Being the silly dreamer I am

Thursday, 28 April 2005 — 10:24pm | Animation, Film, Video games

A few days ago, Jim Hill published a piece stirring up some rumblings of Disney reassessing traditional animation. Apparently, the box-office underperformance of the last few all-CG smash-hits-to-be from various studios is getting the Mouse House in a sweat – which is without question a good thing, because it’s about time someone realized that the post-Lion King fall of 2D and rise of CG had very little to do with one medium supplanting another, and more to do with the quality of the stories involved. (Then the diverging momenta were only kept on course by marketing practices, like Warner’s appalling mismarketing of traditional animation’s last stand, The Iron Giant.)

The bottom line is that you can’t drive a film with technology alone, and even mainstream audiences are beginning to realize it. Pixar continues to churn out hit after hit because their projects are propelled by creative artists, particularly those with a 2D background (as was the case with Brad Bird’s core team in The Incredibles), who understand that their technique is a means of signification and not an end. The best films have a vision that challenges and steers the market; they don’t come about because somebody is trying to game the market and predict where the money lies. Boardroom decisions and filmmaking make for an unhappy partnership. It says something that the animated films I am most interested in seeing this year, aside from the one I’m going to mention in a paragraph’s time, are both done in Claymation.

Is anybody of those in my readership well versed in children’s and young adult fiction familiar with the novels of Diana Wynne Jones? One of them, Howl’s Moving Castle, was the subject of a recent Hayao Miyazaki film that is being brought over to North America in June. Word is that it will see both a subtitled and dubbed release, which is welcome news. I passed on Spirited Away in theatres because of the lack of a subtitled release, which was a painful waiting game for one of the very best movies I’ve seen this decade.

I hear that dubbed Miyazaki releases are not half bad, given how John Lasseter supervised the one for Spirited Away and Pete Docter is doing the same for Howl’s Moving Castle; as directors of stellar animated films themselves who revere the work of Studio Ghibli, I’m sure they have no tolerance for subpar quality. Still, I avoid watching dubs whenever possible as a matter of principle.

Could you imagine watching a film like Downfall with the voices dubbed over? (That’s a hint to watch Downfall, by the way – it’s magnificent.) So much of Bruno Ganz’s outstandingly, terrifyingly mad performance as Adolf Hitler is how his voice distorts and projects the coarse, glottal utterances of the German language. It’s irreplaceable, and one instance of many where that is the case.

Now, my opposition is not to the idea of recording voices off the set and layering them over pre-existing footage – that would be silly, since so much film dialogue is done in ADR. Aunt Beru and Darth Vader had separate voice actors in Star Wars, as did most of the supporting Italian cast in just about every Sergio Leone spaghetti Western. Almost all musicals have separate vocal tracks, sometimes with different actors entirely – Natalie Wood did not sing her part in West Side Story, nor did Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady or Minnie Driver in The Phantom of the Opera.

But the use of language in those films preserves a sense of internal consistency; you couldn’t have The Good, the Bad the Ugly with both English and Italian, and subtitles translating the Italian. You can have entire foreign films in their original language instead of recording translated lines with out-of-character unsynchronized voices. Dubbing dumbs down the work and dilutes it. Given how that possibility is available, why throw it away? I do not find that animation merits an exception just because the mouth movements are abstracted and synchronization is less of an issue.

Film is thankfully returning to equilibrium after the growing pains of a new technology fetish, and it is marked by a revaluation of aesthetic integrity. Unfortunately, video games are not quite there yet, and most of the recent history of video gaming is a history of technology fetishism and oneupmanship. Of the major players, Nintendo is the only one actively resisting the trend, which is one of many reasons they receive my continued support. I do not simply refer to experimental interfaces like blowing clouds away on the Nintendo DS or controlling Donkey Kong with a pair of bongo drums, but to their first-party software’s refusal to play ball with the trend towards photorealism.

Bringing it back to the subtitling issue, some criticize Nintendo for its continued resistance to voice acting, aside from a few abortive stabs at it like the horrid opening cutscene to Super Mario Sunshine. There is a major fallacy in the logic of some of those who think adopting voice acting is inherently immersive, and that is the assumption that the delivery of a story by way of text boxes is a relic of the technical limitations of an age gone by. It isn’t.

If you look at a recent game like Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, a very text-heavy title, the use of text boxes in speech bubbles was an integral part of the storybook aesthetic. It was used to simulate ambient background speech, rapid-fire speech you can hardly pick up, angry speech in shaky bold letters, and a myriad of other effects. Saying that video games are inherently better off with voices is like saying that just because comic books can come with bundled audio tracks, they should abandon their distinct use of stylized onomatopoeic lettering and panel-to-panel dialogue balloon trickery.

There have been games with impressive voice acting of cinematic quality that one would not want to do without – the Tim Schafer classic Grim Fandango comes to mind, as do the recent Knights of the Old Republic titles. They are not by themselves a valid argument that all games should necessarily be cinematic, as attested to by the success of video game titles that opt for harnessing current-generation technology and techniques such as cel-shading to move towards cartoon visuals – Paper Mario being one, The Wind Waker and Viewtiful Joe being others of note. If we can accept that visuals need not move towards realism, we can accept that dialogue-by-text is here to stay.

Which begs the question of oddities like the next Zelda game, which clearly has graphics that return to the pseudo-real and look really good in doing so, but is reportedly still avoiding voice acting. This decision has come under fire from the usual suspects like Matt Casamassina of IGN, who says, “This new game promises to be so epic on so many levels. It’s a shame to see Nintendo skimping on production values where voice work is concerned… I’m not even suggesting that Link needs to talk. He can remain a mute, for all I care. But the story would flow better if the characters he encountered used speech.”

My response to that is this: production values be damned – it’s not a limitation, it’s a valid artistic decision. The thing about abstraction is that it presents some degree of universal interpretability along the spectrum between the designer’s and player’s imaginations. Games, by the very nature of being interactive, should involve both elements. As for this franchise in particular, the last thing I want to see and hear is a Zelda adventure with hokey American accents like the television episodes that aired with The Super Mario Bros. Super Show back in the day. (Excuuuuuse me, princess.)

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