Søren Ragsdale (sorenragsdale) wrote,
Søren Ragsdale

In defense of the "Dreamworks face"

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.
Tags: dreamworks, pixar
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