“The animation was great” is something I have heard around our offices quite frequently over the years when referring to the various films seen by the different people in our team.
But what is GREAT animation?
Like in film with its many genres and styles it's hard to judge animation and compare its many styles against one another. There is no question that Studio Ghibli’s animation is great, but so is Ray Harryhausen's and South Park's, each vastly different and great examples of animation in their own unique ways.
I’m going to break down a few of my favourite animations and figure out what it is these masterpieces of the medium have in common which make them work and make them great.
Dexter's laboratory - he is the smartest boy you’ve ever seen!
A wonderful example of great animation is Dexter's Laboratory! The show employed smart time and cost saving methods which, as a byproduct, gave the show a truly unique style of its own. Limited animation had been invented in the 1960’s by the expert animators of Hanna-Barbera animation. Thirty years later and the 1990’s team took what had been established and improved it. Using smear frames, losing the need for meticulous slow-in and slow-out principles and limiting character’s mouth animation to a bare minimum, were just a few standout tactics the team used to complete the show.
This created a very simple style of movement that wasn't overcomplicated but did compliment the characters and content of the show. Dexter, as a character, was incredibly stark and had simple personality traits. He had a bad temper, a delicate ego and a low social IQ. Added together with his flat shaded purple, orange, black and white colour pallet, he was very easy to digest as a character. His episodic show was tailored to fit his design with light story-setups that involved gadgets going wrong or trouble with rivals and family. Overall the show had a great sense of balance between its art design, its characters and the stories it told. You can still watch Dexter’s Laboratory on Cartoon Network and find out more about the show here: http://mentalfloss.com/article/63432/15-things-you-might-not-know-about-dexters-laboratory
Jason and the Argonauts
A tale of ancient Greek mythology. One of the original ‘hero’s journey’ tales, complete with epic locations, larger than life characters and scary monsters. This meant an animation style that was also larger than life was a great choice for the film. Ray Harryhausen's monsters are incredible because they look like detailed works of art which have actually come to life. Audiences can see they are not real creatures and they are not trying to ‘fool’ anyone. Instead, they move with a slightly unnatural jerkiness in their motion and you can see paint on the models glistening under the key lights of the set.
The film balances its magical monster animation with vibrant scenes and exciting costumes, as well as dialogue that has a fitting theatrical tone to it, which helps to create an overall congruent viewing experience. Had the monsters looked too real, they could have upstaged the actors, or vice visa, the actors could well have been portrayed too realistically and made the monsters look budgeted and silly. The film stands tall as a classic monster movie, very well judged and very much a gem of a unique era in cinema history. You can now watch Jason and the Argonauts fully restored on Blu-Ray and you can learn more about the filmmaking process here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w-1z7n3yoKs
Super Mario 64
What a beautiful video game Mario 64 was, deserving of all our respect, even in today’s graphic driven game industry. The Nintendo 64 classic took us into a 3D environment for the first time and enabled us to run, jump and fly in a world of paintings and piped tunnels. As a character Mario looked nothing like a real man. Instead, he resembled a doll or a toy of some description that could move around and interact with his environment.
The limitations of Mario were what made the game so unique and brilliant and the fact that the creators had to play within the boundaries of the art form meant their imaginations worked within a consistent arena. It's important to understand just how limited the Mario 64 creative team were. They had very little space on the cartridge to work with and very little power in the console which meant they had to really push themselves creatively to work with what they had. Mario couldn’t do just 'anything', he could punch things, jump over things and defeat specific enemies in specific ways. The game's limitations essentially set its metaphysics and rules out clearly, then the team went to town creatively. Mario’s caricatured designed meant he could jump unbelievably high, be blasted out of cannons, fall from great heights and actually die without anything feeling ‘weird’,‘stupid’ or unbelievable. To illustrate this point more, imagine if Mario had been photo-realistically rendered or if he had human anatomy. It would look crazy and seem like some kind of psychedelic trip! The game was balanced and well judged with content that matched its production design and complimented its limited capabilities. Mario 64 is one of Nintendo most beloved games and was re-released on the DS is 2004. You can learn more about the creation of the game here: http://pixelatron.com/blog/the-making-of-super-mario-64-full-giles-goddard-interview-ngc/
So it is clear to me that the ingredients to great animation is embracing limitations and understanding balance. Any animation style can look good if it is well balanced with its content, characters and production design. An important secret to producing great art in any medium is working within and embracing limitations. Limitations can form an underlying structure, a consistency-framework which can keep shape over the endless and unpredictable flow of creativity. In a world where limitations are fading away more and more each day, one of the best things you can do; is set your own.