When Dash Shaw was looking for an actor to play a brief role in his new movie, the American graphic novelist-filmmaker turned to his inner circle of friends. “The part is just one scene in the movie and I asked my friend Raj to do it,” says Shaw, who lives in Richmond, West Virginia. Raj is Rajesh Parameswaran, an Indian-American writer born in Chennai and the author of I Am an Executioner: Love Stories. “Raj sounded the best. His character is drawn to look exactly like him,” adds Shaw about Cryptozoo, his animation film that was part of the 34th Tokyo International Film Festival held during October 30-November 8.
Shaw’s choice of selecting actors from wide casting pools and small groups of friends is akin to the freedom available today to makers of animated films, thanks to long strides in technology. From painstakingly handmade movies like Bombay Rose and Loving Vincent to completely computer-generated works such as Toy Story and Inside Out, animation has evolved in today’s fast-paced world of technology. Yet, it is the filmmaker’s vision and approach that continues to create the rules of the game in the fast-paced world of animation.
For Shaw, whose sophomore animation feature after My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea (2017) centres on a zoo that rescues and houses mythological creatures called cryptids, technology aids in making his work look traditional. “We actually kind of use the tech tools to lower the frame rate, to make things look primitive in a way. Technology is our friend,” says Shaw, who won the Sundance festival’ NEXT Innovator award and a special mention in Berlin for Cryptozoo this year.
When audiences devour every moment of visual effects in an animation movie, what they don’t see is the huge amount of old school work that makes them so special. Cryptozoo’s animation director and Shaw’s wife Jane Samborski scoured archives for ancient images of cryptids to make small paintings much like the zookeepers in their film searching for the Japanese dream-eating baku. Shaw found some drawings of a baku by Japanese artist Hokusai in the early 1800s.
It took a decade for Hugh Welchman and Dorota Kobiela to make Loving Vincent, created from over 65,000 paintings hand drawn by 125 artists from across the world, including two from India. “In today’s world the vast majority of animation and special effects are done on computers,” says Welchman. “I feel that people yearn for a handmade aesthetic, something that people can sense has been crafted by hand. Crafting by hand made us human, and allowed us to become the most successful species on the planet, it is very deeply ingrained in our psyche and our emotions, and our self expression and our collective expression,” he adds.
“I am a fan of computer-generated animation and VFX, but I often seek out some other forms of film making and art to provide a balance. I think people will continue to yearn for art that is made by hand, as a small part of the bombardment of computer generated imagery and art that they are immersed in,” says Welchman.
“For me it is not important that our films are handmade, it is important that the choice of method fits the story and will appeal to the audience. For Loving Vincent oil painting on canvas animation was the best choice as we could bring (Vincent) Van Gogh’s paintings to life in the same technology as he painted them, be as true as possible to the paintings that inspired us and formed part of the story,” adds Welchman, who along with Kobiela, is busy creating another handmade animated film, titled The Peasants. An adaptation of the epic four-volume novel of the same title by Nobel Prize-winning Polish author Wladyslaw Reymont, the film stresses the reality of today’s artificial intelligence age culture still defined by 10,000 years of peasant living.
“Our religions, our social structure, what we eat, our relationship to the world around us, and to each other, is very much still defined by the peasant cycle of life. As the reality of our ever changing world no longer fits with that peasant model then there will be more and more stress on an individual and on a societal level,” says Welchman. “We will be painting it in the style of the realist painters. It is a much bigger film than Loving Vincent, and we are excited to share it with the world,” he adds.
Filmmaker Shilpa Ranade, who directed Goopy Gawaiya Bagha Bajaiya, the animation adaptation of Satyajit Ray’s 1969 film Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, says artistic freedom existed between traditional and modern technologies. “The technological tools are there, what do you do with them that is the most important,” says Ranade, a professor at the IDC School of Design of Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay. “For Goopy Gawaiya… all pre-production was hand done, post-production was all digital.”
“Today, you don’t even need studios. The pandemic has made us think that you can make things from wherever you are. Someone does a voice from somewhere and sends it to us and you can clean up the sound,” says Ranade. “You can put a film together from wherever you are sitting, you can do music across countries and it is still cost-effective,” adds the director, who believes animation is breaking ground in the country.
“I see some very interesting short films coming out of student works in the country. The volume is not huge, but there is a high level of quality,” she says, pointing to student works at institutions like National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, Srishti Manipal Institute of Art, Design & Technology, Bengaluru, and IIT Bombay’s IDC School of Design. “There is very interesting work especially in short animation with experiments in the art and form. There is also a freshness in storytelling. Indian students are on top of things in animation,” she adds.
Although technology is evolving every day, it’s not expected to make much of an impact on the art, principles of movement, design and characterisation of animation movies. “Every animation software comes with limitations. Goopy Gawaiya… is an example of very good use of technology with limited resources. We used one basic software and integrated it with three more. We will do the same thing today, but it will be faster and easier,” says Shilpa Ranade’s husband and the film’s co-writer and executive producer Soumitra Ranade.
Well-known Japanese animator and filmmaker Ayumu Watanabe believes choices are becoming “very diverse” following “layer after layer of progress” in animation, but it is up to the directors to decide what they want to depict and what technology they want to use. One of the films that turned heads along with Cryptozoo at the just-concluded Tokyo film festival was Watanabe’s Fortune Favours Lady Nikuko, a heartwarming animation drama about a single-mother bringing up her daughter in a fishing hamlet of Osaka, Japan. The film’s realistic background art of the blue expanse of the sea, while appealing to the audience, came as a reminder of the challenges faced by society on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
“The pandemic hit during the production of the film. It was all about shared experiences and trying to overcome this together,” says Watanabe, adding: “Also how our project could lend a helping hand to the affected.”
Faizal Khan is a freelancer