Self Reference New Animation Techniques

Walt Disney Production's 31st animated feature Beauty and the Beast was a storming success musically, gathering Oscars for Best Original Music and Best Song, and producing a later smash-hit stage version. More notably, it was the first animated feature film ever to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar - an acclaim that hailed the visual sumptuousness and grace of its animation work as much as its hilarious characterisations and array of memorable tunes. The breadth and height of popular and critical praise were a great boost to Disney, after a couple of decades of mixed success with films that simply did not live up to the visual splendour and virtuoso technique of earlier works that had been hailed as groundbreaking instant classics, such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). The sheer quality of the animated action and the richness and attention to detail of the frame-by-frame drawings had made Snow White a watershed product whose impact on audiences can be compared to that of the special effects in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (UK, 1968) three decades later.

Following Snow White, Walt Disney's aim was to stay at the pinnacle of achievement, and repeat its commercial success by making each release of a Disney animated feature film an event, part of the global experience of childhood. Before the accessibility offered by consumer video, even the screening of short clips on television showcases like Disney Time were special occasions, and Disney continue to limit video release to maximise interest and allow for cinema re-releases of its 'classics'. The benchmark pictorial quality of Snow White was soon held up by films like Pinocchio (1940) and Bambi (1942), and throughout the 1950s Disney pinned its success on a reputation for producing the definitive 'magic' of fairytale and childhood stories such as Cinderella (1950), Peter Pan (1953) and Sleeping Beauty (1959). The enormous appeal of the best Disney products was proved again with The Jungle Book (1967), although this time Disney seemed to have peaked. Through the 1970s and 1980s, as Disney became sidetracked and experimented more with mixing animation with live action, animation budgets were reduced, with a direct impact on picture quality and a downturn in audience enthusiasm. If the highly comic Robin Hood (1973) seemed weakened by the absence of the earlier colour-rich visual

Beauty and the Beast

magic, Basil the Great Mouse Detective (1986) seemed completely unworthy of the Disney name.

The Little Mermaid (1989) had been an impressive recovery of form, with a simple and strong narrative line matched with very dramatic use of colour, but after another forgettable sequel, The Rescuers Down Under (1990), Beauty and the Beast was a conscious return to the safety of one of the great fairytale classics. It was also a great challenge for Disney, attempting a story that had already been tried at least once every decade since the earliest days of cinema, the most celebrated being Cocteau's stunningly atmospheric Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et La Bête, France, 1946). The Disney animation might be incomparable with Cocteau's black and white masterpiece, but it was a tour de force such as the company had not produced since The Jungle Book. Opening with the narrator's 'Once upon a time .. .' accompanied by picture-book images in a stained-glass style, the fairy storybook origins were exploited to maximum effect, even retaining some of the French tale's dark undertones, with an over-poweringly imposing castle design, judicious combination of threateningly dramatic music, and images layered with shadow. The Beast himself was made suitably scary at times, while his comic element was introduced early on and his charm allowed to develop. The fearful quality of the cavernous castle of the title sequence worked best in contrast with the song-filled, brightly sunlit 'Little Town' scene that introduces Belle, her father Maurice and her grossly vain and stupid suitor Gaston, which proved spectacularly that Disney was capable of soaring above past mediocrity and new competition from the likes of An American Tail (1986) from former Disney employee Don Bluth, who went on to make hits like Thumbelina (1994) for Warner Brothers. The scene was the first of several song-driven set pieces, so energetically skilful that they ensured the film's place as a great Disney classic. Intricately choreographed central action was also abundant with visual asides of humorous slapstick detail that could genuinely merit further vie wings.

Disney had rediscovered a properly character-rich story, but enhanced further by animation that was once again amazing to see. The colours and luminosity, feeling of image depth, and simulation of live-action camera motion and lens effects used to depict characters and landscapes, candlelit rooms, scenes lit by quivering flames, moonlight and snowy reflection were simply without precedent. Beauty and the Beast also played out a homage and affectionate parody of the great era of Hollywood musicals and extravaganzas, with the candlestick Lumière based on Maurice Chevalier and his big number exploding into a full-blown Busby Berkeley pastiche. Angela Lansbury as the fussing Mrs Potts was a nod to Disney's own past, but overall the film was the nearest thing left to a proper Hollywood musical, complete with boisterous duets, street choruses and a classically feisty maiden as Belle. Audiences enjoyed a genre that they had no opportunity to experience with real actors in contemporary settings anymore. Most crucially of all, the work was a showcase for the interplay between traditional animation illustration skills and digital animation techniques, using computer programming to design the paths for motion that helped simulate the complex motion of three-dimensional camera moves, with curving 'crane' shots and circular motion around dancing characters. New levels of sophistication in visual choreography of action were being executed by applying digital modelling and motion manipulation to the graphic artists' visual creations. The elegance of motion that simulated ambitious camera crane shots added much to the spectacular image of the film, especially in scenes such as the title number's dance sequence. Computer-aided design seemed ready to revolutionise the process of sequencing, pushing out limits much further than the fluid-motion Steadicam had done for live action in the 1980s.

Beauty and the Beast helped rekindle interest in the achievements possible in mainstream animated cinema, and The Lion King (1994) was as impressive in terms of visuals, music and narrative line. At the same time, bland output like Pocahontas (1995) continued the impression that Disney pinned more on big-name voicing like Mel Gibson than on character and script.

Inevitably, computer-based animation has since made a great impact on big-screen 'cartoons'. The year 1995 also brought the first animation feature generated from start to finish on computers, Toy Story, from Disney subsidiary Pixar Animation Studios. A Bug's Life (1998) showed a visible picture quality improvement, which continued with Toy Story 2 (1999). When SKG Dreamworks produced Antz (1998) from digital-only sourcing (except for the theatrical show-print), it was already clear that the computer had come of age. Whilst much visual work in these films is geared towards a kind of naturalism, simulating camera tracking, Steadicam and lens effects from live action cinema, it is interesting that a new enthusiasm for the more unrealistic stop-frame clay motion work of Aardman Animations also developed, culminating

Beauty and the Beast

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in the epic Chicken Run (2000). As authenticity of image manipulation improves continually and becomes a given, content may inevitably become the more vital battleground.

Some Things to Watch out for and Consider

• Identify key elements that you think made Beauty and the Beast succeed.

• What are the most memorable scenes for you - and what makes them so?

• Does the film remind you of specific Hollywood films you have seen?

• Are you aware of the animation skill while you watch the film? In any event, would that make a big difference to the film's impact?

• Is an understanding of live-action cinema necessary to appreciate the film?

• Would the film benefit from being improved visually? How?

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