As a fan of animation, I’ve embraced the digital era, but my enthusiasm for mainstream three-dimensional CGI has been waning for some time. It seems like computer animated films (shorts as well as features) can increasingly be divided into two groups: those that explore the potential of the medium, and those that settle for a more commercially established, “photorealistic” (but artificially pristine) synthetic verisimilitude, offering one toy story after another. Given this trend, it’s exciting to see digital animators returning to the roots of visual design–graphic art, illustration, and painting–to create films that are less interested in simulating realities than providing unique experiences with line, color, and texture.
Two new films set a new bar for digital animation: Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues (which I saw at the REDCAT earlier this week) and Michel Ocelot’s Azur and Asmar (a 2006 film released on DVD in the UK that opens in New York City on Friday). Although Ocelot’s film represents his first venture into 3D animation, the creator of the charming Kirikou films still prefers a flat, decorative, largely two-dimensional aesthetic that emphasizes patterns and textures over dimensional space. The idea of animation as a graphic art dates back to the earliest experiments in the medium, but as a setting for narrative features, it was first seen in Lotte Reiniger’s thrilling The Adventurers of Prince Achmed (1926), a silhouette film Ocelot himself paid heavy tribute to in Princes and Princesses (recently released on DVD).
Despite their similar accomplishments (including the fact that both films bring ancient myths to life), the two films are substantially different. Paley’s is a solo production made with high-resolution Flash animation that’s geared for adults (but it’s colorful and whimsical enough that many children may not even register the marital fidelity themes). Ocelot’s is a family film commercially produced in France, and it’s a straightforward epic about heroes on a mythic quest (but with anti-colonial and multicultural themes that will impress adults). Structurally, Paley’s film is more experimental and Ocelot’s is more accessible, but both films feature dazzling graphic visualization and detail.
Apparently conceived during a crisis in cartoonist Paley’s life after her husband left her for a job in India, Sita Sings the Blues layers together music she was listening to at the time (1920s jazz tunes by Annette Hanshaw), the Hindu myth of Ramayana (shades of Garin Nugroho’s Opera Jawa), and her own autobiography. The three strands form an aesthetic braid of styles–a clever collection of shapes and caricatures for the musical segments, scanned watercolor paintings and Indonesian shadow puppets for the narration of Rama and Sita’s tragedy, and jittery, minimalist line art for modern events. (There’s also a highly expressionist sequence involving a rotoscoped dancer that’s rendered with a great deal of intensity and graphic embellishment.)
The graphic invention of the film is constant, with stylized illustrations forming ever-changing backgrounds for a pageant of eccentric characters–including holy men, a multi-headed demon king, an army of monkeys, even Mother Earth–and all of them are respectfully but playfully depicted. Paley can’t resist adding comical, contemporary touches to the fable’s gender archetypes (particularly as they apply to her personal story) but she never adopts a condescending attitude toward the material. Even more fun is the ongoing dialogue between the shadow puppets (another Reiniger homage?), lip-synched to a lively, spontaneous recapitulation of the myth by Indian friends with competing memories and interpretations; Paley animates every recollection and half-remembered clarification, “erasing” and adding as needed, mirroring the entertaining wordplay.
In the end, like the erratic musings of our daydreams, the masala elements are emotionally fused into a cohesive whole; even the film’s self-referential ending compliments the circular form of Hindu cosmology. It’s an utterly unique film, an epic accomplishment for an individual artist using home computers and widely available software.
Ocelot’s narratives tend to be culturally specific morality tales told with distinct clarity, and Azur and Asmar is no exception. The title characters are young boys, one white and privileged and the other dark-skinned and the son of the nanny who raises them. The boys are playfully competitive but they’re separated by their class for many years; when they eventually reunite (searching for a legendary fairy), the long years of separation have fostered genuine tension. Like Kirikou, the preternaturally intelligent African baby hero of Ocelot’s previous films, Azur and Asmar rise to a series of challenges–both moral and physical–and the plot unfolds with little fuss or intrigue, reaching its denouement with straight-arrow determination.
Influenced by Persian miniatures and Renaissance paintings, Ocelot visualizes the film through highly decorative backgrounds filled with intricate textures; the digital tools are used to increase the details, filling fields with thousands of carefully drawn flowers or the hallways of palaces with ornate tapestries that frame the action like illustrated manuscripts. Whenever possible, figures are composed laterally, sometimes in silhouette, and even the settings are flattened and transformed into highly pictorial, two-dimensional evocations of nature. Ocelot uses his own visual “braiding,” combining flat costumes with 3D hands and faces with intricate jewelry rendered in multifaceted, sparkling detail. The effect is one that’s closer to a handsome storybook than a mainstream CGI film, lending the narrative a significant degree of visual enchantment.