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
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
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,
the American king of urbanely ribald animation with features like
Fritz the Cat
(53 percent), Heavy
Traffic (91 percent), and
Coonskin. With 1977’s
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
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.
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."
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.