A Pixar generation?

incredibles.jpg

Anthony Lane makes this observation about The Incredibles:

[Digital filmmaking of this kind] is, by definition, unable to cope with spontaneity. The camera no longer catches a feature, or a play of expression, on the wing; someone has to create a program for it and patch it into place.

The problem with machine based animation is that you can’t get out what you don’t put in. Live actors in real time on actual sets are inclined to work by accident and inspiration. Things slip into the performance that are not anticipated by the script writer or called for by the director. It is often these little grace notes that make the scene and the movie live.

But these graces notes don’t happen in machine based animation. The film maker must think to put things in. And we don’t add accidents on purpose. (Otherwise, they wouldn’t be accidents.) So machine based animation often feels wooden and not very, um, animated. An effort is made to show “wind” ruffling “hair,” but the real stuff, the grace notes, the simple gifts, of spontaneity are hard to come by

I was thinking about Lane’s remark when reading about a crisis that has now beset the world of education. Many school systems are keen to protect children from competition, and the failure and differentiation it creates. Indeed parents now complain about school plays that have starring parts. They prefer plays in which all parts are equal. The world of education is becoming a place where everyone is equal and no one is allowed to fail.

The effects are beginning to show.

For her vantage point as a Los Angeles-based psychologist, [Dr. Wendy Mogel] has witnessed the fallout of a self-esteem movement that began with the best intentions of protecting children from the emotional harm that comes from undermined confidence but which has instead left schools hamstrung by constant ego-protecting maneuvers and children with wrapped-in-cotton-batten lives.

In an earlier post, I noticed that the lives of kids have been highly programmed and indeed regimented. Here we learn that their lives are sanitized against ranking and risk.

Are we creating a Pixar generation? Will this be a group of kids so highly programmed, so cosseted that they will be incapable of risk taking and even the very animation on which our economy and culture now depends? The problem here it seems to me is very like the one observed by Lane. You can’t get out what you don’t put in. Raise children without surprises, with tests, without outcomes, without what the French call bouleversement, and we end up with kids who are ill prepared to create innovation, intellectual capital, creativity and change.

Ironically, our world becomes ever more a matter of bouleversement. And we have all made the personal accommodations necessary to cope with and contribute to such a world. There is evidence that we are getting the hang of it. We are getting steadily better at dynamism. But if we are raising a generation of cotton batten kids who are systematically kept from spontaneity, we will become of us? More to the point, what will become of them when we ask them finally not to work for a living but “risk for a living,” as we all now must?

I realize this makes me sound a little like David Riesman and other intellectuals of the 1950s who were persuaded that a new generation of conformists was in the works. The difference here is that Reisman and company believed that a commercial culture must flatten differences and creativity. But now the risk comes from the other side of the isle, from the well intentions liberals who believe that our children must be protected. Riesman was wrong, it turns out. The 1950s helped produce a generation that helped produce a fountain of innovation. Let’s hope I’m wrong, too.

References

Belgrad, Daniel. 1998. The Culture of Spontaneity: Improvisation and the arts in postwar Ameica. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Brown, Shona L, and Kathleen M Eisenhardt. 1998. Competing on the edge: strategy as structured chaos. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Florida, Richard L. 2004. The rise of the creative class and how it’s transforming work, leisure, community and everyday life. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Hayles, Katherine N. 1990. Chaos Bound: Orderly Disorder in Contemporary Literature and Science. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Kelley, Tom, and Jonathan Littman. 2001. The art of innovation. New York: Currency/Doubleday.

Kouwenhoven, John. 1988. What’s ‘American’ about America. The Beer Can by the Highway. John KouwenhovenBaltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Lane, Anthony. 2004. Illustrated Life. The New Yorker. November 15, 2004, pp. 116-117.

McCracken, Grant. 2004. Is there a Ricky Williams effect? The blog here.

Owens, Anne Marie. 2004. Everybody fails. National Post. several days ago. (This is the source of the quote on Dr. Mogel. Sorry, I dont have the full reference. National Post does not allow access in any case.)

Postrel, Virginia. 1998. The Future and Its Enemies: The growing conflict over creativity, enterprise and progress. New York: The Free Press.

Riesman, David with Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney. 1961. The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Spar, Debora L. 2001. Ruling the Waves: Cycles of Discovery, Chaos, and Wealth from Compass to the Internet. New York: Harcount.

13 thoughts on “A Pixar generation?

  1. Brian Hawkins

    Grant,

    It’s funny that you use Pixar’s work (and this film in particular) to bring up a point about the oppressive egalitarianism with today’s kids seem to confronted…The Incredibles actually has very strong individualistic themes in its storyline.

    Perhaps Pixar also sees the danger of the “Pixar generation”? I’d like to think that the tide is changing, that people are starting to see that removing all competitive, chaotic, and spontaneous aspects from a child’s life isn’t such a great idea, but who knows? I especially dread the thought of such unimaginative kids being my students in a few years’ time.

    Also, thank you for adding bouleversement to my vocabulary.

  2. Keelay

    Grant, I am not sure if you are at all familiar with the Adult Swim line-up on the Cartoon Network, but that type of animation might undermine your fears of a loss of spontaneity.

    I am not entirely certain how programs like Sealab 2021 and Home Movies are created, but the best I can tell, it involves a troupe of comics who get togther on a sound stage and just riff. Of all the material they accumulate, they select the best and animate it.

    Scripted comedies are apparently insufficiently spontaneous for ironic twenty-somethings and improv troupes are too filled with directionless rants. However, animation allows an organic selection process to hone the distinctive products of spontaneous wit.

    Here’s what I am getting at. Perhaps the lack of observed spotaneity in these Pixar films is more an artifact of their audience than the medium itself. Films aimed at children have never been particularly spontaneous. There is far more emphasis on being clear and direct.

    I think that is a good thing.

  3. Mumblin' Predrag

    Grant,

    Maybe things are different in Canada, but here in the US, our public schools have been trying unsuccessfully to squeeze any creativity out of students for, well, for my entire lifetime. And probably longer. I wouldn’t worry about them succeeding in the future.

  4. Dirk

    Grant, whenever you put a number of kids together in the same place, you end up with rivalry, competition, conflict, rankings, and certainly also range of other outcomes. Nothing schools are anyone else can do will ever chance this. In fact, I believe one can make a good argument that the pressures on kids to own certain status goods, or to wear certain clothes, are larger now than they used to be in the past. So taking a wee bit of pressure of them may not even be a bad idea.

  5. ah

    One theme I’ve noticed is the legacy of extreme peer pressure + absent or overworked families. The result is that students are hypervigilant against any disruption of the group or the tribe. For this reason they are inclined to dull the edge of all-out competition and innovation.

  6. Tom Guarriello

    So wait, I don’t get it.

    Yesterday, you were arguing for “as many birds as possible with one modesty shot” or some such thing. Sounded like you were pleased with that development.

    Me, I’m betting on sex.

    Today, you’re despairing for the loss of the spontaneous fringe.

    The unintended consequence of the kind of animation you’re describing is a loss of humanity, the sticky, damp stuff that we live with. In graduate school, a professor once said, “where there’s life, there’s slime.” Not in PixarWorld, there’s not.

    Me, I’m betting on slime.

    And, heading for Paris for Thanksgiving…

  7. Grant

    Brian, thanks, point taken. I was most keen on the comparison between the animation missing from the technique and the generation. Certainly some kids will retrain. And they will find your classroom. Or retrain in your classroom. Thanks.

    Keelay, yes, improv is the thing. It’s popularity is a good sign, and, perhaps, evidence that there will be retraining grounds. Thanks.

    Mumblin’ good point, all of us are products of rote learning and somehow escaped its icy grasp. Thanks.

    Dirk, precisely, kid culture is more hierarchical than the court of Elizabeth (I). Thanks.

    SomeCallMeTim: I’m with you. Some parts of the Dem culture is about spontaneity and bouleversement. Long may it remain so. If only they weren’t so very nervous about the bouleversement of the marketplace. Thanks.

    Ah, nice one, perhaps that’s it: the safety of the group. Thanks.

    Tom, don’t get me wrong. I dont wish for modesty. As an anthropologist, I merely report it. I’m with SomeCallMeTim, bouleversement is better–or at least more interesting, usually. Thank you.

    Grant

  8. Jason Ligon

    Pixar is in competition to provide entertainment. If/when fully computerized animation becomes the norm, it will be competition that drives innovative studios seeking to differentiate themselves into producing realistic muck and mire into the final product. The human element will be introduced when people demand it as part of the competitive process.

    “In certain systems, all competition does is make people limit their risks; the cost of failure is too high.”

    I don’t know that I follow this line of reasoning. In a similar vein to my Pixar comment, it was competition for audience that motivated changes to the NFL. It was precisely that the cost to all franchises was so high that changes occurred. I’m struggling to picture the situation in which a lack of costs and/or a lack of competition would result in greater innovative strides.

  9. SomeCallMeTim

    Jason:

    I guess I’d argue that in your counter example, the NFL is acting like the government – putting in place new rules that applied to all the franchises looks to me like governmental regulation for the purpose of structuring a market.

    I don’t think I was really saying much past the old adage from 20 years ago that no one ever got fired for buying IBM products – people minimize their risks all the time on an individual basis b/c of fear of the consequences of being wrong. To some degree, the justification for bankruptcy protections is that we want people to feel free to take risks without worrying that they will literally lose everything.

  10. amoeda

    Before I get into your contentions about cotton batten kids, I must take issue with the aesthetic assumptions regarding Pixar. Your critique of computer animated cinema sounds like the cinephile counterpart to rockism in music, i.e. the way rock fans paint electronica: “It’s all controlled by machines, so it’s not spontaneous, it’s not authentic, it’s got no soul.” This seems to rely on a pretty limited conception of spontenaeity in artmaking. Just because every frame of the movie, every rustle of hair, is there by design doesn’t mean that was no spontenaeity in the invention of the story, the design of the characters, etc. Maybe the Pixar folks are just front-loading the spontenaity in the process and letting its effects play out and be magnified by the workhorse power of the modern CG animation shop, just as laptop musicians might invent a world of sound though a spontaneous, gritty process and then let that play out on the computer. In the best of these works, Pixar movies among them, that spontenaity comes through in the work and is often the key to its genius. And while Pixar’s aesthetic is very slick, that doesn’t mean that digital art can’t contain grit. (Sorry, no time to find and link to appropriate examples.) I’ll make my next point in a separate comment.

  11. amoeda

    Now for a much less thought-out response to your “Pixar Generation” point. My instinct (and this is backed up by the most authoritive of traumatic childhood memories) is that schools and sports leagues can make all the policies they want to protect kids from competition, and kids will still compete with one another as a means of organizing and understanding their worlds, making choices and defining themselves. Perhaps schools without rankings and plays without stars will shape the expectations kids have of the institutions in their lives. But if those institutional structures don’t jibe with the reality of the playground, i.e., personal relationships, I doubt that kids will recreate such institutions as they mature–in fact, I would expect them to rebel. On the other hand, perhaps that rebellion will not take the form of total repudiation. Often the goal of “cossetting” policies is not to eliminate all bouleversement (I agree, great word!) from life but to create “safe spaces” as complements to other contexts in life where competition is heated. Of course it’s possible to overdo this, but still, this need not be an all or nothing parenting choice. (And if I ever get to raise a child, I certainly hope to send that child forth to both safe spaces and Thunderdomes.)

  12. AH

    (Thanks Grant for letting me know it didn’t “take” the first time…]

    One theme I’ve noticed is the legacy of extreme peer pressure + absent or overworked families. The result is that students are hypervigilant against any disruption of the group or the tribe. For this reason they are inclined to dull the edge of all-out competition and innovation (perhaps a variant of the Tall Poppy Syndrome).

  13. Liz

    This is my 45 second response–

    Oooh, Grant, what a good riff: Pixar and the Precious Children (the children of the upper middle class who are coddled and protected and so out of touch with reality that it makes your head swim) But you know, I was watching South Park with my daughter the other night, and I am thinking of the imputed expression. South Park is about as far from Pixar as you can go in animation–well I suppose stick figures would be further–but I was thinking about how I, anyway, tend to “read in” expression to those fat flat little faces.

    And the other thing I think about are the cadre of the shadow or reverse of the Precious Children–kids who are underprotected and undercoddled, kids where the parents aren’t parenting or don’t know what to do or cannot protect them from—

    In fairy tales sometimes heroes and heroines do what they know they should not, because of the glamour or enchantment–the mixture of thrill and dread when you do something you know you should not, but you cannot resist that haunting call–

    the gang enchantment and the drug enchantment and the bling bling enchantment and the easy sex/booty enchantment

    leading to the kids in court or dead.

    You wrote of “Is there a Ricky Williams effect? “–well, maybe, but what about the shadow, the dark side of the coddling culture.

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