Lost in the jungle of 3-D animation

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Lost in the jungle of 3-D animation


“The Snake Charmer” (1907) by Henri Rousseau. Oil on canvas, Musee d’Orsay, Paris

Since 2000, the world’s animated feature film market has been dominated by animated films that use computer graphics and 3-D effects, including “Finding Nemo” and “Up” by Pixar Animation Studios and the “Shrek” series by DreamWorks Animation. The rest of the animated film world finally seems to have caught up, although Walt Disney Animation Studios recently released “The Princess and the Frog,” as a traditional animated film in 2-D.

In addition, the huge success of the film “Avatar” will likely lead producers of animated film to use not only 3-D CG but also stereoscopic 3-D technologies. In fact, DreamWorks has already announced that it will now use stereoscopic 3-D technology for all of its films.

If most animated films go 3-D, however, I will not be happy. I know that animated films made with 3-D technology have a bigger presence than 2-D films due to the sheer volume of the figures on the screen.


“The Sleeping Gypsy” (1897), by Henri Rousseau (1844-1910), Oil on canvas, MoMA, New York

But traditionally-animated films have something that their high-tech cousins don’t - beautiful pictures.

One of the directors who knows how to get the most out of 2-D animation is Michel Ocelot (1943~). The French director is well known for exquisite silhouette films such as “Princes and Princesses” (2000). He applied some 3-D CG technology to his animated film “Azur and Asmar” but he continued to describe the backgrounds as flat surfaces filled with various arabesques. Accordingly, the images came to look like partly-protruding Islamic miniatures. The effect was strange but beautiful.

Ocelot first gained recognition in Korea with the release of his 1998 traditionally-animated film “Kirikou and the Sorceress,” which is based on a West African folktale. It tells of a strange boy, Kirikou, who speaks in his mother’s womb even before his birth and runs with super-speed as soon as he is born. He leaves home to defeat the witch Karaba, who has been harassing the people in his village.

The film draws out its story slowly but tastefully, just like a grandmother’s tale. There is also an exciting twist in the latter part of the movie, related to why the witch has become so evil. The twist reflects Ocelot’s philosophy that problems should be solved with tolerance, understanding and nonviolence.

But I think that one of the biggest charms of the film is its picturesque visual images. The colors of Kirikou’s home and village - yellowish brown and red brown - complement the rich chocolate color of the village people’s skin well. And though they are drawn in strong colors, their forms are simple. In contrast, the trees and grass in the jungle scenes are described extremely elaborately and they overlap with each other, looking like a wall filled with exquisite patterns of green.


A scene from “Kirikou and the Sorceress” (1998)

The film’s jungle scenes remind me of the French artist Henri Rousseau (1844-1910), who himself was famous for his fantastic jungle paintings. In Rousseau’s “Snake Charmer,” for example, every leaf of every tropical plant is portrayed meticulously. We can say that all of the colors are green, but in reality the green of each plant is somewhat different from that of another. The shapes also vary widely. The plants in this painting, none of which were painted carelessly, display their own clear forms and colors, coming together to create a mysterious kind of harmony.

Rousseau, who has been called a “naive artist,” painted every blade of grass in the distance with precision and earnestness. This, ironically, removed the sense of depth from the painting, which was a deviation from the tradition of realism in the landscape paintings of Western art. Rousseau was essentially a self-taught artist, and did not receive a formal education in the academy. He studied painting, working as a low-ranking public servant for a long time. He made his debut in his early 40s, and his paintings and background were ridiculed at first.

However, Rousseau’s lucid but unrealistic images have a strange power. His paintings look like the pieces of dreams, which are sometimes more vivid and colorful than reality. The paintings also carry the artist’s innocent sense of awe and affection for nature.

“The Snake Charmer” shows a black snake slowly and calmly slinking through the dense jungle, lured by the sound of a flute that is played by a sorceress, painted in black. The sorceress wears another snake around her neck, and three more snakes coil around her feet. At the first glance, I was appalled by the shadows of the snakes and the sharp eyes of the sorceress. But after seeing the three snakes turning around the sorceress in harmony with the flute melodies and a bird peacefully standing near them, I began to smile at the innocent and childlike expression. And I like the pale white moon on the pastel blue sky, which is so poetic.

These elements, which are characteristic of Rousseau’s paintings, eventually began to attract young avant-garde writers and painters of the time, such as the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire and the Spanish painter Pablo Picasso. Rousseau’s jungle paintings were made in his latter years and, in one of these years, Picasso held a party for Rousseau at his studio.

One of the earlier paintings that earned Rousseau the attention of the critics, rather than their ridicule, was “The Sleeping Gypsy,” of which Rousseau himself was especially proud. It is said that he asked the government of Laval, his home city in France, to purchase this painting but the request was not accepted.

According to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which is the current holder of the painting, Rousseau described the subject of The Sleeping Gypsy in this way: “A wandering Negress, a mandolin player, lies with her jar beside her [a vase with drinking water], overcome by fatigue in a deep sleep. A lion chances to pass by, picks up her scent yet does not devour her. There is a moonlight effect, very poetic.”

This painting is so poetic that the artist himself called it “poetic” as well, especially because of the pale white moon, which also appeared in The Snake Charmer.

Jean Cocteau (1889-1963), a French poet and film director, was fascinated by The Sleeping Gypsy and also wrote about it. He regarded it as a painting from a dream, saying that all the things in the painting, including the lion and the river, could be seen as the sleeping gypsy’s dream.

This painting was another that did not follow the traditional techniques used in Western art to make paintings more realistic - such as perspective and a sense of depth. But its strange perspective has created a dream-like and mystical atmosphere, which is what fascinated Cocteau and so many other artists.

The animated film Kirikou and the Sorceress has successfully adopted the beauty of Rousseau’s paintings - through the use of 2-D animation. But all of that would be lost in the world of 3-D animation. Am I the only one to recognize this?

By Moon So-young [symoon@joongang.co.kr]
Related Korean Article

미셸 오슬로의 ‘키리쿠와 마녀’와 루소의 ‘뱀을 부리는 사람’

2000년 이후 극장용 애니메이션은 픽사의 ‘업,’ 드림웍스의 ‘슈렉’ 시리즈 같은 3D CG 작품이 주도하고 있다. 최근 오랜만에 디즈니의 정통 2D 애니메이션 ‘공주와 개구리’가 나오기도 했지만, 대세는 3D로 굳어진 것 같다. 게다가 드림웍스의 제프리 카젠버그는 이미 모든 애니메이션을 3D 입체상영용으로 만들겠다고 하지 않았는가.
하지만 애니메이션이 3D 일색으로만 가는 것이 그리 반갑지는 않다. 물론 3D 작품은 양감으로 인한 실재감과 박진감이 뛰어나다는 장점이 있다. 하지만 2D 만화 또한 그만의 장점이 있다. 바로 회화적 아름다움 말이다.

이런 2D 애니메이션만의 매력을 극대화하는 작가 중에 프랑스의 미셸 오슬로(1943~)가 있다. 그는 최근작 ‘아주르와 아스마르(2006)’에서 3D를 부분적으로 사용했지만, 그것을 정교한 아라베스크 무늬들로 가득한 2D 배경과 결합해서, 부분적으로 튀어나온 이슬람 세밀화를 보는 것 같은 기묘하고 아름다운 영상을 창조해냈다.

오슬로의 이름을 본격적으로 알린 작품은 아프리카 민담을 바탕으로 한 2D 애니메이션 ‘키리쿠와 마녀 (1998)’ 라고 할 수 있다. 엄마 배 속에서부터 말을 하고, 태어나자마자 엄청난 속도로 달리는 신기한 꼬마 키리쿠가, 마을 사람들을 괴롭히는 마녀 카라바를 물리치러 가는 이야기다. 이 만화는 마치 말투 느린 할머니에게서 듣는 옛이야기 같아서, 나른하게 전개되면서도 은근히 감칠맛이 있다. 게다가 마녀에게도 나름의 사연이 있고 그와 관련한 막판 반전이 있어서, 비폭력과 톨레랑스를 통한 문제 해결을 강조하는 오슬로의 철학을 잘 보여주기도 한다.

하지만 뭐니 뭐니 해도 ‘키리쿠와 마녀’의 매력은 그림 같은 영상미일 것이다. 심플하게 묘사된 마을의 황갈색과 붉은색이 역시 심플하게 묘사된 사람들의 초콜릿색 피부가 멋들어진 조화를 이룬다. 반면에 정글의 나무와 풀들은 극도로 세밀하게 묘사되어 있으면서 평면적으로 겹쳐져 있어서(사진 1), 마치 다양하고 정교한 초록색 패턴으로 가득한 신비로운 벽면을 보는 느낌이다.
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