James Cameron: It’s Not Animation Because I Say So

A video in which Jim explains that, “the thing that people need to keep very strongly in mind is that this is not an animated film.” So just to recap: yes, Avatar has 100% digitally animated characters in it; no, it’s not animation; why, because Cameron says so.

Regardless of how Cameron and Fox want to frame their marketing campaign for the film, I have little doubt that Avatar will be viewed by history as an animated feature, right there along with Zemeckis’s mo-cap works. Granted, none of these are particularly exemplary examples of animated films, but they do represent the beginning of a new animated technique. (It is a testament to how rapidly animation is evolving as an art that we can no longer even identify what is an animated technique.)

It’s important to stress that, as photography didn’t replace painting and drawing, performance capture won’t replace hand-drawn, traditional CGI (as practiced by the likes of Pixar and DreamWorks), stop-motion, pixilation or anything else. In fact, if we look at how the advent of photography pushed painting in a more expressionistic and abstract direction, perhaps the same will happen in animation. Traditional CGI clearly can’t compete with performance capture in terms of realism, so now computer animation can begin to move away from its preoccupation with slavish recreations of fur, hair and motion and mature in a more abstract and impressionistic direction. In any case, performance capture is here to stay and it is now one more tool in the animator’s ever-widening arsenal. I look forward to seeing more experimental uses of it as the technology evolves and artists aspire to use it in more creatively challenging ways.

(via Mark Mayerson)


  • Tedzey

    I think he just contradicted himself! I read an article somewhere where he said he wanted to create memorable 3d animated characters like Disney’s cell animated ones! Now all of a sudden, he just doesn’t want to associate this as animation?!

  • http://www.cartoonresearch.com Jerry Beck

    I reluctantly agree that motion capture technically falls under the category of animation. Just as Bakshi’s rotoscoped features or those films by Richard Linklater are (in my opinion) considered animation.

    To many of us though, the definition of animation involves an animator (not an actor) who creates the performance or visual effect – by using a pencil, a mouse or manipulating a puppet or some inanimate object.

    Personally, I’ve decided that Mo-Cap, the way Cameron and Zemeckis are doing it, is really LIVE ACTION WITH CG MAKE-UP. They are putting their actors in computer generated costumes and body make-up. It’s a unique and valid use of animation techniques and computer imaging technology – and more power to them.

    As for me – I miss cartoons.

  • http://Mr.FunsBlog Floyd Norman

    This is simply film making in the new millennium. That’s why these outmoded categories from decades past make little sense today.

    Let’s cut the crap and simply judge a film by its merits and forget about the arbitrary “categories” people contrive.

  • http://asteriskpix.blogspot.com richard o’connor

    It’s really more like motion graphics.

    If you consider motion graphics “animation”, then sure, this is animation.

  • http://bakertoons.blogspot.com/ Charles Brubaker

    Jerry took words out of my mouth. To me, in order for it to be considered “real” animation, it must have a movement created by an animator, not an actor.

    It’s true that mo-cap uses CG animators to polish the actors movement, but, quite honestly, that job’s basically an equivalent of an ASSISTANT animator position used in hand-drawn animation.

    And yes, I, too, miss cartoons (and as I wrote in another Avatar post, “cartoon” and “animation” does not mean the same thing)

  • http://duffyanimation.wordpress.com Brian Duffy

    I agree with Jerry. I think the goal of the crew of Avatar was to make the process as seamless and non-intrusive as possible. Cameron could see Pandora composited around the actors when he looked through his eyepiece, even though they were on the soundstage.

    I get the feeling that, the more automated they could make the process, the more they would. If you didn’t need the suits, or the head cameras; if you had some crazy future cameras surrounding the walls, and everyone could just run around, and then in real time, the computer would replace the actors with the cg avatars, add every single blade of grass and all the facial modelling, and that could show up on the monitors. If that were possible, they would jump on it in a second. They’re pretty close.

    However, the reality is, right now they need a massive team of animators and compositors to get it right. That’s why the actors say things like “it has the soul of my performance in there”, rather than “it is my performance”. That’s why we had the whole Gollum best supporting actor controversy. People have to go frame by frame to basically de-bug the mo-cap, and inject it with additional life. This is the strange in-between place of animation. Animation to me means, like Jerry said, taking something dead (pencils/pixels) and making it alive.

    What the Avatar crew did, was take something alive (actors), use an emerging technology to try and transpose that aliveness to the dead pixels. The technology is imperfect, so the animators are brought in. But what they’re really doing is taking a performance muddied by the capturing technique, and kind of pushing it back to life, pushing it up from the bottom of the uncanny valley. They’re more like the EMTs and surgeons of animators; taking something that was alive, and bringing it back.

    However, I completely agree with Mark that what this means is that we can stop being so obsessed with realism. The time is now to push as far as we can into the impossible, reclaim things that only hand-livened animation can do. I actually see the new Chris Nolan film, Inception, as an early example of what I’m talking about. There’s nothing cartoony about it, but the idea of a row of buildings just peeling off the ground or someone falling through the floor like it was water, that’s the direction we should be going in. Cartoons will never go away, though, nor will cartoon values. I’m actually mildly excited about Despicable Me, because it gets back to the simple cartoon setup of an unstoppable force (Wiley Coyotee, Tom) meeting an immovable object (Roadrunner, Jerry), and mad crazy yet casual violence in between.

    There’s another upcoming film that fills my heart with hope, and it just happens to be another James Cameron project. They’re making another Heavy Metal movie! Go read about it! I couldn’t be happier. Alongside this whole mo-cap debate, American animation still faces this crumbling roadblock that is the American public’s implicit assumption that “animation is for children”. We’ve inched forward to “animation is for children, but come along and we’ll make an off-color joke about something from the 70′s that only YOU will get! HAHAHA!!!!!”. Considering the talent on board or Heavy Metal 3, it could be the sledgehammer that blasts that wall to pieces, and god knows whats on the other side.

  • amid

    Floyd: One could also say that all writing—poetry, journalism, science reports, plays, and novels—is just writing. And it is. But the purpose and goal of each type of writing is distinctly different. The same can be said of different filmmaking techniques. The fact that so many live-action filmmakers (Zemeckis, Wes Anderson and Cameron to name a few) have exhausted the possibilities of live-action and are now looking to animation as a a more powerful form of expression is a significant development and bears huge implications for the future of filmmaking. It deserves to be acknowledged and discussed.

  • Anthony

    Don’t forget photorealism as a movement in art that post-dates photography. Imagine a Richard-Estes of the Motion-Capture-realist school trying to reproduce the uncanny valley of mo-cap using CGI. Or else someone trying to reproduce CGI using traditional hand-drawn animation! Okay, now my head hurts.

  • Lucas

    The disappointing thing here is James and the actors saying “animation” and things relating to animation with such disdain in their voices and using diminuitives like “just”. Since the story was crap, I can’t see Avatar winning a Best Picture Oscar, but if it did then I’d say it’s time for the Academy to cut the crap and do away with “Best Animated Feature” and let all feature films be considered for Best Picture again.

  • http://www.thefjk.com/ Fraser Ntukula

    I was about to start wailing that Performance Capture couldn’t be called Animation, but when I thought about it, the whole purpose of doing so was to create the illusion of life… whether hand drawn or CG.

    So I kinda had to agree.

    Animators of the years gone had to study real life and how it moves and behaves and through their drawings transfered that to screen. Cameron’s doing the same thing, but he’s using $300 million worth of technology instead of a pencil.

    Animation is awesome!

  • http://duffyanimation.wordpress.com Brian Duffy

    Honestly, it’s just not worth it to get into a semantics debate. Filmmakers are filmmakers. All they need is a vision, and various people or various professions are drawn like a magnet to condense around that vision. All the rest is details.

    There’s no reason for the animation/performance capture debate to exist separate from the lingering fear that new technology will make people who draw funny pictures (or drag nodes into nice, expressive poses) obsolete. Since this fear is reactionary and unfounded, we are simply wasting time by ballyhooing about which technique is or isn’t REAL animation, and which is evil corporate shlockmeisters ruining our ART.

  • amid

    Brian – Why don’t we just call baseball, football and basketball the same sport too. It’s not worth debating semantics. Sports players are all just sports players. Everybody’s using balls to score points. Everything else is just details.

  • http://davidlightfoot.com David Lightfoot

    What happens when they (the film making industry) have collected enough CGI and Mo-Cap and On-Screen personalities in a library large enough that Actors, Animators… Everyone… are no longer necessary? It will take a long time but eventually you could re-purpose existing digital assets and do away with the need for all these people. Movies, whether realistic or cartoony, could be created completely from archived performances. Record enough physical behavior and voice and whatever else you need and eventually you no longer need the actor.

  • http://duffyanimation.wordpress.com Brian Duffy

    Performance capture is cool, and it has tons of potential, and I agree that it’s awesome that directors are moving towards it to make their vision a reality.

    But I’m a bit tired of this vague idea of the “real” animator being assaulted and marginalized by people like Cameron, as if we animators have some “turf” of film production that these infernal machines are muscling in on. The fear is that we won’t get credit, and the public view of what an animator is will be tarnished.

    Cameron says it’s not an animated film. Is the guy sitting at a desk, dragging Neyriri’s eyeballs a few milimeters to the left gong to leap up and say “HEY MAN, NOT COOL! I’M AN ANIMATOR, GODDAMMIT! MY LIFE HAS VALUE!!!”

    James Cameron and Wes Anderson had more vision in Avatar and Mr. Fox than all the space chimps on shrek’s planet 51. It’s not the technique that really matters, it’s the vision. And on that note, I think we need more iconoclasts in the director’s chair, people with a single uncompromising vision of their film. Too many animated films coming out today are being directed by 3-4 dudes bouncing ideas off each other and I wonder if that’s the right approach.

  • http://www.mrseanlane.com Sean

    I’m confused, wasn’t the Cartoon Brew stance last year that the Zemeckis and other mo-capped film shouldn’t count as animation? That sounds good to me, but why this year is Cartoon Brew taking a different stance?

  • ryan

    I wonder how they captured the performance of the vegetation, the banshees, insects, creatures, fluids, etc you know…90% of pandora not including the blue guys. There must be an animator in there somewhere creating animation right? Maybe?:)

  • Kyle Maloney

    How can you argue that because it has fully animated creatures that the movie falls under animation? That’s like saying the show
    Lizzie Mcguire is animation too becasue it has one animated character that occasionally pops up.

    Im with Jerry on this one. CGI make up best describes this new medium. It takes more than a few fully animated creatures to categorize something the whole package as animation.

  • http://deleted OtherDan

    No. That is not animation. The final render, the rigs, and everything involved requires CG animation tools, true. But, animation is “actors with pencils”. True animation involves an artist behind the medium performing for an audience the way that artist would portray a character. This technique is clearly a representation of what the stage actors embodiment of a character is. I suppose if you consider animation to be “the illusion of life” then, puppetry would fall in that character…to my mind it’s that age old technique of crafting each frame of film as only a visual artist could.

  • http://duffyanimation.wordpress.com Brian Duffy
  • Chris Sobieniak

    “Movies, whether realistic or cartoony, could be created completely from archived performances. Record enough physical behavior and voice and whatever else you need and eventually you no longer need the actor.”

    Yep, this is definitely where it’ll go!

  • Mike Caracappa

    I think this has to do more with marketing the film than anything. If Cameron starts calling it animation, people are going to associate Avatar as being a cartoon, or start making comments about it as one. Maybe he would be more willing to call it animation if the actual animated films in this country weren’t all marketed towards children. So in a way, I don’t necessarily blame him.

  • Matt Crowther

    What about the non-humanoid CG in the film, like the creatures and the flying warships etc? All of that is not Mo-Cap…lots of gray areas here folks…

  • http://kateburck.blogspot.com Kate Burck

    I think your opinion on motion capture having a similar effect that photography had on painting is very interesting. Motion capture seems to me, that it will both free up and put new pressures on feature animation. With the ability to reproduce such photorealistic imagery, I wonder how long will traditional animation try to keep up? Will it take years before we abandon our traditional design expectations, or will it happen soon? Frankly, as much as I don’t care about photorealistic 3D, and motion capture, I do hope it pushes the industry to a new frontier of risk taking.

  • http://deleted OtherDan

    Matt, you have a point. And, I meant to say “category”, not “character” in my last post. I suppose when you look at films that integrate CG and live action as so many do, you’d have to tip it one way or another depending on which form dominates the picture. But, I don’t think that addresses the literal problem of “what is animation”.

  • http://spungella.blogspot.com Jean-Denis Haas

    Come on guys, Mike Caracappa is absolutely right, pure marketing. It’s much easier to focus on technology as a single thing to talk about than all those artists. It’s too bad, but it makes sense marketing wise. Just like it was easier to focus on Serkis than tons of animators. It’s sad to see 100% keyframed clips in that youtube video while mocap sessions are playing right next to it, but it’s only sad to those who care and know about it. The general public doesn’t really care, they won’t talk about how awesome that shot was where she put paint on his face and how the skin reacted to the fingers, they talk about the experience as a whole. And the easier you can package and sell that experience the better. Don’t forget it’s a business after all.

  • Professor Pantsalong

    If the actor is the driver, you’ve created a hybrid of forms. And, even though I bristle at the hype, they’ve really closed the gap and created a viable new frontier. There will be a boon of films utilizing mo-cap to come, no doubt. You’ve just got to beware of how crappy the stories are likely to be, as the novelty of fresh technology seizes the day. I hope I’m wrong (I’m not) but I’ll bring the barf bag into the theater, just in case.

  • http://persistenceofvision.blogspot.com/ Ethan

    I don’t think it’s going to change the way films are made. I don’t think Juno for example, would have been better if it was in 3D and/or mo-caped.

  • http://platynews.deviantart.com Platy

    The text makes me want a CGI version of the alcool trip from Dumbo …

  • Scott

    Cameron made a cartoon. Get over it.

  • matt

    Jerry, I think saying “an animator (not an actor)” is going backwards. Animators ARE actors who act through their pencils and mice, puppets etc. Do you see the irony in that comment in relation to motion capture which is actors performing through tech as well?

    As for non-photoreal/more painterly/abstract cg, I thought THAT was going to happen 12 YEARS ago after What Dreams May Come! Oh well…

  • http://www.lifeformz.com/weblog/blogger.html Puppetologist

    I find it amusingl to see this “Avatar is/is not Animation” discussion while simultaneously the puppeteers and puppetologists on the puptcrit email list are debating whether Avatar is/is not Puppetry.

    The NOTS are very vocal. It seems neither Art discipline is eager to claim this hybrid.

    Within puppetry there are purists who say “a puppet must be a tangible figure doing a certain type of show about certain types of things” and those more progressive, who would include machinema, motion capture, full body costumes & masks, stop-motion “animation” (which involves manipulating puppets), found object, and other “fringe” forms that share characteristics with other disciplines (mime, acting, computer graphics, magic theater, keiju, robotics, etc.)

    Interestingly though (to me at least), there are those in Animation & Puppetry that say mo-cap like the Avatar humans is really more akin to CG make-up, costuming, and mask-work.

  • J

    Performance capture seems to have more in common with Big Bird, Barney the Dinosaur and all the other man-in-suit puppets than Dreamworks/Pixar style hand-keyed CGI animation…

  • http://www.dejarnettedesigns.com DeJarnette

    I agree with Jerry, in that I equate mocap as a form of 3-D rotoscope.
    Rotoscope is consider to be a style of animation. I also like Amid’s sports analogy, that every sport is given a specific name based upon the details of the game, but they all still fall under the sports category.

    More power to the growth technology and the evolution of new styles of artistic expression within filmmaking.

  • http://www.spiteyourface.com Tony Mines

    I’m suspicious of this determination on both sides, to categorize a whole movie. The idea that more films should count as animated, feels suspiciously like people are trying to lay claim over something to placate a sense of guilt. Like we’re looking for confirmation that ‘animated is okay’ because it includes such-and-such.
    The other, rejectionist party sound like they know they’ve already been defeated and are waving their fists against the tide of their obsolescence.

    Neither position is especially healthy.

    I said this last time, but I think we need to stop worrying about animatED (past tense) and give a big cheer for animatION (present tense), that which exists within the moment of a film and which is created by animaTORS.

    I think everyone would feel better about themselves if we thought more about the ROLE of animation in films. Not the amount, or even the process.
    Can’t we all join hands and accept this term ‘animator’ as most other people understand it – a synonym for magician – those guys that do that effects stuff there (however do they do it?)
    That’s how outsiders understand us, and if we can embrace that understanding ourselves then it brings us to the following happy conclusion:
    Avatar is a shitty movie where the only good bits were done by the animators.
    So is 2012
    So is Terminator Salvation
    So is Jurassic Park
    So is Howard the Duck
    So was Clash of the Titans and so it will be again.
    No one buys in to see some guy running round in his knickers, any more than they buy in to see Sam Worthington’s curmudgeonly face.

    Every major top grossing movie in history has been saved from itself by the animators. Hollywood secretly knows this, which is why we get the most screen-time in trailers.

    Can’t we all just feel good about ourselves cos of that?

  • Andy

    It’s like asking if “King Kong” or any of Harryhausen’s movies are animated rather than live action.

  • http://www.jeffsimonetta.comb Jeffrey Simonetta

    James Cameron’s comment about “It’s not an animated film!” Reminded me of someone saying, “They’re NOT TOYS, they’re action figures!”

  • Chris Sobieniak

    “Reminded me of someone saying, “They’re NOT TOYS, they’re action figures!””

    How about “They’re not comic books, they’re graphic novels!”

  • http://www.sexymecha.com Hal

    As much as I find Cameron a smug dink, he’s right to define this film by his own terms. He’s not claiming there was no animation used throughout production, simply that the intent is not an animated film, otherwise, why film actual actors instead of mo-capping them too? I’m going to stand by my argument in the last post that where AVATAR is concerned, the intent remains digital effects to create a world which IS AN EXTENSION OF THE REALITY THE MOVIE OPENS IN. The world which AVATAR takes place in is technically OUR REALITY we inhabit – the visual effects may use extensive amounts of CGI and animation, but it is all to a singular purpose of SIMULATING REALITY, not creating its own Animated Reality that films such as A CHRISTMAS CAROL, FANTASTIC MR FOX, PRINCESS AND THE FROG or even A SCANNER DARKLY define withing the parameters of AN ANIMATED WORLD. ROGER RABBIT is NOT an animated film, it is a film with (to quote Amid) “100% animated elements. ENCHANTED is not an animated film, it is a film with 100% ANIMATED ELEMENTS AND SEQUENCES. So many live action films now have 100% digital sequences – the scene of Snake Eyes jumping cars in Paris ended up being almost 100% character animation in an almost entirely Digitally created Paris. The line is blurry in terms of TECHNIQUE, but not the final products. AVATAR would only be an animated film if (mocap or not) there was NO live action elements by which the animation elements are judged. I’d argue against Robert Zemeckis if he claimed his mo-cap films WEREN’T animted films by the same rationale. Please no more on Cameron, CARTOON BREW, this is a cyclical debate to no useful end.
    CHRIS SOBIENIAK: As for your smug comments – a graphic novel is a GRAPHIC NOVEL – a self contained narrative told through sequential artwork instead of simply using written words amd language. Comic books are individual serialized narratives featuring a consistent cast of characters which are open ended – there is no beginning, middle and end. Collected story arcs of comic books that act as chapters of a greater story create a single narrative, the graphic novel description stands for those. Action figures are articulated TOYS, so you’re ignorant line should have been “They’re NOT JUST TOYS, they’re ACTION FIGURES!” Get your semantics right before you play the “condescending towards what you consider geeky” card and make an articulated argument.

  • http://www.sexymecha.com Hal

    AMID – it certainly is worth debating semantics. It appears to me that you have defined a percentage of work by animators/amount of film completely animated to result in what should or should not be an “animated film.” By doing so you are removing the artist’ intent and achievements from the equation – you are trying to allow the community of animators define what is our medium instead of the creative individual who has achieved great things. Yes, mocap is ROTOSCOPY! It IS animation, no one is arguing that – but history will view this differently from Zemeckis’ films. I for one would rather Cameron’s feature simply BE a live action visual effects extravaganza that pushes the boundaries of what animation can add to live action than fight this silly battle to claim its entirety for the animation world at large. There is no doubt AVATAR pushes the boundaries of animation and live action (contrary to your mindset Hollywood is not that cynical and anti-animation a place) but that’s not a good enough reason to try and fit this square in the circular peg. I’m sure your arguments are fueled by overbearing comments of Cameron and other directors’ (I’m looking at you Zemeckis!) pushing MoCap as the only future for animation, and the fear that our profession will be (as in the case of AVATAR) simply supplementing actors’ performances to 90% mocap with 10% animation, and 100% facial performance replication from actors’ face data. But to keep this fight up instead of investigating its amazing technical achievements is just ice skating up hill. I love this site, but feel this is a misguided thread of discourse when there’s a lot to LEARN from AVATAR. I have yet to see an AVATAR animator come on these boards and defend the “AVATAR is an animated film” argument, and for good reason: In a year where animated films as diverse as PRINCESS AND THE FROG, 9, CORALINE, FANTASTIC MR. FOX, UP!, PONYO, $9.99, MARY AND MAX and A TOWN CALLED PANIC have been released while live action films such as AVATAR, STAR TREK and DISTRICT 9 have used animation to create brilliant new worlds augmenting our cinematic “reality,” its clear animators in both animated films and vfx for live action are pushing boundaries further and further – isn’t that good enough?

  • Tom Robin

    For us, it’s just a new way ton capture the performance of an actor. To capture a performance, we can use the photography (like we have made since 1885), but now, we can use captation in space.

    Animation, the work is emplyed when animators créate the way characters ares moving, expressing with their faces, but the mecanisms to create a emotive animated character are very different with what a actor do.

    Is a photographied actor more rel than a digitalized actor? No. He wore costumes, make up, wigg, but the character he play don’t exist more than a CGI character played by another actor. Ron Perlman in Hellboy is no more real than Neytiry.

    The only animated part of the characters of Avatar are the fingers. The rest of it, it’s Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver.
    We are used to say “Sigourney Weaver plays very well in Aliens”, we can also say “Zoe Saldan plays very well in Avatar”, even without talking of the voice performance.

    And with this process, the actors can play a scene like they were on a theater scene. No need of reshooting fractions of scenes under 23 different angles, they can play a sequence all the way! Their action is more live than ever!!!

    We say “animation” when characters moves by the hand of ANIMATORS. This is why Avatar is not animation!
    This is why, at end of the end credits of Ratatouille, it’s wrotten “certified without motion capture”, because the Pixar’s guys knows that if a character walks by the motion capture, this is not the fact of a animator.

  • Nicole

    So does that mean the planet, plants and animals were acting too? I’m guessing those were TOTALLY NOT ANIMATION EITHER.

  • ADQ

    Hey Brian, when you have one “iconoclast” with a single vision, you get crap like Avatar. A CHILD can come up with complicated creatures of his own if they had Cameron’s budget!!!!! The whole idea of ‘iconoclast’ > ’3-4 guys bouncing ideas’ is pretty friggen dumb when you compare cinematic filth like Avatard with masterpieces from Pixar, who seem to like the idea of working as a TEAM.

    Cameron just shoots the film there, walks off set and just lets the “nerds in the back render his awesomeness”. No, THEY FREAKING ANIMATE. Those stupid ass avatars had tons of hard work and animation put into them, not just mo-cap crap. Cameron just can’t stand the idea of sharing the credit with someone else, let alone those “nerds in the back”, or as I say, RESPECTED, HARDWORKING ANIMATORS BUSTING THEIR BALLS FOR YOU.

  • May

    I hate James Cameron.

    FYI, James Cameron had to make an apology to the animators at Weta. Why didn’t this apology make it into the media?

    It saddens me to have such a huge name in the film industry refuse to acknowledge the hard work and extremely long hours the animators put into his vision. If it was all the actors and all mo-cap then what were those names in the credits? Was the theme music during the credits too long so they just made up a long list of names so go with it?

    Weta should release the raw mo-cap footage and show the actors performance on one side and the finished version on the other.