Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Laws of Physics in an Animation Universe

In any film, animated or not, story is king. Nothing is more vital to the success of that film. However, that aside, every other department contributes to the story in its own way. Believable physics is, when you think about it, as essential as a strong story. If a studio were to neglect believable physics in their work, their audiences will be wrenched from the story, and they would have difficulty enjoying the film. Believable does not necessarily mean realistic, however, and it is amazing what some animators can get away with when it comes to pushing physics to the limits.
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is the story of young Flint Lockwood, the oddball inventor of a small island town. Flint had always been a social outcast in the eyes of everyone except for his mother, who passed away when he was young. He is constantly working to seek the approval and adoration of his fellow townsfolk and his taciturn father by creating inventions that will “save the town.” At the beginning of the film he has just finished building an extraordinary machine designed to create food from water. This animated feature was produced by Sony Pictures Animation, and directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. In the movie Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, physics is pushed beyond the limits of the natural world, in order to create the fantastic and humorous universe of the story.

Let’s talk a little about Flint’s invention and how it works. After all, it is the catalyst for the whole film. The machine was invented by Flint in an effort to save his home town from eating the miserable sardines, a food which everyone hated. He named it the Flint Lockwood Diatomic Super Mutating Dynamic Food Replicator. To shorten it, Flint calls the machine FLDSMDFR, a name that is comically difficult to pronounce. The basic concept of the FLDSMDFR is that it would gather water molecules from the air around it, and rearrange them using microwave radiation to form the molecules of any food you desired. According to Flint the machine operates on the principle of “hydro genetic mutation” (essentially a made up term). Using a great amount of power, Flint’s invention can rearrange molecules of water into molecules of various foods. The structure of molecules represented in the movie resemble the food that they make up; for instance, a single molecule that makes up bacon resembles a single strip of bacon created from atoms that are stacked neatly on top of one another. Obviously molecules would never look like this, and different foods are really made up of the same types of molecules; but the filmmakers chose this particular representation of molecules in an effort to make the story clearer and more visual for an audience who may not be familiar with the ins and outs of molecular geometry. When the FLDSMDFR becomes overworked, the molecules of food begin to Over-mutate (mutation in this world is essentially the breaking and reforming of molecular bonds); the structure becomes so unstable that the food eventually becomes sentient!

When the FLDSMDFR rocketed out of control, it flew all the way up into the stratosphere, and was able to remain suspended there over the town of Swallow Falls (despite the absence of high speed winds). Quite a lot of meteorological rules are bent or broken to keep the FLDSMDFR up and running in the stratosphere. Firstly and probably most importantly, there is very little to no water vapor contained in the stratosphere! Because of temperature inversions at the Tropopause, the vast majority of Earth’s water vapor (over 99%) is trapped in the Troposphere; which the machine would have difficulty accessing at the incredible height of the stratosphere. It is true that powerful thunderstorms are sometimes able to introduce moisture into the stratosphere. As the weather girl and love interest Sam Sparks hypothesizes, the machine might be able to depend on “the vapor of the cumulonimbus layer”; however, I feel that this is still a pretty big stretch as there would have to be a full scale hurricane during the entire movie in order for there to be a significant cumulonimbus layer in the lower stratosphere. Interestingly, although the food is derived from the water within clouds, quite frequently food is depicted raining from a blue sky, or a sky filled with puffy cumulus, the “fair weather cloud.” When things get out of control, the invention gains the ability to control the weather and draws clouds to it to meet increasing demands for food.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is one of the first films produced by Sony Pictures Animation; a shiny new studio started in 2002. Cloudy was both a financial and critical success, with a rating of 86% on Rotten Tomatoes. The film is praised for its witty humor and clever characters, and it also boasts a pretty solid visual design. Being a cartoon, there are countless instances where physical action is pushed to its limits and beyond, in the name of entertainment! In particular, the characters display superhuman abilities and exaggerated paths of action.
A classic in the world of cartoon violence, Flint is severely electrocuted when he attempts to hook his invention to the cities electrical tower. Not only is he able to survive an electrical current that powers a city running through his body, but he is uninjured after an apparent subsequent fall of over 30 feet. This type of humor seems to certainly be influenced by Warner Bros Cartoons, who popularized this now classic slapstick.
Eventually Flint is able to overcome some of his awkwardness and he invites Sam on a date, where he brings her to see a giant mansion he has created out of Jello. In this Jello paradise, Sam and Flint are able to bounce to incredible heights, and their momentum is so well conserved they can bounce over and over and over after jumping only a single time! This is a clear example of highly stylized physics, which is enchanting to think about and exciting to watch. Once this Jello wonderland has been established however, the filmmakers quickly bring the heroes crashing down to reality. The force of her landing breaks the Jello beneath Sam’s feet (just like real Jello, which is not strong enough to support human weight), carrying her under the surface. Flint gets a surprise when his rebound off the Jello is suddenly not a rebound at all, and he belly flops onto the Jello. The force of Flint hitting the Jello is absorbed by the Jello itself, and he sticks to the Jello like a wet noodle.

There are several instances where a character’s falling path of action strikingly defies physical laws. The first is when Flint heroically dodges a giant radish that is flying straight for him, Mid-air! Flint’s parabolic arc clearly puts him right in the vegetables path, yet he is somehow able to change his trajectory without outside influence of any kind! This is in direct violation of Newton’s Law of Motion: that a body moving at a constant velocity and in a straight line will continue to do so unless acted upon by an outside force. Although gravity and air resistance are two examples of forces that were acting upon Flint at the time, these are not the types of forces that would allow him to gain vertical height in the middle of falling. The second instance that I will discuss occurs when our heroes are falling down the shaft of the Meat-eor. Sam and Flint Jump out of Flying Car 2 and begin to fall straight down the vertical shaft. Several seconds later, Baby Brent follows, jumping out of the car hatch. Somehow Brent is able to fall much more quickly than the pair of them, and he smashes into Sam and Flint, “falling” at least three or four times the speed that they are, despite having jumped out of the car much later. What’s more: although Brent falls straight down, when he hits them they are propelled down a side shaft, changing their path of action by almost 90 degrees! This all goes back to Newton’s Laws of motion, which are getting violated by these sequences for the sake of dramatic effect.

Perhaps the wildest and most outlandish path of action in the entire movie is the scene when Flint runs from the town square to his yard without ever touching foot on solid ground. After the out of control weather spawns a spaghetti and meatballs twister, Flint knows he must reach his lab if he ever wants to stop the FLDSMDFR. He runs directly in the tornado’s path, climbing over flying cars, playground equipment; and soon he even finds himself in the center of the tornado! This calm is short-lived however, and Flint is flung into the open air, where his fall is miraculously broken by an umbrella, a ladder and many other convenient objects. To his relief, Flint is able to frantically climb down to reach the relative safely of his own yard.

When Flint finally reaches his renegade invention, he is not at all surprised to learn that it has gained sentience. With a powerful desire to live and wreck vengeance, the FLDSMDFR creates giant foods with abilities that go beyond those of your standard meal. Roasted chickens larger than human beings are able to cling to the ceiling, crawling along like bats before dropping down to surround our heroes. The basketball sized marshmallow that Flint lights as a torch burns for an unbelievable amount of time. Because sugar is so flammable, even ordinary marshmallows can easily catch fire, but sugar also burns extremely quickly, quite unlike the mystery material depicted in the film. The toast that citizens construct into escape boats is able to float on water, while regular toast would quickly become saturated with water and sink or break apart. Finally and most dramatically are the FLDSMDFR’s pizzas, which pursue Flint in his Flying Car 2, and can also fly (in the manner that a rocket or jet would fly, but with no noticeable type of propulsion). Quite impossibly, when these pizzas crash, they produce a fiery explosion despite a severe lack of combustible fuel! All of these crazy food abilities were not a distraction for me, however. Rather, they enhanced the wacky, action-packed feeling of the film, and heightened the sense of climax by introducing elements of danger.

The first time I watched this movie, I didn’t come in with very high expectations. However, once I finished it, I was blown away! Not only was it great to look at, but the dexterous writing and fantastic dialogue kept me in the story and invested in the characters. This movie is immensely funny, and it is still one of my favorite films, even after the 9th viewing. Physical laws are intentionally broken throughout the film. This is a practice that is as old as the industry of animation itself. If you can film a movie with a camera, why animate it? Exaggeration and caricature are the cornerstones of what makes a successful animation. In Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, this type of deviation from reality pushes the story forward, makes the film more entertaining for the audience to watch, and is an interesting example of a world with physical laws different from our own.­­

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