I just watched a great film and a crappy film one after another: Episode 1 and Ratatouille. Episode 1 is traditionally blasted for Jar Jar Binks and a general stew of crappiness aside from that, and anything Pixar just gets a blanket statement about story, dreams, Renderman, etc.
But I noticed a very specific difference between the two in terms of story mechanics this time, which I think is the key to why Rat was great and Episode 1 didn't measure up to previous SW films: choice as a story mechanic.
There's a number of good films that put hard choices on the shoulders of characters. But in Ratatouille they go the extra mile: EVERYTHING is choice. Almost at NO point is Remy carried along by fate. He CHOOSES to break into the kitchen, to fix the soup, to go back and stick with Linguini, to let his family steal, soon and so forth. Choice is so big a part of the movie that even in the place when Remy is swept along by fate in the sewer early on, he's given an arbitrary choice of guessing which sewer pipe to go down. It's a meaningless choice, because he's guessing randomly, but it is nonetheless a choice, and therefore it carries emotional weight. As a result of all this choice, when it finally comes to the moment of truth, when Remy/Linguini have to rely on others and see if they're believed in, everyone else makes a choice, and it shows a lot of character for everyone involved: most leave, but the rat family finally believes in Remy, and Colette still believes in Linguini.
Compare this to Phantom Menace, in which the characters are almost nailed to a conveyer belt. Engine trouble FORCES (ha!) the heroes onto Tatooine. Watto's supply monopoly FORCES the heroes to deal with him. With no worthwhile currency, they are FORCED to look at Anakin as a solution. Jar Jar is FORCED to follow Qui Gon due to a life debt.
Sure, there's plenty of times where characters overcome odds in saber fights, podraces, etc, but they almost never made conscious, hard emotional decisions to be in those situations. The third act is the icing on the garbage cake: Metaphorically like all other parts of the movie, Anakin is forced into an auto-pilot starfighter that drags him into a situation where he saves the day. He has no heroic spirit or courage leading him to make choices others would fear. Similarly, Qui Gon's death is not a result of any internal, meaningful choice on anyone's part, especially Kenobi's or Qui Gon's. Instead, Obi Wan is forced into a spectator role, then afterward is just a dude fighting another dude. Imagine the guilt Obi Wan would feel if instead he made a bad decision, and that led to Qui Gon's death. Imagine the powerful message of love if Qui Gon sacrificed himself to save Obi Wan (as Obi Wan later does to save Luke, etc.). Less choreography, more choice please.
To analyze things further, compare Anakin (crappy hero) to Luke (good hero). Anakin does not succeed or fail by his choices, literally. In the new films we learn about a prophecy apparently meaning that Anakin's fate is already written in the stars. So who cares? WE knew he would be Darth Vader, and the reason he sucks is because apparently the Force new as well.
But Luke? Luke is a hero of choice, of decision. It's never "he's a good guy, he's the hero, just trust me." He's presented with potent, troubling decisions about his father, his loyalty, his friends and his greed. And in all these cases, he CHOOSES the light side, rather than arbitrarily have his decisions made for him. Same thing with Han Solo. Imagine how meaningless it would be for him to pick off Darth Vader in the end, if instead he was with Luke to start with, just blindly on the good guy's side.
But enough of that! Back to work with me. I should have my trial-finished 11-Second-Club animation completed tonight. Stay tuned!
I'm working on that 11-Second-Club animation right now, and I thought I'd say something (ha!) about lip-syncing. We only really had one or two classes at AIS involving lip-syncing, and I would argue that was good, because I do think it's takes a back seat role to physical body animation.
With that in mind, a lot of what I know about lip-syncing I figured out by actually animating lip-syncs, and I've found a lot of the stuff I learned coincides with what you're supposed to be doing. Here's one thing I've found to be truly important about lip syncing (and, blah, I always remember it 100 frames into animating...). With fast-talking dialogue, you have to understand how it slurs, because the slurred form is how you'll end up setting keys.
Right now I'm animating the following line: "And you want to call it a health problem." To mark this phonetically every time a unique syllable comes up in writing is ludicrous. You'd be doing this:
"Aah-nn-duh Yee-oo Ww-ah-nn-tuh tuh-ook Caaah-ll..." so on and so forth.
But when you slur it a bit, it comes out looking much more natural, because in fact we say 90% of things slurred.
"An Oooh Ah NN Ahk Ah it," so on and so forth.
The jaw is especially important. It opens and closes far less than we think. If you do it every time a new letter shows up, you'll get speed-racer talk.
So in conclusion, just like most animation, less keyframes is better, counterintuitive though that may be. Now hopefully by writing all this down, I'll remember it on frame 1 next time...
And for the sake of vanity, here's my own experiment: http://www.oscarts.org/production_03.html
As someone who has magical fantasies about someday dominating and mastering the indie/experimental animation market through a combination of bribes and demagoguery (only to be overthrown when I can't rig the vote...), it warms my heart that the modern landscape offers an opportunity for this medium which has been hitherto unknown.
A while ago I found an anniversary archive of Cal Arts experimental animation from over 20 years or something. The article flippantly mentioned that despite this robust portfolio, the school began discouraging experimental animation because it's, shall we say, practically unmarketable.
However, my generation has a much better opportunity to not only create experimental animation, but also profit from it. Here's what I think the major factors contributing to it are:
1. Internet distribution reaching a wide audience. How many people have seen Charlie the Unicorn? Ask this at a college, and you aught to hit at least 50%. Back in the day, you had to drop $50 on a festival submission fee so that 100 people could see your stuff. Now you can get it out there and build a rep without spending a dime via YouTube. Even better, a site like www.awntv.com or www.atomfilms.com lets you actually MAKE money off your cartoons through ad revenue. And even in the case of real-life viewings at film festivals and venues, you still have much better access; film festivals always have websites now, and it's far easier and less committing to hit "upload" than to send out a whole press package with a VHS tape. www.withoutabox.com offers a search engine that lets you submit a film to any film festival in the world, all from a central hub.
2. Technology. Back in the day, animation was great because it could tell any story and show anything possible through the pencil. Well, in modern day we essentially have a thousand new metaphorical "pencils" to explore looks, production techniques, stylistic approaches and motion methods. Flash, 3D, and After Effects mean that any video-oriented medium can be approached in a whole new way.
3. Exposure and learning resources. Distribution is terrific for the indie animator, but it's also great for the up-and-coming artist looking for a niche. Now when you're in school, there's a multitude of cartoons on YouTube that lets you hypothesize about your own ability to create such a cartoon. Similarly, you can easily find a number of great animations that are supplemented with tutorials, explanations, production focus, and a method of contacting the artist who created it.
4. It's hip to be square! Disney famously set the pace for years in the animation industry, setting standards for quality, convention and popularity. And even when projects like Yellow Submarine or Fritz the Cat would try and make elbow room for the weirdos, they were playing to a very small weirdo crowd. But in today's landscape, kids love finding the primordial, aberrant animation that you can't necessarily throw on Cartoon Network. And even then, often times you can, and when the demand is high enough it DOES get on Cartoon Network. A great example of this is Jason Reitman, director of Academy Award-winning Juno, who back in the day was posting stuff on AtomFilms. Clearly, there's people out there who dig this stuff, and an ever-increasing crowd that'll drop 90 minutes on this market rather than on some Pixar-imitating SFX-laden piece that is nonetheless devoid of style and substance.