Saturday, February 17, 2007

WHY I'M NOT A FAN OF "IRON GIANT"



Let me start by saying that I have nothing against Giant's director, Brad Byrd. I'm criticizing his film because that doing that helps me to make a point about the way I believe animated films should be made. In other words I'm contrasting my own pie-in-the-sky ideal of film-making against what Brad was able to do in the face of real-world obstacles. It's not a fair comparison and I recognize that. With that caveat in mind watch the clip above and come back here for discussion.

Well, to start with the robot looks pretty good. Whenever he leans there's a great perspective shift and his glancing back and forth at the rock and tree was impressive in the sense that the space between those items seemed immense. I don't know if I've ever seen that awareness of horizontal space in an animated film before. How did they do that? And the grinding metal SFX were great! Anyway, that's what I liked about the sequence. For me the rest of the clip was all about lost opportunities.

There's no art in the way the kid tried to teach the robot to talk. Theatrical dialogue is supposed to be better than the way real people talk. What if Romeo had said to Juliet," Hey, Juliet! It's me, Romeo! Boy, you look great standing there on the balcony!" Would we still remember the play after all these years? There's no excuse for lackluster dialogue. Hollywood is full of dialogue enhancers. Remember how interesting the language teaching sequences of "My Fair Lady" were? It's an interesting subject if it's handled right, even in an abreviated time frame as it was here.

This dialogue problem set a bunch of dominos to falling. Lackluster dialogue led to a lackluster recording and the lackluster recording led to lackluster animation. The reading and animation were convincing all right, you can't walk off the street and do that, but that's the problem. That's all that they were -- convincing. As I've said elsewhere, it's not enough for an actor to be convincing in a role. Real life is convincing and I get all I want of that for free. When I pay for media I want it to be better than life. I want a performance in the true sense of the word, one that'll blow my mind and make me want to tell my friends about it.


Now there were some good animators on this film, you could tell, but they had nothing to work with. The writing wasn't there. did you feel chemistry between the robot and the kid? I didn't. The exchange between them was cold as ice. The boy's mother called and the kid simply turned his back on the robot and matter-of-factly started for home. Didn't it occur to anyone that if boy didn't care for the robot then we had no reason to care for him either? Imagine if the boy had been a real fleshed-out character like Penny in "The Rescuers." A boy like that would have never have willingly turned his back on his new-found friend.

The writing also hurt the interrogation sequence. The CIA guy's threats were so artless and blunt. Imagine a similar scene played by Darth Vader. Fans would have lovingly quoted the threats for decades. The villain is supposed to be a guy we love to hate. I didn't love to hate this guy.

And why the arid silence? Didn't the filmmakers believe in music? Music might have soothed over some of the writing problems and explained the characters' emotions to us. Maybe the money ran out. If they ever re-release this they should add some sound.

Well, that's it.

37 comments:

William said...

very interesting. I must admit to always wondering why folks I admire like you and John had something against Iron Giant, as in the scheme of things I guess we could call it an ally. But these comments are very thought provoking and if you could expand on them even further that'd be great- the idea "convincing isn't enough" really got me, and nailed it. I must integrate it. This is why we come and sit in the Theory Corner!

Oh, and remember the discussion of TS Sullivant's scratching? well I found this image and thought it to be interesting...
http://www.coconino-world.com/sites_auteurs/sullivant/rubriques/bio/portrait04.jpg

J.H. Jordan said...

I absolutely agree. Though I didn't really think about it much in this film it's something I've talked a lot about in regards to some of our contemporary, animated "hits." Not that I would ever criticize the creative talent. Many of the artists out there are truly top notch. It's just that when I watch films like "Pinnochio" and compare them to our generation's contribution, the animation performance seems a little... stale. Though the technical quality of the animation is fantastic, it seems as if (from time to time) the beauty of nuance is lost. I see a lot of acting in contemporary animated features that remind me of high school theatre, like watching first-time performers figure out what to do with their hands. Anyway... no need for me to go on and on. You hit the nail on the head.

katzenjammer studios said...

I've really been digging your blog lately. It's funny, because I just got a Sid Ceasar DVD and a couple of WC Fields movies.

I was watching The Bank Dick, which is what I think that clip is from, and I found that although each little shtick or gag was entertaining, I had a hard time keeping my attention on it. I wanted to go draw, and frequently got up to do things during it. I've heard my grandparents call this problem "generational" but I'm not sure if I'm convinced.

I think the story was a bit flimsy. I had problems watching the Bank Dick, but I don't have problems watching something like the Big Lebowski. Both are just an assemblage of sketches, but for some reason the "Dude" in Lebowski holds my attention for longer. The only difference I see is that the
"Dude" actively seeks stuff out, and is a willful protagonist (wanting reparations for his rug) whereas things seem to just HAPPEN for WC Fields in the Bank Dick. He's in the right place at the right time and things happen by luck.

The question that interests me is: is story really an element that captivates me, or is it just that I've learned story structure, and dogmatically hold it's principles necessary? What do you think. Is it generational?

Benjamin said...

I agree with some points, disagree with others. Some comments:

- The great perspective shift in the giant is easy to explain (in case you didn't know... I'm always surprised when people in the animation industry have no idea): the giant is 3D computer animation.

- Theatrical dialogue should indeed be more lyrical and better than reallife dialogue. But films aren't theatre. I'm no writer, but I felt all the dialogue fit the characters well, and reveiled the subtext well. The thing is, in this scene, the kid's not really supposed to care for him yet in a real friend type of way. They've just met (at least when both concsious), and he's more excited about his discovery of this giant, and he's almost like a new pet or toy. Given his size, his strength, his surviving of incredible electric shocks and Hogarth's correct instincts that he wouldn't exactly get a warm welcome, it's only natural that he'd leave him there and come back later. It's only once they experience the trainwreck together, bond at home and play together later that they truly become real friends.

- Though the setup was great, I agree this wasn't the villain's best scene. But many of his other scenes do make me love to hate him.

- I kind of agree about the acting. I agree that it's merely convincing here (as in most feature animation today, unfortunately), and that performances should be more than convincing. I disagree, though, that life is just convincing. In live action, many performances are merely convincing, and don't do much to you, but when you get to watch, say, Ryan Gosling in Half Nelson, you're blown away. Simply because it's REAL. This person is a completely fleshed out, real person with all his good sides and bad sides etc. Great performances can be larger-than-life, but don't have to be. To me, the best actors are those that can be fantastic in both. Benicio Del Toro in Traffic vs. The Usual Suspects. Sean Penn in Dead Man Walking vs. Carlito's Way. Johnny Depp in Finding Neverland vs. Pirates of the Carribean. Philip Seymour Hofmann in Magnolia vs. The Big Lebowski. Daniel Day-Lewis in In The Name Of The Father vs. Gangs of New York.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Everybody: I made some serious typing errors at the start of the article and at least one spelling error: Brad Bird's name. Sorry about that. I was in a hurry and didn't proof read.

Wouldn't you know that I'd make mistakes like this in a piece where I'm accusing someone else of goofing up? Truly we are playthings of the gods.

William: Glad you liked it. I wish there was a way to discuss stuff like this without trashing the talented people who did it. I'm not after blood here, just an honest discussion of cinematic story and acting. I'll write more about this later.

I'll look up the Sullivant.

J.H.: Thanks!

Katz: I know what you mean! Fields' films sometimes contain slow parts. Really, the best format for live action comedy was the two-reeler shorts. You have to pad too much in feature-length films. Unfortunately the public latched on to the cumbersome feature format and now we're stuck with it. Even so, I refuse to let that get in the way of enjoying my favorite comedians, who are victims, not perpetrators of the long format.

Benjamin: I knew the robot was 3D. It's been a while since I've seen the film in its entirety so I may be judging things out of context. Even so, we should have seen more performance -type acting in the clip.

Good acting always adds something to the dialogue. It provides extra information. Here the dialogue acting was a literal (though skillfull)interpretation of the script.

For comparison think of Darth Vader in the first two Star Wars movies. I imagine the script presents him simply as a ruthless guy. Add visuals and acting and you get a lot more information. The acted Vader is super-intelligent, obsessed, suave, and aristocratic. Acting should not be a slave to dialogue but rather a partner.

Marshall Birch said...

"There's no art in the way the kid tried to teach the robot to talk. Theatrical dialogue is supposed to be better than the way real people talk. What if Romeo had said to Juliet," Hey, Juliet! It's me, Romeo! Boy, you look great standing there on the balcony!""

So what...the 10 year old modern day kid was supposed to break out into flowery Shakespearian prose while talking to the robot who at that point the movie can't really understand English yet? What sense would that make?

"Real life is convincing and I get all I want of that for free. When I pay for media I want it to be better than life."

The kid's talking to a 50 foot robot...if you managed to mistake this scene for your own life, then you have one hell of a life.

"I want a performance in the true sense of the word, one that'll blow my mind and make me want to tell my friends about it."

When was the last time you told somebody...*anybody* about the mind blowing "performance" you just saw an animated character give? What standard is that to hold something to?

"The exchange between them was cold as ice. The boy's mother called and the kid simply turned his back on the robot and matter-of-factly started for home. Didn't it occur to anyone that if boy didn't care for the robot then we had no reason to care for him either?"

It's intentional...at first he just treats it like a big cool toy or something. You know, how a real kid would treat a big robot they found. It's only later in the film that he grows to care for it. See, that's why it's good to watch a whole movie while criticising it, not just take one scene of Youtube.

"The writing also hurt the interrogation sequence. The CIA guy's threats were so artless and blunt."

What he going to do? Come up with graphic death threats in a kid's cartoon?

"And why the arid silence? Didn't the filmmakers believe in music?"

Because dialog scenes usually aren't accompanied by sweeping dramatic scores in movies?

Shawn said...

Why do modern animated characters squint their eyes so much while they talk?

david gemmill said...

after watching this i kept cringing at all the stereotypical disney acting and expressions and contrived hand movements and gestures. It almost seemed rotoscoped because they were trying to replicate live-action actors too much, like some cheap soap opera style of acting. My problem with it... is that it's a lame 90's style script with lame acting and dialogue and smooth disney-esque animation. and i thought i used to like this movie. i guess that is when i was younger.

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Michael Sporn said...

I loved your comments on this film. I didn't feel that you were trashing Brad Bird. The film is a really good one compared to 98% of the muck that's out there, however I agree that a lot of the voice acting isn't great - just serviceable - and it's probably due to the dialogue. The whole film could have used a rewrite. However, this film does something most animated films don't do; it tries to comment on the real world. It's not trying to develop some cartoon fantasy built on other animated cartoons. For that, I forgive a lot.

I don't agree with the comment David Gemmill had. Nothing about this sequence looks like rotoscope. It's all too cute and overacted - maybe overanimated. A good acting theory is that you should never "indicate" and that's all this scene does.

Eddie your writing is a great way for me to begin my days; I love it. You have a lot to say.

Kali Fontecchio said...

"When was the last time you told somebody...*anybody* about the mind blowing "performance" you just saw an animated character give? What standard is that to hold something to?"

Well there you go! Not with this kind of crap, no, but with real cartoons yes. Holy crap.

Kali Fontecchio said...

"Vader is super-intelligent, obsessed, suave, and aristocratic."

Sorry Eddie.

NO.

Max Ward said...

I love your new posts. Discussing a video clip. It's great. Keep it up!

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Marshall: Shakespeare was only an example. Lots of lesser people wrote interesting dialogue. You need to see some good film dialogue so you have something to compare this picture to.

Watch films like Mildred Pierce, Detective Story (b&w version), Double Indemnity, Wizard of Oz and cartoons like Clampett's Great Piggy Bank Robbery and the best of Jones' Three Bear cartoons.

Animation is full of great performances and I talk to my friends about them all the time. The hag in Snow White, Daffy reading the comic book in Piggy Bank Robbery, Ren Hoek and Mr. Horse in Ren Seeks Help...it would be a long list. We should expect great performances in animated features and acting opportunities should be written into the story.

Michael: Thanks for the kind comments and for the consistently interesting enteries on your own blog.

William said...

"When was the last time you told somebody...*anybody* about the mind blowing "performance" you just saw an animated character give? What standard is that to hold something to?"

Well this doesn't have anything to do with Iron Giant, of course, but watching my new Ren & Stimpy Seasons 1&2 DVDs(not to pander or anything) I was actually raving to my wife on the phone how amazing Ren's acting was at times. "To describe it would need dozens of hyphens!," I said.

...

The silences were not comfortable.

Anonymous said...

I hope you don't mind anonym comments - especially ones that are a bit off topic.

You have seen Darth Vader being a smartass, haven't you?

here-> http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5blbv4WFriM&eurl=

I mention it because i find it an excellent example of character interaction, and since you mentioned Vader already...

Anonymous said...

Vin Diesal is a hell of a voice actor. He should front a death metal band.

I love that movie and I love that clip. I think Brad Bird is of the school of thought that movies and cartoons should be "realistic" and "convincing" which is the polar opposite of Eddie's view.

He wants cartoons to be like live-action filmaking. MODERN live-action.

He probably believes every character should be 3-dimensional, too, which explains the villain.

On the commentary for the Incredibles Brad Bird said he was very proud of the animation acting in the movie, he said there was tons of subtle stuff. I wonder if he holds the same belief for The Iron Giant?

Jordan said...

It's all about personality, and indeed it may be difficult for anybody's personality to break through the machine that making animated features can be. That's why I've always admired Spumco and all the others that have personality.

Same with live action movies. When people say they "love bad movies!" and then mention something really bland (like a Jennifer Love Hewitt movie...), I always go "no! that's not bad! It's just bland and boring."

Really "bad" movies that at least have personality (i'll use the most common example, Ed Wood movies) I can admire. If you can see someone's heart on the screen, despite everything else, it's not so bad.



Jordan

Mad Max Winston said...

I agree, Darth Vader is one of the most awesomely evil villians in film. And EVERYTHING he says is said for a reason! A strong reason! Hey Eddie, that would be great if you could post something about the acting in "Tales of a Worm Paranoia". I love the acting in that film, it's some of my favorite in modern animation years. I'd love to hear about that.

Kali Fontecchio said...
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Kali Fontecchio said...

There goes your street cred.


Why did you bring up Vader again? I can't figure it out. How about Opie after he killed that bird? An 8 year old boy can act better than Vader or this Iron Giant crap.

Max Ward said...

Kali, do a post about why you think Vader is a bad actor.

Shawn said...

Darth Vader does some great facial expressions.

Kali Fontecchio said...

If you could only see the great gestures happening under his dress.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Kali: LOL! I seem to have hit a nerve!

Anonymous said...

I agree the dialog was weak. Record a conversation with your friends.

Real people don't talk so expositionally, and expositional dialog is FAR less entertaining.

That's partly why I love Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, and Out of Sight. Great dialog. Anchorman has its moments.

Think about the scene in Pulp Fiction where Marsellus Wallace threaten's Bruce Willis' character to throw the match. Compare that to the scene in Iron Giant. No contest.

>>It's intentional...at first he just treats it like a big cool toy or something. You know, how a real kid would treat a big robot they found. It's only later in the film that he grows to care for it.<<

I care more for toys at the start and grow to like them less over time. When I got Street Fighter 2 way back when, I wouldn't listen to my mother's pleas to eat my breakfast, lunch or dinner until I got tired of the game. Same thing with the Nintendo Wii. I skipped work just to keep playing it. Then I sold it after the first few days when I got tired of it.

Because the Giant is a character with feelings, the kid comes to care for "him" and not "it" on a deeper level, but the bad acting in this scene clearly depicts the stereotypical, oversimplified, generic, incorrect, and overall weak approach.

I still enjoyed the movie.

Anonymous said...

Marsellus Wallace vs Butch

*note the music in the BG.

Anonymous said...

Another anonym, sorry.

benjamn said:" The great perspective shift in the giant is easy to explain *snip*: the giant is 3D computer animation.

You forgot to actually explain it. Just saying "it's 3D" doesn't help. A 3D artist doesn't achieve the effect of enormous scale without knowing how to set up the scene.

Having said that, can i venture my inexperienced breakdown of the scene? i'll go ahead & do it anyway:

- The first step was to set up a good angle of view on the camera to produce the right perspective. Yes yes, we know that... and?

- After that, keep a relatively static camera position - "turn the viewer's head".
Because the camera sweeps (is that the correct term?), the background moves with the giant behind him, which represents an enormous change of _angle_ of view. That makes sense: as a static viewer, you would have to turn your head to see from one arm to the other - you wouldn't race over to the giant's other foot to get a closer look at his other hand. The result is also to make the clouds behind the giant move with the shift in angle of view - to make a background move, you need to turn your head, otherwise it stays still. A moving background represents an enormous shift in perspective. A static background is "ordinary" - you know that from driving down the highway.

- Keep the knees in sight - even the boy in sight the first time the camera sweeps across helps set the perspective.

- Notice how the rock and tree are always at the edge of the shot. The camera never puts the rock and tree right in the centre of your field of vision - i think that's the rule of thirds - robot's head in the middle, rock & tree in the 2 outer thirds of the screen.

*cringe* OK, I'm ready for a good lampooning now - don't hold back.

Anonymous said...

Kali: LOL! I seem to have hit a nerve!

haha, KALI IS IN LOVE WITH DARTH VADER!

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Anon: Nice analysis of the spatial innovations in that sequence! I can use some of the points you made in my storyboards. Thanks!

Mad Max: An acting analysis of the Worm film? Interesting idea! I'll try it!

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Everybody: So you guys aren't impressed with this advice! Well, what are you waiting for? Post your own ideas and link to it here! I'm dying to see what techniques are out there! Just don't put up boring advice like "be yourself" or "just act natural." Courtship is too serious to waste time on techniques that aren't manipulative and Machiavellian

Boy, I didn't know that so many worldly guys came to this site. Maybe I should get an advertizer like Ray-Bans or leopard skin seat covers.

Anonymous said...

>Why did you bring up Vader again? I can't figure it out. How about Opie after he killed that bird? An 8 year old boy can act better than Vader or this Iron Giant crap.

Hey, Vader was like Buster Keaton, he had to act without facial expression!

James Earl Jones is also a hell of a voice actor.

>Anchorman has its moments.

Hell yeah!

Kali Fontecchio said...

"If you could only see the great gestures happening under his dress."

I actually didn't write that. A certain silly loon used the computer after I did. I'm a decent person.

"Hey, Vader was like Buster Keaton, he had to act without facial expression!"

NO. If you ever say Vader and Buster in the same sentence again I'll murther you.

Kali Fontecchio said...

"Kali, do a post about why you think Vader is a bad actor. "

WHY? All I would have to do is put up a youtube link. JEESE.

J. J. Hunsecker said...

NO. If you ever say Vader and Buster in the same sentence again I'll murther you.

Murther? I don't know what that is but it sounds bad. Sort of like a combination of murder and mother.

And, yes, Buster Keaton and Vader is indeed an unfair comparison. Buster has subtle facial expressions, while Vader doesn't have any 'cause he's wearing an immobile mask.

J. J. Hunsecker said...

For good dialogue I recommend "The Great McGinty".

For example, when McGinty explains how he became corrupted he starts off by saying, "You gotta learn to crawl before you can creep."