Tuesday, October 8, 2013

In Defense of Lino DiSalvo And Disney's Frozen

I came out of blogging hiatus for this one.

Head of Theatrical Animation for Frozen, Lino DiSalvo, has triggered a shit storm with some comments about animating female characters.

“Historically speaking, animating female characters are really, really difficult, ’cause they have to go through these range of emotions, but they’re very, very — you have to keep them pretty and they’re very sensitive to — you can get them off a model very quickly. So, having a film with two hero female characters was really tough, and having them both in the scene and look very different if they’re echoing the same expression; that Elsa looking angry looks different from Anna (Kristen Bell) being angry.”

Taken at face value, this is a collossal pile of garbage. The problem is that this statement cannot be taken at face value. This statement does not just represent him, his work, or the film; it represents all of Disney. His statement is the end result of a complex system of artists, writers, marketers, designers, executives, and blithering idiots on all levels and from all corners of Disney Corp.


You have to ask yourself, why would he say something that even vis-a-vis the rest of the Disney catalog, is entirely false. Look at Pixar's various females. Look at the characters in Bolt. Disney's two greatest feats of character animation of the past thirty years, Ursula and Yzma, were both females. He knows full well that it's very easy to create a female that is loaded with character and energy. He has to know. As such, his statement must mean something else.

What is not easy is creating a female that fulfills all of the other requirements of a massive, vertically-integrated, monstrosity like an animated Disney tent-pole film. These characters must be pretty, and accessible, and not too complex, and must sell toys, and fit into the Disney Princess Line, and sell comics, and be on Halloween costumes, and this, and that, and everything. Yeah! That sounds like a nightmare!

Basically, I think that this guy stuttering was not him trying to avoid insulting people, it was him trying to complain about the difficulties of working within Disney without saying that working within Disney sucks! He was complaining about being the factory grunt in charge of creating grist for the Disney mill. He is only a single part of a massive machine that produces everything from branded toothbrush heads to Happy Meals. His work can never stand alone as is. It must always play nice with the other parts of the company.

Let's pick apart his statement a bit to figure out how and why this is so.

First, when he says "female characters," he actually means lead female characters. He's not talking about Ursula or Mrs. Potts. He's talking about Belle and Jasmine. He's talking about princesses.

Next, he puts the concept of emotions in conflict with keeping them pretty. Basically, he's saying that the character needs to be kept attractive at all times while still displaying emotion. That's true of every Disney film. Go watch any Disney movie. Watch the emotions. Not a single Disney Princess is an ugly crier.

He then reveals that his situation is only one part of a broader system when he talks about emotions getting off a model. All characters are designed with character sheets that come from character designers and usually have pages of facial expression sketches. If an animator gives a character too much emotion, it usually falls off the "spec" for that character. And when a character is intended to be as bland as possible, it's going to be super-freaking-easy to fall off "spec."

This applies to the males as well, just not to the same extreme. There is some flexibility in lead male design, but not much. Aladdin was boring as hell, and the princes in Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and Snow White were ambulatory coma patients.

In short, lead characters must be boring, bland, attractive, and as ever more people are attacking Disney for, white. How the hell does an artist work within those boundaries? Apparently, by creating the same character over and over and over.

But why the hell is that the case? Why is Snow White a soulless cypher while the dwarves are literal embodiments of character? It's because the cartoonish characters are intended to be entertaining; the lead characters are intended to be shells — avatars that carry retrograde sociocultural views in ways that would be subtle if they weren't so fucking blatant. They epitomize ideals so deeply entrenched in our zeitgeist that we may not even be aware of many of them. There is a word to specifically describe what these avatars carry: mores- folkways of central importance accepted without question and embodying the fundamental moral views of a group.

As such, they need to be somewhat soulless. If they have souls, if they have character, than that would overwhelm the underlying values that we are subconsciously projecting onto them.

Disney's cartoon characters, such as the dwarves, bad guys, any sidekicks — actually, anyone who isn't the white, cisgendered, heterosexual couple at the center of the story — are free to be fully realized characters. We can love them, hate them, relate or not relate. That's because it's the lead characters that are intended to be the characters with whom we actually relate. For me, that's what makes these characters so malicious. They are the characters in whose roles we see ourselves. No one sees themself as Cogsworth.

(Conversely, fans of animation universally despise the lead characters and instead spend all of their time waxing poetic about the bad guys. Seriously, go look at the list of Annie Award winners for Character Animation in a Feature Production. Not a single one is a lead character.)

An excellent exemplar for this are Disney Theme Parks characters. They have characters and then they have face characters. These are the people that are not hidden behind masks and must speak and directly interact with park guests. The face characters are always the leads. They're the pretty ones. They are the ones that speak and smile and emote. They are the ones who are, essentially, human.

By keeping the characters bland, the maximum number of people can effectively project themselves into the fantasy, which means maximum profit when time comes to sell toys. At least theoretically, this needn't be bad. Theoretically, these could be classified as archetypes. It becomes pernicious when that also means catering to the worst elements of our social mores. Here, archetypes are used as tools for reinforcing those bad elements instead of being used as tools to make an otherwise good, complex story relatable in a universal way.

Disney isn't just selling a product, they are reinforcing and encouraging negative elements of our society that we are fighting to get rid of! As we fight to eradicate homophobia, sexism, racism, classism, ageism, and all other forms of prejudice, Disney is actively fighting against us because they know that many people want these prejudices to be true.

We may not admit it and we may not really think about the ramifications of these stories, but we want them. Some of us want them so bad it hurts. We want our princes and princesses; we want to be beautiful, white, straight, and rich; we want our fairy tales; we want a reality that plays to our complex underlying mores and doesn't challenge us. Disney plays like crazy to these prejudices.

For example, go Google "Princess." Princess Cruise Lines is the first entry, but Disney Princesses are the second, and the image search is nothing but Disney. The princess fantasy existed before Disney, but sweet mother of God has Disney expanded its significance. At this point, Disney fucking owns the word.

Disney's face characters are not products in themselves. They are vessels that Disney crafts that are then filled with prejudice. Some of this prejudice comes from Disney, but much of it comes from those eating it up; it is a cultural problem, not just a Disney problem.

So do not attack Lino for his quote, attack all of Disney, and indeed all of society, for what the quote represents. It represents a culture of sexism, racism, ageism (ewww), rapacious capitalism, and a lack of creative vision that has been rotting the company from the inside for years.

Walt Disney wasn't a perfect guy, but he was interested in art. The Disney of today couldn't care less about art, as Michael Eisner famously said. The Disney of today is only interested in creating a movie that fits in with what Disney actually sells: junk.

The actual creative element at Disney is a mere supporting role, intended to do nothing more than generate grist that can be milled into junk that is manufactured in China, sold in New York, and eventually tossed into the trail of trash, left through time and space, by our society as it charges drunkenly forward, obsessed with a corrupt fairy tale about itself.

What a magical kingdom we have built.

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