Does CGI lack soul?

So it seems Toy Story 3 won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature (as well as receiving three other nominations and one other win).

I know there are some Toy Story fans here, but I’ve never been hooked by the franchise. Among other factors, the images themselves have always felt pretty cold and artificial. I have seen parts of it, including a sequence that was linked from this board as a particularly affecting one (a reaction I understood, but didn’t feel enough to watch any of the TS movies in entirety).

Anyway, cartoon historian Michael Barrier was interviewed here, just before the Awards.

I think I agree with him that the inorganic nature of CGI production, in which the direct hand of the artist is removed from the details of the image, removes a quality that fans of classic old hand-drawn animation rightfully cherish.

On the other hand, I’m skeptical about the conversion of this position into the idea that the emotions evoked by CGI-rendered stories are “dishonest” or “synthetic.”

Thinking of an analogy with music… I love really organic acoustic music, either live or in good one-take recordings, where you can hear all the individual qualities and “imperfect” variances in the players, the instruments, even the room. Those qualities are a particular artistic dimension that is simply not present in music that relies on computer synthesis and studio manipulations. Yet–I like a lot of that music, too. People can do things with computers that they can’t do with fiddles and guitars (as well as vice-versa). The emotions electronic music evokes (when it’s good, of course) are different, but they’re still honest, aren’t they?

Of course, all sorts of films can be guilty of heavy-handing the emotional aspect of their stories. That’s certainly not only a product of the selected production technique, though it’s easier to be delicate in some forms than others. Barrier may be right that Up is manipulatively sentimental, but is it because it’s CGI? And does it mean anything different than if it were a manipulatively sentimental live-action film?

He has some further thoughts here, on his own site.

All movies are deliberately emotionally manipulative. (I would extend this to saying that all art is deliberately emotionally manipulative.) That is part of the reason for storytelling.

I think this reviewer is showing his prejudices. It does not matter if the play is acted out with live persons, puppets, hand-drawn or computer generated images, the audience MUST be manipulated into sympathizing with the characters if any catharsis is to be achieved. Heavy-handedness is the fault of the creator, not the medium.

I don’t get it. How is the opening to “Up” any more manipulative or ‘strong armed’ than, say, the ending of “The Iron Giant” or Futurama’s “Jurassic Bark”?

CGI is just a tool, like any other. The problem arises not from the fact that it inherently has no soul, but from the fact that, like any other new tool, its use can detract creators from displaying soul in their creations.

I disagree. I think lots of art leaves its emotional interpretation open to the audience, whereas the referenced scenes are intended to have only one “correct” reaction.

Interestingly, Barrier seems not to have liked The Iron Giant much, but found the CGI of the giant himself to be the best part.

This sounds like the opinion of someone who was raised on “traditional” animation. I’m 32, so traditional and CGI animation have been dominant for approximately equal halves of my life, and I would never think to say that one is “soulless” or lacks emotional connection. I don’t see why someone’s hand-drawn image would be more emotionally connecting than something that’s rendered on a computer. If anything, hand-drawn animation looks more “cartoonish” and as a result it would lead to less of an emotional response.

New tools are harder to infuse with ‘soul’ if only because the mechanism is so much easier to manipulate to create an effect. That is to say, when you have trained for decades to be able to effectively sketch a face with pencil in various emotive positions, you have a particular style that you use. No two artists draw a face the same way. With CGI, especially when using preset primitive forms such individuality, the nuances of the artist’s expression can be overwhelmed with the facility by which a face can be effectively rendered. Time pressure being what it is, adding the special details that make each face individual may fall by the wayside.

But as time goes by, CGI will be used more effectively and the ‘soul’ will be reinserted into the medium. Or so I hope most sincerely.

Depending upon how the CGI is created, the hand of the artist is often not removed from the details.

For the film Species, they created a jointed and computer-linked maquette figure to encode the motions. The animators thus had as much contact with their image as Ray Harryhausen had with his animation models. And plenty of critics have noted that Harryhausen’s animations have a sense of “soul”.

Andy Serkis went even further in his performances of Gollum and King Kong, wearing a bodysuit which captured his motions. He really directly “performed” those characters, and it shows.
I don’t think that Pixar’s creations lack soul – they choreograph even slight movements and bits of business. Computer imaging, in fact, gives them much greater capability to do this than traditional animators had – for Harryhausen, a single bad frame or a blown light could ruin an entire scene. Computer animators can go back and eliminate a bad frame. For a Disney or Fleischer artist, n awkward animated sequence would have to be laboriously redrawn and in-betweened. In the computer era, the scene is stored as a digital file and can easily be reworked, rather than going back to scratch.

No, CGI doesn’t “lack soul”. It is a medium, different from previous media, with its own advantages and problems. How well it performs is a function of the artist working on it. The sweeping generalizations of the OP are completely unwarranted.

I completely disagree with the author’s premise. CGI can pack plenty of soul into it’s creations. Like any medium there is a lot of crap out there but the one’s who can do it right (Pixar) fill their creations to the brim with soul.
Look at the basic character of Woody. A computer animated cowboy doll on the surface. How they managed to turn that into a deeply complex character who’s oh-so subtle facial expressions convey multitudes of emotions (fear, jealousy, elation, anger, doubt, love) is amazing to me. I can’t even find a traditional animation example that comes close to what Woody accomplishes with soul.

Speaking of Harryhausen, “Monsters, Inc” had plenty of soul even disregarding the more schmaltzy parts.

I haven’t seen Iron Giant, and thus can’t comment on it, but the main difference between Up’s opening and Jurassic Bark, IMO, is that Up worked.

I like Karl and Ellie. I was sad when they were sad, I laughed at silly business like his tie, and the balloon cart. The whole sequence did what it was supposed to do and did it well.

Jurassic Bark…didn’t effect me at all. In fact, on later watchings, it actually made me angry, because, even WANTING to be effected (because, dammit, Seymore’s Hachiko impression is The Most Saddest Thing Ever!), I could see every string that they were pulling.

What we are seeing here is yet another example of Sturgeon’s Law in action. 90% of computer animation is crap, because 90% of everything is crap. The 10% that’s done well, though, like the Iron Giant, is still good stuff.

The only problem with computer animation is that it’s still a new enough medium that that 10% is still a fairly small number of works, so they can be more easily overlooked.

I agree with this. The characters in Pixar movies have “souls” because their creators put a lot of effort into making them people that we care about. T Rex in Jurassic Park was scary (does it hold up now?) because a lot of efffort was made into making him huge and imposing.

Contrast that with some godawful CGI motorcycle jumping up on top of a freight train in that one godawful CGI motorcycle movie that came out many years ago (forgive me for not looking that one up). It’s a stupid scene in a bad movie that would leave anyone snorting in disbelief.

I think Michael Barrier has a point, CGI is a bit of a shortcut because it’s easier to manipulte the images and to create things. That’s where deft storytelling comes in.

Sturgeon’s Law + a healthy dose of “In MY day…” old person curmudgeonliness.

Is The Iron Giant computer animation?

I wonder if Barrier has a similar problem with Disney animated features before they started using xerographic transfer in the early 60’s. Prior to 101 Dalmatians the audience never saw what the animator drew on paper. They were seeing an anonymous inker’s *tracing *of what the animator drew. Inking was an industrial assembly-line process that increased the emotional distance between the artist and the viewer. In fact, you could probably argue that modern computer animation techniques allow a closer connection between creator and audience than old-school cell animation – particularly the cell animation techniques used from the 30’s through the 50’s.

That’s much what I was thinking. Guys like this seem to think that animation was done by dedicated artists sweating and agonizing over every frame. Not the assembly line style work of some underpaid guy who never saw or cared about the finished product.

What an incoherent mess.

I am a fan of animation of all stripes, and well remember holding the opinion that 3D computer animation was vastly inferior to all other forms., but twenty years have changed a lot.

As it happens, I was rooting for L’illusioniste and was a bit disappointed that the third installment in the Toy Story franchise won out of it - but I don’t agree with him at all. Medium is medium.

One thing is for sure, I would have spent more time trying to puzzle out exactly what he meant by his criticism of Pixar animation as artificially manipulative if he didn’t hold up Disney studios as an example of how to evoke emotion “honestly.” As it is, I regret spending as much time as I did reading it.

The titular Iron Giant himself is. The rest of the characters are handdrawn. The integration is near seamless. Very charming movie.

Apparently Michael Barrier is a jackass.

I’m 50 years old, have a deep love of classic animation and a solid understanding of both 2D and 3D animation. And apparently I understand a lot more about both than Michael Barrier. Windsor McKay hand animated every single frame of Gertie the Dinosaur - and may well have been not only the first artist to animate every frame of a character, but the last.

He needs to watch some “Behind the Scenes” features on Pixar’s production process. It starts with hand-drawn story boards and the writers acting out each part. Once the storyboards pass muster, they record a temp soundtrack and make an “animatic” of the storyboard drawings, shot with a camera stand. Only when the story and the emotional arc of the characters works do computers get involved. The character design involves physical models, or maquettes. Again, the characters have to be appealing and expressive as physical models before they are digitized.

Some people on the team build hair and clothes, some do lighting and textures, some do effects and physics. But the animators animate. They don’t concern themselves with the hair, clothes, lighting, texture or effects…and they only worry about the physics of the character’s relationship with the world. They concentrate on movement and emotion. They might be animating a set of block stand-ins, or a low-resolution version of their characters all in smooth white, or a roughly colored version. But they are animating. Pixar takes animators and teaches them how to use their computers - most could grab a pencil and a stack of paper and convey the same story.

This jackass disparages UP? That film would have been equally emotionally moving whether hand-drawn, stop motion, CGI, whatever.

Fuck him.