Realistic Animation

So now we have a remake of The Lion King employing the latest technology to produce an animated illusion so convincing that it seems to be live action. I have no intention of seeing it. Not, I hasten to add, out of any outrage at Disney remaking a “classic” that I haven’t seen. I simply could not care less because the more Realistic the animation, the more uninteresting it becomes.

I should admit straight off that most animation interests me very little. Comic animated shorts of the Warner Bros. variety charm largely because of their brevity,  scripts and vocalizations, not their visual fidelity. I’ve never watched The Simpsons (really, not a single episode) nor any of the other popular series that have appeared in the wake of its success. From what I’ve read or heard about them, they too succeed largely because of their literary qualities. The only kind of animation that interests me as visual art is the abstract variety, work that tries to transcend reality. To my eye, photo-realistic animation serves only one valid function, to create convincing effects (say, an explosion) that otherwise would be too dangerous, difficult or expensive to produce. As an expressive medium, it does not exist.

What is the purpose of using a technology with the potential to visualize previously unimaginable spectacle as a pedantic imitation of nature? The results are dumb-dumb Realism, cinema for the literal-minded and unimaginative. The attitude behind the effort expresses a hostility to any kind of stylization or accidental inspiration. In fact it is the aleatory that makes the photographic image powerful, even as filmmakers seek to suppress chance as much as possible.

Photo-realistic animation founders on an insurmountable paradox. If the illusion is successful and total we simply accept the image as “real.” In other words, there must be a difference between the animated world and physical reality to be able to impress the viewer as animation. If the illusion is perfect, it is meaningless. That is why photo-realistic animation works so well for those hard-to-produce real-world effects. Those are meant to make the effort disappear; indeed, they fail if we recognize them as synthetic.

Of course, it is quite possible that the new Lion King is a harbinger of film’s future, that physical reality will cease to be the material from which films are made and the “worlds” of a film will be generated by machines. That is already much the case. But while the pristine perfection of such manufactured work may initially appeal through novelty, as a norm, it will offer nothing but empty technical polish.

The ironic truth of technology is that what astounds today is almost instantly dated as even more astounding results emerge. With mechanical virtuosity it is impossible to care about the results as anything better than momentary trickery. If the only appeal of a film is its use of a particular technology, the results are bound to age very quickly and very badly.