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:

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:

 “Anything else?”
“Anything else?”

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:

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:

 “This place is pretentious.”
“This place is pretentious.”

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.

Movie Watchin’ Dad

Something I’ve heard from many parents is that they don’t get to see any movies for the first year of parenthood. Maybe it’s because I’m a movie buff, but I’ve made a concerted effort to keep movies in my life despite having a one year old. In fact, I saw Gravity in theaters after Maddie’s first month (taking turns with Valerie to see it on alternate nights). Sure, I only watched one more movie in 2013 (Bernie), which was…okay), but in 2014 I’ve so far averaged at least 3 movies a month. I’ve watched 39 unique movies, 7 in theaters (Guardians of the Galaxy) twice). Pretty good, I’d say.

I think I’ll watch number 40 this afternoon.

All is Lost

Tonight I finally got around to watching All is Lost. This is the second feature from writer and director J. C. Chandor (a Jersey boy!), and whoa Nelly, is it fantastic. I can’t remember the last time I watched a movie so purely concerned with visual storytelling – so fully taking advantage of the medium. And Robert Redford proved that he’s still one of the best with a nearly wordless performance none the less full of emotional intensity.


Little Miss Sunshine

I just rated Little Miss Sunshine 3 of 5 stars on my Netflix account. The automated system suggested I would give 4.5 stars, and indeed, I anticipated the movie as something within the bounds of my ever more snobby taste.

Before I continue I have to say that the acting was excellent. From Steve Carell to Alan Arkin, the performances depicted characters, not merely the cast.

The rest of the movie, disappointingly, began to feel contrived about halfway in. Now if you haven’t seen the film and want to judge for yourself, I suggest you stop reading, because I’m about to give away some details.

Still here? Okay.

I was fine with the travails of the Hoover clan as they drove on from New Mexico to California, Until Arkin’s character died in Arizona. It’s not so much the death that bugged me – rather, the family decides to plug on to Redondo Beach and sneak the body of Grandpa out the window of the hospital. And put him in the back of the Microbus. And drive his corpse through the desert to Cali-for-ni-a so they won’t miss little Olive’s beauty pageant. Did anyone else yell, “WTF?!?!” when that transpired? Am I the only one? I understand this is a movie, but it’s a movie with a script that takes place in the generally realistic present day world. Nothing up to this point prepared me for the dysfunctional family to turn suddenly and morbidly crazy. Nobody else in the traveling party put up much of a real fight against driving the remains of a family member through the desert just to make it to a beauty pageant.

Add to this a cop who doesn’t notice a dead body wrapped in a sheet in the back of the VW, a painful personal discovery for the older son Duane (because everybody on this Microbus of life has to suffer somehow), and the family dance on stage at the pageant, and you have a recipe for…well, it’s a recipe. And that’s the point. This film felt like it contained several elements of recent popular “Indie” film in America. Character driven story. Off-kilter humor. Non-mainstream sound track. Greater focus on cinematography. Heck, even I was delighted to hear not one, but TWO Sufjan Stevens songs in the film (well, one was during the end credits).

The wonderful acting, the characters, the film making – none of this, regrettably, can make up for the slightly cheated feeling I’m still experiencing as a result of the story and it’s palpably artificial plot constructs.

Here’s hoping that Gondry’s Science of Sleep leaves me better satisfied.