The Mitchells vs The Machines is as genre-bending as its makers' predecessor Spider-Man: Into The Spider Verse
The Mitchells vs the Machines is an example of 2D and 3D animation styles being used in conjunction to provide a unique visual feel. The last movie to use this style memorably was, of course, Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse, directed by Christopher Miller and Phil Lord.
All directors tend to sweat extra hard over the first 10 minutes of their films. First impressions, after all. And this is especially true for animated movies because those first 10 minutes are like a referendum not only for your storytelling skills, but also the tech-artistry behind the movie. The VFX, the colour correction, the lighting, the character design — it is all under the scanner in those all-important first 10 minutes.
Mike Rianda’s The Mitchells vs the Machines, which released on 30 April, makes optimal use of its opening scene, it has to be said.
Not only is it an effective stage-setting (we get to know the basic traits of the titular Mitchell family), it is also a beautiful advert for the hybrid animation technique of the movie —as Katie Mitchell (Abbi Jacobson) takes us through her idea of a perfect family, we see real-life stock image-style photographs of family vacations. This, then, is the basic style upon which the animators pile on an astonishing range of variations: photorealism juxtaposed next to illustrated-style backdrops, both natural and indoors.
The Mitchells vs the Machines is an example of 2D and 3D animation styles being used in conjunction to provide a unique visual feel.
The last movie to use this style memorably was, of course, Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse (2018), directed by Christopher Miller and Phil Lord. Miller and Lord are producers on The Mitchells vs the Machines while Michael Lasker, who was CG supervisor on Spider-Verse, is VFX supervisor this time around.
In layman terms, VFX refers to any effects added in post-production, and not in real time, whereas CGI refers to the process of 3D-modeling objects on a computer, and then rendering images of those objects. As such, the two movies — as well as The Lego Movie (2014), another Lord/Miller project— share a lot of personnel and consequently, variations on similar techniques.
Great Hair Day: Character design and storytelling
How many of you were wowed by Olivia Octavius (Dr Octopus/Doc Ock) in Spider-Verse? From her unique look to her character design to her big reveal as Doc Ock, the character proved to be a fan favourite.
How many of you noticed that her glasses had octagonal frames, by the way? Heck of a cool touch, that, one that tied in neatly with her character’s supervillain mythology.
One of our most complex and challenging characters in Spider-verse was Olivia Octavius. Her elaborate hair groom was a beautiful achievement by our CFX team, as well as the multi-layered, simulated cloth that she wore. #SpiderVerse #IntoTheSpiderVerse #Imageworksvfx pic.twitter.com/LkRpsWU3IY
— Michael Lasker (@mlasker) April 4, 2019
Look at Olivia’s hair, for example, a marvel of design in itself. Look at the way in which the overall ‘hive’ hairdo is balanced out by the delicate asymmetry in the individual strands. Think about how many iterations it took in order to achieve this ‘nested’ effect of asymmetry within a symmetrical frame. It has the eye-catching quality of 2D animation (The Powerpuff Girls, for example, have hair in simple geometric shapes, with solid colour-blocks and little variation) while retaining the realism of 3D works.
How does this hybrid approach to animation work out in The Mitchells vs the Machines? Let us take a look at a shot where there are no humans first (animating things is, in general, easier than animating human characters, for obvious reasons).
This is a shot from the 50-minute mark of The Mitchells vs the Machines. It is from a darkly funny sequence where the machines, led by the villainous OS Pal (Olivia Colman), are ‘explaining’ what they intend to do with planet Earth after they get rid of all the humans. According to Pal, a human-free Earth will be an unprecedented utopia, where machines of all kinds will have free rein over natural resources. You can see a group of toaster ovens hanging out in the grasslands in this shot.
Once again, the visual hybridity is what guides your eye: we immediately notice that the toaster ovens are photorealistic, with a clean, efficient, no-frills design. The grass, however, is painterly, with actual brushstroke detail (thereby making the “Artist’s Conception” disclaimer in the frame a bit of a meta-joke), as is the sole flowering plant on display here, in the bottom right hand corner of the frame. The lighting and colour correction also play their part in bringing out the contrast between these two design styles clearly.
Lasker’s team actually developed a tool for the grasslands bit. What the tool does sounds simple, but is incredibly complicated at the automation level. So, say you have an image of a forested area or a grassy meadow. Such an image is likely to have ‘high-frequency variations,' which means there are likely thousands of individual strands of grass in that image, or hundreds of individual leaves waving in the wind. Lasker’s tool automates the process of replacing these high-frequency variations with painterly detail — in the past, such a thing would have meant hand-painting each individual blade of grass. Using this technique in several scenes would have meant inflating the cost of the film to unimaginable degrees. Now, you can basically make the Savannahs look like a Van Gogh if you so choose.
Similarly, take a closer look at this image from the movie (also tweeted by Lasker recently), where we see the protagonist Katie Mitchell interacting with her soon-to-be classmates at film school. Observe how the lighting and overall composition of the shot highlight the contrast between the photorealism of the laptop with the more painterly touches in the background — right down to the socks Katie is wearing, which feature the famous zig-zag wallpaper pattern from The Shining. Now that is a truly impressive degree of detailing and character idiosyncrasy.
Hybrids: Past, present, and future
Anybody who has seen the opening few minutes of Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) can testify to the sheer thrill-ride of watching a hitherto unprecedented technique come to fruition in front of your eyes. For this film, the ‘hybrid approach’ was exemplified by its then-unique blend of 2D animation with live-action footage. Human actors interacted with beloved cartoon characters in a natural, seamless way. Critics were impressed, including the great Roger Ebert, who declared the film to be a “technical marvel, a mould-shattering piece of storytelling”. Audiences could not get enough.
Since then, films like Cool World and Fantasia 2000 have employed similar techniques to great effect. The visual novelty is in watching two or more different styles coming together in an unlikely manner. In Spider-Verse, for example, there are several instances of a multimedia style called “glitch art," which was inspired by analog machines, particularly from the 1960s and 70s. Remember the sci-fi movie The Vast of Night last year? (It is on Amazon Prime Video; I wrote about the film here) The sound design/sound mixing in that film was absolutely superb, and made great usage of “glitch noises”, ie the noises made by an analog machine when it is struggling to start or shut down.
Spider-Verse uses “glitch animation” whenever the Collider central to the plot switches itself on. The buzz-y sounds, the ‘snowscreen’ filled with black squiggles or later, the ‘rainbow bars’ displayed by malfunctioning TV sets a generation later. The glitches are a sign that all the various Spider-Man avatars are inherently unstable — unless they return to their ‘home’ dimensions, the glitches will keep on happening. Think of it as a human version of two machines being incompatible with each other.
Moreover, the various Spidey avatars we see onscreen are themselves a great advertisement for the hybrid animation approach. Consider the spread: we had classic Stan Lee Spidey, as the mentor figure for protagonist Miles Morales. We had a ‘noir style’ Spidey which was black and white, existential and a clear hat-tip to Will Eisner’s The Spirit comic strips of the 1940s and '50s. We had an anime-style Spidey who had a psychic link to a spider-bot made by her father — this is an allusion to the ‘mecha’ genre of anime films and shows. We even had ‘Peter Porker’ aka Spider-Ham, a ‘funny animals/Looney Tunes’ version of the character.
All of these very different-looking Spideys were a testament to the lateral sprawl of hybrid animation techniques. That they worked so well together only emboldened the creators to take more technical risks with The Mitchells vs the Machines.
There is also a philosophical connection between hybridity, and both Spider-Verse and Mitchells. Remember, the overarching message of both these family-friendly films is the same: namely, anybody can be a superhero. “You don’t have to be incredible to save the world” goes a tagline from the trailer for The Mitchells vs the Machines, alluding to The Incredibles, an animated film about a family of supernaturally gifted beings. Spider-Verse hammers this message home with Miles Morales’ climactic speech, wherein he says, “anybody can wear the mask, you can wear the mask!”
Hybrid animation allows the humanity of these characters to shine through in every frame. It allows them to interact with machines, aliens, their own doppelgangers from other dimensions, even literal 2D cartoon characters come to life. It expands the range of possibilities and encourages creators to say, “why not?” when presented with a daring story idea.
The Mitchells vs the Machines is streaming on Netflix.
All images from Netflix.
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