(You may also enjoy Another Defense of Frozen: The Subversive Appeal of Disney’s New Breed of Fairy Tale.)
Disney’s animated feature Frozen, which opens Thanksgiving, has received some attention for 1) its nearly indistinguishable female leads and 2) the interview in which its head of animation, Lino DiSalvo, dared to mention the difficulties of animating two characters who look so much alike:
“Historically speaking, animating female characters are really, really difficult, ’cause they have to go through these range of emotions, but they’re very, very — you have to keep them pretty and they’re very sensitive to — you can get them off a model very quickly. So, having a film with two hero female characters was really tough, and having them both in the scene and look very different if they’re echoing the same expression; that Elsa (Idina Menzel) looking angry looks different from Anna (Kristen Bell) being angry.”
Let’s remind ourselves that Lino DiSalvo is not credited with the designs of these characters.
Let’s set aside that a studio’s characters have a certain overall look to help brand the studio’s films–for example, the longer middle-third of DreamWorks faces:
Let’s set aside that the difficulty Lino DiSalvo describes–keeping a human hero character appealing, on-model and expressive–has applied since Milt Kahl sketched his first Prince (and got stuck with princes the rest of his life.)
Let’s save for another day how hero characters remain the same color and physical type. These choices are driven by studio biases with such deep roots that they heave up the sidewalk of good sense.
I expect the animators are as stumped by the parade of light-eyed, fair-skinned characters as anyone, which is sort of exactly the point DiSalvo is making.
The question that remains is, why do human female leads in American big studio computer-animated features look so dang much alike?
1. What characters?
- Rapunzel (Tangled, Disney)
- Anna (Frozen, Disney)
- Elsa (Frozen, Disney)
- Ginormica (Monsters Vs. Aliens, DreamWorks)
- Jesse (Toy Story franchise, Pixar)
- Penny (Bolt, Disney)
To a lesser extent:
- Mary (Epic, Blue Sky)
- Sgt. Calhoun (Wreck-It Ralph, Disney)
- Roxanne Ritchie (Megamind, DreamWorks)
- Eyes: Light-colored, angled slightly upward, set slightly less than one eye-width apart
- Face: 4 eyes wide, 5 eyes tall
- Nose: Projection contained in middle third of between axis of eyes and bottom of mouth
- Mouth: When relaxed, contained between inner edges of pupils
2. Are they really more homogenous than the male heroes?
Note the strategies Frozen used to distinguish its two male heroes, Kristoff and Hans.
Unconvinced? Put your eyes on these gorgeous expression maquettes for Mr. Incredible and imagine Mrs. Incredible being put through these paces.
3. Haven’t animated heroines always looked alike?
Yes and no. It’s true computer-animation didn’t invent this look.
This idea places photo-realistic art approaches at odds with iconic character design.
Compare your ability to distinguish between these 2D BESM-compliant faces:
And between Rapunzel, Anna and Ilsa:
In 2D, artists can distinguish characters with palette, line quality, cheats and smears. In 3D, artists don’t have those luxuries.
Even a character as edgy as Atlantis‘s Kida loses a great deal in 3D translation.
4. Why is this a problem?
In story, sameness is death.
As DiSalvo observed, it’s hard to animate distinctly two characters that look exactly alike. And it’s hard for an audience to invest in characters that are allowed only a narrow range of expression.
Furthermore, how can a studio embrace meaningful diversity when it won’t even touch surface diversity?
Yet the homogenizing phenomenon is spreading even to secondary female characters.
5. Do dynamic female characters even exist in big studio features?
…and many, many others.
6. What will it take to change things?
I’m not sure.
Photorealistic cartoons are still pretty new. The next decade of art remains undiscovered country.
Extremely exciting things are happening where computer-animation and stop-motion collide.
In the meantime, a familiar face helps sell tickets. It reminds prospective ticket-buyers of other movies they saw and liked. Breaking from the predetermined style would make people look at the one-sheet and say, “Uh, is this European? Will it have surprise nudity?”
Pixar may have turned storytelling to a sweet science, but the movie business is still about math.
Studios have to walk a line.
But every line can curve.
7. You’re just dying to draw something, aren’t you?
If you want to see me put my work where my mouth is, here’s Motte and Bailey: Crow Stew.
8. In closing?
Kristen Wiig does more voiceover than you’d guess.
There are a lot of movies I need to watch.
Tony Fucile is a beast.
That is all.
If you like thoughtful heckling, you might also enjoy:
- Another Defense of Frozen: The Subversive Appeal of Disney’s New Breed of Fairy Tale
- 8 Reasons Walter White is Wile E. Coyote
- Lois Lane’s Secret in “Man of Steel”
- 12 Lingering Questions About “Star Trek Into Darkness”
- Jack Reacher is Hilarious
- 23 Silly Things About “The Dark Knight Rises”
- 3 Indisputable Reasons to Nominate My Face for the 2014 Campbell Award