With the technology used in most animations today, it’s almost impossible to imagine how primitive its beginnings were. From the Zoopraxiscope to the introduction of motion sensor technology, the leap forward made by animation in the last 100 years has been astonishing.
Despite this leap forward however, there are still some animations out there that have still kept an element of the past, specifically from the Silent Era, in their animations through characters that don’t speak.
Every animation with silent characters has a different way for compensating for the characters lack of speech. One best examples of this comes from the Hanna-Barbera cartoon Tom and Jerry. The clip below shows Tom shooting pool balls at Jerry, and the sound they make whenever they smack off the board and the pool cue are much more louder, sharper and distinct than the sound effects you’d hear in a cartoon where the characters speak. The facial expression on both Jerry and Tom are much less neutral as well.
Another animation that uses silent characters, even though most of the characters that do speak, is the stop motion animation Wallace and Gromit. Gromit, the dog, is the silent character. To compinsate for his silence, animators use subtle effects to convey his emotions. Instead of using exaggerated facial expressions like the animators use in Tom and Jerry, they use a more subtle and clever approach to convey his emotions. As you’ll see in the clip below they use just his eyes and his brow to convey what his thoughts are, without hamming it up and making him exaggerate every action.
Probably the only recent animated film to use silent characters is the Pixar animation, Wall-E. While Wall-E isn’t totally silent throughout the film, he has no real speech system to convey his feelings. Like most other silent characters he relies on his facial expressions and his eyes to help convey how he feels to the audience. The one thing that I think makes Wall-E different from most silent characters is that he has more than just shallow, 2 dimensional emotions. The curiosity he shows at finding certain things while he’s collecting scraps, almost engages the audience to try and interpret his personality and what he really wants.
There’s many more animations with characters that don’t talk, and most of which follow the same path of the animations listed above, by using other ways to “speak” to the audience. While there’s no way someone could say definitively that one is better than the other, I think that silent characters come off as much more deeper than characters that can speak. And I think the reason that is, is because the audience is allowed to fill in the blanks as to the way that character really feels about certain things. Even though the animator probably doesn’t do this on purpose, it’s almost as if, there’s another layer to silent characters that doesn’t exist in talking ones. What makes it even better, is that this layer is different for every person.
An anime series adapted from an original manga series, Mushi-Shi, takes you into a world where ghost-like organisms called “Mushi” exists and actively affect the lives of human beings. The series follows the main character Ginko through different villages, where he solves (and doesn’t solve) different problems that originate from Mushi. As he travels from village to village and solving different problems, his past is revealed on piece at a time and we’re slowly made aware of how he ended up losing one of his eyes, and why he moves from village to village and can’t stay in one place for too long.
The magic of this anime comes not just from the different types of Mushi that are encountered, but how they interact and affect the lives and morality of humans. While most of them affect humans without their knowledge, some are actually used by humans for their benefit. In one particular episode, a head of a village has a seed that guarantees a bountiful harvest year round no matter what the conditions are, but comes at a terrible price. By the end of the harvest, one random person in the village grows a seed on their tongue, and dies several days after. Once they die, the seed falls off their tongue and can be used again for another years harvest. While it’s obvious that no one wants anyone in the village to suffer this, when famine rolls around their desperation brings them to use the seed every once a while.
The plot of this episode just sums up what makes this anime so special. The fact that these tiny, invisible beings can not only affect humans physically, but can even distort what right and wrong is. While most people wouldn’t kill one of their own neighbhors/friends for food, even if it was for the greater good of the group, if they were presented with that choice in reality facing death in the face they’d probably take it. They’d even do it multiple times if they had to.
Overall this anime was a quality series from beginning to end. Each episode was different, and each had an equal chance of either ending with joy, or despair. The most prevalent underlying theme that I felt from the series was “the world is a very cruel place”. Even though there was a good equal amount of sad episodes and happy ones, the one’s that ended in tragedy left more of a mark then the one’s that ended on a happy note.
While animation has been used in a variety of controversial ways, to convey a variety of messages, one element that surprisingly doesn’t get at all is the concept of the 2 dimensional character. While this isn’t something that’s that much of an issue for the protagonist, for the villain and side characters it’s another story. While more recent children animations rarely have the “bad guys” painted in a totally opaque light, in the early 90’s and prior, pretty much every character that wasn’t the protagonist was shown in a simple non-conflictiting manner.
In other words bad guys had been bad guys from the day they were born, jerks had always been jerks, etc. My problem with this is that it fills kids with a pre-conceived notion that is someone is bad they’ll always be bad and there’s no way you can change them. It teaches kids to not have any emphathy for anyone they perceive as a bad guy and to not be forgiving.
While there are many flaws in having an archetype bad guy in animation, they can be used sometimes to good effect. For example In Toy Story 3, while the main antagonist Lotso was bad throughout the movie and went back and showed how he became what he was. And even after he tried to throw Woody and co, into the dumpster, he was still forgiven and helped in the end (even though he still betrayed them). Another example is Rattlesnake Jake from the movie Rango, who ended up helping Rango out, even though he was the one who chased him out of town and threatened him in the first place.
While I realize that most animation is dependent on the use of over exaggeration in everything, I think this is one element that needs to stay human. Without an understanding of what makes people go bad, kids can easily fall down the same path themselves. It’s not animations responsibility to govern the hearts of people growing up, it can be used as a medium to help shape them into a better person.
Last week when I was flipping through Netflix, I came across a couple of Wallace and Gromit short films. Out of the three I watched, the one that stuck with me the most was one titled “A Grand Day Out”. In the beginning of the short, Wallace and Gromit are planning out their next vacation destination and are about to snack on some cheese and crackers when Wallace realizes they don’t have any cheese. Because of this Wallace decides that he and Gromit should go someplace where there’s lots of cheese and end up picking the Moon as their vacay destination. They get there by household tools to build a rocket in the garage. Once they’re on the lunar surface they start hacking off pieces of the lunar surface, and start finding out that the “cheese” on the moon taste funny. As they go from spot to spot trying to find better cheese, they end up starting up some sort of oven robot that ends up chasing them off the Moon for violating some rules. And despite trying his best to hang onto the rocket ends up getting thrown back onto the moon where he realizes his dream of skiing.
While I loved the plot and how it feels like even someone on the most wildest of acid trips couldn’t conceive it, the thing that I loved the most about it is just the way they used specific sounds to imitate the actions of the clay. It’s not like they over exaggerate the sounds, but they make them sound like they would sound if the clay figures were actually doing the actions that they were doing. It’s hard to describe what I mean but it’s like the sound they made for each action isn’t the sound that you’d hear in real life if normal people did it. But it is the sound you’d hear if the clay figures were real and were actually doing the actions they were portrayed as doing.
Being a big Wallace and Gromit fan I’ve noticed this in more than just this one short, but this is the only one where I’ve seen it so much. The one scene where Wallace and Gromit are bulding the rocket for example shows it many times as you’ll see in the clip below.
I couldn’t find the actual animation on Youtube, but if you have abut 20-20 minutes to spare I suggest you definatly check it out.