Dreamworks/PDI's "Shrek" and Disney/Pixar's "Monsters Inc." compared and contrasted. Joseph Moore While feature length, 3D CG animated movies are a relatively new art form, they are based on technology that is decades old and film conventions that span a century. So in many ways, the two most ambitious examples of the genre can be expected to be fairly mature offerings in an ever-evolving industry. Despite the fact that both of these films inhabit the same "family/animated" niche, they are two very different experiences. Comparing the philosophy, process and end-result of these two movies, and their respective DVD releases, is an insightful exercise. (Note: A reasonable argument could be mounted that "Final Fantasy" is truer to being the state-of-the-art than either of these two films. For the purposes of this exercise, though, I felt it would be more apropos to compare two films with as much in common as possible. "Final Fantasy" is a singularly unique offering.) If you happen to have read my last comparison of Star Wars Episode II against The Fellowship of the Ring you will notice that the format of this critique will differ slightly. This is due to the different processes involved in the actual movie making, as well as it is to my familiarity with the process. It also bears noting that I do have past and current associates at both Pixar and the Mouse House, so I'm going to be extra careful to not let that bias my opinion, but it is inevitable that my knowledge of their processes won't seep into my review. DISTRIBUTION ARRANGEMENT Both films were incubated in a similar business environment where a much larger, established studio provides the marketing and distribution muscle while allowing a dedicated computer animation house to sweat the details of making the actual product. The relationship between Dreamworks and PDI is such that Dreamworks has much more involvement and control over PDI than Disney does over Pixar. Pixar is a proven entity that has had the luxury of choosing to continue its relationship with the Mouse. PDI is much more beholden to Dreamworks and Jeffrey K's direction (he's a bit of a micro-manager.) STUDIO ENVIRONMENT PDI is, at its roots, a special effects house. As a result, it's culture leans heavily towards the geeks (tech.) A strong influx of talented story and design folk have been added to the mix, but the company's old personality will probably always linger. Pixar, which also began as a technology company, has always strived to create an environment that nurtured the fruits (artists.) One look at their new facilities (which you can get on the DVD) showcases this fact. STUDIO TECHNOLOGY The choice of tools used to craft a CG movie lends as much to the final result as does any other decision. PIxar's "pipeline" is pretty much built around it's very own technology, especially it's rendering engine, Renderman and its concept of "shaders." To be sure, Pixar makes use of plenty of off-the-shelf solutions, but their proprietary tools are the most important in yielding the creamy smooth "Pixar look." PDI, conversely, uses an off-the-shelf tool as a foundation as often as is possible. They're constantly building their own plug-ins and dedicated tools to push the envelope, but because their toolbox is similar to that which many CG houses use, their isn't a really distinctive PDI look, at least not one enforced by technology. STORY Both films are built atop interesting story ideas that attempt to take an existing convention and present it in an unexpected way. Shrek fractures fairy tale conventions while Monsters portrays the job of scaring kids from a work-a-day Joe's perspective. Both films rely on basic "buddy movie" conventions (Shrek + Donkey, Sulley + Mike) but that's where the similarity in story ends. Shrek is strongly influenced by the styles of it two lead voice talents - Mike Meyers and Eddie Murphy, hence its love story is wrapped in irreverence and flatulence jokes. Monsters' story is a more tender approach. It has been said repeatedly that Shrek is more appealing to adults than Monsters, and that Monsters is geared for a very young audience at the expense of grown-up content. I have to counter that prevailing viewpoint. Just because Donkey says "damn" and cracks are made about the size of Lord Farquad's package doesn't make Shrek more "grown-up" than Monsters. Monsters is littered with both dialogue and visual treats that go over the head of young kids, they just aren't as potentially offensive. I'm not saying one approach is superior to the other, the styles are just "different." That difference shouldn't be mistaken for age appropriateness, though. SCREENPLAY/STORYBOARDS The screenplay of an animated film doesn't play the same role as it does in a live action movie. The process of taking the script to storyboard form is where the movie really gets worked out. And worked, and worked, and worked. Because animation takes so long and involves so many people there is no point in animating something only to have an editor cut it later for pacing or continuity reasons. While in general this refining process separates the chaff from the wheat, there is a danger of over analyzing every shot to the point that spontaneity is lost. Sometimes very minor issues get blown out of proportion and important points are lost to the myopia that storyboard reviews induce. Anyone who's worked under Jeffrey Katzenburg can attest to that! Thankfully, he seems to have stayed more hands-off on Shrek than he was with certain Disney releases. Pixar's mantra of "story, story, story" largely serves Monsters well, but some hilarious stuff never made it past the storyboard stage. Both DVD sets offer a glimpse at their respective film's storyboarding process, but Monster's disc does so in greater detail and volume. PACING/EDITING Animated films of this type don't rely on editing like a feature film does. By the time animation begins the bulk of editing has already been done. The digital "cutting room floor" stays pretty clean. Some editing once the whole work can be seen at once is inevitable, though, but neither film suffers from an obvious. Both films are well paced, but Shrek is definitely the zippier of the two. It has very few down moments and spends very little time in exposition. Monsters is a slower paced film, and it requires quite a bit more exposition to communicate its supporting concepts. The folks at Pixar do an admirable job of making a lot of this background info feel like actual plot progression, though. CASTING/VOCAL PERFORMANCES Casting the voices for a big-budget animated feature is tricky business. A convention has been established which states that an animated movie needs big name stars to draw audiences, but it also must be ensured that those stars are able to inhabit very different looking screen personas. Often times the vocal performances of the actors will strongly influence the work of the animators, and particularly with talent that is good at improvisation, will cause whole scenes to be reworked. Shrek casts Mike Meyers as the lead, Eddie Murphy as Donkey, Cameron Diaz as Princess Fiona and John Lithgow as Lord Farquad. Each actor suits their character well, but Lithgow and Diaz don't really match the energy that Meyers and Murphy exude. There's no real "chemistry" between Meyers and Murphy, but their performances are certainly compatible. Supporting vocalizations are competent, largely going unnoticed. I did enjoy some of the sillier supporting players, though, such as the voice of the gingerbread man. Monsters casts John Goodman as Sulley, Billy Crystal as Mike Wazowski, Jennifer Tilly as Celia, James Coburn as Mr. Waternoose and Steve Buscemi as Randall. Again, each actor is able to comfortably "wear" their on-screen counterpart. Goodman and Crystal really play off of each other enhancing both performances. Coburn's portrayal of Waternoose added a whole new dimension to the character that the director never imagined. Monsters supporting cast turns in some memorable vocal performances. Both Roz and George are voiced by Pixar employees, which makes their presence all the more fun. Monsters is unique in that a main character, Boo, is voiced by editing together the babbling of a Pixar employee's kid! SCORE/SONGS Shrek's servicable score is pretty much overshadowed by the prominent inclusion of popular songs by Smashmouth. These pop tunes work well in Shrek, which is very anachronistic anyhow. Eddie Murphy's performance of "I'm a Believer" at the end of the film is the perfect end cap. Monsters score, by Academy Award winner Randy Newman, is more prominent. Because he also composed the songs, the two blend together seamlessly to support the visuals and enhance the mood. By way of comparison, I don't think that Monsters score is as good as his work for the Toy Stories, but it's better than Bug's Life. SOUND DESIGN Again, Shrek's sound design gets the job done, but it's nothing to write home (or a review) about. Foley's are well done, if innocuous. Gary Rydsrom's work on Monsters is, on the otherhand, quite notable. Every touch and flourish adds a level of personality to the animation that is unmistakable. ART DIRECTION/DESIGN The style of a live action movie is grounded somewhat in reality. Every decision to deviate from that norm is costly and will potentially look "fake." Animated films, and particularly CG films, have virtually no limitations placed on their look. A certain expectation as to how computer animation should look has evolved, but it still leaves plenty of room for expression. The general design philosophy of Shrek is to pack an incredible amount of detail into a diverse and expansive environment. Stylistically, super-realism seems to be the target. Not realism in the sense of a live-action film, but hyper-realism similar to that envisioned by certain fine artists ... to go beyond what a real camera can resolve. Shrek succeeds in doing just that. Monsters looks very similar to other Pixar releases. Certainly, Renderman is a large factor as to why, but so are other conscious decisions. Pixar has a trademark look that they intend to build-on, but not supplant. That overall look is very toy-like. Monsters builds on that look by filtering everything through a 60's design sensibility. None of the production would be mistaken for being "real-world" real, but within the Monsters world, it all has a consistent, pleasant look. CHARACTER DESIGN Besides envisioning the general look of an animated film, each character has to be built from the ethers into a living, breathing personality. Not only does the the character have to look appealing, but it also has to be functionally animate. Because a CG character is "virtually" constructed like a mechanical puppet, its design has to be able to accommodate the wide range of poses an animator will put it through without visually "breaking." Shrek's character design is uneven. Almost every character, (particularly Shrek himself) taken as an individual, looks good. But as whole there is a lack of visual cohesion. The dragon looks very "cartoony," Fiona looks like an accurate human, and Lord F. is somewhere in between. Some of the supporting cast of "humans" are really weak looking. Monsters features a very strong set of character designs. Many of the "extras" are clearly built from left over parts, but the main cast manages to be both diverse and consistent in design. The weakest of the important characters has to be Boo, herself. Convincing human beings are not Pixar's strong suit. Both DVD's feature galleries showing the progression of the characters from concept to execution. SET/PROP DESIGN AND CONSTRUCTION Every single blade of grass in a CG movie has to be built. Computer programs can simulate a lot of different materials, but ultimately much of what is in a scene must be designed and built by "hand." Every virtual set must be blocked out and dressed. Shrek features vast locales that are dressed with impossibly detailed props. Certain elements, like the field of sunflowers are created algorithmically, but many, many more were consciously built and placed. Some of the textures, like that of Lord F's armor, are so good that a normal person wouldn't give them a second thought, (the ultimate complement) but anyone in the know will marvel at them. Monsters is a more spartan production. Locations are limited, and even then a lot of set pieces and props are recycled. Still, there are a lot of wonderful examples of everyday items that have been "monsterized." The DVD set does feature interesting "fly-bys" of the movie's locations. CHARACTER ANIMATION The animators are truly the "actors" of these films. The vocals are important, to be sure, but the animators make or break the performance. Because great animating comes from an innate talent, not a teachable skill, these guys are the superstars of animation. PDI's animators continue to get better and better at character animation. With each successful release PDI will be able to attract better talent, but right now they are clearly not yet able to perform at the levels of Disney and Pixar animators. I can't say this for sure, but some of Shrek's animation looks like it began life as motion capture data. That would certainly explain performances that are technically smooth, but ultimately a bit lacking in life. Monsters features character animators at the top of their game. They've been strongly influenced by Disney's "pose-to-pose" style of animation. Performances are so "animated" and infused with personality that one can almost follow the story without the dialogue. EFFECTS ANIMATION If it ain't a character, then its an effect. Whether its an in-your-face fireball, or the subtlest kick of dust, an effects animator or technician labored over it. Shrek positively shines in this regard. The fluid dynamics work used in several different ways in different scenes (including the dragon's fire-breath) is top notch. The movement of cloth is also well realized. The myriad of subtle effects that you don't even notice flesh out Shrek's fantasy world to a degree that would have been inconceivable just months ago. (Let me go off on a tangent for a moment. Anyone familiar with Japanese anime probably has noticed how an effect like an explosion will be animated with the utmost of care, while the facial movement of a main character looks like it was done by a robot on Prozac. Its part of the style that you just accept, but it also seems that it is very hard to put together a team that cares equally about character and effects animation. I'm not trying to suggest that PDI's character animation is an afterthought like it is in Anime ... they obviously work very hard on it ... but I couldn't resist pointing out the parallel.) Monsters' effects animation is also well done, but other than Sulley's fur (which was done programmatically, not artistically) it's not as front and center as it is in Shrek. The shot where Sulley wrecks his toboggan and the snow flocks to his fur (also a mathematic effect,) and the shot where a door falls and splinters (this one animated by hand) are both very well done. Both DVD's do a good job with extras in explaining how they advanced effects animation. CAMERA/LIGHTING These are two completely different things in computer animation, done at completely different stages of the pipeline. I'm covering them together, though, because they have a similar impact on the final product, and they are very connected in traditional filmmaking. Both films attempt to keep camera work to a minimum which is wise because one of the telltale signs of bad computer animation is a camera that zooms around impossibly until the viewer is either distracted or suffering from motion sickness. Shrek sticks pretty strictly to using camera work that would be possible with a "real" camera. This decision serves the film well. That's not to say that PDI doesn't exaggerate certain shots beyond what would be practical in reality, but in general you'll never comment "Wow, look at that camera move." Lighting is equally traditional. PDI decided to approximate set lighting instead of "real" lighting, resulting in a look more "natural" than natural light would have. Monsters' camera work is equally tame, but there doesn't appear to be any particular limiters on how they decided to move the rig other than "this looks good." Lighting is used to good dramatic effect and fits in well with the whole look. DVD VIDEO Both of these films go straight from a digital "master" to MPEG2 encoding and compression. There's very little opportunity to mess-up such a transfer short of using too low of a bitrate (which, thankfully, neither of these discs does.) Both presentations are pristine, saturated and mercifully lacking in garish edge-enhancement (un-sharp masking.) This is just opinion and conjecture, but I feel that Disney's encoding process is just a wee bit better, but I can't really quantify how. I'd also have to say that the Ultimate Toy Story collection is ever so slightly better resolved than Monsters, probably becuse of a higher bitrate. (If you have occasion to have to watch Monsters Inc. on a 4:3 aspect ratio display it is nice to know that Pixar re-framed the entire movie and re-shot (rendered) scenes as necessary. So while the 4:3 cut isn't the original presentation it isn't really pan and scan, either. I don't know if the same was done for Shrek, though, because I didn't look at either 4:3 version.) DVD AUDIO Again, both films feature great audio tracks. Both use every channel, both keep dialogue front and center, both envelop the listener in a convincing, directional sound field. The edge definitely goes to Monsters' mix, even though Shrek has a DTS track and Monsters does not. Monsters' Dolby EX mix manages to both give your subwoofer a thorough thrashing and to resolve the most tender moments in Boo's bedroom. DVD EXTRAS Both sets feature two disc. Both offer insightful commentaries and repurposed documentaries. Both have plentiful galleries and both feature clever menu animations. (You'll either love or hate the Donkey "pick me" menus ... I think it is hilarious.) Shrek really goes over the top with a multitude of original material (games, sing-alongs, etc.) that feature not only feature quality animation but in many instances, the original voice talent as well. PACKAGING/PRICING Both sets use standard packaging and are offered at normal DVD prices.