Bridging the Gap | Blending Animation and Live Action

For years movies have taken us to new and exciting areas. Animated films have done the same. There have also been many movies that have taken the best aspects of live action and animation and coupled them together to further enhance cinematic experiences.

Actors interacting with animated characters was a staple of early animation films and still manages to rear its head now through CGI and live action. There is something special in these kinds of stories, a fresh beauty that shows viewers how animation has developed over the years.

The king of these has always been Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a tale that really lets audiences appreciate the acting skills of Bob Hoskins. The way that the two protagonists – Hoskins’ PI Eddie Valiant and the cartoon character Roger Rabbit – manage to interact with one another seamlessly is true art that any animation fan can’t help but admire. The same goes for the movie’s blend of the live action Hollywood of the 1940s setting and the fictional animated Toontown where all the Looney Toon legends live. When people think of such a blend, they think of Roger Rabbit. But how did such a winning combination come about?

1923 saw the release of the first real hybridisation of live action and animation in Alice’s Wonderland, a film part of the Laugh-O-gram series by Walt Disney. The animation cells were added to the already filmed footage of actors, something that would be later made more seamless with the introduction of CGI.

These techniques would be explored and developed over many years, filmmakers learning from the original Disney innovation. Films such as Mary Poppins, Fantasia, Bedknobs and Broomsticks and the infamous Song of the South all acted as developmental pioneers of the subject. The 2D cells managed to look beautiful and it really felt like the animated figures were there in the room with the actors. Watching CGI now, it shows that even in subtle ways animation is often inextricably blended with live action and we can see how far it has come. Just look at Jurassic Park and then Jurassic World.

The question is: “Has this technique truly become better over the years?” It may be tough to answer properly. Yes, animation has improved for the most part. But often it is the plot in these types of films that sets them apart. And for the vast majority, there is already a cartoon or comic book source material to draw upon.

This can work when done correctly like when the Looney Tunes met Michael Jordan in Space Jam or in the Roald Dahl classic James and the Giant Peach. The plot, however, was lacking in later films like Garfield, The Smurfs, Alvin and the Chipmunks and The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. That said, even though these films had their problems plot wise, the technique still managed to transcend this and would go on to bigger and better things with The Lego Movie.

Another successful live action/animation hybrid with gorgeous visuals, as well as heart and charm to spare is the original Pete’s Dragon. Meanwhile, on the weirder side of these blends is Osmosis Jones, telling the story of a pair of tiny cops who protect the human body from diseases and illness. This is coupled with live action scenes featuring Bill Murray, the man whose body the policemen operate in. Despite the two plots rarely interacting together, the movie still delivers an artistic antithesis between the two styles, culminating in the epic eyelash fight of its climax.

We can see how far animation has come when we compare the past and now with regards to 2D and 3D integration with live action footage and it is beautiful. Sure, not all the films that do it are. But with every failure, there is a gem that becomes engrained in the minds and hearts of its audience.

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