YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Worth a thousand words

In 'Frida,' 'Bowling for Columbine' and other current independent movies, animation is being inserted to help tell the story and evoke emotion.

November 01, 2002|Michael Mallory | Special to The Times

Astrange thing happens in "Frida," Julie Taymor's new film about painter Frida Kahlo, when she has a nightmare after a near-death experience. It also occurs in the middle of "Bowling for Columbine," Michael Moore's documentary salvo against America's gun culture. It happens as well in this fall's black comedy "Just a Kiss" whenever a character on screen steps into dangerous territory. Likewise for the coming-of-age chronicle "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys," released earlier this year, when the lead teen character retreats into the private world of his mind.

What happens? Each of these live-action films shifts into animation. Unlike previous combinations of live-action and animation in studio movies, from Walt Disney's silent "Alice" shorts to Warner Bros.' "Space Jam," many of today's independent filmmakers are using the medium in startlingly different ways.

The 1998 German film "Run Lola Run" employed animated segues between real and subjective time, and the 2001 French hit "Amelie" whimsically used computer animation to make paintings and a bedroom lamp come to life. But the current media-mixing phenomenon appears to have hit in the U.S. with 2001's "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," the film adaptation of a stage musical about the difficult life of a transgender East German rock singer.

For that film, writer-director-star John Cameron Mitchell used animation the way he employed projected slides of artwork in the stage version, particularly to underscore the key song, "The Origin of Love."

"With the rock energy, we didn't want any images or beats of the song to be lost, so we had the drawings," he says. "When we did the film, there was still a problem of getting the central metaphor, underlining it and illuminating it, and it seemed natural to me to extrapolate the drawings into animation."

After viewing the work of several independent animators, Mitchell brought in Emily Hubley, the daughter of animation legends John and Faith Hubley. Working directly on paper instead of transferring to cels, Hubley and a small team of artists used different visual styles, including a yin-yang image as the visual metaphor of a life split in two. But Hubley and her team were careful to make sure the artwork looked as though it had been created by Hansel, the boy who became Hedwig.

"That was getting the idea across that these were images and ideas that Hansel had had as a young boy, and as the life story unfolds, Hedwig has held onto those images," Hubley says.

"The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys" also employs animated sequences to reveal the inner thoughts of a young boy, this one a 14-year-old Catholic school student named Francis, a fledgling comic-book artist. Originally, the adaptation of Chris Fuhrman's novel contained no cartoon segments, and director Peter Care considered using dream sequences to reflect Francis' interior life. When subsequent script drafts gave more weight to the character's passion for cartooning, animation seemed an obvious choice.

Acclaimed comic-book artist and animator Todd McFarlane, the creator of "Spawn," was hired to create the animated segments featuring ersatz superhero characters.

"The drawings needed to be a little crude, the staging and acting a little clunky, and all of it a little unrefined," McFarlane says. "If you make it too flawless, my perspective was that a 14-year-old wouldn't think that clearly."

The period between the approval of the storyboards and the delivery of the footage from the overseas studio providing the actual animation was, for Care, nerve-racking. "It was the hardest thing in the world to sit and wait for the most crucial 10 minutes of your movie in terms of budget and also the emotional weight of the film to come back," he says.

While the animation for "Altar Boys" is traditional TV action show-style tooning, the graphics seen in "Just a Kiss" were created through a digital process dubbed "rotomation," though its developer, Michael Ventresco of New York-based digital shop Red Scare Inc. had nothing to do with the name. "I hate the name rotomation," Ventresco declares, blaming Greenstreet Films, which produced the picture, for the moniker. "It's just animation. It's moving graphics with, in some cases, reference to the real world."

Unlike its namesake "rotoscoping," a process in which live action is traced frame by frame, rotomation involves putting the live-action images into a computer and animating over the shape outlines. "The top level was [a] hard ink line and that would be a combination of drawing and digital-edge detection," he says. "We ran the same process for shadows, tones and highlights."

Los Angeles Times Articles