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.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

One More Month of Warhol

by Stephen Cummings

Andy Warhol, 1966, Screen Test, Edie Sedgwick, ©2008 The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh

Andy Warhol is known for his detachment. He had a penchant for flippancy that pervaded both his art and his persona. Celebrities, products, processes; all became serialized in Warhol's work. Nothing is sacred. Everything is glamour. This unconcern has caused the artist to be written off in circles both public and artistic, even as he is celebrated in alternate sects of the same. Such hostility is understandable, but ill placed, for it is precisely in Warhol's detachment that his profundity lies. If there is any doubt, a visit to Seattle Art Museum may be in order. (But there's only a month left.)

On view through September 6th, Love Fear Lust Pleasure Pain Glamour Death is a collection of photographs and films by the man who embodied both Pop Art and avant garde cinema during the 20th century. No, you won't find any of Warhol's famous silk-screens here, but the selection on view is well more than satisfying, making for a commendable exhibition that combines those two most essential — and simple — elements: great work, and the space to see them.

The heart of this show features about two dozen of Warhol's Screen Tests — short films of roughly four and half minutes which feature a single actor (or singer, or model, or regular Joe, etc.) full frame from about the neck up. It is very important to watch the full four and a half minutes. These films are Warhol's passivity at perhaps its most striking. The camera never moves. The lighting never changes. The background is nondescript. With so much inaction, we are confronted with the bare reality of another human being. They stare back at us (typically). They stare back at you. You begin to notice small details: tendencies, ticks, discomfort. The shape of a shadow, the mouth, the strain of sitting. Sometimes an unnerving cool. Looking at this person, studying this person, you begin to feel as if you know this person — as if you have known this person. Occasionally it seems as if this person knows you. These films, static and removed, uncut, not physically present but captured from their original prints and digitally projected, remain formidably intimate. Displayed side by side and opposite one another in two galleries, these slow, silent films infuse the space with a glowing intensity.

On either side of the central galleries can be found some of Warhol's immobile photographs, often straightforward as their filmic counterparts, if not quite so staggering. In one room: photo booth portraits, in another: internal dye diffusion transfer prints — which is to say, Polaroids — and in another: sewn gelatin silver prints (that go a little too far in asserting their made quality, and assuming their own importance). Finally, the museum offers visitors an interactive portion: a photo booth, which, in uncharacteristic fashion for art museum interactivity, manages to be rather interesting. Probably it's because people like to look at people, but whatever the case, having your photo taken and adding it to the wall of faces adjacent is a surprisingly engaging activity (as well as a brilliant money-making venture for SAM). Not only do you get to examine the visages of your fellow museum goers, you also have the opportunity to compare your own work to Andy's — which should make it clear that he is the master.

Carter Ratcliff, of Art in America, among other things, has written of Warhol, "His portraits lead us to the edge of sheer impossibility and beyond. No one, not even Debbie Harry, can be as glamorous as Andy's Debbie Harry. Realizing this, we step over the edge, back into the real world." [1] It would be a fitting conclusion, if Ratcliff weren't writing about the paintings. But I can't help but feel this quote lay its touch upon the photographic work as well. If you haven't already, go see Edie Sedgwick, and see if you agree.

  1. Carter Ratcliff, "Looking Good: Andy Warhol's Utopian Portraiture", in Andy Warhol Portraits, ed. Tony Shafrazi, (New York: Phaidon Press Inc., 2007), 21.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Buzz Lightyear al Rescate!

by Stephen Cummings

Lee Unkrich, 2010, Toy Story 3, Buzz Lightyear

Toy Story has always been about our past's collision with the future: Woody — the Old West — forced to reconcile with Buzz Lightyear — our technological triumph. It's Classic meets Cool, Silicon Valley versus Death Valley, LPs recorded onto iPods — or at that time, what? Walkmans? — even Steamboat Willie whistling along with WALL-E. Toy Story is the story of America. Drawing from the past, we look to the future. The theme runs through Toy Story 3 with a note of regret at what's being left behind. While the only loss in the original was Buzz Lightyear's delusion of grandeur (a healthy trade for Woody's newfound acceptance of the unknown), there is a clear sense through most of this third installment that things will not be the same. But is it really so bad in the end?

In its broadest strokes, Toy Story 3 pits optimism against cynicism. It is the toys' belief that Andy no longer wants them that leads the group away from him in the first place, despite Woody's appeals to the contrary. Once at Sunnyside Daycare, there is the seduction of Lots-O'-Huggin' Bear's philosophy: no owners means no heartbreak. Jessie and the gang are sold, until Sunnyside turns out not to be all that was promised, and Lotso's unsavory side comes to light. Naturally, it is Woody's loyalty, and his companions' unity that saves them from the draconian grip of Sunnyside (not to mention the love welling up in Ken and Big Baby that saves Sunnyside from Lotso). In this ideal world, Woody and friends are able to take the higher road — near calamity notwithstanding — letting go their anger at Lotso while the audience is assured of the strawberry scented bear's comeuppance. Though purity of heart is not without its dangers, the lesson to be learned is clear. (In the end, even Chuckles can't help but crack a smile.)

It's a fairly standard Hollywood theme that includes a current of cooperation trumping exclusion. Sunnyside's dark side is a product of Lotso's separation of new arrivals from old hands, a system abandoned in his absence in favor of a shared effort with benefits for everyone. And while the original cast do well in their escape attempt, it is the Chatter Telephone's decision to fend for himself that jeopardizes the whole operation. Again, a fairly standard treatment, and a good lesson for the kids, but there are a few details that make this particular tale one worth remembering.

Buzz Lightyear's transformation, mid-way through the film, into a suave, Spanish dancer is the moment that brings Toy Story 3 into that uniquely American space that has been the series' strength. Dancing the Pasodoble with cowgirl Jessie, Buzz becomes suddenly both past and present. He reminds us of our mythic, Western roots, when cowboys roamed between Spanish missions and trade flowed freely across the Rio Grande, and between Alta and Baja California — the time of Zorro and Jim Bowie reified in a space ranger. While taking us back, Buzz remains firmly in the present, still a favorite, plastic toy — and symbol of Disney merchandising — with a Spanish/English owners manual to boot. Jessie, the all American girl, of course finds the new Buzz all the more enchanting, and in a sign of the times, needs only offer a slight musical nudge to set Buzz's alter ego bubbling up irresistibly from below the surface.

Further details include Mr. Potato Head's use of a tortilla in the escape operation (innocuous, perhaps, but a clear sign that our national identity has already shifted — back to its roots?) and Andy's decision to leave his toys to a girl called Bonnie, the embodiment of the next generation, who is herself possibly Latina. It is a touching conclusion, and reassuring in that this little girl of ambiguous lineage is so plainly the best possible heir to the characters we've come to love over the past 15 years. The future, it turns out, will not be so different. Finally, the Oscar-winning theme which was introduced in Andy's room, rounds out the trilogy with a recording by the Gipsy Kings, this time with the words, "Hay un amigo en mi."

As the furor over U.S. immigration policy continues with court orders and appeals and even calls for reexamination of the 14th Amendment, it's hard not to catch the resonance of this final Toy Story chapter. Much as some may fight to keep our southern neighbors on the opposite side of the border, the fact of the matter is that the battle is already won. Kids today are growing up on Dora the Explorer, baseball's biggest stars have names like Pujols and Rodriguez, and the world's game continues to creep into the national consciousness. These are the cues that will shape the future, not Jan Brewer and J.D. Hayworth. And now, even one of Pixar's most beloved characters is bilingual. So, thank you, to Lee Unkrich and his team. It's a comfort, when things have gotten terribly overheated, to have a reminder that everything will be ok. To quote Woody: "We're all in this together."