Project #2: Toon Vs Actor – Final Essay

I think before we can answer this kind of question we need to, at least briefly, understand what kinds of animation techniques are being combined with live action acting and environments because there are a lot and I personally think it comes down to two important factors that work in tandem with each other: how and when those in charge of production use animation, and how well is the viewer’s suspension of disbelief in response.

Different types of Animation Techniques

Animation in films typically comes in one of multiple forms; cartoon–which is exactly as it sounds; cartoon animations working with live action, i.e. Who Framed Roger Rabbit [1998], Song of the South [1946], Space Jam [1997] and so on. Rotoscoping, in which an animation is layered over live action, sometimes drawing over every frame to give an artistic effect over natural movements, such as; A Scanner Darkly [2006], The Snow Maiden [1952], and Life is Cool [2008]. There is stop motion; the technique of moving a static object, whether its character or scenery, every frame in a film to give it the motion of movement, for example; Fantastic Mr. Fox [2009], Chicken Run [2000], Coraline [2009]. And as a last example, and probably one of the most notable and common in nowaday films without many people realising, is computer generated imagery [CGI], which is exactly as its name implies, e.g. Transformers [2007], pretty much everything in Avatar [2009] and, for an example of something where it might not have been so apparent and will later lead into one of my further points; The Truman Show [1998] (fig.1).

Truman Show CGI
Figure 1. They CGI the height of the buildings in the backdrop.

It was with stop motion that we got our first true form both animation and live action combined, starting as early as the 1890’s with The Humpty Dumpty Circus [1897]. It was simply toy animals and acrobats came to life within a miniaturized circus but it spearheaded a big snowball effect as more and more films came to include animation in one way or another, and this has only increased with the advent of CGI, that now is guaranteed to be in almost anything you watch, for a quick example; in Blood Diamond [2006], in an interaction between Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Connelly, they didn’t think Jennifer was being emotional enough and so CGI in a single tear (fig.2).

The Suspension of Disbelief

The suspension of disbelief is simply put; the ability for the creator to provide the viewer a world, its inhabitants, and everything that is possible within in it and the viewer will not question it, and believe everything they see and hear so long as the creator is able to keep up that pretence realistically; it can take just some simple mistake, or uncanniness with a CGI creation to ruin this, for instance the baby in That Twilight Film, or the crowd effects in something like World War Z [2013] and The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies [2014] where we are given these large shots of massive crowds and something just doesn’t look right to eye, something called the “Uncanney Valley”, in which something should look realistic to the eye, but there is just something off about, something that provokes a sense of eeriness to the viewer.

It is difficult to pinpoint when exactly this has come into effect, but I believe it’s more prominent now as we get closer and closer to realistic looking CGI, and the fact–nowadays at least–as I’ve touched on a some points beforehand, creators are turning more to CGI over the practical effects; i.e the use of CGI-ing tears in Blood Diamond, making buildings bigger in The Truman Show, the almost human looking baby in Twilight, or the sheep in Brokeback Mountain [2005] (fig.3). And with this we are getting more cases of it being where something just isn’t right.

I mention this because if we look at films that predate CGI, and instead use something like stop motion, for instance Jason and the Argonauts [1963], and the famous skeleton fight scene, to our standards today that shouldn’t hold up anyway near, say, any fight scene from Transformers, but back then this was revolutionary as it presented something the creators could have only imagined doing with live actors dressed for the part some years earlier. And yet even nowadays people can look at the fight and see something that allows them to be sunk into this films world.

CGI over Practical Effects

The biggest case against animation, especially CGI, is the idea practical effects are more realistic and authentic. Examples such as The Lord of the Rings compared to The Hobbit are bought up; where a film from 2002, The Two Towers, had more greater, and realistic battles than The Battle of the Five Armies, one of the noted points in The Two Towers case is the fact the Orcs were in fact real actors in costume and makeup compared to the CGI Orcs in The Hobbit. Another example; Star Wars; the Original Trilogy vs the New in which people argued it was all acting against green screen compared to the real sets in the Originals. The point these people make in their arguments is that, in the end, the overuse of CGI takes away the time, authenticity, and the perceived dedication of the producers for their film, especially when these same people are held up against their previous work, and this brings me back to the first point I made at the start and the core of my argument…

When & Where to use Animation

A big case for the use of CGI is that, it’s easier, and relatively cheaper to use CGI compared to practical effects: it’s easier to CGI tears onto someone’s face compared to take shot over shot until they get that single tear just right. It’s cheaper to CGI a backdrop, or in the case of Brokeback Mountain, a large herd of sheep than take the actor’s, equipment, etcetera to that setting, or pay to hire that many sheep when it can be done post-production, and this can be due to the director’s own call, or executive meddling from above.

But either way, it all comes down to how and when animation is used and whether it serves a true purpose, and I believe, once again, that suspension of disbelief works because deep down people can understand when and where different animation effects are being used: people can be willing to accept that there are moving skeletons (fig.4) bought back from the dead, but they are less willing to accept that this CGI child is in anyway actually real (fig.5).

Twilight Baby CGI


To briefly bring up cartoon animation, as it’s been something I’ve tend to avoid throughout this essay, I think it can serve a purpose in live action films to a degree that somewhat takes in account what I’ve said above. Looking at the likes of Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Space Jam, the cartoon animations in these are used on what it is needed for–the cartoon characters, partly for the fact they are based on already existing characters from tv/films, and partly because the creators knew when and where to use it effectively as a contrast between the cartoon world and live action world.

Everything in the real world, bar the characters, is real: the actors, the setting, the things they interact with and so on. Nothing is so apparently CG unless there is a reason, and the same goes for the cartoon world; everything is unrealistic; the sky, the design of the buildings and vehicles and such. There is a clear contrast between the two that works to help enforce the believability of this world.

But at the same time the two interact, whether it between a toon and an actor or an actor and the toon world. It is little elements like how, in the toon world, when the protagonist steps through a door and realises he’s hanging in the sky, he falls like any other toon; he’s able to reach back up for his hat, fall for a very long time and so on. These even tiny details help the suspension of disbelief because we are able to know the way the world is set up isn’t grounded in reality but a combination of two worlds.

In the end I believe wholeheartedly that any form of animation in a film  can serve a rightful purpose, whether for practical sake, or to help create something that otherwise be. And it is down to those in charge in how they take advantage of this; however easy it may be to CGI something if it’s done wrong it can be really apparent, and that has a massive effect on the rest of the film, and if it’s done right probably no one will ever notice.#




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