October 3, 2006

How sick are we of computer-animated movies?

Now that it's not amazing anymore.

(I'm not a good person to ask. I marvelled at an early Pixar short, enjoyed the first "Toy Story," then went to see "Antz" and experienced physical revulsion. I walked out and I never looked at computer animated movie again. And I do watch drawn animation.)


Doolesfan said...

Just like every other genre there are a few good ones a lot of mediocre ones and a few really bad ones.

Ann, you're missing out by judging movies solely on how they are animated.
Do yourself a favor and rent the 'Shrek' movies.

Ann Althouse said...

I'm not talking about the story. I'm talking about the look. And I have seen snippets of "Shrek" and other praised computer movies on TV.

Balfegor said...

I think there could be more variation in animation and visual style in the full-scale big-budget computer animated films. By and large, they seem to have taken the model set by Pixar, back in Toy Story, and just continued with that. While that's nice enough, that's not all CG can do.

Just to take one example, on Drawn.ca, a while back, there was a link to an animated short done for MTV for which the graphic style was very "drawn" in appearance. I thought the animation itself was somewhat poorly handled (a common failing in CG work), but the visual look of the short worked very well -- sort of a blend of CG and traditional cel-shading. I don't think it would have worked too well in a full length animated film of the type we have in the US (it was more an imitation of the Project IG Ghost in the Shell style), but we certainly have the tools to experiment with markedly different visual styles in CG, now.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Ann's earlier posts on this subject - - computer drawn animation lacks WEIGHT and any convincing sense of substantiality.

The only CGI film I thought that succeeded was The Incredibles because the art directors seemed to have made a concious choice to design the look of the film in a way that played to the strengths of CGI and didn't try to overcome it's weakenses.

bearing said...

I might think that Ann was using hyperbole in her description of Antz, except that I experienced real physical revulsion at "The Polar Express," which was given to my children as a Christmas present. Immediately after the DVD was over, I pulled out the disc and threw it away. I still shudder to think of it.

Playing to its strengths is what makes the difference. I agree that "The Incredibles" is well done. As is "Monsters Inc."

I do prefer drawn animation. Last night I pulled out "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" for the boys and lost myself again in the sheer believability of its meshing of live action and animation. Much CGI/live action doesn't come close to that kind of seamlessness.

Cat said...

Ann and Bearing - revulsion at what? Can you explain?


Telecomedian said...

It's actually typical Hollywood behavior - a particular genre of movie or TV show catches on with the viewing public, so the studios make 14 projects exactly like that. Look at how "CSI" changed the police crime drama. Instead of concentrating on the cops, it explored the lives and procedures of the crime lab staff. Suddenly, two more CSIs were born, along with NCIS, Bones, Without a Trace, Cold Case, etc... . "Lost" is a newer example. A return of the serialized adventure drama, with a multimedia-explorable backstory interlocking the main characters. Since "Lost" did so well, suddenly other similar projects with similar vibes were greenlit - "Jericho," "Six Degrees," last seasons' "Threshold."

As with anything, the quality will rise to the top. The Shrek movies are borderline brilliant, and "Over the Hedge" was a stunningly brutal look at suburbia through the eyes of woodland creatures. "Over the Hedge" suffered because of the glut of CG films, and didn't do enough to seperate itself from movies like "Barnyard" and "Open Season."

Balfegor said...

Ann and Bearing - revulsion at what? Can you explain?

With the Polar Express, the problem is that the characters fell right into the uncanny valley. They were awfully creepy. I don't know what the problem with Antz was. I didn't think it was a great movie, in any sense, but it didn't fill me with horror the way Polar Express did.

hygate said...

I think that Sturgeon's Law applies; 90% of everything is crud.

As for the physical revulsion some feel when seeing CGI generated characters; the phenomenon is called "Uncanny Valley" and was first described in 1970 in relation to reactions to humanoid robots.

Wikipedia has an entry:


It is also an issue in the computer gaming industry:


and finally, a scholarly look at the theory:


hygate said...

Nevermind, balfegor beat me to it.

Kev said...

I've liked every Pixar movie I've ever seen--no issues here for me. And I saw Polar Express on an IMAX screen and wasn't creeped out in the least; in fact, I thought it was pretty cool.

Dave said...

What about the anime sequence in Kill Bill? Or anime generally?

Or maybe anime isn't computer generated?

chuck b. said...

No Finding Nemo? :(

Joan said...

Many people found the rotoscoping technique used in Polar Express creepy, especially because it gave the characters such dead faces. It was a bit creepy.

Much better was Monster House, which used a similar rotoscoping technique but had, overall, an awesome design, and an excellent story. Monster House was the best animated film of the summer, better even than Cars, IMO. The Incredibles remains one of the best movies of recent years, animated or not, and anyone who hasn't seen it is missing out.

The problem with animated movies isn't the animation. It's the lame stories. Pixar succeeds because their stories are strong; one reason Cars wasn't a typical Pixar blockbuster is because the story was much more of a retread (ha!) than previous Pixar outings.

And I think it's odd the way the article classified anything that wasn't a blockbuster as a flop. It used to be that a flop was a movie that didn't cover it's costs. Cars so far has made $243 million, which is nothing to sneeze at. Wallace and Gromit, which was delightful if a bit long, by comparison only did $56 million, but that's still twice as much as the execrable Ant Bully. With DVD and overseas, I'm sure W&G will eventually bring in over $100million. It has a particularly British type of humor which is not as widely appealing as something like Shrek, which truth be told gets on my nerves at least as much as it amuses me. It's the trying to be clever that irritates.

Monster House brought in a respectable $72million on the strength of a good story and cool design. If MH had Pixar behind it, it could easily have been a blockbuster. It's advertising and release were botched, as far as I'm concerned. It should've opened for Halloween.

John Stodder said...

I might or might not get sick of computer-animated movies, but I won't know for sure unless Pixar goes out of business. For whatever reason, the series of Pixar movies over the past decade have collectively been the best-written comedies Hollywood has put out. "Toy Story 2" is particularly brilliant -- Charlie Kaufman should be green with envy at that script. To avoid the Pixar pix is to deprive yourself of the increasingly rare movie-going experience of helpless laughter combined with intellectual stimulation.

I like the Shrek movies, too, but they're pedestrian by comparison. The jokes are all from the same well of hip, knowing humor, the in-jokes that everybody gets.

The "uncanny valley" effect is a new concept to me -- fascinating. Yes, that must explain why even the previews and talk-show clips of "Polar Express" made me want to avoid it.

Ann, maybe there are radio-theater versions of the Pixar classics you could listen to. I think these movies would be almost as great even if the animation was at Flintstones-level.

Balfegor said...

Or maybe anime isn't computer generated?

It's almost all animated using computers, nowadays, and there's certainly computer generated elements. In Spirited Away, for example, there are a number of points where the backgrounds are clearly 3D environments. Sci-Fi stuff has, of late, been using CG to animate technically difficult mechanical animations (e.g. spaceships, robots, etc.) In other cases, like the recent Appleseed movie, the entire thing was done in 3D CG with cel-shading for the shaders (and not particularly well done, in my opinion). I think some studios also use 3D visualisations for reference when animating some sequences. But since the character animation remains hand-drawn, in almost all cases, I don't think it's really what we're talking about here.

Monster House brought in a respectable $72million on the strength of a good story and cool design.

I saw the design work and a few clips, and thought it was looking quite good. Haven't seen it, though. Will have to rent it on DVD later.

Laura Reynolds said...

With kids the age of mine, I've seen many of the computer animated movies made over the last 15 years. Some are better than others but I'm usually more in tune to what my kids like.

For sure there are just too many now days. I will say Monster House and Cars were two I enjoyed recently.

Eugene said...

The "uncanny valley" refers to Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori's warnings about the dangers of creating artificial life forms that are "almost but just not quite human." According to Mori, artists and designers "should not strive overly hard to duplicate human appearance," lest some seemingly minor flaw drop the hapless android or cyborg into the "uncanny valley."

The effect of this is apparent in Innocence, the sequel to Ghost in the Shell, which mixes "traditional" and digital animation. At least to my eye, the simpler, hand-drawn human characters look far more "real" than the digitally-created people in state-of-the-art digital productions such as Shrek.

Just as important is how characters move. Watching Appleseed, the eye is drawn particularly to the depictions of physical movement. The brain then tries to interpret the human it recognizes from the motion-capture in the context of something that doesn't look quite "human." The result is both unsettling and weirdly compelling.

On the other hand, the digitially-animated Tachikoma robots in Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex are so tremendously appealing precisely because they don't look human in the slightest.

Tibore said...

In computer 3D animation's defense, it is still a young art. Films like "The Incredibles" or "Finding Nemo" show the potential with the current technology and level of artist skill, but I get the distinct feeling that the edges of what's possible haven't been probed yet. I'm waiting for someone to come along who's a combination of, say, Miyazaki's vision with Pixar's 3D skill. That hasn't happened yet. While the comp-animation artists are certainly skilled at their craft, none have struck me as particularly visionary. But that takes time; again, this is a young, new implementation of the animation arts.

Studying the onset of electronic instruments effect on musicians might possibly give clues as to what we should expect from computer animators in the future.


I admit, I sort of agree with the professor on what she said. I've always thought that Antz was a terribly overrated movie, and I too felt a tinge of revulsion at the animation. Specifically, I felt that the actual display of the characters forms emphasized the displeasing characteristics of insects without any offsetting positive characteristics. Granted, I felt the same way about "A Bug's Life", yet liked that film despite that criticism, but still... you don't have to over cute-sify a character a-la "Monsters Inc" to remove it's repulsive aspects, but you do want to make the characters at least moderately appealing.

altoids1306 said...


You should watch "The Incredibles"! You won't regret it. This is coming from someone who watches two movies a year!

Associated Anime Aficionados:

I haven't watched any anime since coming to the US. I've browsed the fan sites for bittorrent downloads, but there's so much, no idea where to start. Any suggestions? I liked Last Exile - realistic, serious without being depressing, little sappiness, epic storyline.

(BTW, Last Exile had quite a bit of CG in it!)

Ernst Blofeld said...

The Incredibles was excellent in part because of the artwork. They did a fantastic job of replicating 50's and 60's architecture and design elements, and I don't think they could have pulled it off with hand-drawn animation.

Antz was just a crap knockoff of a PIxar idea.

Ann Althouse said...

Fascinating about the "Uncanny Valley."

I'm not opposed to the use of computers in doing great 2-D animation, like "Spirited Away" and "Beauty and the Beast." I just hate 3-D animation. (And, yes, I tried to watch some of "The Incredibles" on TV.) I feel a physical revulsion. In fact, just remembering "Antz" makes me feel sick.

bearing said...

Uncanny valley, right on.

Ann, is it that the 3-D effects make you a little, I don't know, carsick, or give you vertigo? Like a vestibular reaction?

Anonymous said...

I'm not sick of computer-animated movies. I'm sick of what purports to be okay in many children's movies.

This past weekend I was going to take my kids to see "Open Season." Another wacky animal cartoon, but no. Having been aghast at other kid flicks, I checked reviews at Rotten Tomatoes. Here's what a Chicago critic said:

"Disney never showed, say, Goofy actually defecating on camera, but 'Open Season' does just that with Eliott. And an entire scene is built around Boog's having a b.m."

Seattle's Post-Intelligencer critic wrote: "It's a tired rehash of animation cliches that distinguishes itself only by the extent to which it's crammed full of scatology and gleeful violence to animals, and otherwise panders to the worst instincts of its audience."

NY Post? "An ugly, painfully derivative and sleep-inducing talking-animals cartoon laced with potty humor."

Of course, we didn't see the movie.

I get enough terrorization from al-Qaeda without having American "artists" making me afraid to take my kids to the funny pictures.

Eugene said...

Ghost in the Shell: SAC (Actually closer to the original manga than the two movies. The Tachikoma robots are so good they get their own segment in each show.)

Cowboy Bebop (Similar enough to Firefly/Serenity that you have to wonder if that's where Whedon got the idea.)

Kino's Journey (Tightly written, thought-provoking and often exceedingly ironic short stories about the meaning of life.)

Samurai 7 (Great adaptation of the Kurosawa classic.)

Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo (Great adaptation of the Alexandre Dumas classic. Those bored by same-old, same-old digital animation should definitely check it out. It uses a lot of CG in the backgrounds but is rendered in 2-D, and the designs and color schemes are staggeringly creative. I guarantee that you've never seen anything like it before.)

FLCL Fooly Cooly (I have no idea how to describe this show, so let me quote from Wikipedia: "Events kick off when a strange and mischievous girl named Haruhara Haruko arrives suddenly in town and runs Naota over with her Vespa and then, for no obvious reason, hits him on the head with her Rickenbacker bass guitar.")

BTW, none of the above shows are for children. If you're looking for a "family film" with a great message but without all the saccharine, check out Junkers Come Here. Oh, and I vouch only for the subtitled versions.

Balfegor said...

Samurai 7 (Great adaptation of the Kurosawa classic.)

I'm going to have to vote against this one. Saw the first few episodes, but could not continue. The villagers' rural accents are just too painful to listen to. Not that I mind rural accents in general -- they're hillarious in the Trick series -- just these in particular. Anyhow, my recollection is that Altoids knows Japanese, so be forewarned! The villagers' accents are super-annoying.

The suggestions above, are mostly very good (for the ones I have watched) but they don't really encompass the "epic" storyline thing we saw with Last Exile. I'd be interested in other suggestions people have, as I haven't watched much since graduating college years ago (back when I watched everything). I'd heard Twelve Kingdoms was good from people whose judgment I generally agree with, but I've never seen it.

On the other hand, I have recently watched the two Shinkai Makoto videos -- Voices of a Distant Star (Hoshi no Koe) and The Place Promised in our Early Days (Kumo no Mukou, Yakusoku no Basho -- yes, the English is not an exact translation). They were both quite good, although neither is a series. I saw both through Netflix.

hygate said...

Or maybe anime isn't computer generated?

South Parkis computer generated these days. The difference is in how the creators decide to portray their characters; stylistically or photo-realistic?

homericsimile said...

It's a shame Antz ruined it all for you. The Incredibles is a really, really good movie.

Doolesfan said...

I wasn't talking about the story either.
There is a wide range of quality in CGI animation, just like drawn animation.
Pixar being the top, and crud like "Barnyard" which is churned out and looks bad.

Joe said...

The problem is that 3D animation is so easy to do (rendering time being the only real limitation with slower computers) it allows anyone with sufficient devotion to produce it, regardless of their talent.

"Independent films" using DV cameras suffer a similar fate, though, unlike computer animation, require the cooperation with other people.

In the end, it all comes down to story. And far too many movies, animated or otherwise, just don't have one.

I hasten to point out that there is some selective memory going on here; there are an awful lot of horrible traditionally animated movies that have long been lost in the dust bin of history.

PS. I found Cowboy Bebop unwatchable.

Joe said...

One other point; there is a difference between computer generated images and using a computer to draw or align images.

In the former case, you essentially write a software program to instruct the animation software on how to act. You then continually tweak that program to get the results you want.

In the latter case, you use the computer as though it's a piece of paper. South Park does this. Interestingly, Wallace and Gromit use computers to align the sequence of images--a technique that is now ubiquitous with traditionally drawn animation.

Balfegor said...

"Independent films" using DV cameras suffer a similar fate, though, unlike computer animation, require the cooperation with other people.

Although there are a few people who have done serious computer animation without outside help (e.g. Shinkai Makoto, who, I believe, animated Voices of a Distant Star entirely on his home computer, largely by hand, with voicework done by himself and his girlfriend), they are few in number. For the most part, when amateurs have done actual CG films or shorts, they've done so in collaborative contexts, e.g. the Elephant's Dream modelling and animation team. That produced a visually appealing (well, to me) short, although the voice acting and animation left something to be desired.

altoids1306 said...

Eugene: Thanks for the recommendations. Rest assured, I only watch originals - no-dubbing, no-subtitles. The English subtitles on DVD releases are generally atrocious - but I sympathize with the translators, there's a lot of cultural shorthand that you just can't explain (esp. if they want to sound natural in English). They do the best they can.

Eugene said...

I'll second Makoto Shinkai. I've seen the Twelve Kingoms series (an NHK production). Having read two of the novels (so far), I found myself at odds with some of plot tweaks, but it's still a good series. Though, again, the anime only hints at the complexity of the world Fuyumi Ono has created--easily the equal of Tolkien's Middle Earth. (More about the Twelve Kingdoms here.)

In terms of epics in the eschatological and apocalyptic vein, I recommend Scrapped Princess. And then there's Leiji Matsumoto, whose Harlock Saga is--I'm not kidding--a restaging of Wagner's The Ring of the Nibelung. Though I liked his Galaxy Express 999 (1977 version) much better.

It's also interesting to compare series and movies. I found the Cowboy Bepop movie, for example, rather lame compared to the series. However, I preferred the Escaflowne movie to the series. The Patlabor series is frothy fun, but the three Patlabor movies are in a league of their own--dark, brooding police procedurals in which the big robots from the series only make brief guest appearances.

Synova said...

Uncanny valley: This makes me think of living in the Philippines. We'd sometimes call it "the land of not quite right" because if things had been more different we wouldn't have been struggling to figure out why some things seemed wrong, such as the dimensions of a chair. The smaller the difference the more disconcerting it was.

CGI movies: The Incredibles is fabulous but it would be a fabulous story in any case. CGI serves the story rather than the other way around. At least one of the new "rat" movies sounded like a fun story. All the barnyard and backyard ones recently released have gotten a pass at our house.

Dubbing and sub-titles: If you don't speak the language you're stuck with sub-titles. I avoid dubbing if at all possible, though, because the original voices have the correct accents, emotion, rhythym and everything else. I've walked out of movies convinced they were in English when they were sub-titled, just because I'm so used to it.

Ruth Anne Adams said...

Chuck B: I love "Nemo." I hear it often as it's on the DVD in the family vanster. On the "vanscreen" it looks a lot like a 2-d animation.

The voices, especially Ellen deGeneres' work, are awesome. My personal favorite is the surfer-dude-sea-turtle Crush. "Dude. Mr. Turtle is my faaaather."

My kids love it, too.

Anonymous said...

Do you know about Pat and Stanley?

OddD said...

It should be noted--because it hasn't been, either in the article nor here in the comments--that "Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit" is not computer animation (in the sense being used here).

It's traditional stop-motion animation, and an excellent example thereof. (Yeah, they use computers. Who doesn't? It's still a bunch of guys moving around models one painstaking frame at a time.)

Also, there are no talking animals therein.

I only point this out because it was used as an example in the article when it's not appropriate.

Eli Blake said...

What bums me out is that every time I go to see one of those kids animated movies, they have a short ahead of it. Some of those shorts are really good, even better than the movie (my favorite one was called, 'For the Birds' and came at the beginning of 'Monsters Inc.') But then when you buy the DVD later, they never include the short. It really, really sucks.

Anonymous said...

Aardman characters never die; they just reach their ex-claymation point.

Anonymous said...

Meh... I'm not sick of CGI, I'm sick of films where it's painfully obvious more effort (and creativity) went into the effects than storytelling. I know it's near treason to say this down here in New Zealand, but Peter Jackson's King Kong was a masturbatory, self-indulgent FX showreel masquerading as a movie. And I really, really wanted to love Superman Returns - but was genuinely repulsed by the bloodless, underwritten central relationship and the flat out creepy way the film slid past a five year-old child killing a man.

Miyazaki's films don't move me because he's so staunchly resisted using CGI, but because they are rich with characters I give a s**t about, genuine moral and emotional weight and a graceful humanism that you seldom see in contemporary films, full stop. Perhaps Professor Althouse should have been repulsed by the utterly banality of Antz's storytelling rather than it's medium.

SF said...

Eli, I don't know what DVDs you're getting, but my DVD copies of Monsters Inc and The Incredibles have "For the Birds" and "Boundin'" (respectively).

Pixar usually seems to include at least one short with every release, though my memory isn't good enough to say whether they all were the short that was in theatres with each movie.

Teschi said...

Very interesting discussion :)

For my person I watched most 3D-Animations mainly to see how far technology got. But I only really enjoyed: "Toy

Story 2", "Nemo", "Shreck" and "The Incredibles".

So it seems there are two reasons for not likeing 3D animation (speaking of completely rendered stuff and not

Anime with computer support like "Spirited Away").

The Overdose.
Having 3D-animation everywhere. In TV-Commercials for toothpaste, in TV documentaries about dinasaurs, ...
It's maybe a simmilar effect that makes me not playing any 3D-Shooter anymore.

The "Uncanny Valley".
It seems that the amount of creepyness depends on the idividual viewer. I seem to be one of the effected ones

because I was very distracted of the "Polar Express"-trailer.
And I'm asking myself if this is only an effect that happens when things are too human-like, or if it's a

general problem when we try to recreate natural things artificially (Fire, Oceans, day-to-night shootings).

What i'm also very curious about is, what do people think of "Final Fantasy VII - Advent Children".
Theoretically I should have gotten an Uncanny Valley feeling, but I didn't. But why? Is it the stylized hair?

The fact that i know the characters from the game 10 years ago, where they were super-deformed most of the time?

Or is it because the story is kina creepy too, and it just fits the overall feeling of this movie?

In the end I personally prefer 2D-Japanese-Anime with fair use of computers.
And in real-life movies I also prefer those without those "Look at me, I'm an expensive special effect"-scenes.

carecousin said...

i dont like CGI maybe its the style maybe its my age but there so much alike from the last cgi movie' there hair dosent move' so offten there heads are mishamped and large' and the fact they tryed makeing care bears CGI and failed is another point for traditional two-dimensional animation some things just cant be crossed over could anyone here think of the land befor time as cgi?