Working without Actors - creating a world which expresses character and emotion.
About ten years ago, I worked as a story editor on a series of animated adaptations of the novels of Jules Verne for a French company. We adapted six different stories over 13 half hours, and worked with some very talented writers: Brian Finch, Martin Jameson, and Fabrice Ziolkowski. My writing partner, Andrew Offiler, and I adapted one of Jules Verne’s lesser known books, La Jangada (800 Leagues Down The Amazon).
One of the main characters spent some time locked in a cell in a fortress in the jungle, and I was faced with the problem of how to show both what sort of person he was, and what he was feeling. The style of the series was very naturalistic, so my options were limited. A solitary character in a locked room is not ideal for animation, for all the reasons I have given in previous blogs. I wasn’t going to make him talk to himself, or talk to camera, or create a voice over to explain what was happening to him. I draw the line at that sort of on the nose writing. The idea that animation is a visual medium and that I should be showing, not telling, is too deeply ingrained.
I could, I suppose, have created a pet for him to talk to, as in the BirdMan Of Alcatraz, but there would have been the danger of creating a monologue in disguise. In the film, of course, the birds become a symbol of hope and generation for Burt Lancaster. Through the birds, we get a feeling for what the Birdman is feeling. In La Jangada, I decided to use some of the insects inhabiting his cell to act out the conflict going through his mind, and dispensed with dialogue altogether.
Filmmakers have always used images metaphorically. At its crudest, we have all seen sex scenes illustrated with cutaways to trains going through tunnels, nuclear explosions, fireworks, etc. much is made of dream sequences, particularly in Hitchcock films.
Sometimes we get a feeling for what the characters are going through from the weather conditions, the sets, the colours, environment, etc. Blade Runner is a great example of how the world depicted, with its overcrowding, constant rain, and muted colours tell you of the oppressive existence of its characters. In Film Noir, shots through railings to create shadows that look like the bars of a cell are almost clichéd.
There are budget restrictions in animation as there are in live action, of course, but animation gives you many possibilities that are simply not available in live action. You can make a spider wind a fly in its web and put it aside to eat later. To my knowledge, spider wranglers do not exist. Blood that drips down a wall can take the shape of a face, a gun, etc.. The sky can turn from blue to grey, or even red, at will. Of course, live action movies do this too, but almost always with an animated effect. Most visual effects artists are, in fact, animating.
Using images as metaphors for what people are feeling is an important element of animation, and offers an exciting alternative to the skills of an actor.
Next week: Doing the work of the cameraman and editor. How the process of animation influences what you write.