Saturday, February 23, 2008

Animal Characters, 4: Animal-Morphism

So far this week, mostly we’ve been looking at animals that have been made to look more human. Some of the greatest animal characters have been in that category.

But another way to think of animal character design is to try to create real, organic, entertaining personalities that aren’t just human surrogates, but instead retain as much essential animal character as possible. In my experience this latter approach is much more difficult, because it goes against our natural tendency to humanize everything. (Above: Poortvliet)

The mice in Beatrix Potter’s Two Bad Mice don’t behave in merely human terms. They respond to every problem in a way that’s true to the personality of real mice. Their eyes are mice eyes, not humanized eyes. Yet we can tell what they’re feeling: they’re “relatable.” If they had been humanized, the comedy of the story would have fallen flat. Potter knew mice well and kept several as pets.

Tony the Tiger is a purely human type: a hearty enthusiastic salesman. But Shere Khan is more like a real tiger. He has a mind we can fully understand. Disney was adamant that the “heavy” in Jungle Book not be a slavering monster. As drawn by master animator Milt Kahl, he is cool, understated, arrogant, and poised— very much a tiger. Kahl spent a long time studying tigers from life. When it came to the animation, he didn’t need to refer to photos. He drew most of the sequences from memory.

To achieve the breakthroughs that led to Bambi, Walt Disney brought in animal experts like Rico LeBrun and Bernard Garbutt, who could teach the anatomy inside and out. But these guys didn’t necessarily have the animator’s gift.

It also took the skills of artists like Marc Davis, who combined a lot of animal knowledge with an innate sense of personality and inner life. Putting all these skills together brought the Disney Studios a long way forward from the “rubber hose” animation of Steamboat Willie.

I believe that the development of authentic animal characters based on close observation is a wide-open frontier for the pioneers of CG animation. Below: Paul Bransom.

Let me offer a thought, which is very much open to discussion. I wonder if the character creation process that is currently used in many studios is overly dependent on voice casting by famous actors. While many great characters have been created in this way, the process may limit the range of potential types of animal characterizations.

Animators may feel overly tied to the timing, delivery, and even facial expressions and gestures of a voice actor. That actor may or may not have any sense of the entertainment potential of the genuine animal he’s portraying.

The art form is capable of a wider range of conceptions that can be achieved by following a different set of assumptions and starting points—and of course a deep commitment to the study of animal behavior.

Consider, for example, this monkey and elephant by Heinrich Kley. The monkey’s tail is holding up the umbrella, and the elephant is the perfect blend of human and elephantine, bringing out immense personality.

Here’s part of an outrageous encounter between a man and a baboon by A.B. Frost. What makes it funny is that the baboon is perfectly true to its nature. When he wants to fight back, he uses his foot in a baboonlike way to rip off the guy’s jacket.

Here’s a confrontation between a puppy and a chicken by Norman Lindsay. We know exactly what each character is thinking and doing, but neither characterization is framed in anthropomorphic terms. For example, when a puppy wants to play, he throws his paws in the air, and Lindsay has exaggerated that gesture. The chicken uses her beak and feet to fight back, keeping the wings tucked.

Can animal characters be developed without humanizing them? It's easier if they don't talk. Any dog or bird owner knows exactly what their pet is thinking, and appreciates their unique quirks. A dog will let you know that he feels remorseful or playful or angry using a different repertoire of expressions than we humans use.

Animal-morphic characterization doesn’t have to be realistic in a photographic sense, but it has to be authentic and convincing. I’ll leave you with these clips of the dog Bruno in Triplets of Belleville (pencil tests above, finished clips below). Bruno is a memorable character because his thought process and his behavior is so deliciously doglike.

(Thanks to Disney, Warne, Kelloggs, ASIFA, DreamWorks, Pixar, Blue Sky. All rights reserved by their various holders.)


Erik Bongers said...

Obviously I agree completely, as could be expected from my previous comment.
I think in this last post you've given some good examples of 'lesser humanization' as opposed to the 'upper humanization' tendancy of hollywood.
You know, in Flanders (dutch speaking part of belgium) only animation movies are dubbed. All others have subtitles.
Now since the original english versions use very distinctive and often famous voices, the flemish translation does exactly the same.
You can clearly recognize the actors.
In fact, a new tendency is to let the actors use their local accent.
In American terms : you can clearly hear wich state they are from.
So we've eagerly taken over this focus on the voices.

But although I feel hollywood is 'overhumanizing' too much, they are extremely skilled at it. All those personalities are so very recognizable !

But I couldn't eat even my most favorite pudding every day of the week...
I want variation !

Erik Bongers said...

A little side-track question.
Do you actually ask permission for images you use on this blog, or do you assume that it can be considered an exception to copyright ?
Like 'fair use' or 'educational purposes' or so...
I guess a blog is not a commercial product like a book, or is it?

Unknown said...

Another really interestic exploration of this subject. I've just posted a new drawing with a mouse I tried to give emotional weight to without humanizing him. I'd love to know what you think.

Roca said...

Just some cartoon trivia: in the Dreamworks movie, "Spirit, Stallion of the Cimarron," the horses don't speak (although the flashbacks use the voice of Matt Damon) but show a decent range of expression and personality.

James Gurney said...

Meredith, thanks for reminding us of Spirit. I haven't seen it yet. Eric, great stuff--I sent you an email with more feedback.

Erik, it's really interesting to hear how they adapt the voices to foreign markets. I assume the box-office pull of famous actors is a part of the thought process. Regarding your question, I try to get permissions, but sometimes with big corporations it's impossible to find the person to ask, so I do everything I can to write an ownership tagline crediting the company as well as linking back. I trust that they don't mind their work shared in a non-commercial, educational context (I don't mind if my work is copied or discussed in that way either), but if they object and ask me to remove it, I will of course. Most of the 19thC art is in public domain from the, and I try to direct people to that website, and to extend my appreciation to Fred Ross, who has compiled it.

Erik Bongers said...

Thank you for the quick response !
The art renewal site is indeed a great resource on classical painters.
I think I first heard of the art renewal site via the site...and of 'lines and colors' via your site...and your site via ?
Aren't we all jumpin' louse on the internet !

Anonymous said...

“Let me offer a thought, which is very much open to discussion. I wonder if the character creation process that is currently used in many studios is overly dependent on voice casting by famous actors. While many great characters have been created in this way, the process may limit the range of potential types of animal characterizations.

Animators may feel overly tied to the timing, delivery, and even facial expressions and gestures of a voice actor. That actor may or may not have any sense of the entertainment potential of the genuine animal he’s portraying.”

It’s true that much of today’s animation relies on the voice-overs of actors, and synching movements calls for the lines to be recorded first. I suppose I’ve never thought of it as hindering the animator; I’ve always thought it was in fact aiding them. It’s also true that this depends on the skill and dynamism of the actor, but generally I feel that the simple spoken lines and subtext give the animator a wide range of ideas and series of movements to try out. It was interesting to think of feeling restrained by an actor’s abilities; I never thought of that! It’s an interesting idea to think of animating first, then bringing in the voice actors. (as Studio Ghibli does.)

Anyway, my point is that animation is a team effort and I feel that part of it is working with what other people have to offer. So does it matter if the animators work off the actors? Or the actors off the animators? A fascinating idea.

And as an irrelevant endnote, I’d like to say I’m a recent avid reader of your blog and a longtime admirer of the Dinotopia series. Thanks for giving your time to such an excellent daily experience.

Victor said...

I think America is just really obsessed with celebrity and that obsession has bled over into every aspect of culture. Animation studios are thus compelled to have big names voicing their characters even if the recognition becomes distracting. You could have a really thoughtfully designed animated dog that has the perfect balance between human and animal characteristics, but that design work is inevitably undermined when all you picture is Will Smith when the dog opens his mouth (even if the designing was carried out without Will Smith being the character's voice in mind).

ZD said...

Recently movies have relied on verbal storytelling more than visual storytelling. That's why I'm excited to see wall-e, a movie that will have very few human voice actors. I know wall-e won't be an animal, but animating a robot is probably the same type of challenge because the character must be far from human yet still possible to relate to. Like animals, most robot characters are made humanoid. I agree that making things humanoid when they don't have to be limits some of the creative potential of the character.

It's great how the dinotopia animals have a personality without having expressions that are exactly human. Animals that look human are interesting too, but the characters that retain their animal identity are more unique and they are pretty uncommon in every medium.

James Gurney said...

ZD, I'm looking forward to Wall-e, too. R2D2 proved that we can have sympathy for a completely non-humanoid object--it all depends on a good story.

Thanks for your compliments on Dinotopia. Of course it's easier for me to portray realistic dinosaurs and also have them speak because I'm not animating them. I'll probably do a future post on dinosaur characters, which offer more opportunities because we haven't actually seen living dinosaurs as a reality check.

And Victor and Erik, I agree with you that the well-known screen actor's voice can sometimes distract me from thinking of the character I'm looking at. I'm glad I never saw Mel Blanc, who voiced Bugs Bunny, because his voices perfectly inhabited every one of those Looney Tunes characters.

Natalia, I appreciate all your thoughtful comments, especially about Miyazaki's studio. I didn't realize he recorded sound after the animation.

Maggie Stiefvater said...

I love what you said about animal characters retaining their out and out animallyness for humor and effect. I thought they did a nice job in Ratatouille but I've been less thrilled with a lot of other recent productions.

I agree that modern animation is so focused on being in sync with the huge personalities of the voices behind the screen that we lose a lot of the charm of simpler animations -- take Winnie the Pooh for instance. The old version of Pooh, closer to the book, is charming and very animal. The new Winnie the Pooh is much more human and mainstream -- and far less charming. Even my toddlers prefer the old one.

tlchang said...

This is all a very interesting and timely for me, discussion. I'm currently working on a young reader series which is treading a very fine line between realism and 'humanizing' of its main characters (which happen to be 'magical' horses). The horse anatomy is being minutely and critically checked with the emphasis on realism, while at the same time, they want quite human emotions (with no eyebrows! which was how "Spirit" got away with horse-emoting) and some fairly non-horse-like behavior. It is being a most interesting challenge. I have been appreciating your thoughts and the other comments on this subject!

Jamie said...

I see on your page: you have a link to . Please note this site has been off line for approximately 18 months.

You may like to amend you link to point to the dedicated (and live) Norman Lindsay website



James Gurney said...

Thanks, Jamie. I've connected with the new link.

David Wolter said...

Hi James -

I've just stumbled across your blog while searching for Heinrich Kley's work. Wonderful, insightful post, and a wealth of resources besides.

I've been working on an animal character project on my blog and feel like I've failed completely by making my characters thinly veiled human surrogates, simply because it was less work. I'll definitely approach it differently next time. Thanks for your thoughts.

James Gurney said...

David, thanks for the kind words. I'm glad you're enjoying the blog, and I appreciate your "Tallville" posts as well. Keep up the great work.

LydiaFabian said...

hi there im currently on my first year at Ravensbourne on the Animation course.

we have to produce an essay in anything of our chosing within animation

i was intrigued with how animal characters have been humanized for the viewing audience.

I was wondering if you could perhaps offer me any links or books i could look to which would help me on my way?

I've jsut been reading this page and the other one which i have found so interesting! Also noticed how i have oh sooo much to learn lol


James Gurney said...

This is James' wife just letting you know that he has been gone all month in North Africa, and won't be able to get back to you, to answer your questions. I expect him back by the end of this week.
I don't know when your essay is due. I'll try to remind him when he's back.
-Jeanette Gurney

LydiaFabian said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
LydiaFabian said...

Hi again, do you have any books i could refer to that i could read up on involving anthropomorphism in animation?


James Gurney said...

Hi, Lydia, The best book is The Illusion of Life by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson, two of Disney's "Nine Old Men."

Other than that, I'm not sure what other books might be available. There's also a great website archive:

Good luck!

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