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May 26, 2013

animation interview with shelby clanton

by sven at 10:18 pm

Students sometimes write, asking me to respond to interview questions for a class assignment. Occasionally I say yes. This interview was for Shelby Clanton at Skagit Valley College in Washington state.

1. What do you think of the current state of animation?

"Animation" is an umbrella term that encompasses several methods of filmmaking whose fates are often at odds with one another.

We are at a moment in history when "traditional" hand-drawn animation is suffering and becoming more rare. Many view animating computer-rendered simulations of 3D objects as a more certain career path — and they're probably right. Hand-drawn animation depends greatly upon individual talent, whereas the ability to endlessly edit CG files appears to give studio management more freedom to swap employees in and out. Note that in recent weeks Disney has (once again) decimated its hand-drawn animation department.

Meanwhile, stop-motion animation is going through a renaissance. Multiple feature-length stop-motion films in a single year would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. The evolution of technology — digital cameras plus framegrabbing software — has made this method much more accessible than it once was. Also, in an age when nearly every image we see in the public sphere has been Photoshopped, there is something refreshing about an art form that uses real physical objects to perform its magic tricks.

Film in general is increasingly indistinguishable from animation. In most live-action films, there's not a single frame that hasn't been digitally retouched and manipulated in some way. However, Hollywood has terribly abused the special effects houses that are responsible for so many of its blockbusters' memorable moments. It was a pivotal moment at the 2013 Academy Awards this year when "The Life of Pi" was taking home the Oscar — while Rhythm & Hues (which did the effects work) was simultaneously filing for bankruptcy.

The most important thing affecting the art form right now, however, transcends animation. In 2012, celluloid film effectively came to an end. As one writer put it, every film print is now an archival print. A hundred years of film history now enters a period of physical decay, and any plans to preserve our cinematic past are haphazard at best. By the same token, films made in the digital era are only as archival as the harddrives they're stored on — which generally aren't expected to last more than 5 years. Whatever independent film you watch in 2013, ask yourself: will this film still exist in any form ten years from now?

2. Where do you think animation is going in the future?

In the realm of CG, mingling motion capture with with frame-by-frame animation is the way forward. Live action and CG characters will continue to become increasingly interchangeable and indistinguishable.

In the realm of stop-motion, LAIKA is doing the most innovative, ground-breaking work using 3D printers to generate precisely modeled objects for replacement animation.

2D animation seems to be moving along a historical path similar to that of painting. It holds a respected position as the archetype of animation — but most industry work is now entirely software-based. Just as the camera is better able than drawing to capture photo-realistic images, so too CG has laid claim to the realm of realism. Most 2D artists distinguish themselves with various forms of expressionism. Doing realistic hand-drawn work is no longer deemed an important goal, but is instead (unfairly) seen as a sort of stunt pulled off by obsessive masochists.

3. What do you think are some animation trends that people will be seeing in upcoming film releases?

Disney. Pixar. Dreamworks. LAIKA. Aardman. When you think about upcoming film releases, are these the companies you're thinking of? In the USA, Disney will continue its princess franchise. Snarky CG animals will continue to come out each summer until a few films in a row are terrible box-office bombs, or the companies collapse financially for other reasons — such as decreased revenue due to competition from Netflix, Hulu, and the like. A few major players will put out stop-motion films, at the very least keeping a foot in the game to avoid ceding complete control of the field.

More interesting, I think, are the inroads that films from other countries are beginning to make into the US. Studio Ghibli releases are now anticipated as major events. A few Polish films have made it into theatrical distribution in the US recently. With the teen-generation phenomena of K-Pop, I'm very curious to see if Korean animation will begin to gain popularity.

Animation certainly exists in the Cineplex — but there is also a whole separate culture of films that live in the festival circuit and art house cinemas. In these independent channels, what's most exciting is to see feature-length films being released without the support of studios. Bill Plympton's "Cheatin'," Christiane Cegavske's "Blood Tea and Red String," and M dot Strange's "We are the Strange" are all recent feature-length films created essentially by a single individual, which nonetheless made it into circulation. Crowd-sourced films are also an exciting new development just emerging on the scene — particularly in the realm of CG, where software is commonly available, and models can be shared via online transfer.

4. What is your favorite style of animation?

Personally, I have a deep love for stop-motion puppet films. Story-wise, I adore an artist who can dip into fantasy, surrealism or magic realism — while simultaneously delving into subtle, carefully observed emotions on the part of the story's characters. "The Eagleman Stag" by Mikey Please and "Belly" by Julia Pott are excellent recent examples. (Both are available on Vimeo.)

posted by sven | permalink | categories: writing