Blog #3 – Snakes on a Cel!
While watching Rango, I was thoroughly impressed with the way Jake the Snake moved, and it got me to thinking about snakes and how they are animated in films. I couldn’t help but feel that Jake was just so very ACCURATE in the way his body twisted and wriggled. It was very complex.
Pardon the Britney Spears song, people make the weirdest tribute videos, but the clips show how he moves pretty well:
I remember watching a snake at a zoo climb up and down a rock wall. I couldn’t figure out WHY he was doing it, but every part of his body moved to get him where he needed to be, sometimes in different directions. Here’s a clip from the BBC on how snakes move:
Given the difficulties of conveying emotion and expression through animation even when the character has facial features and body motions, I thought it must be doubly difficult when you have a creature that has no shoulders to shrug, no hands to wave, and no nose to wrinkle or lips to purse. So I started looking for animated snake videos to see how the issue was addressed by animators over the years.
Surprisingly, one of the first relevant videos I came across involved, of all my favorite people, Gene Kelly. I could probably devote a whole blog post just to him and his live action/animation contributions, but it would just turn out to be a fan rave post.
This clip is from Kelly’s 1956 film, Invitation to the Dance. The dance itself is kind of hokey and definitely not one of Kelly’s better works. However, the snake’s lithe form allowed it to give itself a body, creating shoulders and appendages when necessary. Animators could easily break the rules, possibly even MORE easily than when working with human forms. (BTW, if you click on Snake Woman, you can see another type of animation – a female dancer imitating a snake. This particular performance highlights the importance of the right facial expressions. Her wide-eyed, hypnotizing stare really adds to the feeling of snakeishness she is expressing.)
Here is a tribute video to Master Viper from the Kung Fu Panda series. (caution, loud music that can be ignored.) However, you can see how the animators found way to convey emotion through her face and body positioning. This particular character has the unusual trait of being one of the good guys – you’ll note that snakes are usually henchmen in animation.
Animated snakes apparently are given prehensile tails, fortunately, as Sir Hiss would have had a terrible time doing his job in Robin Hood:
Another way to convey snakiness is the voice. Kaa from The Jungle Book was all exaggerated esssess and tongue flicking and snake jokes.
So, animated snakes aren’t too badly drawn, they just had to develop some acrobatic and prehensile skills in order to convey personality and emotion that would normally be expressed through body language. With modern technology it’s gotten easier to tie both realistic motion and animated emotion together.
P.S. did you notice how Rattlesnake Jake always fills the screen in the shots he’s in? He’s definitely the biggest creature in that little town and that screen filling shot made him seem all the bigger and scarier, and making the viewer feel less like a human observer but more like one of the animal townspeople.