I received a complimentary copy of the The Art of Bolt in the mail recently. I’m going to ignore the fact that it wasn’t intended for me since there was a note inside of the book that was addressed to the editor of a certain other animation-related print magazine which shall remain unnamed.
In terms of text, there’s little to discuss. The book, credited to Mark Cotta Vaz, is thin in the writing department, even relative to other ‘art of’ books in my collection. It makes me wonder why I invest so much effort when I’m hired to write similar ‘art of’ books. With the exception of a dozen or so pages of text, everything else is quotes, including deep bits of insights like the following from a couple of the animators: “Animating a dog is quite complicated. Instead of two legs you have four, and the overall motion is something the audience is very familiar with, so it has to look perfect for everyone to believe in it.”
Then again, it’s called The ART of Bolt for a reason. We buy these books for the artwork and there’s plenty of that on every page. At times, the book almost feels like it should be titled “The Art of Paul Felix.” It’s dominated by the digital paintings of Felix, who was art director on the movie. I’m not complaining. Felix’s work is skillful and has a certain charm. There are also plenty of other digital paintings by artists including Greg Miller, Jim Finn, Ric Sluiter, Kevin Nelson, Sean Samuels, as well as some graphite drawings (how quaint!) by Bill Perkins.
The buzzword for the art direction of this film is “painterly.” It’s repeated frequently in the book, and they cite a desire to recreate the “painterly” feel of Edward Hopper, George Bellows and the Ashcan School artists. It’ll be interesting to see how this painterly notion appears onscreen since the treatment of light and color has been a weak point in a lot of contemporary CGI (though it is improving). There are examples in the book of render tests, and what they illustrate is that in CGI, “painterly” translates to softer textures and a brushstroke feel, but at the end of the day, the backgrounds are still controlled by the perfect geometries of a computer-generated image. It is, at best, an approximation of a painter’s work. There is no abstraction of masses or compositional decisions that are based outside the realm of the digital model. That is not a fault of the artists so much as it is asking something of the technology that it is incapable of providing. But it’s also why I find it difficult to muster enthusiasm for page after page of Disney’s attempt to codify a “painterly” approach in their films (top image) without really ever approaching anything remotely as exciting as a true painter’s work (bottom image, by George Bellows).
One area in which CGI doesn’t have to play second-fiddle to the traditional arts is in the realm of characters, and there’s plenty of character design artwork in this book. The book offers solid and appealing designs by lead designer Joe Moshier, supported by work from Jin Kim and Chen-Yi Chang. Moshier comes from the Tom Oreb school of character design, and he does the super-graphic and elegant shapes and forms as well as anybody today. I think his designs excite me even more than Craig Kellman’s designs for Madagascar, which is another heavily Oreb-influenced production. My reservations are in the obviousness of the design choices. There’s never any real exploration of the graphic possibilities, such as what one saw in Teddy Newton’s inventive character exploration work on The Incredibles.
Another thing that I don’t see in the character designs is a unified vision of the universe, especially not in the way that was evident in the work of Chris Sanders on American Dog, the earlier incarnation of Bolt. Not only is the work of Sanders absent in this book, but his name has also been entirely omitted from the production history. As a historian, this type of revisionism raises my ire, but I don’t know the behind-the-scenes story that necessitated his name being omitted from the book. In the book, Vaz writes that Paul Felix started figuring out the look of the film in 2005. Did Felix and Sanders never speak to one another during Sanders’ tenure as director? Obviously a lot of stuff was figured out when Sanders was still aboard.
In a hint at why Sanders was let go, Lasseter writes in the foreword that in Bolt, “as innovative as the production design is, the artists made sure the style was always serving the story.” My only wish is that the style they ended up using wasn’t so safe and generic. The Disney studio has built a reliable animation brand that hews to the “Illusion of Life” philosophy, but I don’t believe for one second that to achieve that, they need to dumb down their design sensibilities and regress to blandness. As is evident in films like Fantasia, Sleeping Beauty, 101 Dalmatians and Lilo and Stitch, the Illusion of Life is not tied to any set Disney style. It’s a flexible idea that can accommodate more creativity and experimentation than the artwork that’s shown in this book. This ‘art of’ book may not have the most interesting or inspiring art, but let’s hope at the end of the day, at least it serves the story, as Lasseter believes it does.