Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

It's What's On The Screen That Counts

By Dennis D. McDonald

Animation expert Michael Barrier's comments about Monster House and Through a Scanner Darkly are so different from mine that I thought I would comment here.

First, a disclosure: I'm not in the business. I'm just a fan. I've loved animated films since my childhood. I continue to be fascinated with all forms of animation, from classic hand drawn work through stop motion based on clay models. If the story and characters are good, I love it, no matter what the technology. I am fascinated with the technical processes, but they are always secondary to the overall impact of the film.

For me, crowning achievements of animation include Miyazaki's Spirited Away, the short Wallace and Gromit films, Brad Bird's The Incredibles, and the glorious outer space visions of Mission to Mars. The CGI of Jackson's King Kong is, in my opinion, the current pinnacle of that art form. And I love to see genres bent in unexpected ways; Sylvain Chomet's Triplets of Belleville and Mamoru Oshii's Avalon are wonderful examples that challenge expectations.

Back to Michael Barrier. He is negative about both Monster House and Through a Scanner Darkly. If I understand his comments, he feels that the technical production processes detract from rather than add to the quality of the films. 

Monster House relies on motion capture technology to generate character movement, then CGI based skin and body covering are overlaid.  Through a Scanner Darkly starts with rotoscoping with animated covering.

Each pushes the technology, with Monster House using CGI to totally create character movement that is then manipulated by computer in a 3 dimensional way that is impossible to do with live camera work. Yet it sticks to the story and to the characters without going into too many purely technical examples of brilliance that end up suffocating the story the way, say the exhaustingly kinetic animation and movement of Katsuhiro Ôtomo's Steamboy kill off any connection we might have with the characters or situation.

Monster House may look to the uninitiated a lot like a "traditional;" animated film but, the more I learned about the production process, the more I was impressed with how the basics of real live performances were captured and the nuances of their performances were allowed to show through the "cartoony" appearance of the characters. Watching how the opening sequence with the little girl on the tricycle was produced made me even more impressed with how the production team used the technology to serve the story. "Masterful" is how I would describe it.

Through the Scanner Darkly in some ways is even more impressive.  Individual actor performances show through the thick dawn overlays on top of rotoscoped character movement; Robert Downey Jr. especially shines. Add to this the totally unique appearance of "scramble suits" and a unique vision is thus presented to the audience.

Could both of these films have been made using more traditional techniques? Yes. Could they have been as effective or more effective using more traditional techniques? Maybe, but that would depend on the artists. That's like asking if The Incredibles had been directed by someone other than Brad Bird would it have been as good. It's a purely hypothetical question.

In the final analysis, it's what shows up on the screen that counts, and in the case of both Monster House and Through a Scanner Darkly we have examples of both traditional and state of the art techniques being applied to art in ways that are original yet in service to the story and the artists' vision. I like that.





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