I don’t want to give the false impression on this site that I’m some anti-live-action theatrical nutcase. Some of my favorite shows and movies are live-action. I’M live-action, and I’m betting most of you out there are as well. I just don’t see it as the top of some imaginary storytelling hierarchy that you have to reach to prove your idea is somehow “worthy” of being entertainment. I don’t look up at live-action movies, I just don’t look down on animation and comics. Because most of us are essentially live-action seeing something that looks like it’s in our world or some variation thereof is still not always a bad thing.
My point is just that something done in animated form was designed with that format in mind and all the advantages that go with it. Video games keep trying to be live-action and that’s a mistake…well, most of the time. The more photorealistic they attempt to go the better it works. In fact, what we’ll be going into here with live-action can also be said for photorealistic. That’s why the (if Disney were actually honest) CG version of The Lion King using real-life backgrounds isn’t going to go down as beloved as the original hand-drawn animated version. So let’s talk about live-action, it’s use of computer graphics, and a few other tools that they rarely if ever use anymore.
First off let’s go over the usual Art Of Storytelling topics and discuss what live-action does better than animation, and by live-action I pretty much mean live actors and settings. We’ll get into puppetry specifically another time, though technically that’s still live-action…depending on where you place stop-motion. However, tricks used for fantasy and science fiction sequences and productions are tied into this discussion (not to mention where I usually end up). So we’ll be back to that subject, but let’s talk about stuff like romance, or crime dramas, or even horror.
The more removed you are from the real world the easier it is to suspend disbelief. That’s why Looney Tunes style jokes don’t hit as well in live-action as it does in animation, though that doesn’t mean they can’t be funny in the right situation or production. It is production specific, though. For a gritty crime drama, if someone falls from the eighth floor, they better be invulnerable or dead. Even something like the Fast & The Furious franchise couldn’t pull that off. On the other hand, that’s also one of its strengths. It is the real world so if it looks or sounds like it could happen to someone in that situation live-action will pull that off while in a cartoon, even a serious one, we’ve kind of been conditioned to accept a broken leg from that same height. Some time in the hospital and that character’s fine. You aren’t buying that in live-action so it does raise the stakes.
There are people who just can’t bring themselves to the level of suspension that allows them to enjoy animation so even if they aren’t snobbish about cartoons they are still not able to enjoy it. They prefer a familiar surrounding, even if that surrounding is a hobbit shire or alien world somewhere between the living and dead realm. Of course something in those worlds can’t be replicated in live-action but we found ways around that. The right animation effect like matte paintings and drawing energy blasts have been replaced with computers but the end result is believing Merlin is smiting a dragon or Luke Skywalker has a weapon that projects laser beams into a cylinder-like shape that can cut through an air conditioner. Special props, advances in make-up and prosthetics, and even animatronics or other remote-controlled devices have allowed people to create something that could exists in a real world setting, whether your dealing with pixies or machine guns. Or pixies with machine guns. I don’t know your story.
I’ve seen romantic comedies and family life setting in cartoons but there’s a reason people remember The Waltons over These Are The Days, and it’s that the latter takes place a century earlier. The Days family didn’t win as many people over as much as Jon-Boy and his clan so their show gets played all over the place, while I’m sure most of you out there only just heard about These Are The Days a sentence ago and are totally confused. (I’ve only seen one or two episodes myself.) To paraphrase a certain schoolteacher who just found out an old police box contained a spaceship, they look like us, they sound like us. Even if we weren’t in either time period there was something about the would-be writer and his carpenter father who all just tried to survive and find their way in the 1940s that we can still relate to. We could in theory relate to a family trying to survive in the time when Henry Ford was just getting started, but grandpa’s gadgets kind of breaks the immersion. You couldn’t pull that off as well in a live-action show unless you toned the serous down.
Science fiction and fantasy are certainly easier to make now, but while some productions only work in animation and some only work as a hybrid, look at something like A Nightmare On Elm Street. I can’t see someone pulling off the same tone in animation. I can think of a lot of shows I couldn’t see being done in animation because at some point you’d have to go so photorealistic that you might as well just use normal people and you’d be wasting animation’s potential by being too much like our world in a format that wouldn’t resonate with people who can’t see beyond the real world. At that point you might as well just get some actors, put up some sets or find some locations, and just do it “live”.
Where my knickers start getting twisted is when the media snobs keep trying to replace animation with live-action. The obvious example are all the live-action remakes (or “demakes” depending how you look at it) of their cartoon legacy. They’re never as good because the original was created to take advantage of animation, not live-action. Nobody asked for a live-action take on Underdog. I have nothing against the live-action Superman movies, but his powers look so much cooler in cartoons…and the old Superman movie serials actually switched from their live actor to a cartoon version of Superman (that didn’t even resemble Kirk Ayan that much) to allow him to fly and be seen smashing through stuff because special effects hadn’t caught up with him. In some ways it still hasn’t because some of Superman’s maneuvers don’t look as good in a real world style setting.
Meanwhile, animation hasn’t been able to really match up to their live-action counterparts in many ways, because THOSE properties were created with live-action’s strengths in mind. It’s not just changing age groups that made shows like RoboCop, Rambo, or the various version of Godzilla (the animes even being fairly close to their live-action counterpart) but that something would feel off if RoboCop did the same things in the cartoon that he did in the comic. Even if you let Rambo kill people with blood flying like the bullets that sent them going (see G.I. Joe Resolute while Rambo: The Force Of Freedom actually was more like a smaller version of G.I. Joe) you expect them to do something over the top that would look bizarre in live-action so by nature they’d have to go beyond the real world. I think an animated version of a Fast & Furious movie would lose some of the charm that goes into the live-action franchise using cartoons even with whatever levels of CG they use now to make the cars do the impossible.
So I don’t have anything against animation, but when I see what the live-action version of something like Cowboy Bebop is doing compared to what the anime already did it just doesn’t work as well. In the same vein an animated Freddy Kruger wouldn’t cause nearly as many nightmares. Once again it’s all a matter of using the format that best tells your story, not whether or not the actors get to do stuff in front of a camera.