Monday, August 23, 2010

Pixar's Day & Night

by Stephen Cummings

Teddy Newton, Day & Night, 2010

For the past few years, I've had a growing complaint about Pixar: their films are too conventional. The studio may have pioneered the technology that forever changed the animation industry, but as they continued to improve upon its texturing and simulation abilities, everyone else caught up. Movie houses are now saturated with that sleek 3D world which has become so pervasive and homogenous as to be the antithesis of innovation. There have been examples of relief, fortunately, coming mostly from lesser known studios and filmmakers, and/or from overseas. But what of the studio with the expressed goal of "making the greatest animated films ever"? Pixar's sole venture into unconventional form came with WALL-E, wherein live action humans were used to represent the past — their future counterparts, though, still of the ubiquitous, smooth, cute variety. (WALL-E is more profound than I'm giving it credit, but we won't go into it here.) So as critical praise continued to be lavished upon the Emeryville team, I grew weary.

Enter Teddy Newton's Day & Night. Only rarely does one see a film which calls attention to the nature of its medium, but this six-minute short, which runs ahead of Toy Story 3, manages to do so three-fold.

In film, as in painting, there is a tension between flatness and depth. Is the rectangle a window, through which to view an entire, other world? Or is it a surface, upon which media is applied? — or projected, in film's case. The greater part of modernist painting, of course, was devoted to this question, but film has been much less aggressive in its approach. More often than examining the tension, filmmakers have exploited it for the purpose of visual effects, making objects appear larger or smaller in relation to other characters, for example. (See Tim Burton's giant in Big Fish.) [1] In animation, the modernist dilemma was examined in films like Hans Richter's Rhythm 23, and had an influence on popular practitioners like Chuck Jones who took animation on a new, flatter course, [2] but Disney's hold on the medium maintained a certain amount of focus on something "more realistic [...] giving us a real feeling of three dimensions." With the advent of digital animation, the dream of a completely three dimensional world was achieved. Or was it? A film, remember, is still contained in a rectangle, still a projection on a flat surface.

Day & Night addresses this problem directly by combining 3D digital animation, with traditional, two-dimensional hand-drawing in a way that's never been done. Rather than inserting two-dimensional characters into three-dimensional spaces à la Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the makers of Day & Night have defined its two protagonists only by the flat black surrounding them (along with the whites of their eyes), while their bodies serve as windows onto a world of depth. In this pairing, the dominant reality seems to be the flattened foreground. But while the two characters draw attention to the factual flatness of the medium, apparently driving the action of both the flattened and deep spaces, they are at times subject to the topographies and actions of the world inside (or outside?). For the protagonists, every moving part is diegetic, while for the world beyond, those two characters are as an audience, disconnected. It is a delightful and fascinating treatment that poses the problem of what propels this film: its reality or its fantasy? (And which is which?)

Equally delightful — and fascinating — is Day & Night's use of sound. The two main characters may drive the physical action in this film — sort of — moving about freely, and seemingly independent of the background, but they are incapable of uttering sounds of their own making. All diegetic sound in Day & Night is a result of activity in the background, even as it corresponds to foreground actions. This begs the question of whether the foreground characters truly can move about freely, or whether they are beholden to the three-dimensional reality in order to express themselves. Are they really dominating this scene, or does it in fact drive them? Plus, the disconnect between the diegetic sound of the background, and the action of the foreground — that is, its being closely related to, but not precisely the sound you might expect for a given foreground action — calls attention to the tricky relationship between sound and film in general. In something akin to Chuck Jones's Now Hear This, this auditory disconnect illuminates the fact of Foley in the making not just of animated films, but in live-action as well. Sound, apart from voices, is rarely recorded along with action, instead added later by a team of artists. This being the case, what business do audiences have expecting sounds and actions to align?

All of these contradictions and competing realities speak to the nature of cinematic experience. Of course viewers do come to watch a flat surface, but in doing so we allow ourselves to be temporarily transported into an alternate space. While watching, we embrace this outside reality as our own, just as Day & Night's two characters when they discover the worlds inside each other. But unlike the continuous, and, for them, factual space those characters find, the one we embrace is limited, and constructed, one not captured, but created. This is especially true for animation. The question in Day & Night as to which reality is the predominant one is undercut by the fact that neither is in fact a reality at all.

In short, this is hardly conventional filmmaking. Given the trajectories of the big American animation houses, Day & Night is the kind of thing you might expect to come out of France or Japan. With all the mess of questions posed and assumptions challenged by this latest short film, Pixar has firmly reasserted itself as a leader of animation innovation.

Now if we could only get them to make something without a happy ending . . . .

  1. "Director Tim Burton Commentary" on Big Fish, Dir. Tim Burton, 2003, DVD, Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment, 2004.
  2. "Drawn for Glory: Animation's Triumph at the Oscars" on Warner Brothers Home Entertainment Academy Awards Animation Collection: 15 Winners - 26 Nominees, DVD, Warner Home Video, 2008.

No comments:

Post a Comment