April 2, 2009

Sita Sings the Computer Animated Blues?

While watching Sita Sings the Blues I was again revisited by a question that pops up everytime I see an animated movie: have computers completely taken over the realm of animation? If so, is that for the better or for the worse? If not, where does the imaginative human input end and the calculated computer software begin?

Let me clarify that I'm not criticizing Nina Paley's film. Quite the opposite - it's the most creative experiment I've seen in a long time, and it would be great if more filmmakers and artists let loose their imaginations in this way (many amateurs already do so in the form of YouTube mash-up videos, but they're never this witty or polished). But while acknowledging the brilliant style of Sita Sings the Blues, is there room to question the operational process of making animated films?

Paley, an accomplished cartoonist, reportedly worked alone on her Mac for five long years to develop Sita into a living, breathing feature-length film. There is evidence of this painstaking work in the perfect interplay of shapes and silhouettes and figures and lines and photos and music. But there's also evidence - obvious, glaring, undeniable evidence - that these elements were composed using Apple editing software. The lines measure a perfect 180 degrees, the circles an exact 360 degrees. The shapes move within and between frames smoothly as they expand and contract in the foreground and background. Eventually it all just looks too...well almost too perfect for my taste.

Consider the following stills from the film (a number of stills are available on the website):

(click to enlarge)
It's clear that Paley had to do a lot of detailed work in the top frame - five different figures of different shapes and sizes, as well as a variable background. My guess is that this particular segment of the film took a lot of time to design.

Conversely, in the bottom frame it's obvious that Paley simply cut and pasted the monkeys and the temples and the trees. Is this a cheating "shortcut"? Of course not - animated figures have been cloned for at least the past decade in all kinds of movies and TV shows, from "The Simpsons" to Shrek to "South Park" to WALL*E. That's the whole reason to use a computer in the first place.

But is something lost in translation when figures and backgrounds and shapes are perfect and symmetrical in every frame? In most cases I would say no, because in 2009 there is enough detail (look at any Pixar movie) to distract from noticing. But Sita Sings the Blues is 2-d animation, opaque and austere, and the clean choreography unfortunately reminded me of an iPod commercial, as well as a much more disastrous experiment: Tim Burton cloning Oompa-Loompas in his unforgivably bad Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The personality of the Loompas, and thus the spark of life within the factory, was completely lost from the original film (and from the book, for that matter).

I'm not saying that Sita Sings the Blues is lacking personality - that would be absurd. I'm just saying that while I loved Paley's creative use of music and figures, the animated sequences of her own life (below) actually felt much more alive to me. The crooked lines and uneven squiggly figures and funny dancing cat and sketched out city scenes popped off the screen, making the emotional bent in the story of her break-up that much stronger.

Sita Sings the Blues is an astoundingly animated, amusingly articulated film. It's brilliant. Paley's vision comes to the screen wonderfully, and she uses the "camera" like a skilled cinematographer, panning across reflected waters, utilizing fog and sunlight and moonlight, and in one of my favorite sequences, following Rama's arrow as it speeds toward its target, reminiscent of the same scene in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

But is that praise of the animation or the storyboarding? Would Sita Sings the Blues be any better if every frame were hand-drawn? Probably not in this case, and maybe it's a moot point anyway considering Paley created the entire movie without assistance from anyone; had she not taken any shortcuts it would have taken 10 years instead of five.

So where does that leave the future of animated films - will this December's The Princess and the Frog really be the last hand-drawn animated film ever? Perhaps, but while that may not be a bad thing (just imagine if WALL*E had been attempted without the power of animation software), somewhere down the road I fear we're going to lose the human element to animation. In a worst case scenario, future animated films will lack the warmth and personality of the "blemished" ones that are tucked away in my head, such as Pinocchio (incidentally the first movie I remember seeing in a theater). There's plenty of praise to sing about Sita right now, but the I wonder if blues really might be more appropriate in 15-20 years.

In the meantime, judge for yourself: Sita Sings the Blues can be legally viewed (and downloaded in high-res) in its entirety here.


  1. hey thanks for this....wudnt find it anywhere in india..as it wud cause a religious uproar!!!

  2. Happy to help you find it - and thanks to YOU for that sweet trailer. I will definitely keep an eye out for Arjun if it comes this way. You don't see hand-drawn animation of that quality anymore!


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