Netflix's Love, Death and Robots highlights the luxury of ambition that animated shows enjoy
Netflix's Love, Death and Robots may be the latest high-profile advertisement for the things that animation can achieve.
Ever since Luis Bunuel and Pablo Picasso conspired to slice an eyeball in Un Chien Andalou (An Andalucian Dog, 1929), cinematic history has been littered with visionary painters and later, comics artists inspiring (sometimes directly, like Picasso who literally dreamt the sliced eyeball) directors to push the limits of their visual game. Ridley Scott and George Lucas are both admirers of the legendary French comics artist Jean Giraud, better known as Moebius, so much so that Moebius’s art is referenced directly in Scott’s 1995 submarine caper Crimson Tide.
The ghost of Moebius also hovers above Love, Death and Robots: a spectacular, wildly ambitious anthology animation show by Netflix, helmed by David Fincher and Tim Miller (visual effects maestro, who made his directorial debut with Deadpool in 2016).
It consists of 18 short episodes animated by various studios and creators around the world. When the trailer dropped in February, Netflix confirmed that one of the primary influences on the show were the alternative comics of the 70s and 80s — and then, in a subsequent interview, Miller confirmed that the adult animated film Heavy Metal (1981) was one of the starting points of the project. Heavy Metal was based on the 70s American comics magazine of the same name, which itself reprinted material originally published by a French comics publication called Metal Hurlant (literally, “howling metal” in French), co-created by—wait for it — Moebius.
The year is 2019, and animation today is a world of limitless possibilities in terms of both form and content — LDR itself shows off a mouth-watering array of homages, from the square jaws and geometric elegance of Up, to the rich detailing of classic anime fare like Ghost in the Shell, to extremely photo-realistic animation, the kind seen in modern-day computer games.
The creative elbow room afforded by a new-age studio Netflix is surely a factor, but there are also plenty of things that the animation medium inherently offers to creators, things that allow writers and directors to pull off minor miracles — without this costing the studios a fortune, more often than not.
Ding an sich: The thing itself
One of the most written-about concepts introduced by the philosopher Immanuel Kant was that of “the thing itself”, or ding an sich in German. Kant argued that the material world was the sum total of our perceptions, what we viewed things as. He argued for the existence of the thing-in-itself, objects that were independent of the way we perceived them, essentially freeing them from the subjective gaze. Although the limitations of this idea were comprehensively described by Schopenhauer and others, it remains a pretty neat starting point for several philosophical scenarios.
Now consider how animation plays around with this concept. In the fifth season of BoJack Horseman, aired last year, an episode called “INT.SUB.” was narrated from the point-of-view of a therapist, Dr Indira (who’s treating Princess Carolyn) and her corporate mediator wife Mary-Beth (who’s settling a dispute in Todd’s company). Because of confidentiality clauses they cannot reveal their clients’ true identity to each other. Indira, therefore, describes Carolyn (who is an anthropomorphic cat in general) as a “Tangled Fog of Pulsating Yearning in the Shape of a Woman”, while Mary-Beth describes Todd as “Emperor Finger-Face”. And in their respective retellings, that is exactly how we see them as, so much so that the movie posters in Carolyn’s office are changed to titles like “When Foggy Met Misty.”
This works at the simple level of a visual gag, albeit one of the more whimsical ones you’ll ever see. At the same time, it is an intriguing take on the perception/the-thing-itself continuum—when we make a single observation or a single data point the epicentre of a person’s assessment, everything about that person wraps itself around that one observation. The nature of reality itself changes, in a way. Quite simply, animation allows creators the bandwidth for both metaphors and strategic literalisation.
Going through the eighteen mini-episodes of LDR, one of the first things that strikes you is how each of the stories is set in a visually distinct universe — Witness is set in a vertiginous, surreal world of ominous-looking skyscrapers and off-kilter landscapes. Beyond the Aquila Rift is a classic space opera, set in a dystopian space junkyard of sorts. The blood-soaked opening episode Sonnie’s Edge is, believe it or not, a kind of Pokémon for grown-ups, with dark, looming arenas where monstrous “Beasties” fight each other, controlled via bio-processors by “pilots.”
Building believable universes from scratch is hard work, whether it’s animation or live-action movies. The former just happens to give creators (and studios) a little more value for money, and is logistically easier to pull off. A big, sprawling live-action period drama can potentially involve thousands of junior actors, costumes, weaponry, animals and so on. And while cutting-edge animation films can be expensive too (LDR is certainly expensive by animation standards), the respective scales are not really comparable.
The petri-dish scenario
In high school physics, a popular template for numerical problems is to radically alter one or more fundamental rules of the universe — for instance, the value of the gravitational constant might be arbitrarily doubled, thus changing the time taken for a ball to fall to the ground, once released from a height. If you want to solve these problems, you have to adapt your process to the changed realities of this “petri-dish” scenario.
The adult animated show Rick and Morty often takes a similar approach towards its “concept episodes”. For example, in the third episode of the third season, Pickle Rick, Rick turns himself into a sentient pickle in order to escape family therapy, only to realise that his granddaughter Beth has taken away the syringe that contains the anti-pickle serum that can change him back. Through the course of the episode, he learns to adapt to his new circumstances, and figure out a way to regain his human form — he does this by killing a series of animals and grafting bits of them to his pickle form to create successively stronger exoskeletons.
In the first episode of the second season, A Rickle in Time, Rick unfreezes time after the events of the previous episode (where he and his grandkids froze time), only to see reality being “split” into multiple alternatives, a la quantum mechanics, which is basically a probabilistic model of the universe. We see this problem being manifested through a split screen that lasts for much of the episode. Structural innovations like these are always super-fun to watch—case in point, the third season of BoJack Horseman, which featured an episode about an underwater film festival (naturally, the episode was almost entirely silent).
It’s quite difficult to see any of these “concept episodes” working in a live-action film, for obvious reasons.
Post-irony or Un-ironic Sincerity
Ever since the mid-90s (at least), the pitfalls and limitations of irony as a storytelling device have been well-documented, by authors like Dave Eggers, Zadie Smith and David Foster Wallace. The argument was simple: self-awareness and meta-jokes had taken on a life of their own and beyond a point, ironic distance fell into the same traps as the old narrative structures they demolished. For instance, if a novel featuring exclusively white characters constantly made jokes about its own whiteness, what would that achieve in real terms? What would it contribute to the discourse? That’s right, nothing, because lip service goes only so far.
Adult animation shows like BoJack Horseman, in particular, demonstrate this “post-irony” or, as I like to call it, “un-ironic sincerity” very effectively indeed. Part of the reason behind this effectiveness is the cultural perception/recall value of cartoons as something inherently light or frivolous. Graphic novels dealing with gritty or violent subject material sometimes also benefit off this phenomenon. Because the medium’s history as “the funny pages” informs the emotional temperature of the reader, graphic novelists exploit this fact to their advantage and turn things around in their favour.
BoJack Horseman — the character, not the show — constantly makes jokes about his own alcoholism, his ne’er-do-well ways, his terrible behaviour with friends and family. But here’s the crucial bit — the show does not let him off the hook for this. His friends and colleagues are constantly calling him out for using irony as a crutch, as an excuse for behaving like a jerk.
It’s You, the tenth episode of the third season, hammers this home. A character called Ana tells BoJack not to “fetishize his own sadness”. His own best friend Todd, who has just found out that BoJack slept with his girlfriend Emily, tells him off soundly and adds for good measure, “You can't keep doing this! You can't keep doing shitty things and then feel bad about yourself as if that makes it okay! You need to be better!.”
In conclusion, Love, Death and Robots may be the latest high-profile advertisement for the things that animation can achieve, but the truth is that there has been a Renaissance in this realm for a while now. And with every passing year, it seems that animated shows are only getting more ambitious, and that’s never a bad thing, to be honest.
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