Monday, July 13, 2009

Breaking the Rules at Acme Looniversity

You’ve just seen an animated movie that absolutely amazed you. It’s not just good; it’s groundbreaking. It takes animation in directions you never even thought possible. You talk excitedly with your friends as you all leave the theater and one of them remarks “They really broke all the rules in that movie.”

It seems like a simple enough statement and you agree. But later on, you start thinking about what your friend said. What are “the rules”? Why do we even have rules for animation if breaking them can result in amazing films like the one you just saw? Are the rules just about keeping the status quo, or is there more to it than that?

There are rules, and there are rules. The first set could well be considered unnecessary and can be broken at will, but the second has far more substance and exists for a definite reason.

The “rules” in the first set aren’t really rules at all. They are a collection of assumptions that, for various reasons, have come to be accepted as fact. You’re probably familiar with some of them. “Animation is only suitable for kids.” “The only successful animated feature films are fairy tale musicals.” “Computer animation is a replacement for hand drawn animation.” And so on. Call them tropes, clichés, conventions, stereotypes, or whatever you want. But they aren’t rules. They have very little to do with the medium of animation and much more to do with cultural perceptions of animation. Not surprisingly, they don’t travel well. Mainstream America may still regard animation as primarily for children and families, but hop over to Japan and it’s a very different story. Further explanation of these so-called rules reveals that there is little real reason behind them. “That’s the way things have always been,” their defenders cry. And they have box office records to prove it.

Since these “rules” are based in the soft foundation of an ever-changing culture, filmmakers can feel free to break them. They are not defying the laws of animation, just the public’s perception of animation. That doesn’t mean it is any less of a revelation when talented artists show us that we thought were solid walls marking the boundaries of the medium actually have doors. Think of Walt Disney defying the pundits who were convinced that there was no audience for a feature-length animated film, or UPA turning away from the pursuit of naturalism in favor of a graphic style. Choosing to defy the conventional wisdom about what animation can and cannot be is not a guaranteed path to success, but neither is following the formula for what has worked before. The films that stretch the audience’s ideas about animation are the ones that set the standard and write the new definition of success that others will try to emulate.

So what are rules? Rules are ideas that describe the mechanics of animation. It doesn’t matter what country the animation is made in or what kind of story is being told; these rules hold true regardless. There is solid reasoning behind these rules, why they should be followed, and what happens if they are not. One such rule states that if a character is squashed, stretched, or otherwise distorted, it must always return to its original shape. This rule has its basis in observation of real life and how various objects and materials behave and react to different actions. Press your finger against a tabletop will spread out and flatten against the hard surface, an effect that is referred to as “squash” in animation. Remove your finger from the table and it quickly regains its original shape. Different materials will behave differently under the same circumstances. Soft objects deform more while harder ones deform less, if at all. Similarly, the style of animation and nature of the characters or objects will determine how much they squash and stretch. A cartoony character in a humorous story will probably squash and stretch a lot more than a realistic human character in a dramatic tale. Following this rule keeps a character consistent in size and mass, making him or her more believable. Though a character may stretch out long and thin while leaping into the air and squash down short and squat upon reconnecting with the ground, the audience still sees the character as solid, dimensional, and “real,” so long as he or she keeps returning to his or her original shape. If this rule is not followed, the illusion of believable form and movement can be lost. The audience no longer feels like the character has a defined weight and shape. At worst, suspension of disbelief may be lost entirely and the audience may start to see the character as nothing more than a series of drawings because the lack of consistency of form is so distracting. Holding a single distortion for too long is like keeping a joke going after the punchline and the laugh. Wile E. Coyote will sometimes get crushed by one of his own Acme devices and walk offscreen, still looking like a contracted accordion. The audience laughs, but if the Coyote looked that way through the rest of the cartoon, the connection between the action and the result would fade and the joke would be lost.

So does this mean that a true rule can never be broken? No. It is possible to break these rules, but not without an understanding of why they exist in the first place. Rules cannot be broken arbitrarily. An animator who animates a standard cartoon walk cycle where the character squashes and stretches without returning to his or her original shape for no reason will get nowhere. The result will look like nothing more than sloppy animation. The trick is to understand both the effect that the rule has and potential reasons for breaking it. An animator could decide to break this rule when animating a character that is made of something formless, such as smoke or water. In that case, it could be perfectly acceptable for the character to change shape constantly and never return to one original form. The nature of a story could also be a reason for breaking this particular rule. A story set in a dream world would be enhanced by characters whose bodies distort without returning to a fixed shape. This could either suggest a peaceful fantasy where characters slowly slip from one shape to another like clouds moving in the wind, or a nightmare world where nothing moves as you would expect, heightening the sense of disorientation. Or perhaps the story plays with the nature of cartoons themselves, as is the case with “Wild Takes Class.”

“Wild Takes Class” is a short cartoon in the Tiny Toon Adventures episode “Inside Plucky Duck.” While it is neither the mostly beautifully animated cartoon in the series nor the funniest, it does perfectly illustrate a good reason to break this particular rule.

Part of the premise of the series is that the classic Looney Toons characters act as teachers to the next generation of toons, instructing them in the fine art of animated comedy. As the title suggests, this cartoon begins with Bugs Bunny teaching the young toons how to perform wild takes. A wild take is an exaggeration that is meant to show an extreme of emotion rather than action. Fans of the classic Warner Brothers shorts will want to take note of the names of the takes Bugs demonstrates: the “Avery Aoogah” – an extreme eye-pop typical of wolves noticing attractive women, the “Friz Frizzle” – a spasmodic reaction to being zapped with electricity that results in a blackened bunny, and the “Chuck Outta Luck Pathetic-Eyes Routine” – a wide-eyed take commonly seen on a certain coyote about to be flattened by a boulder, accompanied by a tiny umbrella.

Young Buster Bunny watches attentively, but his pal Plucky Duck is less than impressed. He would rather be learning from his hero, Daffy Duck. But, as Buster points out, Daffy teaches the advanced class and the student toons need to study the basics before moving on to the wildest of wild takes. Plucky doesn’t care. He has been working on some of Daffy’s lessons on his own and demonstrates his new skills to Buster, culminating in the “Clampett Corneal Catastrophe” – a take in which Plucky’s bulging eyes fuse into a single giant eyeball that replaces his whole body except for his legs. Buster is impressed, until it becomes clear that Plucky can’t get out of the take and is stuck as a giant eyeball, as he will be for most of the cartoon.

“Wild Takes Class” has an excellent rationale for breaking the rules. Wild takes, the story suggests, are a technique requiring practice to master. Plucky is a novice, so when he tries to distort his body into an extreme take, he can’t return to his normal shape the way cartoon characters normally do. Interestingly, this is also a case where breaking the rule actually proves why the rule works in the first place. When it’s held for just a second, Plucky’s take has the intended effect of conveying shock or terror. But as he walks and bounces around as an oversized eyeball for the remainder of the cartoon, the effect is lost. In a regular cartoon, a take ceasing to suggest a high level of emotion could be disastrous, but in a short about cartoon characters in training, it works.

Rule breaking is not something that should be avoided at all costs. If the “rule” in question isn’t related to the medium itself, then breaking it can erase outmoded thinking about what animation is capable of. If the rule is truly related to the fundamentals of the medium, then an animator must tread carefully when deciding whether or not to break it. These are the rules that really are meant to be followed. Breaking them for the wrong reasons can cause all manner of problems. But an animator who understands the rules and chooses to break them only when the project will be stronger for it can help to elevate the art form and take it to uncharted new heights.

All images from this article are copyright Warner Bros. Home Video.

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