The most memorable film I saw in the last 12 months was Hayao Miyazaki’s animated feature Spirited Away. Filled with truly unexpected images – rare enough these days when even Pot Noodle ads have gone Dada – every single frame was so beautiful you’d have liked to hang it on your wall. Most remarkable of all, it was executed in 2D, which surprises me because 3D animation is currently taking over the industry quite as thoroughly as colour once displaced black-and-white TV.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve nothing against 3D animation: on the contrary, as the excuse goes, some of my best friends are 3D animators. George, my old friend and neighbour in Italy, makes a living teaching master classes in Maya to advanced animation students. Despite being a science nerd myself, I became surrounded by animators from an early age, when in the late 1960s I moved into a Ladbroke Grove flat full of them – some of them then working on Yellow Submarine – and I’ve failed to shake them off ever since. That’s probably why I believe that 3D animation will be the artform of the 21st century (assuming you include in that category CGI effects added to live-action movies, since they all use the same tools).
3D animation is the first instance of a wholly new artform, made possible only by computer technology. It would have been inconceivably difficult to create 3D cartoons using hand-drawn cel animation techniques, and people were still using physical models even as late as the first Star Wars movie. As the authoring tools for 3D animation gain in power, it becomes possible to more closely emulate, if not the real world, then at least a live-action film of the real world. And as user interfaces get more sophisticated, the techniques are becoming available to non-technical artists and illustrators. If you ever get a chance to try Maya’s Subdivision Surfaces tool, do: it’s like squeezing and pulling on virtual Plasticene. As a result, 3D now falls within the budgetary constraints of dodgy TV car insurance adverts, which is one instant way to take the magic out of it.
And that’s where a doubt starts to creep in. Back in 1987, John Lasseter’s Luxo Jr inspired amazement and pleasure, as did Toy Story later on, but the recent flood of 3D features, from Shrek through Monsters Inc. to The Incredibles, Shark Tale and Madagascar, has rather disillusioned me. It’s not just that the plots and characters are often naff and sentimental – that’s just as likely to happen in a live-action movie or a 2D animation. The problem is that the illusion itself is starting to wear thin. However much texture and bump-mapping they slap onto them, all the characters look like toys to me. I’m beyond the initial amazement and, despite myself, becoming overcritical of the realism – something that never ever happens with 2D cartoons like The Simpsons or South Park.
I suspect what’s going on is actually physiological. The human visual system has a special function dedicated to recognising faces, and it’s this ability that enables the art of caricature to flourish (2D cartoons are really just moving caricatures). We can recognise a person from a couple of well-drawn wiggly lines (and some of us see Mother Theresa in a slice of pizza). This effect is largely two-dimensional, based on the layout of eyes, nose, mouth and hair and, most importantly, recognition is immediate, without requiring any more detail. However, once we decide something is a real three-dimensional object, we start to analyse it using a different brain region and want all the detail we can get about it. Look at any plastic Homer Simpson toy, or at the episode where Homer gets rendered in 3D in a Lawnmower Man parody – it’s no longer Homer, because there’s too much information. So are 3D animators on a treadmill, forced to supply ever greater levels of realism as the audience develops a ‘tolerance’ to their product’s appearance? Certainly, Alias, the developer of Maya, thinks so, because it continues to devote enormous resources to new plug-ins that model the dynamics of hair and fur, cloth, fluids and other fine-detail substances.