Ookaay. I'm back from tromping through the Sierras, and have just now come across this recent nugget from the NY Times:
Computer animation, once one of the most isolated corners of Hollywood, is rapidly becoming one of the most crowded. With the cost of computer animation coming down because of advances in technology and soaring box office receipts for family films, a broad range of new animation players are entering the multiplex ...
“I have lots of respect for Disney and DreamWorks, but I think we are going to easily compete in this marketplace,” said Erin Corbett, president of Imagi Studios USA. “Astro Boy,” based on the popular Japanese manga and television series, is about a young robot with incredible powers ...
All of the above, of course, has been said a bunch of times before (some even here). So what separates the royalty of the genre (Pixar, DWA, Blue Sky) from the pretenders? The simple, all-purpose, ever-workable one-word answer is "story," but let's face it. That really tells you next to nothing.
Thirty years ago, I sat in the Disney Animation building and listened to Don Bluth expound on the subject:
"You've got to make the audience care about your characters! You've got to make those characters live! You've got to involve them in the story you're telling!"
Everything Don said was true -- in a generic way -- but it turned out, as time went by and Don made a string of his own films, that Don wasn't particularly adept at pulling on audience into his type of story-telling. (Mr. Bluth has a plethora of creative strengths, but most are, I think, outside the story/character realm.)
Few would deny you need some sort of basic wire-frame structure on which to hang your elements, but the wire frame isn't, in most cases, the crucial thing. It's the characters frolicking through the structure, the characters' attitudes and the situations triggered by those attitudes that raise "formula story-telling" to the Olympian heights of "inspired film-making."
And it's an organic process, not a mathematical one. A computer could no more spit out Toy Story, Ice Age, or Kung Fu Panda than a robot could shoot hoops with Kobe Bryant. Writers and story artists with actual life experience have to sit in a room and analyze, puzzle out, and finally create the worlds and fragments of time that people want to sit in a theater and watch. And they do it with their heads, their hearts, their solar plexuses.
Which brings us to the newer challengers (see above) to the Big Three of Toondom. If the newbies can come up with stories and characters that engage and enthrall, they have a shot at becoming the New Pixar. But if they produce a feature that is flat and derivative (Quest For Camelot territory), they will probably fail. Because it's not enough to have pretty pictures. There's got to be ninety minutes of screen time there in the big dark room that cause folks to whisper "Yeah!" and then go out and tell friends "go see this!"
If the process we're easy, simple and inevitable after the computers and software were installed and the $100 million budget was spent, your Aunt Maude would no doubt be a wildly successful cartoon creator. But it's not, and Auntie is still back in Manhattan, Kansas doing the lunch dishes, and Pixar is still at the top of the heap.
So best of luck to Ilion, Imagi and Exodus, and may your inspiration match your ambition, may you turn out an animated feature that really clicks, and may you scale the mountain peaks occupied by Walt, John, and Jeffrey. A journey, after all, begins with the first pixel.