Year in Review 2006
The dough for this year's computer generated crackers was the animals-in-the-wild theme: from Disney's The Wild to Sony's Open Season. The latter, although weak storywise, featured mesmerizing IMAX 3D scenes that looked highly detailed and natural. In that sense, many of this year's CG films were successful: They delivered warm, convincing imagery that did not distract the audience with their mechanical, assembly-chain nature. This is due to both technological advancements and a new level of maturity for CG filmmakers with their medium.
However, the most significant films of the year, in my opinion, were ones that downplayed technique. Pixar's Cars did this in the CG feature arena; and far away, in the realm of independent filmmaking, Phil Mulloy made the satirical and minimalist The Christies: a 2D feature drawn on a computer tablet that started out as a series. Cars did not contain humanoid characters; it featured limbless cars as its heroes. This feature is an artistic accomplishment in CG filmmaking. The Christies is dialogue-heavy, drawn entirely in flat profile and devoid of backgrounds. It is as much fun to experience as a classic Simpsons episode for the very first time, if not more.
Perhaps Cars and The Christies, which are made under completely different circumstances, are passing along a similar, basic message: Just because we can create a flawless, naturalistic universe inside the computer doesn't mean we have to. The realization of this concept can help CG filmmakers to move their craft from the level of technical achievement to that of art.
As far as animation itself is concerned—creating movement frame by frame—2006 did not present any significant achievement. The year can be described as that of performance capture. Many features relied on actors to generate movement for their characters. Sony used motion capture for Monster House, while Richard Linklater's adaptation of A Scanner Darkly featured rotoscoped versions of Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey, Jr. and other famous actors. The results in both cases are exceptional. Linklater's film is aptly described as a science-fiction thriller with a "graphic novel look." It is a harrowing, psychedelic and humorous look into the future of drug culture; the rotoscoping technique certainly helps in that regard. But A Scanner Darkly is not animation. I was disappointed to hear rotoscope artists referred to as animators in the film's DVD extras.
The same comment can be made about Monster House: it is a computer-generated film, but it is not animated. The young actors in this movie do a fantastic job of creating the onscreen personalities of scared and curious teens. Suggesting, however, that the artists who adapted the actors' performances for the creation of the film's characters are actual animators is misleading. A mo-capped or rotoscoped character simply does not create the illusion of life the same way as animated ones do.