Blue Sky‘s new movie Robots is quite an artistic accomplishment. Sure, the plot’s a bit predictable and some of the jokes fall flat. But in terms of animation, this movie is stunningly, wonderfully original. My hat is off to directors Chris Wedge and Carlos Saldanha: they have raised the bar with this picture, and we should all take note! These guys set a really tough challenge for themselves, and they consistently lived up to it.

What was the challenge? How to take a ridiculous design like this:

and animate it in a way that’s both believable and appealing. Let’s analyze for a moment just how hard this is. These characters are made of rigid metal parts, so you can’t let the audience see them bending and squishing around, or they’ll start to look like rubber. And yet, if you limit yourself to rigid transformations, you won’t be able to hit those really strong expressive poses that make the character come alive.

What was Blue Sky’s solution to all this? Extremely snappy animation. Hit a pose, stick it, hit another pose, follow through, and so on. If your transitions are fast enough, you can get away with all kinds of non-rigid contortions, as long as you stick to rigid joint movements once you hit that pose. Of course, I’ve only seen the movie once, so I may be misreading it, but I suspect that that was how they made this work so well. Stage magic, folks!

Blue Sky is like the dolphin cousin of the rest of us primates in the animation world. They branched off from our common ancestors lo some twenty years ago (an eternity in CG years), and started doing things their own way. Now they’ve evolved into something sleek and elegant. They make this monkey want to go surfing.

One thought on “Robots!”

  1. I recently found your blog when looking for something else, and then watched Robots based on your recommendation; thanks. I wouldn’t have liked it if I was watching for the plot, but I really enjoyed the animation and the visuals.

    You’re certainly right about the snappiness of the animation. Another trick they used to make the robots less rigid is to provide a lot of joints for them to move. For example, Robbie’s torso has three parts, so that he can slouch or stand up straight or lean in different ways. Providing enough rigid parts often provides a good enough approximation to nonrigid deformation. Even Luxo Jr. can be expressive with just a few rigid links.

    I think that another big difference of Blue Sky Studios is that they have a lot of New York sensibility and characterizations, in contrast to the heavily California-centric Pixar/Disney/PDI movies (except maybe the Woody Allen elements of Antz). A lot of the accents in both movies were New York characters. It reminds me of the difference between the early Disney cartoons (as I understand it, the animators were basically a bunch of good ol’ American farmboys) and those amazing early Fleischer brothers cartoons (the animators were New York Jewish hipster intellectuals).

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