Mayerson: ‘Avatar’ is not an animated film

Mark Mayerson, noted animation historian and an instructor at Sheridan College, has written on the movie Avatar and motion capture in general.

In what we would all acknowledge as typical animated films (Snow White, Toy Story), animation is production, not post-production. In films that have animated elements added (Jurassic Park), animation is done in post-production. This may seem like an esoteric distinction, but it’s the difference between what is central to a production and what sweetens a production. I am not in any way dismissing the importance of post-production. A film’s music score has a huge impact on how the film affects audiences and certainly Jurassic Park’s impact depended tremendously on the quality of the dinosaur animation, but in each case, the post-production elements are driven by what has already been shot.

9 thoughts on “Mayerson: ‘Avatar’ is not an animated film

  1. It’s a fine line as a film like avatar while not 100% animated, uses animation central to the movie … a.k.a. more than just post production (per Jurassic Park). Looks like it’s time for a new category … hybrid films or something like that.

  2. Academically this is correct, and I agree. Though academics rarely has any real affect in the real world. I can say this I have several friends either with Doctorates or getting them.

    Functionally though all you need is a stop watch and time how much of the movie is spent with actors in front of a camera and how much time is spent in a completely digital world to have the concept fall a part that it’s not an animated picture.

    I agree Rich, given the either / or choice I think this is actually a new kind of category that I think is the first or many kinds of films like it. Not about Avatar, but I had this thought in regards to Alice in Wonderland where half of the person is filmed, the head is them but tripled in size (like the queen) and there’s as much CGI characters running around along side people originally flimed in front of a camera but standing in front of a green screen.

    What category is that?

    So yeah I’d say it’s a new category.

  3. Actually, 3D motion capture is very akin to the old classical animation technique called “rotoscoping” …

    (essentially, it’s “tracing” directly over a filmed sequence)

    Mayerson’s article fails to address this point. After all, Disney animators employed rotoscoping in Snow White, Cinderella, and other films (although limited and quite well considering the technology used at the time!).

    For other sequences, the old Disney artists studied motion in filmed sequences so closely that, although the characters we see in the final film are cartoon, their anticipations, squashes, stretches, and follow-throughs very closely resemble the reference shots.

    3D motion capture is just a new way of doing the same old trick.

  4. Thanks, Charles. Interesting that he used “Snow White” as an example in both of these articles, yet in support of two different sides of the same argument 🙂

  5. This is a really tough call when one tries to maintain a bibliography on animation. Basically everything has some CGI element today, but you’ve got to draw the line somewhere. On first glance, I like this line.

  6. So I guess a film like “Mary Poppins” or “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” would fall into the “post-production” category in his dichotomy…?

    In the end, it’s going to take the skills of a character animator to make the film work the way it’s supposed to.

  7. I’m afraid I don’t find this argument very compelling. It seems to me that what you are calling “production” in the case of Avatar- recording motion capture- is more of less the same as the recording of the soundtrack for an animated film. You seem to be saying that such sound recording is some sort of pre-production in a typical animated film and that the actual generating of the images for an animated feature is the production. If this is the case, then why wouldn’t we consider motion capture in the same way? Surely you don’t want to make the argument that something like Beowulf or the recent Christmas Carol aren’t animated films, yet they would fall into the category of live action under your definition.

    I think a lot of folks are confusing the idea that if there is some live action in a film then it’s a live action film. I think there are some films, such as The Incredible Mr. Limpet or James and the Giant Peach, that have a bit live action in them but are clearly animated films.

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