Animation and live action aren’t often cinematic bedfellows, largely because they’re such different art forms. But the current release of Life, Animated, the documentary about an autistic child who used animated Disney movies to understand the world, is a reminder that there are impressive exceptions. Sometimes live action and animation can come together, not to simply combine cartoon and human worlds (Mary Poppins, Space Jam, Who Framed Roger Rabbit), but to collaborate towards a greater artistic goal. Here are eight movies we love where the two mediums collide, and what they achieved by doing so.
Animation is used throughout Life, Animated to visualize memories and recollections from the childhood of Owen, the film’s subject, that have no footage. But there’s one sequence especially that stands out: an animated adaptation of a story called “The Land of the Lost Sidekicks” that Owen wrote as a child, which reveals his feelings about himself, Disney, and the world. Director Roger Ross Williams worked with French design studio Mac Guff — specifically its owner Philippe Sonrier and artists Mathieu Betard and Olivier Lescot — to bring the story to life with simple, but lively pencil drawings and color use. What stands out about the finished product isn’t just that the sequence is beautifully animated, or a very appropriate creative choice for the documentary’s subject (someone with a love of animation) — it’s that it uses animation to give us visual and empathetic access to Owen’s mind, allowing us to view a world that otherwise wouldn’t be available.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch
When Hedwig, a genderqueer rock musician, starts singing “The Origin of Love” in this cult movie musical, the pairing with an animated representation of the song’s story (based on one from Plato’s Symposium) could be dismissed as music video-like. But the animation is more than that. For one thing, animator Emily Hubley’s blend of Picasso-like figures and storybook imagery helps bring the myth to life in a way that might have been hard for some to visualize otherwise. Meanwhile, the animation allows us to better draw the connection between Plato’s story and Hedwig’s own. The effect shows how mixing animation with live action can add great thematic depth.
Tarsem Singh’s underrated movie — about a stuntman in a hospital who tells a young girl stories that are visualized in stunning, vibrant sequences — isn’t lacking in visual splendors. But an especially notable moment is when the girl undergoes surgery and has a nightmare depicted in stop-motion. Animated by the Lauenstein Brothers, it’s a dark and disturbing sequence, and one that feels out of place visually with the rest of the movie. But that’s precisely why it’s so effective: it illustrates how powerful her subconscious fears are, and how abstract the way children try to understand the world can be. In that way, the use of stop-motion animation illustrates those qualities in a way a live-action sequence never could have.
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck
When director Brett Morgen discovered a recording Kurt Cobain made on a cassette tape that described a formative early sexual encounter and suicide attempt, he didn’t know right away how to put it in his film. He eventually decided on what would become a four-minute single-cell animation sequence that’s one of the doc’s highlights. The 6,000 frames and 60 oil paintings it’s made up of were created over four months by Hisko Hulsing, a Dutch animator, with a team of more than two dozen people. The result isn’t just notable for feeling like a self-contained short film, but also points to how inventive animation can help documentaries visualize material there’s no footage for. It stands out for honoring and accentuating Cobain’s storytelling, artistic mind, and world view with its moody, dark aesthetic.
Waking Life/A Scanner Darkly
Richard Linklater has never been a conventional filmmaker, and Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly may be two of his most unconventional films. That’s largely because of their surreal and disorienting aesthetic that layers animation and live-action together. Both films’ visuals were created by first shooting the movies normally with digital video. Then rotoscoping — a method where live-action footage is traced over with animation — was used with a special program called Rotoshop. What distinguishes these Linklater films is how effectively they use animation to complement the movies’ worlds and moods. The ethereal musings on philosophy and existentialism in Waking Life are nicely reflected in the wobbly fluctuations in the movie’s animation. As for A Scanner Darkly, Philip K. Dick’s paranoid, dystopian near-future world is equally well captured by the familiar, but strange, look of the rotoscoping applied to Keanu Reeves and his co-stars. It’s not a mix that would work for all movies, but it’s hard to imagine either of these being as effective without it.
Diary of a Teenage Girl
The adaptation of Phoebe Glockner’s graphic novel about the sexual awakening of teenage artist Minnie is punctuated throughout with the main character interacting with her own art. The images that Minnie sees and talks with — all hand-drawn by Icelandic Brookylinite Sara Gunnarsdottir — are used more like the animation in Life, Animated: to provide access to the internal world of a person (or fictional character, in this case). What’s especially great about Diary of a Teenage Girl is that the animation reflects Minnie’s own art, going that extra step of allowing us to see how an artist like her sees the world as a perpetual source of inspiration for her work.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Monty Python’s comedic style has always been an animated one, so the use of animation in the troupe’s classic spoof of Arthurian legend always felt like a natural fit. The illustrations between the tales of the various inept Knights of the Round Table also have a functional purpose. They provide chapter breaks, while mirroring the look of medieval-era illustrations. But in animating the drawings, Terry Gilliam (who based them on doodles that monks drew in manuscripts in Medieval times) also provided an added value: humor. As with much of his other Python work, the interludes seamlessly slide into the joyous infantile comedy to be found in the rest of the tale.
Waltz With Bashir
Ari Folman’s documentary investigating his own lost memories from the 1982 Lebanon War isn’t a subject one would instantly peg for animation. But the inventive style — dark yet beautiful — of the movie goes a long way toward evoking the dream-like feeling of memories slowly coming back. The movie’s look was achieved with a kind of out-of-order pre-visualization process: interviews and scenes were shot first on sound stages, then turned into storyboards, then animated using Adobe Flash, as well as classic and 3D animation. The ultimate effect is hard to describe without seeing it, but after you have, it’s hard to imagine Waltz With Bashir’s story being told in any other way. That, incidentally, is what unites all movies that creatively use animation and live action together: it’s never as a gimmick or a lark, but as a way to tell a particular story in the best way possible.
What other films that mix animation and live action do you love? Share your favorites in the comments!