Treasure Planet: Overthinking Animation

H’okay.  This post actually popped into my head, like, a week ago.  But then, mannequins happened, and there was always something else to write about that seemed more conducive to being written immediately after the event.
This is, in fact, the “different post” referenced in “I Posted This Because Reasons”.

Hold onto your butts, kids, this one’s long.

I watch Treasure Planet fairly often.  Some might call it ‘repeatedly’.  It, is the movie going when I’m studying and don’t want to listen to any of my songs for the umpteen billionth time.  It’s the movie I watch at the end of the day while I drink tea and pretend to be working.  It’s not the only one – the first two Mummy movies, both Hellboy movies, Dead Poet’s Society, Cabin in the Woods and How to Train Your Dragon also hold this honour, but Treasure Planet, until last week, was the only one I had on my computer, so it was the only one that was truly portable, and was just there when I needed it.

In short, it is kind of embarrassing how many times I’ve watched this movie.  Quite honestly, I’m a little bit in awe of how much thought the artists and designers and just everybody put into it.

I’m not talking about the space whales.
I’m not talking about the breathable air in space, or the fact that space apparently has day and night.
I’m not talking about the failures in how gravity works.
I’m not talking about any of the science failures.  Or questions about the society, or the aliens, or the linguistics.

Because yeah, they’re not the best science.  The aesthetics of the show require a few things to be hand-waved, and I’m OK with this.  I mock the ever-loving heck out of it, but I’m OK with it.

No, the bit that really gets me to watch closely is the animation.  Holy crap did they ever put some effort into this.  Like, characters anticipate others’ actions and flinch before the blows or the pain actually hit.  Looking at where the background characters are looking is in some ways more fascinating than the actual plot.  Facial expressions are insanely detailed, and so much information is carried in the minutiae.

Frankly, I could sit down with a video of the movie and point out all the fascinating stuff moment-to-moment, but I’ll relegate that one to annoying the crap out of the people I know in real life, who still seem to stick around me even when I do annoying stuff like that.  There was one scene I desperately wanted to discuss, but it doesn’t work in still image form, so it looks like that won’t be happening.  I’ve had to leave enough stuff out of this already.

Mild spoilers will almost certainly occur – no major plot points will be spoiled, but I’ll be talking about Jim’s character arc (not like you couldn’t have figured out where that was going anyway) and his relationship with Silver (which gets complex), so read on or not as you deem fit.  I’ll try not to write anything you couldn’t hear in a spoiler-less or spoiler-light review.

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Let’s start with Jim at the beginning of the film.  Surface level: Rebellious Teen (TM), from the mullet-rat-tail love child on his head to the oversize jacket and black shirt.
The two robots are immediately recognisable as policemen.  Look at ’em.  Everything down to the shade of blue screams Law-Enforcement.  Look at how their design enhances the shoulders and chest.  They’re polished.  They shine.

But anyone who knows me will by now know that that’s not really enough.  Let’s look at the jacket for a second.  At least, what you can see of it in this picture.
You’ll see it better later, but that thing is huge on him.  It disguses pretty much the shape of everything about him (arms, torso), and he constantly has his hands shoved in his pockets.
It’s basically the best coat possible to hide in.  Look at the difference in posture between him and the policemen.  They’re heads-up-chest-out-shoulders-back.  Classic ‘I am in charge’ pose.  He’s retreated into that coat so far he does turtles proud.  His eyes are down, his shoulders are up.  He is so not in charge of this situation, and he’s not even trying to fake it.  He’s just waiting for it to be over.

Also, the fangirls are going to have my neck for this one, but dude is freaking tiny!  What’s he supposed to be, seventeen?  My maths says seventeen (five years in the prologue thing, twelve year timeskip).  How many seventeen-year-old boys do you know that are a head shorter than their mothers?  And head and shoulders shorter than the weedy professor character?  Just compare the size of the hand on his shoulder to his torso.  I’m pretty sure, had the movie taken a much weirder bent, he could have been that policeman’s shoulder parrot, without too much effort.
Size emphasises power.  That’s why movies use the huge, muscle-bound dude as the intimidating one.  It’s why the Gentle Giant is a subversion of expectations.  In real life, it’s why you get better results talking to a child if you kneel down so you can look them in the eye.  This movie takes this concept, runs with it, and does not let it go.
Jim is always shorter than the other important characters, because he is the underdog.  It means that Silver can be simultaneously a father figure and a legitimate threat.  It means that the Captain always has the psychological advantage when giving him orders.  Threats seem more threatening, and the win seems more satisfying.

Let’s have a look at another picture of Jim, a little further along.

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In this scene, Jim and Dilbert are getting pulled up for mouthing off about the Captain.  Jim is used to getting in trouble.  Dilbert is not.  This is definitely a different scale of trouble than before (‘stop talking’, rather than ‘legal repercussions imminent’).  But still.
So, starting with Arrow.  Again, much bigger than everyone else involved in this picture.  Tall, broad shoulders.  And as if that wasn’t subtle enough, literally made of rock.

Let’s move to Jim.  We already know a little about Jim.  Well, this time he’s not  pulling his turtle impression, but he’s not exactly standing tall, either.  One of Arrow’s hands is holding that shoulder up (and does it amuse anyone else that Arrow literally cannot even fit half his hand on Jim’s shoulder?), but the other is shrinking away from him.  He’s also turning away from Arrow.  And he’s not looking particularly guilty, either – his expression, the hand at his face, say “whoops” more than anything else.  This isn’t humiliating, or confronting for him – it’s just mildly awkward.  He’s learned what not to say in front of Arrow, and yeah, he doesn’t necessarily want to make Arrow mad, but he’s not that bothered.

Dilbert, on the other hand?  He is incredibly uncomfortable right now.  He seems to be caught somewhere between wanting to stand up for himself and being intimidated, so he’s leaning backwards to kind of split the difference.  His arms are up protectively, and even though he’s looking up at Arrow, his face is angled down from where his eyes are actually pointing – classic sign of suspicion or discomfort.  He’s frowning.  He’s also turned to face Arrow, as opposed to Jim’s turning away.  He looks like a man presented with an unfamiliar situation.  He’s getting ready to stand up for himself, but he’s too intimidated to just up and do it.  He’s a bit resentful, possibly a bit angry.

Neither of them do stand up for themselves, but it’s very easy to tell the different reasons.  Jim knows he’s done something wrong, and he knows it’s not worth his time and the possible repercussions to do it.  He’s just waiting for the lecture to be over.  He’s used to this.
Dilbert is too intimidated to defend himself, and unsure of what to do.  One screenshot. Volumes of character.

Before we hit up Jim and Silver, I want to take a brief pit-stop by Dilbert and the Captain, showcasing exactly how one uses height advantages.  Two shots:

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Photo one: Dilbert looms over the Captain, intent on venting his frustration and proving to the Captain that he’s unhappy with being pushed around.  Essentially, he’s trying to gain back a portion of the status or dominance he’s used to having in conversations.

Photo two: Captain stands up, Dilbert is suddenly shorter, he has lost the upper hand.  The argument ends very shortly after, with Dilbert as the beta in the relationship.

Politics of height. Boom.

Right, so let’s dig into the meat of Jim and Silver now, and look a little closer at size differences.

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Jim and Silver first meet.  I’ll cover Jim pretty quickly, then dive right into Silver.

Jim: Head down, eyes down, hand in jacket pocket, other hand hidden by massive sleeves. Turtle mode activated..  When Silver’s standing straight, he doesn’t even reach Silver’s chest.  Shoulders hunched over, perpetual frown right in place.  Again, he’s hiding in his clothes, making himself as small as possible.  I said before that the jacket is huge on him, now you see what I mean.  The sleeves are too long, the shoulders are too broad.  Nothing here that we haven’t looked at already.

Now.  Silver.

First thing I want to say isn’t necessarily in this picture, but it’s worth saying anyway: Silver’s face is basically pudding.  He’s the animator’s squash-and-stretch model come to life and given a funny hat.  This works so much in the animators’ favour, for several reasons, which I won’t list here, but trust me, we’ll be coming back to this.

Now, on to this picture.  He takes up so much space.  He’s leaning back, but it’s a tall lean.  Not like Dilbert’s – it’s a way of taking up even more space.  Everything about his posture is open, too.  Legs apart, shoulders straight, arms to his sides rather than in front of him.  Silver is a character who spreads to fill any space he’s put in.  Here’s the first part of where the putty-face comes in – everything about Silver is big, and that includes his expressions and mannerisms.  Unlike Jim, or even Dilbert, that malleability of his face means that everything can move about as much as the animators need it to, to make him larger than life, without him ever looking ‘unrealistic’ or ‘off-model’.

So now that we’ve got the comparison out of the way, a little bit about how they interact.

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This is a few hours after they meet for the first time.  At this point, Jim really isn’t too sure about Silver, and is still very wrapped up in his rebellious-teenager mindset.  Also, in this scene, or this part of it, Silver is very definitely asserting his dominance.

Height comes in here, though Silver’s not really emphasising that, here.  Actually, that’s quite interesting.  Sure, he’s obviously the one with authority in this scene, but he’s addressing Jim almost eye-to-eye.  It’s actually almost a friendly dominance here (though Jim doesn’t necessarily see it that way).  Silver’s informing Jim that Jim will follow Silver’s orders from now on, but he’s kind of having fun.  It’s a mock display of dominance, it’s not a true expression of authority.  Jim doesn’t necessarily see it this way, but the audience is probably seeing Silver closer to Silver’s ‘real intentions’ than Jim is right now.

So, if he’s not using height to intimidate, what is he using?  Again, he’s taking up way more space, but then, that’s just Silver.  No, he’s actually using personal space here.  He’s poking Jim in the face with fingers thicker than Jim’s arms, speaking right into his face.  Invading personal space is a powerful sign of authority here.

And it’s not the only time Silver uses it to his advantage, when he doesn’t actually have the size advantage.  Picture to follow may contain spoilers.

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So, who’s taller, Silver, or the guy he’s talking to/at?  Absolutely the other guy.  By a significant margin.  Silver is to him as Jim is to Silver.

But who’s in charge?  It’s Silver.  Notice that the other guy is actually making himself taller … but to try and get away from Silver.  Silver’s just getting all up in his personal space and it’s intimidating as heck.  Look at the differences in stances – Silver is grounded, he’s set and square, his stance is strong.  The other guy would probably fall over if Silver shoved him.  He’s ‘on the back foot’, as it were.  He’s not making eye contact with Silver, and his arms are in front of him, protectively.  SIlver is absolutely the dominant one here.

Actually, this is the other place where Silver’s Play-Doh face comes in handy.  Because his face is so malleable, he can shift from quite a soft, paternal vibe to an intimidating, hard vibe without either feeling at odds with his character design.  His character design is whatever the artist needs it to be.

SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT

Jim actually uses this trick against Silver quite late in the movie, too – same difference: he’s shorter, but grounded and stable, while Silver is taller, but visibly unbalanced on his back foot.  I won’t post a picture, because it’s much harder to avoid those if you don’t want spoilers.  Just trust me when I say it’s there.

BACK TO SAFETY.

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This is what happens when Jim and Silver have an actual confrontation.  Silver’s still kind of mocking Jim (facial expression), but this is the best body-language example I found.

Look at Jim.  He’s doing his gosh-darned best to be tall, but he’s just not winning that battle.  It’s not a thing that’s happening for him.

Yes, I derive endless amusement from this.  Shush.

Note how Silver looms here.  Even bent over, he takes up more space.

Jim’s doing his level best, though.  Really, he is.  Poor baby.

So then, we get a heap of scenes in the rest of the movie where Jim and Silver talk on equal terms.
This is what that looks like:

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Here, Silver is consciously trying to make Jim like him.  They’re negotiating, after things have gone wrong.  Silver’s intentionally dropped himself to Jim’s level.  He’s keeping eye contact.  Someone better versed than me in body language can probably tell you more about the hand-on-back thing, but it’s quite a common one used for subtle control.  Ever seen a father walking with a son or daughter, and usher them through a door first with a hand on their back?  It’s both a familiar thing and a dominance/control thing.
As far as my understanding goes at least – feel free to tell me if I’m way off with this one.

Silver’s also in Jim’s space, but he’s not forcing his way into it, he’s actually using it to insinuate friendship.  He’s actually made himself a little lower than Jim, to make Jim feel like he’s in the position of power, and again, very open body language – universal symbol for “trust me”.

This isn’t a true equality, though – this is Silver using these tricks to make friendly with Jim for his own benefit.  What does true equality look like?

Like this.

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There’s no artificial lowering here – Silver is very much still taller.  But that’s not actually an issue.  They’re standing close, but not uncomfortably close.  Open body language, angling towards each other.  Eye contact.  This is a pair of friends talking.

Even though one of the friends is really freaking tiny.

2 thoughts on “Treasure Planet: Overthinking Animation

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