The animation in Pixar’s ‘Wall-E’ is exceptional. The detail is more, rather than less, than the eye can absorb and the rendering of distressed, battered and grubby surfaces parallels the scuffed production design that distinguished the ‘Alien’ movies when they first came out. The film’s director, Andrew Stanton, has said “Life is nothing but imperfection and the computer likes perfection, so we spent probably 90% of our time putting in all of the imperfections, whether it’s in the design of something or just the unconscious stuff. How the camera lens works in [a real] housing is never perfect, and we tried to put those imperfections [into the virtual camera] so that everything looks like you’re in familiar [live-action] territory.”
Disney used to do detail, albeit not particularly grubbily. (He wasn’t averse to dust, though – see cottage-cleaning scenes in ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937) Dirt is probably okay if its removal can be ideologised.)
By the ’50s shadow detail and foreground texturing was on the wane – ‘Cinderella’ (1950) is going the way of the greetings card and bland, athleticised Aryanisation is taking over the depiction of faces and bodies.
After a partial return to form with ‘Peter Pan’ (1953), it was downhill to ‘Lady and the Tramp’ (1955) and subsequent decades of giftwrap art.
In 1991 Disney did a three picture deal with Pixar, the first fruit of which was the three-dimensionalised and instantly successful ‘Toy Story’ (1995). Although the business relationships between the companies have changed over the years (a good outline of that here) Pixar’s CGI has returned Disney to its role as administrator of the portal to the corporate virtual.
It seems extraordinary, in retrospect, that Disney missed the boat back in the ’50s. While virtual reality technologies were not even a twinkle in Ivan Sutherland‘s eye at this time, the projects of engulfment and immersion of the clientele by means of screen-based enchantment were not exactly a footnote on Walt’s agenda. It must have been abundantly clear that deeper immersion was the ticket to ride but what we got was depth collapse.
The prospect of exerting social control by dissemination of the imagery of bodies defined by competitive sports seems to have been more attractive to the corporation. The equation, within the cartoon product, of the fairytale prince with the high school footballer and the princess with the tireless laundress of his nobly soiled garments produced not only a generic facial rendition but set standards for reduced affect in acting that are still being honed today.
American Stranger, in the post ‘Rational Actors’, fingers George Lucas’ ‘The Phantom Menace’ as a prime example of the new botox-face-and-monotone-delivery school of synthespianism and contends that it can be seen in more and more movies. He observes that it’s not the actors themselves who are responsible for this absenteeism:
‘I challenge anyone to hold its performances up to those of the critically acclaimed The Dark Knight, and, excluding Heath Ledger for the moment, say what the difference is. There’s the same vacuity, the same open invitation to allegory. One has to assume they’re told to act this way, since both films are full of actors with proven talent. All that’s purchased are their names and faces (I wonder if that’s in the contract). They inhabit their parts with all the smoothness of an automaton, a styleless mode of performance apparently designed for easy exchange with animated versions, comic book images, videogame avatars, concepts.’
Pixar itself has no truck with this kind of eviscerated acting in its use of character voicing, and many animations, particularly short kids’ cartoons, tend to the hypermanic in the vocal department. If, however, one posits post-Golden Age Disney animations as a precursor to the current out to lunch acting style identified by American Stranger, then one can go on to observe that the vocalising in these films has, obviously, arisen as a response to a graphic genericising of the male and female figures that populate the work. Current zombie acting may mark a return from the manic avidities fuelled by headlong consumption (as seen, for example, in foam-flecked Jack Nicholson acting styles) to a need for a style that is not, say, coolly and cruelly connoisseurial in the James Bond manner but more suited to withstanding an overwhelming battering. If acting styles are taken as a form of recommendation, what are the extreme circumstances on the horizon that might be most effectively countered with stupor and dissociation?