"Ratatouille"'s odd boast: no shortcuts here

"Ratatouille"'s odd boast: no shortcuts here

Last week, I drew the enjoyable duty of previewing Pixar's latest animated film, Ratatouille, the CGI story of a French rat who wants to be a French chef. Not to spoil my upcoming review, but I enjoyed it a lot. (Though I enjoyed listening to my usually grim, close-mouthed fellow critics chortle up a storm almost as much.)

I stopped chortling myself when I got to the end of the credits, which included a weird little seal of self-approval, with a smug-looking rat presiding over the words "100% Animation" and a boast that "no motion capture or other shortcuts" were used in making the film.

Huh?

I've read in the past that some critics (and animators) were contemptuous of early Disney films that used rotoscoping – shooting live-action, then essentially tracing over the live image. It sometimes looks clunky and cheaty, but when it was done really well – say, in Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, or in the dance scene at the end of Sleeping Beauty – it produced animated images that were amazingly lifelike and fluid compared to what most people were doing at the time. Granted, when it's done badly, it looks obvious and sloppy – Ralph Bakshi was constantly taking flak for using the technique, notably as a shortcut in Wizards and The Lord Of The Rings. Rotoscoping has been done so poorly so often that it's earned a really bad name.

But motion capture? Frankly, when I think of motion capture in cinema these days, I think of high-end work like Gollum in Peter Jackson's Lord Of The Rings, or the unusual computer-conversion technique used in Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly. That's a time-consuming, expensive, difficult process, not a quickie throwaway process, and typing it as a "shortcut" seems needlessly niche-y and snide, like bragging that you wrote your new novel in longhand on a legal pad instead of on a computer. Okay, that's nice, but isn't the content the important part, and not the format it was created in? If a motion-capture film looks creepy and distracting like The Polar Express, that's one thing, but if it looks great, like Monster House, does the source material for the images matter that much?

The easy answer is that it matters to some technically minded people, notably the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; last year saw a growing debate over whether films that rely heavily on motion-capture can really be considered "animated" as far as the Animated Film category of the Oscars goes. (Two 2006 nominees, Monster House and the winner, Happy Feet, used motion capture; the third, Pixar's Cars, didn't.) I find this a little hard to understand; stop-motion is still considered animation to the exact same degree that cel animation is, but generating computer animation over footage of a moving actor isn't? The latter seems far closer to traditional cel-animation techniques than the former, if you want to use cel animation as the gold standard.

But there's a difference between presenting the Academy with proof of your film's qualifications in a category, and bragging directly to the viewer, in the process cutting down all the other films made differently from yours. So far as I know, no one's making Ratatouille's animation process a big public selling point; I haven't seen any ads loudly proclaiming that it's "real" animation, instead of that phony, cheap, easy motion-capture crap, which isn't cheap or easy. (I'll leave "phony" up to you.)

So why the boast? Why the little self-created seal of approval? I don't know. Pixar produces wonderful films, and I'd be proud myself if I'd worked on one, and the urge to grant myself little awards might be high. But in this case, to me, it just seems like a false note of smugness that doesn't reflect particularly well on a company that I normally hugely respect.