Monday, February 24, 2014

The Laws of Physics in an Animation Universe

The Physics of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
 Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is a 3-D animated feature film released in 2009 and produced by Sony Pictures Animation. It was directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller and was based on a book by the same name, written by Judy and Ron Barrett. The movie, which heavily emphasized comedy and exaggeration was stylized in a way which has negated realism much more than several other animated films, as seen in its choice of character designs, environments, general story, and of course in its animation and physics. It is stylized much more in the vein of films like Madagascar or Kung Fu Panda, rather than some of the more grounded films like Disney's Tangled or Pixar's films. Because it almost negates realism entirely, the animators were allowed to freely style their character and object behaviors to create as much humorous effect and cartoonish physical impact as was necessary. This is seen in the way it plays with inertia and acceleration, the general lack of consistency in the way things collide or take damage, and in the way forces are generated.

The film's universe tends to favor whatever forms of movement it takes to make an impact. Because of this, it ignores the laws of inertia very often, and allows objects to accelerate and decelerate unrealistically based on whatever it needs the characters to do. This is very evident in the way characters are made to comically behave. One of the most obvious examples of this can be seen in the movements of the character of Officer Earl, especially in the scene where he is first introduced and scolds the main character, Flint Lockwood. Throughout the conversation, his head jerks around unrealistically to get into Flint's face in a way that would normally require a tremendous amount of effort. Of course it would be impossible to accelerate the head from a position of rest to the incredible amount of velocity it takes so quickly to make it dart around the way it does. After he talks with Flint, he quickly flips and somersaults away to catch a jaywalker in a way that would also be impossible in a similar way. There is simply no way for him to be able to change his velocity so quickly due to the law of inertia, but they animators did so anyway, and used this fact to make him entertaining to watch.

In addition to this, there are several times in the film when forces are seemingly generated out of nowhere. Officer Earl's insane somersaults which he does both to catch the jaywalker and to escape form the giant food avalanche later on in the film are prime examples of this. There is no way that he could have generated the amount of force necessary to do those movements. There are other times when objects in mid-air are able to change directions rapidly or to halt their movements seemingly without anything acting on them. This is seen many times when a character is jumping, and suddenly lands much more quickly and abruptly than he should. The animators did this to add the special character that the jumps needed, both to escalate the power of certain scenes and to make it more dynamic and interesting for the audience to watch. In addition some forces are generated which seem to keep objects in place which would normally be out of balance or would fall over. There are many examples of characters moving in ways that their bodies wouldn't be able to support – a particularly clear one being the run cycles of the crowds as they flee the disaster that has befallen their town. Some of them are leaned backwards in ways that would normally offset their center of gravity, causing them to fall over rather than continuing to remain able to run they way they do. It is as if a force was in place keeping them up, which normally would make no sense. But in this sort of film where the rules of physics are broken so readily, the audience thinks little of it, and the anomaly instead serves to add more character to the film.

There is a lot of action and chaos that occurs throughout the movie, and throughout it there are several instances where characters are put through circumstances which should normally lead to a large amount of physical harm, or even death. The fact that it does not would normally mean that they are made up of material much more resilient to the forces enacted upon them than would normally be possible for human beings, or that the force being acted upon them is unequal to what it should be based on what they are being put in contact with. This is fairly prevalent throughout the film, starting towards the very beginning when the character Samantha Sparks jabs her feet into Flint's eyes, or even hits his head on the railing in the same scene with an incredible amount of apparent force – both of which cause literally no damage to Flint. This continues well into the later half of the movie, in times such as the one when Flint's falling off of the incredibly tall jello tower doesn't kill or harm him, or during the attack on the food-creating machine, when the characters are tossed and bumped around in ways which would normally be lethal, but wind up not being as such. The world behaves this way, of course, because any level of realistic damage would be to unappealing for viewers (especially since this is a kid's movie) and the characters would likely not make it to the end of the film. In addition, the slapstick provided by this sort of animation can be entertaining in a sadistic sort of way, without being too messy.

These sort of physics quirks are all horribly incorrect, and yet they have been used as animation staples for quite some time. It is the ability to change and alter physics in order to enhance the effect of certain scenes and characterizations that makes animation the unique medium that it is. Within the unique established worlds created within these films, the audience is able to completely forgive these fallacies and instead enjoy them as part of each movie's original style. The way these are utilized in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is a testament to how sacrificing real physical rules in favor of comedic or dramatic effect can really push the moments of an animated film into something truly spectacular. The way it neglects the law of inertia, creates nonsensical forces, and takes advantage of the ability to ignore normal damage and collision physics are all part of its strengths, which the animators of this film have used very successfully.  

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