We’ll Always Find a Way

Tonight I finished watching Steven Universe. I cried because it was the end of something magnificent, beautiful, and original. I started watching the series only a few weeks ago with my kindergartner daughter and we promised not to watch any of it without the other. This quickly became a personal challenge, because I fell hard for this little work of visual and narrative art, told 11.5 minutes at a time. But I kept my end of the bargain, and it became a wonderful shared piece of culture for my kid and myself.

My 3-year-old son fell for it because, well, it's a cartoon with sight gags, action, wonderfully catchy music, and a striking visual style that's more detailed than it looks. My wife fell for the show for reasons that many adults (and me) surely do: the characters are richly developed and experience change over the course of five seasons. The overarching story and many smaller plots deal with complex emotional situations, evolving relationships, and heavy existential questions.

I love that Steven seeks to resolve conflict by also seeking to understand his opponents. I love the occasional homage to other TV shows (particularly some animated classics). I love the love-personified that is Garnet. I love that while most of the Crystal Gems have weapons, Steven has a shield. I love Connie, and Lion, and yeah, eventually Lars, too. I love the way music and dance are woven into the fabric of the show and its imaginative world. I love that such a deep, artful piece of entertainment could survive for five seasons on the Cartoon Network.

There's supposed to be a made-for-TV movie this fall, and I will try to be optimistic about it. I'm not sure what story is left to tell after the finale of season five, but I'm so into Steven Universe after inhaling it that I'll trust show creator Rebecca Sugar to deliver something meaningful. After all, she's why the people of this world believe in Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl...

...and Steven.

Animating Performance

...if you stop any frame it looks like a [comic] panel.

—Patrick O'Keefe, one of two art directors on Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, via Polygon

I've seen variations on that quote all over the place, and I completely agree. Frame by gorgeous frame, Spider-Verse is a comic book in motion. But it's not just the gorgeous comic book homage that makes this one of my favorite movies in recent years. Of course Spider-Verse deserved its Oscar for Best Animated Feature. But I feel like that's one of two narrow lenses through which people view this movie even if they're a fan: it's a cartoon (however innovative), and it's a comic/superhero movie (however different from the MCU).

I could gush about so many elements of this film (The voice casting/acting! The humane dialog! The production design! The soundtrack! The sound design! The New York-ness of it all!), but I want to draw special attention to the "physical" performances. The animated behavior and characterization of people (or pigs, or robots) in Spider-Verse is what makes it a motion picture and not just a series of comic book panels. In comic books, single panels have to do a lot of visual heavy lifting to convey emotion and subtext. Spider-Verse has plenty of individual frames that could do the trick, but the animators really used the whole medium to create natural and affecting movement that supported the truly excellent voice performances.

One of my favorite examples is when Mile Morales listens to some quotidian Spider-Man advice. Sure, you could pick a great still frame to get a sense of how he's feeling:

  <img src="https://cdn.uploads.micro.blog/wp-content/149855/2019/03/e99bc-milesdisgust.png" alt="" />

But when you combine an animator's characterization and a whole team's understanding of how people emote, you can see Miles' disbelief transition into disappointment and disgust:

   [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="480.0"]<img src="https://cdn.uploads.micro.blog/wp-content/149855/2019/03/0ffaa-milesdisgust.gif" alt=" “Anything else?” " />  “Anything else?” [/caption] 

The still frame points us to the emotional response. But the movement—that simulated physical performance—helps us feel it through slumping shoulders, half-rolled eyes, and a subtle head shake.

Another great example happens when alt-universe Peter B. Parker arrives at the high-tech hideout of the story universe's Spider Man. Just look at how over-it he feels in a single frame:

  <img src="https://cdn.uploads.micro.blog/wp-content/149855/2019/03/5319f-peterdisgust.png" alt="" />

The performance really sells it, though. Alt-universe Peter already feels lost and defeated in his own world. Discovering that the story universe's hero had his own Bat—er, Spider Cave, is one more reminder that he'll never measure up to the perfect Parker:

   [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="480.0"]<img src="https://cdn.uploads.micro.blog/wp-content/149855/2019/03/0bfce-peterpretentious.gif" alt=" “This place is pretentious.” " />  “This place is pretentious.” [/caption] 

These simulated actors with their simulated performances do real work suspending disbelief, drawing viewers into the world of the movie, and connecting with the audience so they have a reason to care about the characters. When I try to figure out why Spider-Verse means so much to me, this is one of the reasons hinting at the bigger picture. This level of cinematic execution and attention to detail is rare (like, Fury Road or Arrival rare) and should be celebrated, and not just because it moves animation forward both technically and aesthetically. Spider-Verse is the result of a huge collection of artists firing on all cylinders, driving toward a common goal. I feel so lucky to see the result.