Story Neglect?

I just read the following comment in Michael Barrier’s review of Monsters vs. Aliens:

Like many other CGI films, Monsters feels unfocused; the technology has absorbed so much of the filmmakers’ attention that more important matters, like the story, have been neglected.

Comments like this bug me, as they do many people who work in the field.  I don’t mean to pick on Barrier here  — I like reading Barrier’s thought’s on animation, as his ideas are usually thoughtful and well articulated.   I’ve read comments like this made by many other people, about any number of animated films — this comment is just the latest.  Critics and passionate fans are often quick to make assumptions, based on their reaction to what they see on the screen, about what the filmmakers thought or did.

I think what Barrier meant in the above comment was something along the lines of: “The technology of the film, the rendering and stereoscopic effect and so on, were all accomplished and well done; the story, however, wasn’t to my liking.”  The difference between the two comments is that the first conflates two independent processes (story and technology), and assumes that telling a satisfying story is simply a matter of desire.

If only it were so easy.  But making an animated CG film isn’t a zero-sum game.  Efforts put into the technical side aren’t necessarily paid for by the creative side (thought they might be if the budget is sufficiently tight).  More importantly, no amount of effort guarantees a successful, satisfying story.  One need not be neglectful to miss in the story department.

I had a student who recently made a similar comment: “DreamWorks doesn’t care about story as much as Pixar.” Uh, no.  There’s a small army of very talented story artists and writers at DreamWorks, who work very hard to earn their pay.  Both studios care very much about telling good stories, and if you judge by how many people pay to see their films, it’s hard to argue who’s been more successful.

The simple fact is, those two studios aren’t trying to tell the same kinds of stories.  Here’s another way to put it — I’m not a fan of opera, and I love the blues.  When I hear opera on the radio, I turn the channel.  Just not my cup of tea.  But as I’m turning the channel, I don’t assume that the opera singers are failed blues singers who just aren’t trying hard enough.

7 Responses to “Story Neglect?”

  1. Wesley Says:

    Great insight Kevin! Thanks for the post.

  2. Chris Says:

    Well said.

  3. Teresa Says:

    Hey Kevin,
    Great read! I really enjoyed this post in particular. ;)

  4. Sandy Says:

    Very profound way to put it, thanks Kevin

  5. Sarah Says:

    Bang Bang!! You got it Kevin! Couldn’t agree more…the funny thing is people see movies like Nemo or Incredibles and fall in love with them. Then, they expect to see another film EXACTLY the same or very similar to consider it as good. As soon as a company takes a leap or a risk into something different or unique (like Wall-E), people are so quick to make unjustified comments (especially assumptions about those who worked on it when they don’t even know them). People miss the point of these films because they expect another Toy Story or Shrek (and neglect diversity).

    There’s already a forum with like a million comments about Disney’s upcoming “Princess and the Frog” – the film looks amazing and many have the nerve to make confident, “comprehensive” comments about the story and animation when they have not seen the movie!! So many doubted Lion King before its release and look what it became!

    Thanks for the post Kevin, very well said.

  6. alonso Says:

    Hey Kevin,
    How much time is typically devoted to the story making/boarding/animatic phase of a movie? How well can you tell if the film will work when it’s in animatic form? From what I’ve read it seems like a production will often begin before a story is completely nailed down (building models while the 3rd act is still being ironed out). So do stories come out weakly because they didn’t have enough time to keep tightening them, or because you can’t get a good enough idea of the final product from just the boards?

  7. Kevin Says:

    Thanks for the comments, everyone. Alonso, your questions are going to be answered in a new post. Look for it!

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The animation and animation-related musings of Kevin Koch