I really recommend that anyone reading this blog checks out David O'Reilly’s work . I’m not sure why I’ve never written about it - I’ve certainly been aware of it for some time. Over the past few years I’ve even sent him a couple of messages. I’m sure they sounded fawning and pointless - maybe that’s why I never got a response! Anyway, he tweeted a link to his essay on aesthetics in animation the other day and I gobbled it up. I was a little surprised to find that he thinks about aesthetics. His works seem so iconoclastic and punk rock. To find a theory behind the jagged anti-aliasing and transgressive meta-jokes was unexpected.
His central proposition is that aesthetics relies on coherence. It’s a great point - introduce consistency to a world and it hangs together. This is where the concept of ‘inner logic’ comes from - the animation may not obey familiar rules or look conventional but it abides by it’s own logic. It is 'a law unto itself’. There’s a self-evident sense to this argument that few would disagree with. Yet there is an underlying assertion that I’m not so keen on, and it stems from the following idea:
“If something in a world seems too out of place, if it breaks or overextends these (internal) rules, believability evaporates.”
Here - perhaps unintentionally - he begins to conflate aesthetics with both coherence and believability. This is the little nexus of concepts I think is problematic.
He’s saying that coherence helps good animation to be accepted and understood by an audience. This is his 'aesthetic’. And I think it’s a bit misleading, even though I agree with most of his essay. Believability is one of many effects that animation can have, and it shouldn’t be the only one that students of animation aim for. This, after all, is very similar to the trap that so many 3D artists fight so hard to avoid or perpetuate. That is, we’re all trying to make stuff look 'right’, and so often this means 'real’. The problem is that the quest for realism can rob you of the creative impulse that made you want to animate in the first place. David O'Reilly agrees, it seems:
“One of the main problems with 3d animation is that it takes so long to learn and then to use, from constructing a world to rendering it. There are many knock on effects of this, mainly it prevents people from attempting to use it and employ it artistically, the process is very discouraging for the individual to go ahead and make their film. Simple changes can take hours to do, and very often the process is so rigid it doesnʼt allow any changes at all.”
So David O'Reilly advocates a shift from aiming for the torturous 'real’ to the more forgiving 'right’. But it’s not the liberating move it seems to be. 'Real’ and 'right’ are similarly conservative concepts in art: if you’re animating Snow White for Disney, you study how you make characters move 'realistically’. If you animate Snow White for David O'Reilly, it just has to look right when compared to the rest of his 'world’. It doesn’t need to be a facsimile of real life, he says - just make it make sense in it’s own context. But wait! What about all the art forms, all the forms of expression that come from stylistic dissonance? Take collage, for example: the design of a bus ticket doesn’t gel with the form of a leaf or a cut-out photo. Or rather it does, but only because we’re familiar with the collage aesthetic. This feeds into a wider point - any fusion of styles quickly becomes a style in itself. Pop will eat itself, as they say. Style is a chimera - it’s just something original that’s become conventional. And convention is something I think that David O'Reilly was probably trying to escape with his films.
So if you’re a student of animation, don’t think that a set of aesthetic rules will guide you toward a successful animation. Unless you’re making Transformers that is. Throw a little bit of wrong in with the right and you’ll stop yourself and your audience getting bored.
The other uneasy part of David O'Reilly’s essay was that the end goal is believability. Suspension of disbelief. Storytelling. It’s all very… Pixar. Very Disney. Whether, as with Pixar, it’s a story about cute animals with balloons surmounting obstacles, or, with David O'Reilly, it’s about ugly animals with balloons being crushed by unsurmountable obstacles, it’s still placing the narrative over all else. The message is: if you keep your aesthetic coherent you can still ensure the audience believes.
“Attention to aesthetics gains an audiences trust, makes them forget they are watching a film and by extension feel any emotion you can think of.”
I disagree with this as well; watch Mulholland Drive. Look at a Duchamp’s 'The Large Glass’. Read a book by someone French. People don’t need a moral, a resolution, a character arc. People don’t need to have their emotions stage-directed. People don’t need stylistic coherence. The idea that they do is what leads bloated Prog Rock wizards to spend 12 years making a concept album about sad alien insects on Mars. A disregard for coherance is what gives us everything new and cool and weird and unique. It gave us David O'Reilly!
Of course, I’m being picky. A real pedant. But rarely do I read other people’s opinions about the aesthetic values of this multi-million pound CGI industry. It’s interesting and it gets me thinking, so my criticism is really just part of what I feel should be a wider conversation about how burgeoning CG techniques might fit into a broader history of image making.
I’ll leave off with a great quote that highlights something very obvious to many people in the industry but is really interesting nonetheless:
“Each year what passes for 3d realism gets slowly refined, peopleʼs internal library gets updated and suddenly everything before startslooking dated and even stylized. An audience of nonprofessionals has the same internal library, itʼs just updated over longer periods of time. 3d animation that once would stun an audience with itʼs realism now barely has any effect, or looks wrong and out of place. A small aesthetic discrepancy may only be seen by one person in an audience, but we know from experience that in a few years others will notice it, and in 10-15 years audiences will find it blindingly obvious and laugh at it.”