Control: Animation and the directorial vision
Animation is one of my favorite art forms. It’s the freest form of cinematic expression. Anything is possible in animation, and almost anything can be made plausible, because animated films exist entirely in their own universes.
Usually, animated films are fantasies or science-fiction for this reason. However, some directors go the other direction, making films set entirely within the real world. Why go this route? Why not just film it?
For the brilliant Sylvain Chomet, the answer seems simple. His visual aesthetic is so much his own, it needs to be animated. His characters are a mix of grotesques and caricatures. Live-action, they’d be so over the top it’d seem kitschy or distracting; the makeup work would call too much attention to itself. In Chomet’s animated worlds, however, they fit right in.
One of the best known “realistic” animated films is Isao Takahata’s “Grave of the Fireflies”. Unlike Chomet, Takahata’s simple animation style contains nothing that requires it to be animated. And yet, it works as an animation. It’s an absorbing, heartbreaking film. We embrace these characters because they fit into the world Takahata creates, and he does so with loving attention to detail.
It also uses certain elements to its advantage. The film is about the death of two children by starvation (this isn’t a spoiler; it’s revealed in the first lines of the film that the two leads are dead). As Roger Ebert wrote in his glowing review of the film, such a movie featuring real actors might become repelling. The audience would be too upset at the fact of seeing a real child apparently starving. Animation provides a buffer, negating some of that visceral impact while retaining all the power of the story and characters.
Animation, more than live-action, provides a direct 1:1 correlation between the vision of the director and the film’s content. True maestros like Hayao Miyazaki conjure images that are some of the most creative to be put on film. Directors like Brad Bird create scenes as complex, and at times as visionary, as those in live-action film.
Animation isn’t a genre. It’s an art form. The last 15 years have been great for it, with the rise of Pixar, the re-emergence of Disney with “Tangled”, and the continued brilliance of Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki. As long as the world’s animation schools and studios keep producing artists with visions that can’t be contained on a film camera, animation will continue to prosper.