Thursday, August 6, 2009

Starting Point

Sometimes you think a guy gets too much credit.

Many like laud Hayao Miyazaki as the "Greatest Animator [sic] Alive". Trusting that they mean "animation director", and giving a further leap to assume they mean "making features for children" there's strong merit to that claim -especially since all of the pretenders (Brad Bird, foremost) would place the same laurels themselves.

Even though I hate to see one person get so much credit, Miyazaki's recently published "Starting Point: 1979-1996" is unquestionably the best book on animation written.

This is the volume which "Animation" has been missing. It is as profound, thoughtful, agitating and revolutionary as "Brecht on Theater". Like Brecht's collection of essays, Miyazaki's collection is at times obvious, at times maddeningly disagreeable but continuously a singular voice from a brilliant man who has spent a lot of time thinking about his artform.

On first perusal, "Starting Point" doesn't contain that one stand out singular essay like Brecht's "The Modern Theater is the Epic Theater" but each piece in itself opens arguments and lines of inquiry which have not been addressed in any other tome on animation.

On running:

I was dumbstruck by a fragment of the film "Chikemuri Takadanobaba (Duel at Takadanobaba)"... [Bantsuma] runs to Takadanobaba -and his run is terrific. He pulls back the left side of his body, where he holds his sword, and he sticks out his right arm as far as he can as he runs along the embankment. He pushes people aside as he runs past them. I am sure that the scene was helped by the way the film was edited, but he also just ran magnificently. It was definitely not the way someone runs a track race. His running style was close to that of kabuki, yet it wasn't stylized or rigid. It was much more vigorous than mere running. In this long shot, Yasubei's run conveys all the anxious desperation he feels. I was amazed at the power of Bantsuma's acting.

If we made an animated film of "Duel at Takadanobaba", what kind of movement could we put into this scene? Most likely, Yasubei's facial expression would be the only place where we could show his desperation. I can see how this would turn out. His running would have to be a repeating series, a set pattern of motion. Unless we were careful, we might let the hand holding his sword move back and forth as well.

In Richard Williams' book he spends 30 pages on how to make a character run and never fully addresses this problem. "The Animator's Survival Kit", of course, is a how-to book and probably the best one written, but there are many more things to be learned that can't be found in technical manuals.

Miyazaki is full of corkboard-worthy one liners: "To create a good cartoon movie animators have to lie and audiences expect us to lie well".

"Those who make cartoon films and those who love them tend to have a certain immaturity to them, and they tend to go easy on each other."

In addition to a deep understanding of the technical aspects of the process of animation, he shows a remarkable critical bent. In his "Thoughts on 'Fantastic Planet'", Miyazaki articulates in one or two sentences (particularly: "I felt the creators started with Roland Topor's world and then looked around for an original story that would allow them to develop his world") what I have been unable pinpoint after several years and several screenings. His piece on "The Who Planted Trees" is personal yet analytic -in many way a gushing review, but never fawning.

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