ByAbigail Lamb, writer at
Animation student at the Edinburgh College of art. Passion for all things animated.

The last few years have seen the release of many classic animated films as live-action adaptations. The live action revamp of Disney classic Cinderella in 2015 has given rise to a number of classic animation remakes of Disney properties. Modern technology allows filmmakers to blur the boundaries between animated and live action better than they ever have previously, a line which Disney has always danced. With so many of the elements of a live-action film being developed through 3D digital technology why is it that we tend to place emphasis on the real elements?

If you were to google "live action" and find its definition you would be told that it is

action in films involving filming real people or animals, as contrasted with animation or computer-generated effects. (Oxford English Dictionary).

The definition points out that the action must be performed by living actors to be classified as live action, while also drawing a line between it and animated or computer-generated effects. While there is nothing in the definition to suggest that a live-action film cannot have animated elements, it is unclear on the percentage of live-action elements to animated elements that allow a film to be deemed as a live action.

Jungle book characters (2016)
Jungle book characters (2016)

Does this then mean in cases such as Disney's modern retelling of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, where only 1 of a cast of 10 key characters is a live actor, that this film may be considered live action? The definition of live action would allow this. Yet, it feels misrepresentative to call a mostly animated feature a live action because of one character. Whereas films with mostly live action characters and few animated characters: Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Pete's Dragon, Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed to name a few, are never mislabelled as animated films because there titular character is animated.

It then could be possible to say that because of an audience's ability to relate closer to a living character their importance supersedes that of an animated character. There, by creating a live-action film from one live-action character, where in reality a mixed media film should exist. In this particular case however, it's not difficult to believe that the distinction has been made to differentiate between the two Disney Jungle Book adaptations; the completely animated and the animated with live action included. However, not all mixed media films use CGI and visual effect animations in the same way.

Even before the use of the first computer-generated special effect in Michael Crichton's Westworld in 1973, movie productions had included the use of special/visual effects. For many years they were nothing more than puppets and things on strings, but the computer-generated effect has excelled film production hugely by helping audiences engage and believe in the story they are watching. Because of this, computer-generated special effects have become an important part of much of film production. Modernly, it has become more unusual to be told a film was made without the aid of CGI special effects than it is to be told it used them. Most modern action films include a plethora of visual effects, not only to create large-scale explosions or natural disaster that would be impossible to create without the use of visual effects, but also for more of the backgrounding than you would assume. 2012's The Avengers only allowed for a number of days filming in New York city, the site of the films final battle. To compensate for the lack of shots they had of the city the filmmakers made an entire CGI model of the areas of New York they were filming in, allowing them to tear down large chunks of their setting as well as fill in the gaps. The Avengers of course, is not unique in this application, many films such as "Avatar" and "Pan" share this component, lending an animated element, or at least a non live element to modern cinema.

The inclusion of this type of visual effect is another reason to ponder the place of animation in cinema. While the presence of cgi elements does not void the definition of live action. The definition, appropriately, referring to the action and not the setting of the film. It does aid to support the argument that many modern films are just as much animated features as they are live action features. With frequent and recurring animated action accompanying those live action elements a film is a joint effort on both fronts. Begging the question; why do we so quickly jump to coin a film live action, when it possesses the littlest of live-action components?

Adult Swim's animated programming
Adult Swim's animated programming

Could it be because of animations reputation as a children's media? With far more obviously animated content being made for child consumption than adult consumption, it is easy to see why many people assume animated media is for children. However there is a section of classically animated media that is sectioned for an adult audience. A lot of this media is located on Cartoon Networks, Adult Swim. Shows like Rick and Morty, The Boondocks and The Mike Tyson Mysteries are very obviously animated media, just maybe not the kind that you would want to sit your child down in front of. When we contrast this type of animated media together with the kind of CGI animation present in mainstream media and films, it's not difficult to see why many people believe animation is a children's media. They are unaware of their animation consumption. This ignorance may lead many to believe their media consumption is primarily live action. Yet they never consider how their CSI reconstructions and visual explanations are achieved.

Wether it's ignorance or a tendency to identify with the familiar, live-action media and animated media are intrinsically linked. Live-action media has grown to incorporate many more elements than purely the actions of living actors. Maybe it's just time to admit that purely live-action media is no longer common and stop coining films live action at all? Maybe it's time to start calling all films something new all together? or maybe we should just be a little more sensitive to the part CGI and animation play in our media.


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