Tangled, Disney’s 50th feature-length animation, is not the studio’s first fully computer animated film but it might be their best (Pixar doesn’t count). The design is great (particularly the color, which made me finally tip over and get a blu-ray player) but the story is what really makes the film such a blast.
When you have lots of tricks in your toolbox, as CG artists do, the temptation is to use all of them. Sometimes focusing on the latest and the greatest might make a storyteller lose sight of why they began telling a story to begin with. In the book The Art of Tangled, one of the film’s key artists Glen Keane tells a story about showing off some of the beautiful effects to Ollie Johnston, a legendary Disney animator who mastered his trade under Walt himself.
” ‘Ollie I want to show you Rapunzel!’ I said, ‘Now, Ollie, look at the reflection of the light on Rapunzel’s dress! Look at the freckles on her face! We’ve never been able to do that before! I mean, we’d have to draw every frame like that! And look at all the frills and the fabric that we could never have done before!”
Johnston brought Keane crashing back to steady reality with a single thought. “Uh, Glen, what I was wondering is…what is she thinking?”
Detail separates good from great but Keane was a little lost in them (although only momentarily). Kevin Nelson, a designer for the film, tells a similar story.
I remember when I was a kid in school, they had this assignment: ‘describe your room.’ Be as descriptive as possible. When I was starting out, I described every single thing in the whole room—horrible amounts of detail. What they never taught us at the time was that you’re trying to tell a story with your detail. You don’t want to include the detail that’s not telling the story.
Because detail is so important to storytelling, it’s easy to forget that detail is not the story itself. A storyteller needs to be able to let themselves go and express themselves to the fullest, but unload too much and you run the risk of getting lost.
Brad Bird, director of The Iron Giant and The Incredibles vehemently asserts that “cartoon” is not a genre, it is just one way to tell a story. Detail is an aid, it is something that helps tell the story. Clever wordplay is not the story, a beautiful painting technique is not the story, a buzzword-y marketing campaign is not the story. The story is the story.