Tuesday, September 11, 2007

By What Criteria Do We Judge Quality?


What is this mysterious beast that everyone knows when they see it but few ever bother to define? People toss the word around maybe even more than they toss around another mystical term: "Story".

I think Quality means very different things to different groups of people and therefore is not a very useful term.

If you were to write a meaningful review of an animated film, it would be more useful to define what specific elements you are judging that add up to your definition of quality.


A modern feature animation producer's idea of quality would probably be different than an animated film critic's definition, although with some overlap.
Both those general types of people represent many others like themselves. Quality = amount of details. Sure, you say everyone is different and an individual, but I'll say probably not. Most people fall into groups. Within each group there might be some subtle variances that to others in the group seem large, but to the outsider the differences are negligible.


Professional critics who specialize in animation have a certain general set of criteria in common. When they watch a feature, they tend to look for:

How It Compares To Disney

Disney created the template that we still -70 years later- unquestioningly follow. The rules he set for what makes quality animation are completely different than what makes quality in other mediums and we have been chained to this ever since.

Many animation critics do not realize how insiduously they have been brainwashed by Disney's rules.


No one knows what story is anyway, but everyone holds it in high regard. Animated features have completely formulaic predictable stories, yet critics still manage to find ways to talk about them, because story in a writer's mind means "words" and words are easier to write about than pictures, acting, cutting or pure entertainment value.


Are there live action style sequences in it? That's worth a few points because live action is inherently superior to mere cartoons.

Kitschy Cuteness
This style of cute definitely flips a switch on animation critics. It reminds them of when they were 3 and first saw Snow White.


Somewhere burned in our genetic memory is the knowledge that cartoons are supposed to be funny and make you feel good. Everyone instinctively knows it, but funny doesn't win awards or garner a lot of serious respect.

Disney figured this out long ago and came up with the idea to do the opposite of what cartoons are good at. Instead of making us happy (laughing equals good feelings) he decided to make us miserable and figured out ingenious ways to make us cry. "Hey fellas, let's shoot the character's Mom! That'll destroy everyone in the theatre!"

The critics eat this stuff up. I think they like the surprise that a cartoon can be something other than what cartoons are good at, even though it's no longer a surprise. It would be a surprise today if a cartoon dared to be a cartoon again.

Animation producers prey on the critics' auto-reactions to fake pathos and have devised a handful of filmic tricks that push the cry button.

Did It Give Me Something To Talk About That Will Make Me Feel Smart?

Of course a critic's trade is to overanalyze everything and try to find "meaning" in their entertainment. If they just said "I like it. It made me cry and had lots of action and pop-culture references!" maybe no one would take them seriously - although that would be very useful to the audience.

DISCLAIMER: Of course I'm generalizing and not every critic fits the generalization exactly.

Leonard Maltin is a big exception. He writes about what he feels naturally when he watches entertainment. In clear English with no circumlocutions. He was one of the first brave souls to champion pure entertainment like The Fleischers, The Three Stooges, Bob Clampett and other geniuses who traditionally had been snubbed by the critics. We owe him a lot.


People who aren't actually interested in art (like most animation producers) don't judge the quality of something by its aesthetic parts.

Is this the ugliest character design ever? Do you know of anything that can compete?

They have no choice but to judge the art by how complicated or "real" it looks. Real to the untrained eye. I've used the analogy of your Dad choosing a painting to hang over the couch and deciding by counting how many individual leaves the artist painted in the trees.

Not by how well composed the scene is, not by the flair of the brushtrokes, not by the sensitive blending of the intricate colors. Not by the feelings it evokes.
"GIMME LOTS OF LEAVES AND MORE CLOUDS! MAKE SURE THE LEAVES ARE GREEN! AND I WANT A BLUE SKY!" For the most part, feature animation producers are like your Dad.

Details- Quantity - Moles, Pubes and Pores Count - Moles per Square Inch
Pocahontas consults the wisdom of the magical pussy-tree, complete with every fold and crevice.

Ugly Non-cartoony Tasteless Design
Animation producers hate appealing cartoony characters. They think simple, well-balanced shapes are immature and cheap looking. Dic really was cheap, but felt guilty about it and they didn't want the audience to think it so they designed their characters too lumpy and detailed.

Now, big budget feature companies can put real money into their Dic -inspired designs and make the characters uglier than was ever thought possible.

Hard To Do

If it's really hard to do and all the animators and assistants want to kill themselves, then you know you're getting your money's worth.

Crowds are very hard to do and therefore in great demand from quality animation producers.

It doesn't matter if each character in the crowd is god-awful ugly, because there are so many that you probably won't have time to notice.
Is It More Expensive Than The Competition?

How trendy is it?

Today's trend is to have pop-culture references everywhere and to have everyone have 'tude, and to have the women be smarter and tougher than the men.

I've never understood trend-think but that's the executives' stock and trade. They don't have artistic taste or story instinct. They only have ugly details and trends as their creative tools.


Well, this whole blog is dedicated to my own view of what makes quality, but I thought I'd just spell it out.

There is no one ingredient that makes "quality" for me. I like a lot of different things. Mainly if something grabs me, then I like it. It's afterwards that I try to analyze why I liked it, mainly so I can learn and improve my own work.

You don't have to have every possible good ingredient in a work of entertainment for me to consider it "quality". Mainly it has to be fun. I can break down fun into separate qualities:

Charismatic Fun Characters







Did it Blow My Mind

I borrowed this phrase from Eddie, because it's so right.

Does It Swing?

Hmmm, this is going to take forever to illustrate and describe, so I'll leave my explanation till tomorrow...