Blending Live Action and Animation

Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971)
Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971)

When I was growing up, I thought movies that combined live action and animation were so cool. Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971) was my favorite, but Mary Poppins (1964), Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), and Space Jam (1996) all played a part in contributing to my small obsession with combining the real and the simulated. Since the decline of hand drawn animation in the early 2000s, there have been very few films that combine animation and live action in this traditional sense (Enchanted being an exception). We sometimes see entirely animated sequences in a live action film (Kill Bill is a great example), live action clips appearing on screens in animated films (like Wall-E), and claymation or puppets in live action, but the most common method of combining live action and animation today goes pretty much undetected from a critical perspective.

The line between live action (reality) and animation (simulation) is becoming finer and finer with the advancement of digital animation technology. Should we consider The Lord of the Rings films to be among these live action animation crosses, just because many of the creatures are entirely CGI (computer generated imagery)? Should we consider the degree of differentiation between the live action and the animated content when we classify these films?

There was a time when the major aspiration of CGI technology was to become as lifelike as possible. This led to the film Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001), which is a total trip to watch. At times its difficult to tell whether or not the actors, scenery, props, etc. are real or not, and the minuteness of the difference actually makes it more rather than less disorienting. In other words, watching this film is an uncomfortable experience because you’re constantly questioning its nature: “Is it animated or not?”

This uncanny and distracting sensation was easy to catch on to, and CGI films no longer really aspired to that realism that they were previously striving for. They figured, “let live action be realistic; it’s better at it anyway.” Now CGI is primarily used to enhance the fantastical aspects of narrative films.

So, there is a purposeful difference between animated and live action content in the films that combine them today, the difference is just less noticeable than in the older examples I gave at the very beginning of this article. Generally, I consider films that choose to use a wider degree of difference between the animated and live action content to be more interesting and artistic. CGI creatures can never be completely real to me, so when they try to be I often have trouble suspending my disbelief. In my opinion, focusing on older tech like models, puppets, costumes, makeup and green screens can help to make a fantasy seem more real if that’s the approach (Moon is an amazing modern example, Pan’s Labyrinth also comes to mind), and if the goal of the film is more artistic, then the animation used should be as different from reality as possible.

I wish they would go back to combining live action and hand drawn animation, because what’s more satisfying than seeing those impossibly bright colors and solid outlines exist in our physical world?

Maybe new technologies like rotoscoping (A Scanner Darkly) and motion capture technology (Avatar) will take the idea of an ‘animated film’ in an entirely new direction.

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