Thursday, 16 December 2010

This week's blog is a bit of a follow-on from last week's so I apologise if I repeat myself at all. I seem to be apologising at least once every blog post - think that says a lot about how unsure I am of all this blogging. Anyway...
Bill began the lecture by presenting us with the idea that the technology used in art progresses in a linear fashion, whilst art itself does not. I'm not sure if I agree entirely with this statement because however much art may look back to previous works, it is only to take inspiration for new ideas to form. Surely art itself is always progressing just as much as the technology which is used to create it? There is a very strong possibility that I might have got entirely the wrong end of the stick there.
It would be very difficult for me to write a post based on animation without mentioning the following 

I'm pretty sure that everyone in the entire universe knows what this symbol represents, and if you don't then shame on you. It is, of course, the incredible Pixar! The 'chief creative director' of Pixar Animation Studios John Lasseter's career really took off after the production of a short film which was shown to us in the lecture, The Adventures of Andre and Wally B' (1984). I can't say that I was blown away by this short, but this just goes to show how far animation has advanced even in the last 20 years. Bill explained that this film was the first to use motion blur techniques and 'teardrop' animation which meant that the characters were able to bend and move in a realistic manner, unlike previous animations which were much more rigid. 
This really set the wheels in motion to develop more and more techniques which allowed longer and more impressive animations to be made, leading up to the release of the first computer-animated feature film, Toy Story. 
The most significant short which Pixar produced has to be Luxo Jr. (1986). It is difficult for me to say how different this animation must have been to anything similar at the time, but even today it is still impressive to watch how something as insignificant as a desk last can be made into such a lovable and funny character. The president of Pixar Animation studios said about this iconic animation
Luxo Jr. sent shock waves through the entire industry - to all corners of computer and traditional animation. At the time, most traditional artists were afraid of the computer. They did not realise that the computer was merely a different tool in the artist's kit but perceived it as a type of automation that might endanger their jobs. Luckily, this attitude changed dramatically in the early 80s with the use of personal computers in the home. The release of our Luxo Jr. reinforced this opinion turnaround within the professional community

Every last detail in this animation was considered; the way that the light moved as the lamp did, the shadows it cast, the wood grain on the table, even the way in which the cord moved after the lamp has been considered.  It is this attention to detail which we take for granted that really sets Pixar leagues above other animation studios. I remember being absolutely fascinated by the way in which Pixar had managed to make Sully's fur move so realistically in the film Monster's Inc, and the incredibly realistic water in The Incredibles.

Disney were the first to bring this level of detail into their animations, with characters being studied in great depth before the film-making process has even begun. I was really surprised to hear that Bambi  was made in 1942 because to me it seems just as good, if not better, than current Disney animations. Walt Disney's strive for perfection and realism meant that animators spent a year studying and drawing deer and other woodland creatures before production of the film itself. 

The brilliant Walt and the real deer that were studied for Bambi. N'awww.
Whilst researching the processes that Disney used to make such a successful film I found some fantastic pieces of Bambi trivia that I thought I'd share with all of you lovely blog-readers.

  • The animators found it extremely difficult to render in human terms as their eyes are on either side of their head, their mouth does not lend itself to speech and they don't really have a chin. Ultimately, this problem was solved by combining the traits of the deer with a human baby
  • No matter how skilled the animator, the Disney cartoonists could not draw Bambi's father's antlers accurately. This was because of the very complicated perspectives required. To get round this difficulty, a plaster cast was made of some real antlers which were then filmed at all angels. This footage was then rotoscoped onto animation cels. 
  • Bambi was originally meant to return to his mother after she was shot and find her in a pool of blood. The idea was scrapped (thank god) 
  • "Man" the hunter who shoots Bambi's mother was ranked #20 on the American Film Institute's list of 100 greatest heroes and villains - the only character on the list not to appear on screen 
Obviously, anthropomorphism had been used long before Disney arrived on the scene, but I think that it is safe to say that nobody does it in quite the same way. Disney's ability to create characters which have such a huge impact on children and adults alike is second to none, this being the reason why they will never become outdated. 

Wednesday, 15 December 2010


This week we looked at animation - a subject which I am fascinated by but know very little about. As much as I enjoy seeing the latest animated film, I have no idea about how they are made or any kind of historical background, something which is probably quite important when my ultimate dream would be to work for Pixar (not in the animation department, obviously). Bill began with the quote

Animation is not the art of drawings that move, but rather the art of movements-that-are-drawn. What happens between each frame is more important than what happens on each frame      - Norman McLaren
This is a good starting point with this subject, because as enjoyable as it is to sit back watch even the shortest of all animations, it is easy to forget how much time, effort and technology has been put into it. I remember going to see Toy Story 3 and being completely blown away (and almost in tears) by the short animation Night & Day before the film began. As the huge list of credits went up when it finished, including names of animators controlling 'shading' and 'vegetation' my friend turned to me and said "I thought that would have just been one person's project". I think that this quite nicely demonstrates my point. We are so used to these incredible animations that we forget the huge amount of processes involved in their making.

Day & Night (2010) - Pixar

The making of Day & Night 

It is easy to forget that animation is still a medium which is very much in its infancy. It has only been around for about 100 years, making the developments which have been made during that time even more phenomenal. 
We were shown a few examples of early animation, including the 1933 version of Snow White, which was then remade 5 years later by Disney. It becomes very clear when discussing animation that there is a big divide between Disney and, well, pretty much everyone else. Bill explained that Walt Disney ran a very tight ship in order to make Disney Studios take first place in 'The Golden Age of American Animation'. Disney studios were often the first to use new animation techniques such as multi-plane camera shots which can be seen in The Old Mill (1937). The main difference between Disney animations and what I have seen of other early short films is that they tend to have much more of an engaging narrative, something which children in particular could really be taken in by. As technically impressive as other narrations such as the original Snow White may have been for its time, I found it difficult to keep focused on what was actually happening in the story (maybe this is just me?)

Snow White 1933
 Today, animation has progressed to the point where it is not just being used for entertainment purposes. It is being used more and more frequently to realistically demonstrate things that have cannot been seen in our lifetime, making it useful to historians or scientists. For example, the documentary Attenborough's First Life uses animation to demonstrate how the first ever sea creatures would have looked and moved. The animation is so realistic that I found it difficult to believe that it wasn't actual footage. 

Stills from Attenborough's First Life (2010)
For programmes like these, along with documentaries such as Walking with Dinosaurs the use  of animation has really helped to illustrate the point that they are trying to get across. However, when used for entertainment instead of educational purposes, using the latest technology does not always automatically lead to better results. From the perspective of a physical modeller, I think that CGI can sometimes take the believability out of human characters. During the seminar, Ivan pointed out that when characters are stylised and draw attention to themselves - like those in Toy Story it works extremely well, however when characters masquerade as human they can become corpse-like and frightening. This is something which John Lasseter discovered after making the short animation Tin Toy in 1988, where they tried to make a human baby as realistic and 'cute' as possible.

I think that it is pretty safe to say that this didn't go exactly according to plan. If we skip forwards a few years, we can see that Pixar have recognised that their strengths lie in making their own versions of reality, instead of trying to make an exact replica of what already exists. 

Good old Pixar

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Screen Violence

This week's lecture focused on violence on screen and its effects off screen. In both the lecture and seminar we discussed the way in which violence is becoming more and more commonplace in television and film. Our attraction and fascination with all things violent is particularly evident when it comes to video games, with almost all of the top-selling games involving an element of killing. Now that gaming graphics have reached the point where the characters actually look like real humans, the gore in these games is beginning to become all too realistic. Probably the best known example of these games creating real-life catastrophe is the 1999 school massacre in Columbine. I'm sure that anybody reading this will be familiar with the awful events that took place so I shan't go into detail, however there is no doubt in my mind that the video game 'Doom', which both of the teens were obsessed with, influenced the killers to carry out the terrible acts of destruction and murder. In my opinion, indulging in play-violence in these games is something which is not healthy for anybody, even the most level-headed individuals. However, I agree with Bill's argument that after playing these games, the player still retains their freedom to reflect and we have the choice of whether to act violently or not. 

On-screen violence is something which we barely even notice any more, with the development of prosthetics and special effects meaning that war or murder scenes can now be as thrilling as a high-speed car chase. Although only very lightheartedly, even action comedy films such as Mr & Mrs Smith are helping to normalise violence. They are a stereotypical, rich, American couple whose private lives revolve around killing and violence. At the very end of the film we see a scene which is essentially domestic violence played out to the upbeat song 'Express Yourself' which keeps it lighthearted and helps to sanitize the violence. 

In the seminar, Ivan asked us to think about our own personal views on screen violence and our individual thresholds. I was interested to find that the majority of people weren't that bothered by people being shot or even blown up, but were instead more affected by scenes of victims being stabbed. As strange as it sounds, there is something very intimate about somebody being stabbed due to the close contact and force which is required. It is much more of a physical act compared with shooting which can be seen as quite impersonal, with acts like this there is much more of a willingness to harm somebody else, and that is what makes it more frightening. 

A film which I really struggled to watch was Les Femmes dans l'Ombre (2008), a film about a group of female agents in the second World War. Apart from the obviously disturbing torture scenes (which involved some very graphic fingernail-pulling images), the part which upset me the most was when the main character, Louise, has her head held underwater whilst being interrogated. This act in itself didn't upset me as much as the fact that she is, at this point in the plot, around 5 months pregnant. In between forcing her head underwater over and over again, the torturers punch and kick Louise in the stomach whilst she screams and cries out. Having watched this film with a group of girls (none of whom have ever been pregnant if you were wondering) I was shocked at how much this scene, more than any others seemed to affect us. In scenes like this, we put ourselves in the position of the victim and emotionally connect with what is happening. We could all see how absolutely distraught Louise was at having her baby harmed in this way, and although there was no blood or gore, I can honestly say that it made me feel physically sick. 
It also goes without saying that the clip from Un Chien Andalou (1929) which we were shown in the lecture was also pretty difficult to stomach. 

A more recent example of screen violence which caused great controversy was This is England '86. In the final episode, we see Lol's evil father attempt to rape her, before she manages to beat him to death with a hammer. Many viewers complained to Channel 4 about the disturbing scene, however I think that it really made the entire series. As difficult as it was to watch, it brought a huge shock value to the programme and was totally unexpected. The soft piano music that plays during the attack is a huge contrast to the violence on screen but seems to make the whole thing even more disturbing and haunting. 

This is England '86 murder scene

Even writing this blog post has creeped me out, shows how little I can stomach when it comes to screen violence. 

Monday, 13 December 2010

Science Fiction

Having never really been that big a fan of science fiction films, I can't say that I was really looking forward to this lecture, however a few interesting points grabbed my attention.
Bill spoke about the concept of the 'controlled world' which is a recurring theme in many science fiction films (e.g. Forbidden Planet, Lawnmower Man, The Matrix) all of which are examples of films where humans have used technology to control everything about their environments. The example which I found the most interesting was Metropolis (1927) in which the humans construct an 'Eternal Garden' with a huge wall separating the workers of the city from the rich. This concept reminded me very much of the short story 'The Selfish Giant' by Oscar Wilde, in which a giant constructs a high wall around his perfect garden in order to keep children out, therefore controlling his environment. 

Metropolis (1927)
The Selfish Giant - Oscar Wilde

Intertextuality again! Does this mean that Wilde's story could be classed as science fiction? The giant does, after all, control his own environment and is an other-worldly being. Or did this idea just pave the way to a much more stereotypically sci-fi film? This relates to another idea which was discussed in the lecture concerning genre and whether films can ever exist exclusively in one category. One example which was discussed was the 1998 film The Truman Show, which has been described as a comedy-drama. Although it is true to say that both of these genres can be applied to this film, Bill argued that it is also a science fiction film because of the way in which Truman exists in a fictional universe or a 'controlled environment' similar to those mentioned earlier. 

It goes without saying that visual effects play a huge part in sci-fi films, as the whole point of them is to display to the viewer fantastical worlds and creatures which could never exist in reality, things which can only be achieved through cinematic effects. I was interested to learn that in the iconic chest-bursting scene the actors in the film Alien (1979) were unaware of the creature that was about to explode from Kane's chest. I absolutely love this! It just goes to prove that there is something particularly special about the use of physical props and models as they are able to provoke real, honest reactions which cannot be matched with the use of CGI. 

"You can act, sure, but when you're surprised, that's gold" - Sigourney Weaver

Signourney Weaver said at the time "All it said in the script was 'this thing emerges'...all I could think of was John (Hurt - the actor playing Kane). I wasn't even thinking that we were making a movie."  The combination of this genuine reaction from the cast along with the use of model effects which had not been done to this standard before helped to make this scene one of the most iconic from all sci-fi movies.

During the seminar, we discussed the idea that most sci-fi films have a futuristic element to them. Ivan talked about the way in which, during the 1970s and up until very recently, our idea of the future was a very sterile environment with no organic materials but instead metal, plastic and glass. Colours generally associated with the future would be silver and white, with the most common method of transport being hovercraft. However, in much more recent interpretations of the future there has been a return to much more simple aesthetics, something which Ivan referred to as 'nostalgia for the future'. 
The best example of this that I could think of, I'm afraid, is Doctor Who. Having a younger sister who is obsessed with all things Doctor Who-related, this is probably the best sci-fi reference I have. In the episode 'New Earth', we see a view of earth in the year five billion and twenty-three, and it is everything that you would expect from a view of the future.

New Earth - Doctor Who
The Doctor then revisits New Earth 30 years later and everything is much less sterile and gleaming white. Instead, the people of New Earth seem to have returned to very old fashion tastes and although they are surrounded by new technologies, they appear to be from years before even the present day. 

This was a clever concept as it forces the viewer to break their stereotypical views of what the future might be like. Although the hover cars still remain, they now resemble dirty subway trains instead of shiny bubble cars like before. This concept of futuristic ideas being influenced by old techniques and technologies is known as 'steam punk', something which is being featured more and more prominently in the world of science fiction.

Monday, 6 December 2010

New Media

I have really struggled to get to grips with this week's lecture and I think this must be about the 17th time I have attempted to write my latest blog post so I apologise if I don't make much sense. As far as I can understand, 'New Media' is all about interaction and way in which digital media has progressed to the point where the line between consumer and creator has faded. 'New Media' is a condition that we all live in.
Bill spoke about the way in which 'New Media' has come about, beginning with the development of perspective in fine art. I was shocked to learn that perspective only developed as a coherent body of rules and theories during the early Renaissance of the mid 15th Century. Leonardo Da Vinci was one of the first artists to introduce this concept into the world of fine art with paintings such as Annunciation, with everything in the painting receding to a single vanishing point on the horizon.

Annunciation, 1474, Leonardo Da Vinci

Creating the correct sense of perspective in paintings is something which we now take for granted with the development of camera technology. Artists like Da Vinci and more recently, M.C Escher would spend a painstaking amount of time perfecting the perspective in their work, whereas now we are able to do this in an instant with the use of high quality digital cameras and camera phones.

Hand with Reflecting Sphere, 1935, M.C Escher

We were shown a film called 'Life of an American Fireman' which was made by Edward Porter in 1903. This film really helped to illustrate the phenomenal development of cinema over the past 100 years. Before seeing this short film, I had never given much thought to the use of perspective in films, although it is something which I have studied in fine art for a long time. Instead of cutting between different perspectives, i.e. inside and outside the burning building, we we shown the situation from an inside viewpoint and then again from the outside viewpoint, meaning that the audience are forced to watch the same action twice.
Today, there are a huge variety of different camera techniques which are used to help to effectively follow the action. Films such as Inception which have several different high-action situations happening simultaneously would be impossible to watch without the development of filming and editing techniques.