Interview: Gene Deitch Pt. 4 [of 4]

Categories:  Interviews

We come full-circle in this final part of our interview with animation legend Gene Deitch. Rather unprompted, the animator segues the conversation into a discussion about Hollywood’s current fascination with 3D technology.

“I hate the term ‘2D,’ ” Deitch exclaims. “That’s bullshit. They put us in that category. They say they’re making 3D. They’re not 3D. What Pixar does is not 3D because it’s shaded. The screen is flat. It’s a flat picture. It’s just an illusion.”

It’s a topic Deitch clearly feels rather passionate about. While scheduling the interview, he asked that I read a Of course, after half a century in the business, the cartoonist has seen more than his share of Hollywood fads come and go.

[Part One][Part Two][Part Three]

Do you feel like you did create a revolution with UPA, in some sense?

I think it’s true. I think nowadays, even Disney—they made a short called “Toot, Whistle, Plunk, and Boom.” It referred to musical instruments. It was a Ward Kimball cartoon—he was one of the best people at Disney. It was an early Cinemascope cartoon. It was made in the UPA style. The influence really went back to the people we wanted to avoid.

Noweadays—I must say, when I got sent to Prague, at this studio here, these people were behind the Iron Curtain, they had very little access to what was going on here. These people, for example, had never seen a Tom & Jerry cartoon. They had never seen a Bugs Bunny cartoon. They quite independently came up with the same idea as UPA. They used children’s book illustrators and Czech painters and graphic artists as their models. And they picked a different artist for each film they made. So they were, in effect, doing the same thing as UPA.

That was another thing that really melted me when I came over here. I figured that this is really kind of like an animation heaven. The guys were doing the thing. There were language problems, but the political problems, oddly enough, in the animation studio didn’t really matter. You wouldn’t know they were communists. It was a very special art and craft that the communists knew had value, but they didn’t know how it was done. So they almost had to support it.

As long as we kept our nose clean. We obviously didn’t take any risks by making satirical things about communism—that was the obvious no-no. But there’s a lot of other room that you can get away with.

What was the experience like, showing a Tom & Jerry cartoon to a grownup animator for the first time?

They were amazed. It’s a whole different approach. Their animation was under-stated. They didn’t use lip sync, for example. They relied on the audience’s animation. The American approach has been and is now—even more than ever—the goal is to make animation as close to life as possible. We’ve gotten all the way up to Avatar and now we’re practically at the end of the road. Pretty soon they’re gonna have to realize that this is not where we have to go with it.

Incidentally, because I won the Oscar and have five nominations, I became a member of the Academy very early—I think in 1961. The Secret of Kells got nominated this year, and I was delighted, because that was the only film that was purely graphic art.

I hate the term “2D.”  That’s bullshit. They put us in that category. They say they’re making 3D. They’re not 3D. What Pixar does is not 3D because it’s shaded. The screen is flat. It’s a flat picture. It’s just an illusion. There’s only one 3D, Brian, and that’s what you’re looking at with your two eyes. You are seeing real space. It’s all around you. And you can touch the objects and see that they’re really there.

What’s called 3D now is a stereo-optic effect. For over 100 years now, every living room had a stereo-optic machine. That was the original meaning of the word “stereo.” But over the course of time, it got stuck onto sound reproduction. Now the word has been co-opted by sound engineers. Now they have to use 3D to talk about the films you have to look at with goggles.

But I’ve seen all of it. We have Imax here in Prague. We have all that stuff. I have an Academy screener of Avatar. I’ve seen it in Imax and on a stereo projector. The best one is the ordinary DVD screen on my flat screen. It doesn’t need it. If you look closely at a 3D movie—try looking at the edges of the screen. Your attention is being drawn to the center. But if you look at the edges, you’ll see that images have been sliced in half. They’re hanging out there, weirdly in space. And some people really get sick.

I don’t know how it is in American, but here, ever Imax presentation, somebody comes out and says, “if you’re feeling dizzy, take off the glasses.” They’re self-conscious about it. They’re really telling you, in a backward way, that this is something that could really make you sick.

Take any film—Casablanca. Would that film be better if it were in 3D? A film is telling a story, and if you shoot any movie, even Avatar, the 3D effects are distracting from what’s going on in the story. Because you’re conscious of what’s going on in space. That doesn’t really add anything.

3D can be really valuable in fairs and museums and amusement parks, and various things where you want to get a magical effect. There’s nothing like seeing a big screen that looks like a fish aquarium, with all of the fish in 3D. It’ll be great. But it doesn’t add anything to the story.

It seems to come back around every few decades.

Yeah! They’re going gaga over it.

Do you think it’s a fad, yet again?

It’s gotta be a fad, unless it’s gonna be—as The New Yorker says, all of the films today are about comics. If you’re going to make superheroes zooming around, yeah. if you’re going to make Transformers and Iron Man, yeah, 3D is great. But what you’re looking at is almost a video game.

But if we’re talking about serious movies that are telling stories and developing characters—the fact that we all have high-definition television screens, it’s playing hell with women presenters and actresses. It’s showing off all of their hickies [laughs]. There’s a downside to every technology. It’s wonderful if you’re looking at National Geographic, or whatever.

These are all gimmicks, and they’re just one after another. Most of these things are developed by the business people. They’re crazy about 3D, because it’s another way of getting people to come into theaters.

–Brian Heater