Oct 23 • 31M

Numlock Sunday: Eric Vilas-Boas on the crisis in animation

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Numlock News is a daily morning newsletter that pops out fascinating numbers buried in the news, highlighting awesome stories you're missing out on. Every Sunday, Walt Hickey interviews someone cool. Sometimes he records it in quality befitting a podcast.
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By Walt Hickey

Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.

This week, I spoke to Eric Vilas-Boas who wrote If Rotoscoping Isn’t Animation, Nothing Is for Vulture. Here's what I wrote about it:

This year director Richard Linklater released the film Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood, which is animated through rotoscoping. Essentially, live-action footage is painstakingly animated over using a technique that harkens back to the dawn of animation, a process that required a suite of about 200 2D animators for costs upwards of $20 million. The animated film, however, has been rejected by the animation committee of the Academy Awards, arguing it relies on live-action footage even though the film clearly surpasses the requirement 75 percent of running time must be animated. Linklater and company are ticked off, claiming that the branch has been captured by corporations and aimed at children, with 19 of the past 21 awards for Best Animated Feature going to CG-animated kids movies, and with just two independent studies winning.

Eric is brilliant on the topic of animation, he was one of the founders of The Dot and Line animation blog and is one of the most plugged-in writers on the topic these days.

We spoke about why the awards scene around animated film is chaotic, why it’s a demoralizing moment to be in the field, and how streaming has upended the industry.

Eric can be found at @e_vb_ and at Vulture.

This interview has been condensed and edited.


You wrote a really fascinating story about a new film that's coming out from director Richard Linklater. Before we dive into the whole concept of rotoscoping and whatnot, do you want to tell folks a little about your history with animation? You're currently at Vulture, you've got a long history of working in this space. What's been your journey in covering animation so far?

I've been interested in this area of coverage for a long time. I always wanted to be an entertainment journalist. I always wanted to angle my career in that direction. A buddy of mine and I looked around at the space of magazine journalism a few years ago and we noticed, "Oh, there's no The New Yorker for animation coverage." No one covers cartoons with what we thought was a level of both consistency and seriousness.

We started this website called The Dot and Line based off an iconic Chuck Jones short cartoon; that was in 2016. My friend and I, John Maher, started that site. That site was just our way of covering animation from a fan perspective and a magaziney perspective, a bloggy perspective, and also covering the business through the same lens.

We never made any money. The Dot and Line shut down, we gave it a viking funeral in 2020, in the beginning of the pandemic, very lovingly.

I always really loved cartoons and animation. I wanted to cover it more deeply and make sure that it had a place in the media ecosystem that I was working in. These days I've parleyed that experience into writing about animation for Vulture, for Thrillist in the past, for Hyperallergic, for The Observer. Now I'm currently in Vulture where I edit most of our streaming coverage, and then also work on the occasional animation and cartoons piece, which brings me to this topic today.

I just wanted to make sure that we got that set up, because there's this idea that you've always been reporting on how there's tension in animation, how there aren’t a lot of people who treat it seriously, that there's a tremendous amount of effort and art that goes into it but that mainstream sources oftentimes don't necessarily understand what some of the power and appeal of it is. That all really comes to a head in the story. Do you want to talk a little bit about Apollo 10 ½ and how it was made?

It definitely hits a lot of points for me. Apollo 10 ½ is a rotoscoped movie directed by Richard Linklater, a very well-regarded indie filmmaker who has done both animated movies like A Scanner Darkly and Waking Life as well as live-action movies like the Before trilogy and Dazed and Confused, and a few other things that you might have seen before. Apollo 10 ½ is basically his latest animated effort. It was made by a large team of around 200 animators through a studio called Minnow Mountain, based in Austin, Texas, where Richard Linklater is also based. Apollo 10 ½ is essentially a coming-of-age fantasy story about a kid who gets to experience sitting in a NASA space mission.

The opening hook of the movie is like, "Oh, we made the space capsule too small and now this preteen child must be signed up for a NASA mission." And it's a fantasy. It's meant to be fantastical in a way that live action can't be. Richard Linklater has talked about this, so that's all well and good. Apollo 10 ½ was released on Netflix earlier this year, over the summer. It was also submitted for Academy Award consideration for Best Animated Feature.

Best Animated Feature is an interesting category and we can get into why. But long story short, the film was rejected from consideration over the summer on the grounds that it "did not meet the definition of animation" according to the Academy's feature animation committee.

That's ticked a lot of folks off, because it is animated with a technique used called rotoscoping which as you wrote, goes back to some of the earliest days of not just animation but film, period. Do you want to talk about what the controversy is there?

To give just a definition, rotoscoping is essentially you'll film something in live action. The tool that was invented was literally called the rotoscope, and it was invented by this animator Max Fleischer, who people might know from the Superman cartoons. These old 1940 Superman cartoons are some of the best cartoons of their kind even to this day; they're very well respected. He invented this thing in 1915 called the rotoscope. What the rotoscope is is essentially a multi-plane camera on steroids that allows you to film something in live action, and then to trace the images of what's been filmed into an animated form — to trace the outlines of something and create art out of it, essentially.

The Fleischer brothers used this on a number of their animated cartoons. They had this series called Out of the Inkwell: They traced Cab Calloway, the jazz musician, dancing and doing some awesome moves in some of their cartoons. The upshot of all this is that it looks really good. It's an easy way to capture fluidity and a certain level of realism, without having to draw every single thing from nothing, essentially. It's a technique that's been used for decades upon decades by not just the Fleischers but also animators at Disney. Snow White heavily referenced a performer named Marge Belcher using similar techniques.

It goes all the way to Ralph Bakshi's 1970s Lord of the Rings film, which famously uses rotoscoping. You can argue one way or another over whether Ralph Bakshi's rotoscoping looks good or not. I think a lot of it looks really good. Lord of the Rings is not a very good-looking movie, but it's interesting, I think.

People feel a lot of different ways about rotoscoping. Part of the mystique of animation is that something is artistic and being delivered in front of you, in a moving way that literally tricks you to think that these images that are just layered on top of each other very, very fast are actually moving. That's the point. I think that it takes an element of the mystique out of it, or the artistry out of it, to hear later on, "Oh, that was traced," or something like that. But the reality is this is just a tool, it's just a technique that a lot of animators and a lot of your favorite movies have actually deployed over the years. A lot of movies that you might know.

The crux here is that the animated film division of the Academy came to the determination that this wasn't an animated film, because it required rotoscoping as much as it did. And it's got a lot of people ticked off for a lot of different reasons.

2D animators obviously have had a hell of a time just continuing their craft. Just in general, the category as you wrote has been really dominated by fairly colossal corporate interest for a while. Do you want to talk a little bit about what specifically this tempest is all about?

I think it's really frustrating to anybody who knows about the history of animation to call a decades-old technique used in animation not animation. So that's one side of that argument.

Another side of this argument is the corporate aspect of the specific animated feature award. It's not Best Picture, which has been around for forever. It's not as clear-cut as Best Actor or Best Actress or something like that. Best Animated Feature has been around since the year 2001, so it's newer. Ever since 2001, it's always been largely dominated by either 3D CGI movies and/or films that are owned or have been distributed by Disney-Pixar. To pull out some examples, I think Shrek won the first year, and last year Encanto won.

I don't have the history in front of me, but every year it's an ongoing joke in the animation community like, "Oh, another CGI movie is going to win." And it's very rare that, number one, a 2D film wins, even more rare I think than that a film that's not owned by a large mega-conglomerate, either Disney or Dreamworks, wins.

They've all been Disney, Pixar, Dreamworks, Sony, with the exception of one Aardman picture, and then Spirited Away.

Two independent studios have won over the past 20 years, which is like, I personally don't like those numbers. A lot of folks can say otherwise.

And then there's this other side of the argument, and I think the animator Phil Lord got into this a little bit when he tweeted last year and a lot of people tweeted: The larger cultural understanding of the animated feature category is that it's made for children. That animation is just for kids, and that this is a juvenile pursuit. I think that the presenters at last year's Academy Awards leaned into that.

It was really patronizing, if I recall.

Yeah. The tone of that is very patronizing.

You look at the animator Richard Williams who passed away a few years ago, this is a person who is known for a hyper-realistic, very, very fluid animated style. He's the reason that Who Framed Roger Rabbit looks as good as it does, because he impressed upon his animators, "You have to make sure the eyelines match up between the cartoon characters and the actors on stage."

You look at artists on his level or on a Miyazaki level, or to go back even further a Chuck Jones level, and to say that they are making stuff that's only for kids is, if it were me, if I were in their shoes, I would find it very offensive. I would find it very patronizing.

It's an interesting category for a lot of reasons. I looked at it last year because I'm obsessed with the Oscars, and Pixar usually gets a bid, Disney usually gets a bid, Dreamworks usually gets a bid, one of the other biggies gets a bid. And then they'll usually get an international feature or one of the Ghibli, Aardman worlds.

It's weird that there's clearly a degree to which the animators within the division have enough clout to get those nominees for those international features and those smaller indie features, but it does seem that the branch is dominated by the kind of folks who just want to give it to Pixar, Disney or Dreamworks.

That's the story the numbers seem to tell us. I think one of the frustrations, and I understand why it has to be this way, is that you do want to know how these voting bodies work, but it raises a wide variety of complications if we knew exactly how everybody voted, but a lot of the stuff happens in a very opaque way. Richard Linklater, in my story, when I interviewed him for this Apollo 10 ½ thing, his words I think were, "We really just don't know who's behind this decision making." The only way that he can conceive of it is that like, they must have something against rotoscoping, or, against us, "us" speaking for the independent animators that he works with.

To him, to them, it feels like a David and Goliath situation where I'm sure a film like the latest Disney-Pixar thing that is made for $150 or $200 million or whatever it is, they would probably have no trouble getting nominated for anything, for clearing through any of the rules that are stipulated. This film, which is made for $20 million and there's definitely an outsider feeling there on the part of him and his animators, they're running into trouble.

It's a challenging category because again, the work is really fairly incredible coming out of even the larger houses, not to diminish any of that. It is just weird.

That's the thing too. No value judgment, it's not an artistic judgment on the artistry of a film like Encanto or Turning Red which are stunning, beautiful animated movies. I cried during Encanto not quite like I'd cried in any movie that year that it came out. But I think the tension is really like, "Oh, why is animation only this?" I think that's the question that is on some of these other animators’ minds and on Linklater's mind.

It's almost entirely 3D animated stuff. Again, I'm a LAIKA stan, and it's just shocking to me that they occasionally get the nominations, but it's a little evident that the body is just going to be predisposed toward 3D computer-animated graphic stuff instead of the 2D stuff, instead of the anime stuff, instead of the rotoscoping and stop-motion stuff.

Yeah. LAIKA is a perfect example; just everything that they put out is amazing, it just looks stunning and it feels like if they get a nomination, it's a good year.

You also cover a lot about just how the business of animation and streaming has really fundamentally changed; a lot of that, whether it's Crunchyroll merging with Funimation, whether it's all these streaming services jumping directly into the world of animation and then some of them getting cold feet and then getting the hell out. It's been an interesting couple of years for the business itself. Do you maybe want to talk a little bit about streaming and how that's changed some of the math for animated stuff?

I'm glad you asked about that because we're in this moment right now, this sense in the animated world that this idea that animation and animators are playing second fiddle constantly to the world of live action. It shouldn't really be that way. These movies and shows take a lot of effort to produce and they do connect with kids and with adults in very, very profound ways. But we're in this moment where it's like, "Oh, you have this corner of the entertainment industry that is doing all this stuff but it feels like it's not getting recognized."

Even within that side of the entertainment industry, you have these aspects of it that are, like anything else, it feels like the big dogs are running the show, like the indie animators are doing their own thing, doing something different but then maybe they're being shut out of awards consideration.

The same is happening on a macro level. In terms of what I've been covering, to take the streaming wars for example, part of the larger capitalist world in which we operate — for example, Warner Brothers Discovery, the company removed I think 36 titles off of HBO Max without warning over the summer as they were trying to carve down on overhead and slash $3 billion worth of debt which the merged company had inherited.

A big part of that was animated shows. A lot of animated shows were in that mix. A few of them, like Infinity Train for example, an amazing show, a brilliant genius show, very not of the same mold as other programming like it, Infinity Train was spiked from the service and all their social media accounts were eliminated. I think the music on Apple Music was removed. This all happened within a span of a few days to a week.

I don't know the status of Infinity Train's physical media, but the sense of it was that this show had disappeared off the internet, completely disappeared. And as a fan, you're kind of like, "What the fuck?" As a fan, you're like, "What just happened here?" Offhandedly, I talked to people who worked on the show, and they were also just confused like, "What's going on?" I think that they were all blindsided. The creator of the show, Owen Dennis, wrote a very good Substack post on that exact thing, that feeling of blindsidedness.

You've got all these things going on and it's not helping. Animators, or people who are fans of animation, it doesn't help them that some movies are being treated with seemingly a different set of rules as other movies, debatable on whether those rules should exist or not as they pertain to the Academy Awards. It feels like they're being devalued by some of these large companies that own some of the titles that they worked on, either to slash them to just offload debt or to eliminate them entirely for no reason. It seems like the reason is money, which to me doesn't really seem a good reason at all.

Then at the same time, something like the Academy Awards, and the award is presented, are we then going to be treated to some hacky line from the last year's best supporting actress or whatever saying, "Oh, animation is so good for kids. It's so great to watch when you grow up, this is what you do when you're a child, and that sense of wonder" or whatever.

I don't know, man. If all this stuff is happening to you and you're an animator and you're already baseline underpaid, because everybody's underpaid in Hollywood or anywhere in media, you learn that your work is being devalued by the company you work for. You learn that, an opportunity that I have to go on stage and accept this award is being seen as this purely juvenile pursuit that only appeals to children. Again, we're speaking hypotheticals for all of this, but the multinational company worth billions upon billions of dollars that happens to have billions upon billions of dollars in debt, essentially disappears your cartoon from the service that it was running on?

I would be demoralized. I'd be very demoralized.

Demoralized is a really good word. It's also fascinating because it's objectively wrong. Adult animation, it's really hit a stride recently; demand is only going up.

I alluded to Crunchyroll earlier, but again we've seen demand for anime go through the roof. It seems like it's very much a dated mentality that animated programming is exclusively for kids. It is just a separate art form in a way.

You've written a lot in particular about how creatively we've been in a bit of a renaissance when it comes to what one can do with animation and who animation can be for.

Yes, absolutely. I don't know, some of the best action filmmaking that I have ever seen has come from Genndy Tartakovsky, director and creator of Primal and Samurai Jack and Dexter's Laboratory.

I interviewed him a few years ago and I can't remember the exact quote, I’ve got to pull it up in my notes. I think I asked him something on the level of, "Would you want to direct a live-action film?" or something like that. And for him, it's not about that. It's not about "graduating" from animation into live action. I can't remember the exact quote, but he told me, basically, it's all about filmmaking. It's all about composing shots, creating storyboards, getting the timing, getting the action and putting a film together.

I just saw a tweet today, it's Steven Spielberg getting interviewed about something 30 or 40 years ago. He talks about how animation is the father of live-action filmmaking. The quote is like, "They need to know how a chipmunk rolls into a bank of snow or whatever, because they need to paint every motion of that chipmunk rolling over and over and over across 12 cells per second." This is Steven Spielberg. Steven Spielberg gets it. Why can't anybody else get it?

I talk to folks in the comics world who say very similar things, where it's just, they're not trying to storyboard Marvel movies 10 years from now. They're trying to do something in a format that you can uniquely only accomplish in that. You can do things in animation that you cannot do in live action and that's what makes it very cool.

It's not for nothing, but the conversations that are happening in the film and TV animated world are probably also happening at the same time in the VFX animation world. We're hearing a lot about these video effects workers on these Marvel movies talking about their labor issues, everything from increased workload leading to overly demanding schedules, and so the product resulting in it looking bad, the product looking not what a movie should look like and not adhering to some of these basic rules of filmmaking, framing and making sure what the stakes are. I think we're just in an interesting period where a lot of these big productions are coming out, you've got Star Wars, you've got all these Marvel movies, you've got the DC Extended Universe. All those require intense special effects like animators. And these two practices are very closely linked, even if they're not going after the same goals.

Where can folks find you, Eric? Where can folks find your work and what are you working on these days?

Yeah, I'm at Vulture. My Twitter handle is @e_vb_, and anything I write these days typically winds up at vulture.com.


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