“Tangled” and the Role of 3D Animation

(Warning for English majors: my conventions for writing titles changed arbitrarily somewhere in the middle of writing this, and I’m not entirely sure what to do about fixing it.  A bunch of things that should probably be in italics are in quotes, and a bunch of things that should probably be in quotes simply aren’t.  Me and the MLA Handbook are not friends.)

I think it’s safe to say that the dominant evolution in animation during my lifetime has been the increasing role of computers in various elements of the process.  Apparently Pixar’s first animated short came out the same year as I was born, and now today fully CGI movies are standard, you practically can’t make 2D animation, or even stop-motion, without a computer’s help any more, and even Flash has become a legitimate medium for film.

Which has been a very conflicting journey for me.  Computer animation has the capacity to do incredible things.  But it also has the capacity to act as a crutch and allow people to do horrible things without realizing it.  If you don’t believe that, go up to any Star Wars fan and use the term “special-edition.”

One of my biggest problems with computer animation is the use of CGI models in otherwise-2D scenes.  Go watch “Anastasia” and pay close attention to the music box: now that I’ve pointed it out to you, you’ll probably find it a lot more annoying.

This came to mind because I had a Facebook discussion with some people about the merits of “Tangled,” a movie whose production almost felt to me to be a forfeit by Disney to this new world of only 3D animation.  I’m hoping this is a temporary thing, because although I thought that “Tangled” did a lot of things well and represents the biggest step forward for animated films since “The Little Mermaid,” I think it also clearly illustrates why we need both 2D and 3D animation to exist.

There was a lot of hullabaloo about the production of “Tangled” being predicated by a close examination of the benefits of 2D and 3D, and how to best utilize both media and how to get all the benefits of both without the drawbacks of either.  “Tangled” didn’t do that.  What it did do was de-emphasize the drawbacks of 3D while creating creative solutions for simulating aspects of 2D.

This is (I’m guessing) why the music took more of a back-seat in this movie.  One of the drawbacks of 3D animation is that it’s hard to transition from one style to another without looking silly.  Look at older 2D movies, and the really big songs tended to involve stylized animation radically different from the rest of the movie.

Compare “Friend Like Me” from Aladdin to “Mother Knows Best” from Tangled.  Both use similar ideas of an amorphous darkened room where the singer seemingly creates props and set pieces from nowhere.  But Genie did more than that.  He manifested scenarios that didn’t belong anywhere near an Arabian Nights story.  He could do that because blending one 2D image with another, even if they’re of different styles, still “works.”  In Tangled, all of the Gothel-generated props were consistent with the setting of the tower.  My feeling is that if this had been 2D, someone would have said “hey, we’ve established that she knows magic, so let’s put in some more flashy effects.”

heck, getting away from Tangled, think of the finale music sequence for Shrek 2 in the ballroom.  This is probably the strongest attempt I’ve seen at replicating a 2D sequence’s flashiness, and it just pales in comparison.  Mind you, both songs succeed in other ways, but the big crazy effects seem to just not be possible in 3D (at least not yet, anyway).  Because you’re forced to use comparatively stiff models, you’re limited in how much you can deform any one element on screen before it’s unrecognizable, whereas 2D has a lot more wiggle room in that regard.

On the other side of things, one scene that particularly caught my interest was when Rapunzel first leaves the tower.  One of the first things she does is blow on a dandelion, sending its spores floating away.  Totally unimportant, and I don’t think I’d have paid it any attention if I hadn’t re-watched Beauty and the Beast for the first time since… my best guess is since I saw it in theaters as a kid, but I’m not sure.  What difference does that make?

There’s a similar sequence towards the beginning of B&B with Belle blowing the dandelion.  I was waiting for it specifically because I remember it really impressing me when I was… let’s go with 5.  Which is saying a lot for a movie that I otherwise considered at the time to be an icky girly movie about stupid things like love and magical roses and pretty dresses.  How I reconciled this with my absolute love for The Little Mermaid is currently a mystery to me.  I guess five year-olds are allowed to have double standards with that sort of thing.

Anyway, back to the dandelion, to which I paid closer attention than most people would.  In B&B, the dandelion is a 3D model, but a well-integrated 3D model.  However the spores in the wind are 2D.  The transition between the two has the capacity to look really bad, but how they made it work was by hiding the CGI model behind Belle’s hand as she blew, so you never had the 3D puff and the 2D spores on screen at the same time.  This workaround actually *improves* the scene, I think, but it’s still a workaround.

In Tangled, there is no transition.  The dandelion isn’t a CGI puff, it’s several CGI spores configured into a puff shape.  The spores merely separate into the wind when blown.  Admittedly, this is less impressive-looking, but it looks cleaner and doesn’t give you even the slightest reason to think about it too much before moving on to the next scene.

Maybe the future of animation is figuring out how to cleanly put a few of those 2D effects into 3D scenes.  Maybe it’s just the slow march forward of technology until these issues are no longer relevant and 3D outclasses 2D in every measure.  Oddly enough, in the two examples cited above I actually enjoyed more the “inferior” execution: where there were more limitations, the artists had to find creative ways to get around them, and this resulted in some cool-looking stuff.  So maybe the way to move forward is just by looking for the next obstacle to overcome and making the workaround for that obstacle look amazing until you can do what you wanted in the first place.

You always want to be able to do exactly what you envision in your head, but when you get to the point where you can do that the end-result looks stale.  Catch-22.  I hope animation studios continue to challenge themselves, even as they leave old obstacles in the dust.

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