Monday, 26 August 2013

Let's Talk About The Animation/Live-Action Crossover

I'm going on record on here to tell you that my absolute favorite movie in the whole wide world is Who Framed Roger Rabbit. It may not be the very best film and it may be partly due to nostalgia clouding my judgment, but I still think that it holds a close place in my being as both a person and as a "creator". Whilst I would love to enjoy gushing about the movie as a whole, I would instead like to gush to you about what the movie is categorized to be, an animation/live-action crossover. What Who Framed Roger Rabbit managed to do was turn a simple special effect gimmick into a selling point for a story.  Back then, when you thought that cartoons and people were going to be in the same place, all you could think of was some Disney schmultz (ironic that I say that) or Gene Kelly in a sailor suit dancing with Jerry. It was never thought to be anything more than that. Who Framed Roger Rabbit put forward a concept of putting the skill of the brush with the skill of the flesh together as one whole structure and trying to cement concepts from both worlds so that they could gel together in a narrative instead of leaving to simple suspension of disbelief. That's not to say that the two being more mixed together wasn't happening back then. If one recounts The Three Caballeros, Donald Duck and two other feathered friends go about with more realistic fellows and senoritas. While I do find myself liking the movie, it wasn't done right. You knew that when you saw the drawings with the live-action, it didn't feel like the two were truly in sync. The premise didn't help since it wasn't very cemented and focused more on silly visuals.

Now it is true that the last bit does apply partially to Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but it had a point to why it did what it did. What made it so great wasn't that it was doing something new with such a combination but that it was doing something new with the way that they combined the live-action with the animation. The animation along with the live-action served to build up an atmosphere rather that one or the other being some sort of way to transition or serve as an effect. In the world, the animated characters which they call toons are considered actors and work on cartoons which is basically their movie/TV deals. Right there you see a role that is given to the animated portions and how it relates with the rest of the world around them. It also gives a sort of indication as to what the animated characters are capable as it gives you insight on how they function in the world. They're basically indestructible (which is why they're great for the slapstick) but when presented to a mixture of paint thinners and removers, they can be killed. In a very subtle way, they're giving the animation a biology to it and they indicate why it's there. The realism of how the toons were in the world certainly helped to drive this further as it shows that the animation is rooted in the story rather than a simple set piece. That sort of an animation/live-action crossover is brilliant and leads to an ample amount of possibilities. The problem? Well, it hasn't been that explored. 

Why could it be? Is it because of cost and tools? Well, if I believe that James Cameron can make Avatar (which is a CGI pseudo-version of the concept) with the amount of money that he did, I don't doubt that there is a possibility that the cost could maybe be overlooked. It's more within the interest of others in the concept. Sure, it could be an affordable venture to make the film, but is it going to get its money back? Most likely not. Only people interested in this sort of thing are losers like me. CGI animation, if it wanted to, could work as an animated/live-action crossover, but it's more used to add details or make things fly out without having to pay for the thing and the explosives to make it fly out (remember, you want to make your money back and more for a profit). So if say we wanted more traditional animation, then we might as well just shoot ourselves now. Not many people are thinking that the venture is worth it since people are forgetting now what that means. That's not to say there isn't a market for it, but it's very limited. With CGI though, we could have it looking more traditional and Flash also serves to be closer to that department. Both pose some problems, but it is capable to make the effect and make it work. Either way, there needs to be interest and it seems like there isn't. I can't say why, maybe it's the scarcity of seeing something rooted with the label of "animation/live-action crossover". It could also be of the troubles that two particular films made to the idea.

The first one is the R-rated wreck of Cool World. As much as I don't like this movie, the one thing that I'll give it credit for is adultizing cartoons. Ralph Bakshi being able to add more grit into animated movies is something that is to be respected considering every single flick that happens to be animated always falls into the "family-friendly" category. It did also have some interesting concepts, even if they sound stupid, such as a toon (or in the context of the movie, a doodle) having sex with a human and what would that bring as well as the extension of an artist's imagination when he/she sees it fully realized. The problem that was faced as with most bombs of Bakshi is that it was a very forced and clumsily handled insertion of the adult material. The logic that came from the world was not centered well enough and when animation would appear it was more so distracting in either its use or consistency. Now I don't mind that you don't fully see the potential of the effect realized in this movie as you did in WFRR, but the reasoning behind it wasn't clear and it failed to work. And I understand that cartoons don't need to make sense, but if you're going to mature the medium (even if it is a more exploitative way), you have to add more details to it or give more indication that there's no rules instead of staying in this bizarre middle-ground. As such, this movie not only gave the concept a bad name, but also gave the idea of maturing cartoons for the big screen a very slim chance. 

It's not to say it killed the idea dead in the water. When WB had to revamp one of their greatest franchises they figured why not add that guy from the Mummy, Dharma from Dharma and Greg and that guy who'd go on to remake the Pink Panther into the mix? That would go on to be Looney Tunes: Back In Action. I know that there was another WB revamp that involved those wacky toons meeting humans, but I don't speak of Space Jam here. Why? Well, Space Jam, while a fun movie, was terrible and centered more on a gimmick rather than being a satire. Looney Tunes: Back In Action was more of the opposite, basically mocking spy films, sci-fi and the Looney Tunes themselves. It also managed to have similar effects to WFRR, allowing for greater comedy to flow from it. If there was any film that could be considered as the follow up to the best animated/live-action crossover, it'd have to be this one. So...with that said...why did it flop? Was it competition? Well I guess, The Matrix Revolutions and Elf is a tough cookie to beat. But I think the greater issue came less with the idea and more with the presentation. The voice actors behind the toons did fine, the animation did fine, but the live-action portion seemed lukewarm. I'm not just saying that to rip on Brendan...well I kind of am, but even a guy as animated as Steve Martin didn't seem to be at his all when doing the film. That and I guess maybe it could have gone further. Less cultural references and more mocking of the genres would have worked for its benefit. If it doesn't manage to make it's money back, there's not much chance that Hollywood will do the same...

With both of these films being able to bring something to the table by one being more adult and another one using the animation to aid with parody, what they seem to have lacked is a better presentation and dedication. Don't get me wrong, the people that were working on both films seemed to have put a substantial amount of effort into the work. Or at the very least the animators did. The writers, actors and directors (to an extent) perhaps could have used more effort by structuring the worlds better. It really requires more attention to detail than one would think when you mix the two. Sure, it's easy to have something animated be superimposed on something real, but for it to have a point and a purpose takes time. WFRR knew that and tried to clean up the details as best as it could and keep consistent with what occurred in the world. It didn't side-track itself too much with the zany effects, it rather conserved that for when it was necessary for a joke or building the environment. Cool World did it in a drive-by manner and while in some cases that works, it doesn't help when you do it all the time. If you do that, you might as well make a mindless cartoon. Instead of simply spitting out references, it allowed for the references to be more built into the narrative. It also managed to satirize better by building both the parts that it could subvert for humor but maintain for drama and atmosphere. It might have been hard for Looney Tunes to do that, but What's Opera, Doc? managed to do that. If there isn't that sort of attention provided to the film, it loses the chance to be something truly great, and in this sort of genre, truly great is the minimum to break even. 

To fix this from an industrial standpoint obviously requires people to care both from the viewing aspect to the creating aspect. Real passion and energy helps to make this work. Even if people are that dedicated, it wouldn't hurt too much to find ways to cut costs. I'm not sure how that would work out, would it mean there's less action so that less cash is put towards how to create the effect that the cartoons are there in real life? Would it have to require a cheaper animation tool? Would you just need to hire a few actors? I'm not sure which one to go to, but if you find a way to reduce costs, breaking even becomes less of a stretch. Another way that it could do better is to make it more original. Rather than associate the animation with a famous brand like the Smurfs or Garfield, it should try to be more independent. This rings very true with CGI because a good chunk of those cartoons just look bizarre in 3D. That really seems to be the only major parts that could help it from the technical standpoint. We might have to wait a few years for this to take effect (if anyone was listening to this), and obviously the build-up to this idea will also take time. 

With all of that said, I'd like to tap into concepts that the animation/live-action crossovers could tap into. As stated above, there is the maturing of the animation allowing for the production to be more adult and being able to use animation as an extension of the satire (which also kind of happened with Enchanted, so don't say I didn't bring it up) along with the idea that the animation is a realized version of the imagination of one character. I'd like to tap into the last one because I don't think that Cool World really did what it should have with the concept. Art is a way to convey current emotion and to lose oneselves in their own fictional paradise. It also serves as a gateway to how one's mind works. Having the animation being able to exaggerate the emotions or ideas that the character holds true allows for them to analyze them and see if they are proper. It could also be a way of the character confronting the fears dead on or being absorbed in the madness that is caused by what the animation brings forth. The animation itself could also be more centered around the story. Most animation is considered very childish, goofy and silly, so having the animation try to become more serious with the world or try to bring more of the light-heartedness to a se-oh...well WFRR did it but it could be done in many other ways and lead to many other results. Filling in the details leads to a great amount of possibilities and there's probably more that are in store if one prods further (such as the animation being able to consume the reality of the person, the nature of the animation and the live action pretty much represent the same world in different ways, the animation changing as the world changes, etc.). 

I know that for a fact, very few people that are willing to carry this out into the film industry are going to do so. I'll be surprised/glad if any of them have come across this and actually say something about what I've written here. What I do know is that the idea of mixing animation with live-action can be much more than a gimmick. It has the potential to span out into the territory of great art and can reveal a lot of parts of humanity in a new and interesting light. Who Framed Roger Rabbit was proof of that and while Cool World and Looney Tunes Back In Action had it flaws, it showed that it could carry out those ideas and develop them to something greater. Both animation and live action film making require a lot of creativity, artistry and passion for them to succeed and to see both of them side by side, sharing that energy and putting it to the fullest that it can is something that I want to see again because it's beautiful to see it. It says to the audience that there is something more to the film than merely drawings over film. It says to them that both can make an experience and they can make it well. That one must maintain their imagination and use it in any way it can to help themselves. Maybe I'm just a fool to be overthinking this. Considering that there's such a thing as Smurfs 2...I most likely am. 

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