As expected, 2014 has been fairly quiet so far for Pixar Animation Studios fans. Seeing as both Monsters University and The Blue Umbrella didn’t receive any Oscar nominations, there’s no studio-specific rooting interest in the upcoming Academy Awards ceremony. The next Toy Story TV special won’t be on ABC until, presumably, this December. And, as we all know, there’s still nearly a year and a half until Pixar’s next new feature film, Inside Out. In the meantime, thus, this column could either choose to focus on a recent bit of fan art gone wrong, or accentuate the positive and discuss the ways in which Pixar has embraced the quirks and stylistic flourishes of live-action filmmaking over the years. The latter option is far more palatable and less likely to induce a massive headache on this writer’s part, quite frankly. (Quickly, regarding the former option: inserting Pixar characters into live-action movie posters is a fine idea. Inserting Frozone into the 12 Years a Slave poster, in place of Chiwetel Ejiofor, is at best wildly misguided, and at worst something far more despicable.)
Last week, over at Cartoon Brew, writer Amid Amidi highlighted a piece from Todd Vaziri, a compositing supervisor at Industrial Light and Magic, in which Vaziri praised Brad Bird for his use of a subtle dolly zoom in Ratatouille. For those who may not instantly know the definition of a dolly zoom, Vaziri summarizes it aptly: “…the camera moves closer to a subject while at the same time zooming out its field of view. The effect could also be achieved in reverse: the camera dollies away from the subject while zooming in its field of view.” Vaziri, equally aptly, calls out some of the most famous dolly zooms in modern cinema, from the shot of Chief Brody seeing the shark attack at Amity Island in Jaws to Henry Hill’s fraught-with-tension late-stage discussion with his criminal crony Jimmy Conway in GoodFellas. The impetus for his article was a fan-created montage of dolly zooms that, in his mind, woefully excluded a truly memorable usage of the cinematographic technique in Pixar’s best work, Ratatouille.
In one of the film’s early scenes, Remy is with his brother Emil, rifling through the kitchen of the kooky old lady whose home they and their fellow rats live above in secret. Remy is eventually drawn to the TV, in which the famed chef Auguste Gusteau is explaining his culinary philosophy: “Anyone can cook.” These three words are enough inspiration for Remy to soon shoot through the sewers of France into Paris, where he hopes to follow in the late Gusteau’s footsteps and (impossibly) become a world-renowned chef. The moment is captured in a far less aggressively obvious dolly zoom than those aforementioned moments in Jaws or GoodFellas: as Remy’s attention is drawn to the TV, so too does the camera zoom in even as it dollies backwards. Within a few seconds, while Remy has not grown or decreased in size, the TV and Gusteau have expanded dramatically. If we did not know already, we know now the importance of this moment for Remy. It becomes nearly larger than life itself.
Vaziri also discusses, near the end of his article, a much clearer and faster dolly zoom in Ratatouille: when the feared critic Anton Ego takes his first bite of the eponymous dish made by Remy, and just before he flashes back to eating ratatouille in his own childhood. Because this shot is seamlessly fused with the transition to Anton as a boy, allowing food to soothe the pain from a skinned knee, it’s perhaps not as clearly categorized as a dolly zoom, but it’s no less worthy of inclusion or praise. What is most frustrating, if not terribly surprising, is the footnote at the end of Vaziri’s column, reading as follows: “Before publishing this article, a Google search for ‘dolly zoom Ratatouille’ came up with zero results discussing the Gusteau dolly zoom, which I found quite remarkable.” (As of this writing, there are now 20 results, all of them linking to either Vaziri’s original article or Amidi’s posting on Cartoon Brew.) By now, it’s arguably not that remarkable that people give short shrift to the cinematographic techniques so often present in modern animation. Perhaps it springs from the same willingness people have to categorize animation as a genre, instead of as a medium. (That’s a discussion for a different day, no doubt, but part of the problem is how infrequently we see animated films that are as mature or complex as live-action films, at least on a mainstream level.)
In recent years, much has been made of how Roger Deakins, possibly the best living cinematographer, has consulted with DreamWorks Animation on a number of films, from How to Train Your Dragon and its upcoming sequel to Rise of the Guardians and Puss in Boots. On one hand, the coverage surrounding his involvement with animated films is expected; although he’s shockingly not received an Oscar to date (though he’s once again nominated this year), Deakins occupies the top tier of Hollywood cinematography. When he recently said that he wouldn’t be returning for the follow-up to Skyfall, the outpouring of disappointment from fans was logical; no small part of that film’s success is due to its lush, distinctive visual palette. So a cinematographer of this stature being involved with any animation studio, let alone DreamWorks, is somewhat stunning. Also, many of the film’s champions often point to the detailed and vividly crafted action sequences in How to Train Your Dragon as being one of its many charms. No doubt Deakins may have helped guide DreamWorks’ animators and technicians to such success.
However. (Because of course, there is a “however.”) There are two counterpoints to consider here. First, it’s a bit surprising that Deakins’ work with DreamWorks Animation is often given more heft and attention than his first consulting job in animation: with Pixar on WALL-E. Before that 2008 film, of course, Pixar had been engaging in more realistic camera techniques often; though Vaziri doesn’t mention it, an early example in Pixar’s filmography of a dolly zoom is in A Bug’s Life, immediately after Flik is informed that the warrior bugs he brought to Ant Island are really circus performers. (Admittedly, this dolly zoom is closer to the exclamation-point type of dolly zooms Vaziri criticizes, those moments where the dolly zoom “is generally used as punctuation…screaming “The characters are going through something significant RIGHT NOW!”) But Deakins coming on board WALL-E, if only for a short time, spoke to how drastically different this film was going to be technically, compared to its predecessors. Though Deakins has since remained ensconced with DreamWorks Animation as they attempt to approach a similar visual renaissance, his consulting work on WALL-E shouldn’t be ignored, especially considering how frequently the film is justly praised for being photorealistic, not only in its use of color and design, but in how the camera moves toward and around our title character. Andrew Stanton and his animators pulled off an amazing trick with WALL-E, but just as Remy’s idol Gusteau guided them, it’s likely that Deakins’ advice and expertise hovered over the production somewhat.
The other counterpoint we must consider is that high-profile consultants almost tend to direct attention away from the generally impressive work being done in animation, at least at Pixar, currently. Vaziri rightly champions the dolly zooms in Ratatouille, the first of which is all the more remarkable because it’s not included in the film to show off. Bird didn’t want to impress audiences simply by adopting a technique that’s utilized in live-action films; his choice informs the story, as does the later, more visceral dolly zoom of Ego. The techniques here, and in many other Pixar films, are employed in service of the characters, not aside from them or their struggles. In animation, frankly, cinematography could be considered a more difficult craft because everything is expected to be manufactured, a facsimile of the real world. A single shot in an animated film involves everything a live-action film does, but via computer; think of the complicated lighting techniques and how they must be created whole cloth. Even the simplest shots in Up or Finding Nemo or even Cars require such painstaking detail and care. These more showy moments are stunning because of the work that goes into their successful creation.
Many people take animation for granted, to the point that when a truly notable animated film or sequence that seems to accurately echo the style of a live-action film comes out, we are prone to cheering it louder than the finished product. So on one hand, it’s important that Vaziri, and by extension Amidi’s article at Cartoon Brew, has highlighted a few moments in Ratatouille as being this exemplary. When cinephiles think of dolly zooms, they obviously don’t often consider animation alongside the best of live-action. (This extends to any camera trickery, to be clear.) Or, they do not acknowledge how many live-action films now blur the line between one medium and the other. (For example, the cinematography in Gravity, by the very talented Emmanuel Lubezki, is presumed to be the frontrunner in the Oscars category, even though the majority of the film is a series of special effects created via computer animation. The film is technically proficient, but not exactly live-action in the traditional sense, yet few are clarifying this difference.) So here’s the difficult balance: do we focus less on the techniques animators employ in cutting-edge films, and focus much more on the character and story work within? Or do we admire and applaud the former as much as we do the latter?
For now, the answer has to be somewhere in the middle. Animators may bristle a bit when specific technical achievements are showered with hosannas by the public, in place of greater storytelling moments, but a greater problem in cinematic critical discourse these days is that too few people treat animation, as a whole, with the respect it deserves. The dolly zooms in Ratatouille may not be the film’s most brilliant moments—this column has, in the past, discussed the pitch-perfect Ego flashback, though from a storytelling perspective—but they deserve to be noticed and analyzed. Kudos should go to both Vaziri and Amidi, for acknowledging and echoing the importance of these moments in which Brad Bird further engages his audience in his story via camera techniques. Though it may be troubling for some that critics only focus on animation adopting live-action filmmaking choices, until more of those same critics embrace animation as a medium instead of a genre (and until more filmmakers and studios allow themselves to expand their storytelling horizons within animation), we must appreciate and comment upon the dolly zooms of animation and their ilk, if only so more people realize the ground that computer animation breaks every year.