Friday, 23 October 2009

Once Upon a Dream: Gillian Philip

I was going to write about Nick Griffin but I like my villains to have some charisma and some cool and some smarts, so I’m going to stick with my original idea and talk about CGI animation.

One of my favourite spots on earth is the Drive-In movies in Barbados (and I know that sounds swanky, but I lived there for 12 years, so it’s just Aberdeen with more sun and no seasons, OK?) At the Drive-In the sun has set by the time you find a parking space; no matter how hot the day was, it’s a cool dusk, and kids are running around under the giant screen, and grown-ups are trying to coax them into silence with hot dogs, and the lights of jumbo jets are blinking toward the airport. And that moment when the first trailer flickers up, and the sky suddenly seems that little bit darker, is a real heart-thumper. The movie doesn’t always live up to that take-a-breath moment, but when it does...

Well, back in July I was there to see the latest Pixar movie ‘Up’. And it lived up to its Drive-In moment. For me, anyway. Not for the teenagers to my left, who didn’t get the point of the first immensely touching twenty minutes (or pretended they didn’t), and not for my husband, who didn’t see why it had to deviate thereafter into talking dogs and a large amusing bird. For me, though, it was a perfect balance. I loved it. Loved its story, its characters, its thrills, its philosophical ending. And I loved the sheer, spectacular visual beauty of it. CGI is an astonishing invention.

For some, animation has an undeserved image of frivolity and shallowness and juvenility – much like children’s fiction, then. You wouldn’t read it – oops, sorry, watch it – in public, or not if you don’t have a child in tow as an excuse. Proper Grown Ups Don’t Do Animation (just as they Don’t Do science fiction, fantasy, or graphic novels). So it was a lovely indulgence to watch the recent South Bank Show dedicated to Pixar animation.

It took five years to make ‘Up’, I discovered. I also discovered why it worked, why it lived up to its breath-drawing sunset Drive-In moment: three and a half of those years went on ‘the story’. ‘Story’ was what everyone emphasised in this documentary. Does a story resonate, asked one creative director? Because if not, there’s no point wasting devastatingly beautiful, state-of-the-art animation on it.

Pixar claimed they always wanted to do something new, something surprising, yet sheer novelty didn’t come across as the be-all-and-end-all. I suspect it used to be. A few years ago Disney (with whom Pixar were in partnership) announced they had given up traditional drawn animation for good. That funny one with the cows was going to be the last. The future lay in CGI, and nobody would want to watch old-style animated movies any more. Nobody (said Disney) would settle for the likes of, er... Beauty and the Beast, or Bambi...

Pixar, at least, must have had a change of heart, because their current work-in-progress is a traditional animation of a traditional fairy story, The Princess and The Frog. A story, you note: not a series of pratfalls with contemporary jokes to make a movie tolerable for the parents.

‘It’s about the audience,’ said John Lasseter. ‘The look on their faces.’

On the South Bank Show Pixar were keen (certainly in retrospect) to emphasise that computers were originally an aid to hand-drawn animation, nothing more – another toy in the storytelling toybox. I don’t think they’d deny, though, that for some studios CGI special effects stopped being a toy in the toybox, and became the whole point. For every Toy Story movie, for every Nemo or Monsters Inc., there came a Chicken Little, or an Over The Hedge, or, God help us, an Ice Age 2. It’s still going on, but as the novelty fades, Story is increasingly back on the storyboard.

As a writer (yes, I got there) I plan to keep Pixar’s experience in mind. There’s a temptation to get hung up on finding something new, something spectacular, some clever new toy in the toybox. (Or, conversely, to do the same as last year, if that worked.)

Note to self: it’s the story that matters. And it’s the audience. The look on their faces.

I can’t resist returning, briefly, to last night’s Question Time. Interesting that one of the later questions was about Jan Moir’s odious little Daily Mail column on the death of Stephen Gately. The consensus was that its publication was a Good Thing – not just because of the principle of free speech, but because we got to see those opinions laid out in the cold hard light, and because the (unorchestrated) reactions were so overwhelmingly against her. Of course, the same could be said of last night’s Question Time and its controversial guest.

I think the BBC were right to invite him, for the same reasons. Anyway, tolerant liberal democracy is nothing to be complacent about. It will always, always have to justify itself and argue its case. It ought to do it more often.


kathryn evans said...

Yes! I am so with you on this, right down to the last paragraph. I've been bleating on about Up! since I saw it, magical, beautiful and a real surprise. I was not expecting to cry and laugh and feel that familiar heart swell usually reserved for Casablanca moments. It's in my top 3 i think, along with the Unbearable Lightness of Being and Slumdog.

As for your last comments, here here, festering sores heal much better when doused with TCP and let to breathe.

Rachel Fox said...

I wasn't expecting 'Up' to be so emotional (to be so up and down...). I cried 4 times! My manly man even cried too! Our daughter gave it 10 out of 10 and I suppose I would have given it a 9if pressed (I didn't like the lack of expression on the boy's face and a few other things...). Sorry about the scores...we are, at least in part, a Strictly house.
I also liked the music in 'Up' and yes, most definitely, the dog jokes (they were spot on...). It's probably one of the kids films of recent years that we've enjoyed most as a family. 'Enchanted' would be another. Harry Potter you can keep.


Nick Green said...

I do admire Pixar. All that technology and artistry, and yet still they recognise the importance of a cracking, heartfelt story and a killer script. It would have been so easy for them to pretend that the writing didn't matter anymore... instead, they make their writing better than in most other films.

Michael Malone said...

Och, now I'm ticked off because the wee fella took his mum with him to see this one. I hear you, Gillian but I still ain't queueing up to see this one on my own. You can take me next time I'm up in Abe-erdeen.


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Leslie Wilson said...

About Question Time - I do think we need to talk to these men of violence, in the hope that we can maybe communicate. I'm not sure Thursday night was the right place or the right method. I think it's foolish to ignore the issues - especially unemployment and regional blight - that make people join these loathsome parties. The prosperous south does seem to ignore many sections of the population and treat them with contempt, and then they become fascist-fodder. How to do it? For one thing, we need to address the 'apart from the racism, he's got some good policies' thing. People said this about Hitler. The racism is utterly central in such parties, and they will pursue this agenda to the hilt.
I note that applications to join have increased since the programme (they say). It would be nice to think this is because hordes of black and Asian people have applied to join and change the party from within. Or is this an impractical pipe-dream???