the old Disney-era, etc, these are considered some of the finest animations ever made. What we don't ever tend to include on that list are TV shows, or Dreamworks's old CG movies, or Disney straight-to-video movies, or even the old old short films from Pixar (pre-Toy Story; which actually wasn't due to bad animators, but more to the limitations of the brand new technology).

But, when I read movie reviews for animated films (from the general public; not animators), in movies that i consider having great animation, it always seems that the reviewer also says it has great animation. And this makes me wonder, and it's why I'm asking this question (to those of my readers who are not also animators):

Are you able to tell that a movie like How to Train Your Dragon has better animation than a movie like Shrek? And if you can, how do you know it?

Clearly, you don't need to be an actor to know what's good acting or bad acting. But there are a lot of nuances that are exclusive to animation, and I wonder if the general public are consciously aware of them. So, I'd love it if you guys left a comment with an answer (doesn't have to be about HTTYD or Shrek; I was just using those as examples). Or, if you want, I also would love hearing what movie or TV show or short film, etc, you think has great animation and why you think that.

When I get enough responses, I'll make a follow-up post and I'll go a little bit more into detail the kinds of things we, as animators, think makes great animation. I'm curious to see how much you guys can pick up on.


  1. i loved toy story 2 but ive never seen up or how to train a dragon

  2. I think part of the increase in subtlety (concerning 3D animation) is because of the increase in technology allowing the animators to give more life into the characters. Tangled was another recent another movie that had good animation.

  3. @AssortedNews

    Totally right, but there's another reason that isn't really obvious. Facial subtlety is really really hard, if not impossible, in 2D because of how simple the facial features are in the first place. In CG, though, you're able to render it with a lot more detail, and that makes it possible to be able to read a tiny eye dart or a lip quiver.

    The other reason is actually that any time you have a CG character go completely still, it looks like they died. 2D is much more forgiving in this respect because of how simple it looks anyway. But in CG, the subtle acting is almost required just to get the character to look like they're still alive.

    So, yeah, you're right about it being due to the technology. But it goes both ways. You CAN do it, but you pretty much HAVE to do it.

  4. Both of these movies are amazing. I almost cried more than once during Up, srs. It's the little things (that I may not have noticed if you hadn't pointed them out) that really make the animation. Saw a billboard on my way home.

  5. I should watch toystory 2..

  6. i think it's the detail of the minor movements such as water and mirror reflections.

  7. Sometimes I prefer animation from way back in da day, but maybe that's just me being nostalgic.

  8. Neat stuff. I remember seeing the original Toy Story as a young child. Memories :)

    Following and Supporting

  9. I think the key to good animation is believability. Animators can essentially pose and animate anything is any way, even beyond the realm of what is physically possible. With real physical acting, what is considered good is having believable line delivery, with the body language to match. Body language is the only issue, here, whereas animators not only need to make their animation match the line delivery, but first make sure that their characters are moving in a believable way. Humans don't need to work to move believably, they are already bound by the laws of physics. Animated characters are not.

    This challenge is compounded even more when dealing with creatures that don't exist, ala HTTYD. What is great about that movie is that they manage to characterize Toothless by drawing on several existing animals, using well-known behaviors to drive their body language that is understandable to the audience, AND animate so well that the message come across subconsciously.

    Some movies have animation that clearly does not come across as well animated because even though the animator might have a good grasp on body language, the movements are not fluid or believable within the realm of our minds, while the truly great not only animate with believability, but put across meaning with every movement without you even having to think about it.

  10. i think what dhalo says is a great summation of the problem, that and perfect symetry, we have this system based on smoothness trying to describe a textured system

    i dig this so far followed and coffeed

  11. i fkn love toy story, nice post

  12. this blog is very good mmmm