Total Recall

Total Recall: Beowulf and Ye Olde Tradition of Animation

Humans and animation mix and match in this week's Total Recall.

by | November 14, 2007 | Comments

These are heady times for live-action/animation hybrids.
This week, Robert Zemeckis updates the Old English poem
Beowulf
with some
help from Ray Winstone,
Angelina Jolie, and a whole mess of technology. Next
week, Enchanted, starring
Amy Adams and
Patrick
Dempsey
, also adds a heavy
dose of animation to its fantasy world. With these flicks in mind, it’s a good time to
take a look at some other flicks that combine live-action and animation in
unconventional ways.

The blending of live-action and animation is nothing new, as
evinced by silent cartoons like Gertie the Dinosaur and
Max Fleischer‘s rotoscoped shorts featuring Koko the Clown. Now technology has advanced to the
point where some films, like the
Lord of the Rings
movies, blend
technology and live-action so seamlessly it’s sometimes hard to tell the
difference. What was once a novelty is now relatively commonplace. But before then, rotoscoped animation hit its turning point in the 1970s when director Ralph Bakshi established it as an artistic technique (and not just a trifle or cost-cutting measure) through a series of racially charged, frequently explicit animated movies.


By the mid-1970s,
Bakshi was
the American king of urbanely ribald animation with features like
Fritz the Cat

(53 percent), Heavy
Traffic
(91 percent), and
Coonskin
. With 1977’s
Wizards (53
percent), he attempted something a little different. Conceptually, Wizards is a movie Walt Disney could get behind:
soulful, beautiful animation (as Bakshi described it) with bright colors,
fairies, and even a princess or two. In execution, he delivered post-apocalyptic
psychedelia, a bizarre fable about two brothers set millions of years in the
future. One brother is healthy and is nice to his mother, the other a mutant who
reconstructs 21st century weapon technology and breeds an army with
Nazi propaganda. A.H. Weiler of the New York Times calls it "a melange of
animation and live footage that [features] mystical, slightly scary and,
occasionally, comic tones." Contrasted with its Disney-esque color palette and
voice acting, this movie is like
the UNICEF Smurfs ad gone feature-length.

Bakshi used rotoscoping for a majority of the large-scale
battle sequences, a technique that requires an animator to paint and color live
footage. (Beowulf is a sophisticated variation on rotoscopes.) Elegant creatures
such as Snow White or Gollum can spring out of rotoscoping, but Bakshi had a
unique approach in films like Wizards and 1978’s
The Lord of the Rings

(50 percent): applying
just the right amount of detail and fluid motion, he turned objects into
grotesque apparitions. Perfect when you feel like animating the monstrosity of
war.


The Wizards trailer.
TRON
(67 percent) was a commercial disappointment for Disney in 1982 and
it’s been a notoriously long and arduous journey to get a sequel greenlit. But
it’s hard not to think that there wouldn’t be all those troubles if the movie were just a teeny bit better. The premise is intriguing (Jeff Bridges gets zapped into a
computer, where programs have to gladiate against each other in neon suits) if
half-formed, while the pacing is beyond plodding. But it was the
special effects Disney was really banking on. Considering TRON can be
seen as the
progenitor of computer graphics-driven studio flicks, some of its effects hold
up remarkably well. "The movie’s innovative digital special effects were jaw-dropping
at the time and still seem pretty cool," writes Jeffrey Anderson of
Combustible Celluloid
. Indeed, there’s an elemental thrill in
seeing a digital airship gliding over a mountain range or light cycles speeding
around on grids.

TRON demonstrated that computer-generated scenes could
propel a narrative, a lesson that countless blockbusters have taken to heart.
Two years after TRON, Pixar released their first short (The Adventures of
Andre and Wally B.
) and people slowly began realizing that, goodness, these cumbersome computers can also make things funny, expanding even more upon the
future potential of the machine.


The light cycle scene from TRON.


Richard
Linklater
‘s Waking Life (2001, 79 percent)
utilized rotoscoping for more philosophically-minded purposes. The movie tells
the story of a young man wandering around Austin, listening to a variety of
points of view about the nature of existence — all the while wondering if he’s
in the midst of an extended dream, or alive at all. Human actors were shot on
digital video, and different artists then overlaid the footage with a variety
of styles via computer (Linklater used a similar technique on
A Scanner
Darkly
[67 percent]). The result has a textural beauty unlike virtually
anything else — sometimes impressionistic, sometimes cartoonish, Waking
Life
‘s visuals add a sense of hyper-reality to its musings on the nature of
reality.

Despite its fascinating technique, Waking Life has
its detractors; some find the nearly non-stop philosophizing unbearable. But
within the expanse of talk, there is an overall air of optimism and wonder that
makes Waking Life hypnotic for those willing to plunge into it. And the
final monologue, in which Linklater himself tells our sleepy protagonist a story
about Philip K. Dick, is a knockout.
The Chicago Tribune‘s Michael Wilmington
called it "truly special, truly different — a wondrous talky roundelay about
and for people who love life."


A clip from Waking Life.

By no means are these films’ methods the only approaches pioneering animators have taken. If hyper-real meditations on war, reality, and existence prove too harsh, you can always opt for lighter fare: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (100 percent), Pete’s Dragon (60 percent) and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (100 percent) all represent disparate attempts to meld live-action and animation.

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