Search This Blog

Saturday, October 26, 2013

The CG Princesses and Disney Animation

Look, there's been a lot of talk lately about how supposedly similar Anna and Elsa from Disney's upcoming animated feature Frozen look in comparison to Rapunzel in Tangled. And then that statement that a Frozen animator said that has mostly been taken out-of-context. Before pressing on, I highly recommend taking a look at this article real quick - just so you can fully follow along :)

I'll admit that I felt this way when I first saw those supposed "leaked posters" - but I pulled those images from my blog once I found out that Disney was requesting various site to remove said posters as they were fakes. Unfortunately, not all of the images were taken down, and mislead movie-goers are pulling up the pictures and crying foul.

Admittedly, both images were close to the final character designs, but still, they were unfinished. The public groaned over the similarity between princesses, but really, was that fair of us?

Before we tackle this question, we need to look at the official character designs and how they are translating to the screen.

Elsa Final Sketch
Anna Final Sketch

Anna, Elsa, and for your bonus enjoyment, Kristoff ;)

CG Film
I really love the original sketches. There's obviously a strong similarity between the initial concept art and the final CG designs, but as you can tell, the transition was not seamless. Both Anna and Elsa have rounder faces, and even their eyes are slightly different.

Now let's take a look at how Rapunzel translated from concept art to film.

Concept art

CG Advertising

Final film version

Now, I could pull tons of pictures and stick them side-by-side, but have any of you noticed the huge discrepancy between all of Rapunzel's supposed "looks?" I mean, just look at the CG advertising image and compare it to the final version. Rapunzel's eyes used to be set far wider apart. The advertising image was supposed to be the final "official" version of her, and still, it wasn't.

But now take a look at the concept art again. That was how Glen Keane designed her to look. Her features were sharper. She looked a little more mature. Her chin was smaller, etc.

Do you get the point that I'm trying to make here? The animators sketch up these beautiful designs, but when it comes time to entering it into the computer, those designs have to be altered. How something looks in 2D might not necessarily work once it is switched over to the 3D format. And once you start comparing those character designs, you notice differences between the princesses.

Yes, there is certainly a similar "look" going on. Disney is known for their traditional Disney Princess looks. Merida was a huge departure from that design element, but she was created by the Pixar team, not Walt Disney Animation. Her face is also very round, so CG naturally helped that along. Should Disney try to do something different? It's arguable that they should, but whenever they have, Disney has assessed that the films do not do as well at the box office.

So here's that infamous quote that everyone is fuming about right now:

Historically speaking, animating female characters are really, really difficult, ’cause they have to go through these range of emotions, but they’re very, very — you have to keep them pretty and they’re very sensitive to — you can get them off a model very quickly. So, having a film with two hero female characters was really tough, and having them both in the scene and look very different if they’re echoing the same expression; that Elsa looking angry looks different from Anna (Kristen Bell) being angry.”

Yes, that animator wasn't as careful with his words as they should have been (at least, not enough for the internet to quote him later.) Yes, both women and men alike are supposedly difficult to animate, as the classic Disney animators will say in many interviews that no one ever wanted to animate a prince, yet they were comfortable animating characters like the seven dwarfs because they didn't feel like they had to make them look handsome or pretty.

But the quote was taken out of context because the very reason this animator even said any of that was that he was explaining the difficulty of translating the original character designs into the CG format - which is why I've been showing you all the vast difference between sketch to final film designs.

But no, I do not think that these princesses and princes and whatever other supposed ingenue leads Disney comes up with need to look beautiful all the time. If they are to represent normal human beings that we can relate to, they need to express a full range of emotions.

I blame marketing, I truly do. It's why all of the princesses (Merida included, as the internet remembers) got sparkly sexy mess makeovers. It is reportedly what Disney makes more money off of, because little girls want all of their princesses to fit into the same world where they all have a similar look and could possibly be friends, even if it disconnects the characters from their own worlds.

They're afraid to have a single frame of Anna or Elsa look not-so-pretty, because they do not want these characters to end up being "tarnished" in any way. And while I would whole-heartedly prefer that they animate their heroes and heroines in a fully realistic manner, I understand their wariness. Because anyone could take a single frame from their film, upload it online and turn it into a meme that Disney may not be comfortable with.

That's probably not their primary fear, though. Their ultimate goal of marketing is to make little girls continue to love Disney Princesses, and because of that, marketing will always be obsessive with their appearance. They want these female characters to be so beautiful that these little girls will always want to purchase the dolls, dress up like them, etc. And since marketing likes to make them a set, their looks have to be "streamlined."

While that may be somewhat disheartening, here's the good news - marketing can't go back and change how a film is animated. Cinderella's ball gown in her classic film will always be white/silver - marketing cannot touch the film and make her dress blue.

This whole situation is pretty ironic. As I've noted here before, just a few weeks before Tangled was to be released, another Disney employee made a statement that was taken out-of-context. That Disney was supposedly never going to make another fairy tale again. That's not what he actually meant - what he was trying to say was that Disney had no interest in pursuing the little girl demographic with princess films, because apparently princesses didn't do well at the box office because Princess and the Frog was released at the same time as Avatar and the economy was in the middle of its nasty downturn. And then Tangled did well and the "boys club" (as Brenda Chapman aptly puts it) ate their words and pulled the Snow Queen project off of the shelf, which had been an on-again off-again production for a long time at Disney.

As hard as the boys club works, they still seem to not understand why Disney has become the powerhouse that it has. The two films that saved the Disney animation studio from closing were Cinderella and The Little Mermaid - and let's not forget the very first Disney animated feature film that starred Snow White, which was a huge success for the Disney company. They need to understand that it's so much more than just having pretty princesses make a nice doll set.

It's about having any female character to have a story center around her. Because most forms of entertainment star a male character, the male-to-female character ratio is generally 3-to-1, and at best, the female is just in a supporting romantic role, only there to romantically engage the male hero.

Traditionally, boys have had their superheroes. Yes, Marvel and DC have female superheroes as well, but do they get big-budget movies starring just them? Marvel's Avengers set, which has done tremendously well at the box office, only has one female heroine that has not even had her own movie. And let's face it...while Black Widow is awesome, her story is still greatly shrouded in mystery and her costume is a basic black leather catsuit which more than likely doesn't really help her all that much in combat. Over on DC's side, they've been working on a Wonder Woman film for years, and at this rate, it's just never going to happen because all of these big male executives are too chicken to finish the job.

So where does that leave female movie-goers, especially ones of the younger variety who wants toys and costumes to pretend that they are those characters because there is something inside of them that they aspire to be? Disney heroines often enter the picture, and these women generally emulate great compassion, dedication, dreams and fulfilling them. The female underdog that somehow, despite all of these obstacles thrown in her way, achieves her happy ending because she chooses to be brave and takes a risk to get there. Yes, they're beautiful and have wonderful dresses that many of us want to wear, but it's their story and their heart that connect with people all over the world.

But these marketing folks that are aiming to sell as much product as they can - and to a certain extent, many of the higher-ups at Disney - well, I don't think they realize that. Maybe the little boys want the toy cars because it gives the boys a sense of action and the cars are shiny, but personally, I connected with Cinderella because the world was often cruel to her and she continually responded with kindness and her goodness granted her a happily ever after - not because she had a big ballgown and danced with a prince.

In any case, if marketing has this much control over the creative process - and believe me, they do certainly have some clout - then we as fans need to speak up. We can't just say that a statement is misogynistic (even when it is), because that's not going to change the creative process in animating these characters. We need to say that we want to see real human expressions, even if that means that a character is suddenly unattractive. That we want to see more realistic portrayals of humanity, even along with the nitty-gritty.

And maybe, just maybe, we need to stop untagging ourselves or deleting pictures where we ourselves do not feel that we look "perfect." Maybe we all need to recognize that perfection is truly in the eye of the beholder, and that perhaps it is time to practice what we preach when we tell little girls that they do not have to look a certain way to feel good about themselves. Because until that happens, quite honestly, none of this is going to change.

1 comment:

  1. Nice article! I love disney but have steered away from seeing this (and last few releases) due to the animation which makes me cringe. The concept art is fantastic and I would have loved to have seen that rather than the grotesque, polished, strangely proportioned final product. Clearly I'm in the minority as the film is a huge success. I simply have no desire to go