It’s really odd how random things can inspire ideas.
The other day I was wasting some time on Pinterest and I found a gif someone had made of a seemingly trivial detail in How to Train Your Dragon 2. A key scene early in the film depicts a conversation between the protagonist Hiccup and his girlfriend Astrid, as the former, having been told by his father that he is about to be named his successor as Chief, tries to reconcile what he knows and does not know about himself with that future. The two sit together in a long shot, their dragons playing together in the background, the map Hiccup has been drawing – itself a symbol of his restlessness, his uncertainty about his future channelled into an attempt to bring certainty to the shape of the world around him – momentarily abandoned. Hiccup looks into the distance and absent-mindedly twirls the charcoal pencil he was using to expand that map in his fingers. The gif isolated this small action and was captioned with “the way he twirls his charcoal…those hands though,” as if it held some fascination that went far beyond the emotional weight of the scene. And that got me thinking about detail and realism in animation.
One of the things that early film theorists often praised about cinema was its ability to capture the random and seemingly endless detail of reality due to a quality basic to cinema as a photographic medium, what French literary theorist Roland Barthes calls “denotative excess.” The concept relies on the idea that everything we write or say has two levels of meaning: the denotative or literal meaning and the connotative or figural meanings associated with what’s said. The word “chair,” for example, denotes a piece of furniture, typically composed of four legs, a seat, and a back, on which one sits –– but it also brings to mind a whole host associations attached to the word “chair,” like rest and safety, for example.
Literature is somewhat limited in what it can denote since everything must be deliberately relayed by the author. Photography, and therefore film, on the other hand, automatically records the tiniest detail of the world, denoting far more than is strictly necessary to any narrative it might be telling. If an author writes, “He picked up his cup of coffee from the table,” for example, the reader is given the outline of a very limited set of elements – a cup, a table, a hand. If the same action were rendered on film, however, those elements would be accompanied by a whole host of other details – the texture of the skin on the man’s hand, the tension in his muscles created by his grip on the mug, a small drip of coffee on its lip where he had taken a previous sip, the wood grain on the table, and endlessly on. While similar details could be added to a literary depiction, they would have to be deliberately constructed, a task which Barthes suggests aids in the suggestion of realism. In film, however, this is done automatically, almost without choice. Some theorists celebrated those extraneous details above film’s ability to tell stories, more fascinated with the bird that was accidentally caught flying into a long shot than with the action that shot was meant to capture.
We are now so familiar with film’s ability to capture the full detail of reality, however, that it holds little fascination for us. The way our hands move, the texture of everyday items, the indentations made by pen on paper, don’t usually captivate us, and it seems odd to even suggest they could. We have seen it all before. Imagine, however, you had been born before the invention of film. There would be certain aspects of life you simply would never have seen. If you wanted to know what it looked like to kiss someone your only option would be to sit and stare at a couple making out directly in front of you. I’m pretty sure that would be socially frowned upon now, let alone 100 years ago. And an invitation to a punch in the face. Now imagine you went to your first film and saw a kiss shot in a tight close-up, rendered in the full detail photography is capable of. How fascinating would that be? You could see everything, stare at anything, without the threat of a black eye.
CGI allows that fascination back into our experience of watching films.
Different CGI animated films make differing attempts at creating something like live-action film’s excess of details. Some are content to use a traditional drawn animation style, while others strive for something that resembles live-action and all its detail, while others still strike a relative balance. Both How to Train Your Dragon films create such a balance, retaining the style of traditional animation in the faces of the characters, while making gestures to denotative excess – Hiccup’s collection of paint brushes and books with Coptic binding in his workshop, the dirt under Valka’s nails, Hiccup’s freckles in the first film and bit of a five o’clock shadow in the second, the shape of the dragons’ wings subtly changing with the wind, the movement of Hiccup’s hair synchronized to the beat of those wings. These details become fascinating because they had to be deliberately placed there. Someone had to be a keen enough study of the world to know they should be there and someone had to have the skill to render them convincingly, not because they were entirely necessary for the story being told (it’s unlikely that most viewers will even be aware of them), but because they add something to the richness of the world. Details become significant, in other words, because when we notice them they suddenly impress upon us the skill of the filmmakers. We suddenly remember the craft involved and that somehow makes the details marvellous, makes film marvellous, again. This fascination is not the same as that expressed by early film theorists, since it reverses their basic premise: what was praised as an automatic process, an inherent property of film, is here a matter of craft. Yet, it has something of the same spirit.
That scene at the beginning of How to Train Your Dragon 2 is beautifully written and performed (and I mean performed in the larger sense that term gains in animation, the combined efforts of voice actor and animators), able to set out the emotional stakes of the film and to speak to the experience of restlessly longing for something else that many people have felt in a more compelling way than any other film I’ve seen. Those hands though…