2014 was a great year to be an animation fan. Not only was there an unprecedented number of animated feature films released, there an astoundingly broad array of styles and techniques on display. It was a year that had the technical wizardry of Big Hero 6 and The Book Of Life right along side the personal handmade efforts of Signe Baumane and Bill Plympton. Even Stuido Ghibli and Laika, no slouches when it comes to making beautiful movies, topped themselves this year.
In a year full of gorgeously designed animated characters, here’s our standouts:
The LEGO Movie directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were committed to making their computer-animated film look like stop-motion animation as possible. That meant little changes to the standard LEGO minifigs that made up the cast, giving them all a uniform look. The one, glorious exception was Metalbeard, who was described by another character quizzically—and accurately—as a “pirate…robot?”
In a film where the characters’ movements and charmingly limited, Metalbeard is whirlwind of activity. Arm-loaded cannons fire, shoulder pads flap, chains clank, each oversized finger articulates, and as an added bonus, a shark flaps and snaps on his wrist. Literally towering over the rest of the cast, Metalbeard is an embodiment of the madcap creativity the movie champions.
For a story about adults—not just adults, but the elderly—and with subject matter that deals with the effects of Alzheimer’s, Miguel’s design seems like an odd choice. Squat and thick, Miguel’s proportions are at odds with the adults who surround him. Miguel’s looks like an overgrown child, an echo of his mischievous nature. Not even a beard late in the film can add maturity to this guy.
As the catalyst for the plot, Miguel is perfectly shaped. While the other characters sag in stasis, Miguel is ready to be on the move. His large hands are always grasping, his round head a cannonball waiting to be fired.
Signe Baumane’s aggressively hand-made film attempts to make sense of not only her own depression, but also the depression that afflicted many women throughout her family. To illustrate this, Baumane called upon the folklore of her Latvian heritage, conjuring up a gray, snake-bodied monster with a disarmingly placid expression. This creature, which slithers through the characters’ homes and calmly encourages them to throw themselves into rivers, is a marvelous representation of the insidiousness of depression. Other films have attempted to show depression before, but none of them are as quietly compelling as Baumane’s, who serpentine casualness makes him all the more frightening.
Deliberately sketchy and suffused with delicate watercolors, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is arguably the best-looking animated film this year—no small feat in a year that includes offerings from Laika and Disney. Animators often struggle to make the audience forget the characters are lines on paper; Isao Takahata’s fable of a girl found in a bamboo shoot repeated reminds you of this fact.
No where is this more apparent than in the design of Princess Kaguya herself. Drawn much looser than those around her, Kaguya’s outlines are at the mercy of her emotions, vibrating with wild expressions of joy or anger. Such expressionist touches run all through Takahata’s work, but this may be the best combination of character and effect. To watch Kaguya dissolve into a frenzied blot of color when she is overcome with feeling is a wonder to behold.
While Bill Plympton also employs a sketchy style, he and Kaguya could not be further apart. While Kaguya uses sketchiness to create an inexact, ethereal presence, Plympton uses it instead to give his characters form and weight. This is brought out perfectly in the character of Elle, who’s wasp-waist and elongated limbs need all the substance Plympton’s sketches can provide.
Elle’s proportions are exaggerated to an almost grotesque degree (the grotesque being Plympton’s stock in trade), but the softness of the design keep the character with a decidedly graceful execution. Sadly the same cannot be said of her co-star, Jake, who ends up looking like an emaciated Frankenstein’s monster.
The beauty of computer animation is that allows character designs that would be too detailed and cumbersome to draw. Of course, this is kind of freedom for detail ends up being a curse, where the film is so packed with attention grabbing details that the focus of the character and story is lost. Just because you can do anything, doesn’t mean you should do everything, as the saying goes.
La Muerte and XIbalba are pitch-perfect examples of detail with restraint. Designed by Jorge R. Gutierrez (who also directed) and Sandra Equihua, these two take full advantage of their CGI states, with flickering candles, glowing body parts and segmented wings. But the design is contained by clear silhouettes and delightfully bouncy hair and mustache animation.
Tomm Moore, director of The Secret Of The Kells, understands the importance of a big round head. His films are filled with children and adults who balance their over-sized noggins on amusingly awkward bodies, and The Song Of The Sea is no exception.
What sets Saoirse apart is while other characters sway and lurch, there’s an adorable grace to the way Saoirse moves. Whether she’s on land or soaring through the water in one of the film’s swimming scenes, Saoirse bobs around with a quiet smoothness. She is unburdened by her giant head, and glides beneath it, as if it was smiling helium-filled balloon.
It may be impossible to pick one character out of Laika’s immaculately designed stop-motion film (just writing “All” was considered). But Fish manages to not only be the best of the lot, he also represents everything that’s wonderful about the design of the movie as whole.
From his gaping maw and perpetually hopeful brow, to his stubby forearms and fingers, to his rectangular box-torso, creased just-so in the middle, Fish is a combination of horror and cuteness that has become Laika’s stock in trade. He seems both sturdy and fragile, strong and vulnerable. He’s a monster you wouldn’t mind spending time with, but not at the expense of his monsterousness.
Somewhere in between a marshmallow and emoticon, Baymax’s soft, open form is without a doubt the best animated character design this year. Reportedly inspired by an inflatable arm to help the elderly and disabled, Character Design Supervisor Jin Kim created a robot that looks unlike any other before.
Tottering around on stubby legs like a newborn penguin, Baymax’s soft body allows for an impressive amount of expression. While his face never changes expression, those two dots and line are remarkably pleasing. There’s a remarkable amount of emotion expressed with most rudimentary possible of faces.
In year filled with character designs that had so much going on, Baymax shows that sometimes simple is the best way to go.