Log in

In defense of the "Dreamworks face" - Søren Ragsdale [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Søren Ragsdale

[ website | Søren Ragsdale ]
[ userinfo | livejournal userinfo ]
[ archive | journal archive ]

In defense of the "Dreamworks face" [Sep. 27th, 2009|02:36 pm]
Søren Ragsdale
[Tags|, ]

There's a popular internet forward that makes the rounds at Reddit, Digg, and other content aggregators. "Pixar vs Dreamworks" contrasts the imaginative characters and stories of the former with the formulaic clichés of the latter, highlighting the "Dreamworks face" as an icon of this failure.

Pixar vs Dreamworks: the "Dreamworks face"

I get what the comic is saying. Pixar takes great care in developing their stories, reaching a level of quality that other studios have difficulty matching. They deserve all the credit they get for their successes. But the "Dreamworks Face" is a cheap shot; this comic trivializes the difficulty of the creative process. Pick your favorite cartoon cartoon protagonist: they're likely to be an affable plucky underdog, unsure of their success but looking to prove themselves in the world. The big toothy smile exudes warmth and friendliness. The cocked eyebrow shows an enigmatic personality and hints at the intrigue of future conflict. The outstretched hand shows either a friendly welcome, contemplation, or a call to action.

It's a very, very common pose. Everyone uses it. Even Pixar:

The "Dreamworks face" in Pixar films

I'm not trying to take a cheap shot at Pixar, I'm trying to show how easy it is to find "the face" in almost any animated feature. I could make a similar collage for Disney, Blue Sky, or most reasonably large studios' live action features. (Goopy said that John Kricfalusi calls it the "Cal Arts face" after the alma mater that's produced the artists from many animation houses.)

I appreciate and admire Pixar's films. I have many good friends who work at Pixar. Their projects are executed with artistic and technical perfection leading to a level of commercial success that is well-deserved. But the reason for their success is far deeper and more complicated than simply avoiding animal characters or particular poses. Feature animation is a very competitive business, and it's short-changing both the successes and failures to pretend that a good story boils down to avoiding or following any simple formula.

Except that many good stories actually do boil down to a few rules and formulas. Many stories - Pixar's especially - are produced with heavy use of Robert McKee's "Story" formula, which are in turn derived from Campbell's monomyth formula from Hero with a Thousand Faces. There is a formula for good stories, and a history of successful formulations. Story writers jump between Pixar, Dreamworks, and SPA know this, but simply knowing the formula is no guarantee that you'll end up with a successful formulation. It's hard work, which is why it's so impressive when someone gets it right.

Speaking of "getting it right" please consider seeing my employer's latest animated feature "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs". It bears very little resemblance to the book but the characters are good, the story's good, and the quality that we're getting from the new "Arnold" renderer that we're developing in-house is very nice.

[User Picture]From: wisn
2009-09-28 01:39 am (UTC)
Good thing you'll never see silly faces like that in comic strips.

(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: haineux
2009-09-28 03:00 am (UTC)
This man is suing all y'all for stealin' his bukket:

Also, +1 for including Luxo, Jr.
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: sorenragsdale
2009-09-28 06:05 am (UTC)
Luxo doesn't have eyebrows to raise or hands to emote with, but at the end of the "Pixar" intro the way that he looks into the camera seems like a reasonably similar emotion to the Face; a little friendly, a little shy and embarrassed.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: gaping_asshole
2009-09-28 09:52 am (UTC)
The Kung-Foo Panda and broadly smiling hippo face shots miss what I think of as "Dreamworks Face". What I see the studio overusing is a strained smile paired with tense eyes and cocked eyebrows when a character is trying and failing to gloss over a conflict.

The protagonist bee and the donkey in Shrek both seemed to have no other mode of being and it was tiresome.
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: mmcirvin
2009-09-28 11:56 am (UTC)
Early on, when they did "Prince of Egypt" and "Antz", it seemed as if they were developing a style in which everyone had a heart-shaped face with really wide-set eyes (you can see it in the ant up there). I didn't entirely disapprove as at least it was different from the Disney house style that everyone else imitated then.

Also, to be fair, Pixar has (relative) duds. I notice the original comic didn't mention "A Bug's Life" or "Cars", though the response hit them. "Antz", for its flaws, was actually a significantly better movie than "A Bug's Life".

(And on the other hand, my niece adores "Cars").
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: wisn
2009-09-28 02:57 pm (UTC)
"Cars" is apparently Pixar's biggest money maker of all time: "On June 22, 2006 Disney Consumer Products announced that Cars merchandise broke records for retail sales based on a Disney-Pixar product, recording 10-to-1 more volume than Finding Nemo." It's still selling tons of merchandise, three years along. I thought it was the most phoning-it-in of Pixar's movies (I'll admit I haven't seen "Bugs Life" or "Toy Story 2"), but if a lot of people were indifferent to "Cars" they'd be less inclined to buy the associated goods.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: occlupanid
2009-09-28 03:52 pm (UTC)
Did you make that 'pixar' image above? cause i see a few "dreamworks" faces, but mostly just characters smiling, with not too much stringing them together except your declaration that they all have the same face. Of the pixar faces you have pictured, i'd say only Buzz Lighyear and two of the cars qualifies. Because there's a little more to the expression than what you're alluding to. The smile isn't a big toothy grin, it's a smarmier smirk, like how Gaping describes: It's not just that they make that face, it's that the face is all they seem to make. That you're adding a lightbulb and claiming that it also has a "dreamworks face" tells me that you're missing this aspect of that expression, or just claiming that any appealing character has this face. The old man from Up? Seriously?
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: sorenragsdale
2009-09-28 06:11 pm (UTC)
I made the second image, but not the first. I agree that the Pixar characters are not all wearing exactly the same face that's pictured in the cartoon but neither are the Dreamworks characters in the first one. The ant really isn't smiling. The raccoon doesn't look nervous. The donkey and fish don't have the cocked eyebrows. The panda isn't showing any teeth. None of the Dreamworks faces are doing anything with their arms. Only the bee is really doing the full face. If you're telling me that all seven Dreamworks faces are doing something that none of the Pixar faces are doing then I just don't see that. I see them all doing the face to similar and varying degrees.

My point is that the first comic is true "in that it's universally true". As you point out characters have faces, faces have facial expressions, protagonists are presented as being friendly, and the goofy smile is an effective way to make that happen. It's almost inevitable that protagonists characters will make that face, and it's unfair to single out Dreamworks for this particular criticism. I could have made a better example if I'd cherry-picked the seven best faces like the first author did, but I wanted to show that every character in every Pixar movie does the face to some degree. Even the characters without faces, hands, or eyebrows do their best to make the face.

I tried to find a similar example from "Christmas Carol" and I couldn't because Scrooge isn't supposed to be friendly so he doesn't make the face, but there are a ton of other versions of Carol where characters make The Face. Once you stop thinking of "the face" as a Dreamworks face it starts showing up all the time.

(The old man from "Up" falls into Scrooge territory. He's not supposed to be a friendly affable character so he doesn't make the face, but I *did* find one photo of him smiling so I threw him in.)
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: occlupanid
2009-09-28 04:05 pm (UTC)
However: you're still Not Wrong, you just need to widen your focus. American animators seem to want to make very similar faces, and have their characters be (for the most part) mighty similar. For example, the upcoming CGI Astro Boy. It's not by pixar, or dreamworks, or any company derivative i immediately recognize, but watching astro boy give an embarrassed laugh and a double-thunbs up.. YUP it's the same expression you see in almost every CG cartoon feature made in the states, the kind of "hip" crap that anime from japan never seems to bother with. You still don't get to put just any appealing CG character on there, but you can sure widen to incorporate all the smarmy cockeyed expressions in Disney characters as well.
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2010-06-18 06:47 am (UTC)
all the pixar examples are simply smiles, they all vary in shape and size. the dreamworks faces on the other hand are all the same, half assed cool guy smile that only goes across half their face. no body does that
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: sorenragsdale
2010-07-24 04:35 am (UTC)
the dreamworks faces on the other hand are all the same, half assed cool guy smile that only goes across half their face

I don't know about that. The ant, raccoon, donkey, fish, panda, and hippo all have smiles extending all the way across their faces. The only Dreamworks character with a "smile that only goes across half their face" is the bee, who has a smile no less asymmetrical than "Mike" from Monsters Inc.

"Half assed cool guy" is pretty subjective, but that's basically the primary characterization of Flik, Remy and Linguini, or Marlin. They're likable characters who are a little unsure of themselves, giving their plucky attempts at being cool a twinge of half-assed-ness. There's nothing wrong with a character like that, you just have to take them somewhere good.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: terrorbite
2011-04-22 04:25 pm (UTC)

The Dreamworks Face (source: fukung)

fukung.net : You are a sad sad little man.
(Reply) (Thread)