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Book Review: The Art of Robots

by Natasha Theobald

I'm guessing that most people have no clue what it takes to make an animated feature. We sit in our seats and munch our popcorn and watch the pretty colors fly by without giving a second's thought to the extraordinary efforts the finished product represents. From the initial ideas through to the finality of their execution, this is the art of filmmaking, the art of animation. Still, we have no clue, and that is why we get explanatory DVD extras and why we have this book.

The Art of Robots takes the reader on a journey from the first, infinitesimal kernel of an idea, an animated movie about robots, through the steps of the process required to get it to the screen. It talks to artists and animators, the creator, the director - everyone from the top down and the bottom up. The book makes two things very clear. One: animation is art. Two: it is collaborative art on the grandest of scales. By the time you are munching your popcorn, hundreds of people have spent thousands of hours creating what you will see. The spectacle of it all is almost as impressive as the great attention paid to even the tiniest details.

Children's author William Joyce already had brought two of his memorable characters to the small screen, with "George Shrinks" and "Rolie Polie Olie," when he made the bold statement that he would like "to design an entire world." After meeting director Chris Wedge for another project, the two became fast friends. When the first idea didn't make it past the development stage, they were left to rebuild. And, what did they decide to build? Robots!

How do you build a robot world from nothing? A great deal of thought goes into that very question. There are issues of how the robots will look, where they will live, how they will function. Should robots eat? How will they grow? Will the metal rust and be painted over? Questions follow questions, and each answer informs, in some way, the world that will result. In a world filled with machines, which will be the living robots?

The animators found inspiration in everything from Civil War era costumes to Art Deco coffee pots. They scrounged in garages and stole appliances from kitchen counters in the name of research. They used pieces of musical instruments for robot doors. They peered inside pocket watches and made trips to the eye doctor count for something. While their world was one of fantasy, it has machine elements and metal materials with which to contend.

When considering the look of the film, in addition to creating the look of metal, paint over metal, paint over metal that has been scuffed or worn, etc., the artists had to use visual language to help the audience grasp their intentions. It is no mistake that the good guys are made with rounded, pleasing shapes and the bad guys are full of sharp points and angular looks. It is no mistake that the city has a sleeker, more modern appearance than Rivet Town. It is no mistake that safe havens feature warm yellow shades while evil environs have less color in general and colder, blue and green tones. A quick glance tells us so much before one word is spoken.

Great care was taken, too, in building our robot hero and the characters he would meet throughout the film. Rodney had to take the shape of a star, an identifiable presence for who the audience would feel something and with whom the audience would identify. The animators talk about creating performances for their characters. The tiniest details, such as the shape of someone's lips, determine how much a character will be able to express or emote. You may think it's hard to get an actress with a zit out of her trailer, but consider trying to make a robot's face move enough to express something but not so much that the stretch is overdone and the magic is broken. Every move, every blink of an eye is there for a purpose and communicates something essential about a character or moment.

There is more, but let's be honest. One may read this book once they have it, but the book is bought for the pictures. The front cover, alone, draws me in each time I see it, so I couldn't wait to peek inside. The pictures in this book are beyond gorgeous. Great care has been taken to show everything from initial sketches to final characterizations. We see the creative process before our very eyes, the evolution of a look and the detail from sketch to CG model to screen. The items come to life before us. The landscapes of the settings are especially striking, with the full expanse of two pages to stretch out in great color and detail.

Find a copy of The Art of Robots and spend an hour or two poring through it. You will come away with a greater appreciation for the work and the artists who do it, the brilliance of inspired ideas and the greater genius of making them work. Maybe you, too, will be inspired to set upon the task of creating - a whole new world or a better, more colorful life in this one.

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originally posted: 03/23/05 18:47:41
last updated: 03/24/05 08:22:24
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