I’ll be getting a new batch of Animation Mentor
victims students in class 6 in a few days. They’ll have spent the last 12 weeks in class 5, fleshing out a short film idea and blocking it out in animatic form. In my class, their final AM class, they’re supposed to animate the whole thing. I predict one of my major critiques of some of the animatics will center on the issue of authenticity. After watching some of the shorts, I will find myself asking who, exactly, their characters are, and why, specifically, their character is doing what they’re doing.
Some students will struggle with this because they aren’t sufficiently clear in their own mind what the answers are — some won’t have noticed that they’ve been working with clichés instead of real characters. Others will have good answers to the who and why questions, but their storytelling skills aren’t yet sufficient to convey those answers within the context of their short film. Either way, they’ll struggle in trying to animate their characters, because they won’t have a sufficient handle on their characters. I’d been ruminating on the concept of character authenticity when I made the mistake of watching the film ‘Stranger Than Fiction’ over the holidays (yes, I know I’m a year behind in working through my list of films to see), and it occurred to me that an analysis of that film might provide a useful illustration of some important ideas.
Stranger Than Fiction got some glowing reviews, and was supposed to be a thoughtful, even profound film. Uh huh. I found myself disappointed, even angry. The movie has an interesting premise but was completely botched. A quarter of the way through I was bored and annoyed. By the ending I was shaking my head that so much talent could be so badly wasted. Where did the film go wrong, and what does this have to do with character animation?
It boils down to one key word: authenticity. This is an absolutely vital ingredient in good storytelling, and storytelling is what character animation is all about. If your animation lacks authenticity, it’s generic, it’s boring, it’s a waste of people’s time, and it’s a waste of your precious time. Stranger Than Fiction wasted a lot of talent, along with two hours of my time.
My friend Jim Hull (like me, an animator with an avid interest in storytelling and writing) did a nice analysis of the film’s story structure, pinning the films problems in the area of structure and point of view. I think Jim is too generous, and that fixing the structure and POV would still leave us with a hollow, unsatisfying film. I think there are lots of films with broken story structures and POV problems that are still entertaining – if we believe in and care about the characters, we forgive plot holes and structural defects. Hell, we forgive almost anything if the characters are compelling enough. In this film, the main characters aren’t within hailing distance of being authentic, or believable, or interesting, so the film doesn’t get that free pass.
** SPOILER ALERT – stop reading if you don’t want me to ruin the film for you **
Great stories require great characters. In STF, we never care about the characters, because they’re barely there. There are two main characters – Harold Crick, the “protagonist” of the film and of the book within the film, and Kay Eiffel, the book’s author. I never believed in, or cared about, either of them. They’re both generic and shallow and false. They lack any shred of authenticity.
You don’t have to be a writer yourself to see that the Kay Eiffel character is fraudulent. She’s nothing more than tired clichés about writers, which seems odd, given that Emma Thompson is both a skilled actress and a writer, and director Marc Forster has written, and the screenwriter Zach Helm is, well, a writer himself. How could they all get is so wrong?
Granted, portraying a writer struggling to do what they do, within a film, is damn near impossible. The process of writing just isn’t visually interesting. Watching a writer work is about as stimulating as watching metal rust. Usually this is pulled off in films two ways. One, by having other characters ‘indicate’ that the writer is in fact a writer, by the way they talk about and interact with that character. ‘Indicating’ is generally considered a weak technique, and it’s rarely sufficient in and of itself. Moreover, the characters doing the indicating have to be believable themselves first (i.e., authentic). The film tries to indicate Eiffel’s writerly status with two characters: first, the completely unbelievable “writer’s assistant” (Queen Latifah) who’s been imposed on Eiffel by her publisher (a ludicrous development that surely made real novelists guffaw so hard milk shot out their noses). Later we have Dustin Hoffman’s wacky lit professor character sing her praises, so now we HAVE to know how great Kay is. But, well, the professor is no more authentic than any other character here, and by then it’s too little, too late. In the professor’s shallow literary world, the very phrase “Little did he know” counts as great literature in and of itself. Yeeeeaaaaahhh.
The second way to show that a writer is a writer in film is simply by having them ‘signify’ being a writer by acting like what we expect writers to act like – intelligent, verbal, eccentric, socially maladjusted, passionately arguing their points with other characters, wearing tweed jackets with elbow patches, etc. Again, not so easy to do, and it depends on the writer character’s traits being unique, specific, authentic. If you want to signify that a character is a police officer, you put them in a uniform, and have them do something only cops do, like arrest somebody. It’s easy to show that the character is a cop. Not so easy to ‘show’ someone being a writer. ‘Adaptation’ had Nick Cage doing this with two different writer types. It was a little over the top, but both characters felt real in their own ways. Both the writer brothers were specific, and terrific fun to watch. In STF, Thompson ‘signifies’ being a writer with a few hoary clichés – lots of nervous twitching, chain smoking, odd posturing, swigs from bottles of alcohol, and finally throwing writing equipment around the room. Anyone believe that’s what writers do when they work? No. What’s worse, it’s not interesting to watch.
Years ago I was watching the film ‘Julia’ with my older sister, who was doing some writing at the time. There’s a scene where Jane Fonda’s Lillian Hellman character huffs and puffs at a typewriter, trying to find the words she wants, takes a few macho swigs out of a bottle of whiskey, and finally throws her typewriter out the window in frustration at the difficulty of the writing process. My sister, not prone to talking to the screen, blurted out something along the lines of, “Oh, jeeze, what bullshit.” That was my reaction as I watched Thompson’s Kay character climbing on her desk, staring off into space, and generally acting flamboyantly autistic and tortured.
The striking and unusual thing is, this is the rare film that actually SHOWS us what the writer is writing. No need to ‘indicate’ or ‘signify’ – we literally SEE her novel come to life, and hear chunks of her text. This is the film’s central conceit, and we will believe in the character of ‘Kay the great writer’ to the extent that we believe in her novel. And this is exactly where the film fails. Her novel sucks. No, that’s not accurate, this is: there is no novel. Nothing happens to a nothing character. It’s nothing, squared, which is a lot of nothing. There’s no hint of a plot or a story. There’s no hint of an interesting setting or environment or situation. There’s essentially no conflict, no drama. And worst of all, the novel basically involves a single character that has to be the most uninteresting figure in the entire canon of western literature. Let’s look at this character: Will Ferrell’s Harold Crick.
What can we say about Harold? He’s an IRS auditor. He has obsessive-compulsive disorder. And . . . uh, well, that’s it. There’s literally nothing else about him. His flavor of OCD isn’t interesting, and he doesn’t struggle against it. It actually serves him in his work. We see no evidence that he’s remotely conflicted about being an IRS auditor. He has no outside life, no meaningful friends or family, no goals, no wants, no needs, no nothing. To call him a cardboard character is an insult to cardboard. He’s so blank he’s virtually invisible.
We don’t see the beginning or middle of the novel, but from all indications, absolutely nothing happens in those pages. Or rather, the same thing apparently happens, again and again and again, ad nauseum. We are given the impression that Mr. Crick has been happily counting his toothbrush strokes and his steps to the morning bus and doing his IRS work day after day after boring day, for years and years, with no desire to change his routine, and no meaningful interaction with anyone else. And we’re supposed to believe that not only has this so-called life been the material for a novel, but it’s an important, landmark, literature-changing novel. I call bullshit!
Then we get to the climax of the novel (if something inert can have a climax), where Crick runs into Maggie Gyllenhaal’s groovy, sexy tax-protesting baker, Ana. For Ana to be authentic we have to believe that she has some deep inner need to fall for someone who represents the exact opposite of everything she is. Why would a spontaneous, intelligent, passionate, anti-establishment, artsy, free-spirited, attractive tax protester fall in love with an uptight, awkward, weird, obsessive, straight-laced IRS drone who’s there to fine her and probably to send her to jail? The film gives us no real reason to buy this development, other than Crick showing a moment of wit with an assortment of ‘flours.’ It’s more inauthenticity, though by this time I’d already been fighting the urge to turn the DVD player off, so I didn’t care that these completely mismatched people hook up in clichéd movie fashion.
Then comes the film’s payoff, the answering of the central question the film’s been asking all along – if a fictional character becomes real enough, is it okay to kill him off? Let’s ignore the fact that, of all the characters ever written, Harold Crick would be about the last one to come to life. I couldn’t even get to that question. What I wanted to know was, what in Kay Eiffel’s groundbreaking novel could hinge on him dying? The professor tells us Crick MUST die for the novel to be great. What has the movie shown us that justifies this? Crick lives a completely empty life, then because he finds out he’s a vacuous character in a novel who’s about to die, he goes on a vacation (!), gets a girlfriend, and then dies. That’s a story?!? No, sir, it is not. Not a great story, not a good story, not even a story at all. He could live, die, be resurrected, and get killed off a dozen more times, and it still wouldn’t be a story worth telling.
For most of the movie, writer Kay has played with many different possible deaths for Harold, from accidents to suicide, some of which relate to a malfunctioning wristwatch. We’re led to believe that the mechanism of his death is important, and tying it in with Crick’s OCD and wristwatch obsession is supposed to have story value. Again, why? To show the tragedy of a defective wristwatch? Never has so much angst been hung on so little. Then, in the end, when she doesn’t kill him off, it’s such a false note, and so unsupported by anything we actually see in the movie, that the last few minutes of the film are devoted to her explaining why she doesn’t do it. Hey, here’s a 411 to budding filmmakers and animators alike: if you have to literally explain to your audience what just happened and why it happened, you’ve failed in your cinematic storytelling. Explain nothing. Show what needs to be shown. Let the audience put it together. Period.
To bring this back to character animation, I’ve animated on films that, like STF, had shallow storytelling and empty, superficial characters. It’s hellish. The phrase polishing a turd gets used. And I’ve animated on well-written films with fascinating characters. That’s a ball. I think this is why the film made me angry. I take filmic storytelling too seriously for baloney to be passed off as something profound.
Doing quality character animation requires characters who are authentic, and who have something real and specific that they’re trying to accomplish. Animating is hard work, made all the harder if we (or our writers and story departments and directors) haven’t taken the time to create real characters within a real story. Anything less makes for an exercise in pulling splines.
After writing this I took a look at Stranger Than Fiction‘s box-office record. Here was a heavily advertised big-studio holiday release, prominently starring the most bankable star in Hollywood, which got generally good reviews. It should have made a mint. Instead, it made a paltry $40 million domestically, and a pathetic $13 million overseas. The movie tanked, not because no one heard of it or people didn’t want to like it, and not because it didn’t have great production values and an excellent cast — its false, shallow characterizations and tissue-thin story simply didn’t deliver entertainment value.