Issue: Volume: 25 Issue: 2 (Feb 2002)

A Time to Grin?

While most professionals contribute to society, some make a bigger impact than others. Take computer graphics users, whose job titles range from research scientist and engineer to film artist and animator. It’s clear that the researchers among us make the world a better place by improving our health, safety, and comfort, but what do people in the movie industry really add?

Psychologists tell us that just as it's normal to grieve so is it important to escape despair, even to feel happy, if only for brief periods, to treat emotional wounds. In fact, behaviors that we associate with happiness have evolved from primitive defense mechanisms such as the "fear grin" that many animals still exhibit when dealing with conflict, explains Stuart Sumida, a biologist at California State University, San Bernadino, who has worked extensively with feature animation studios, including serving as paleontology advisor on Disney's Dinosaur.

Sumida, one of the participants in a roundtable discussion titled "The Effect of Terrorism on the Animation and Entertainment Industries," held recently at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, contends that those who can make us smile and give us hope offer far more than a simple diversion. They provide a potent medicine that enables us to respond in ways that have been critical throughout human evolution for the survival of the species and the preservation of society.

"At this time in our history, the entertainment medium, especially animation, should be producing more films to uplift people's spirits," says Brian Mitchell, a feature film and television animator who has worked for Universal Studios, Warner Brothers, and Hanna-Barbera, and also a participant in the roundtable discussion. Certainly, audiences are looking for such relief. The fact that Monsters, Inc. made $62 million on its opening weekend, the highest box office gross ever for an animated feature, is a clear signal that we need escapist entertainment.

But people don't simply want cute and funny movies. They are also looking for films that deal with conflict between good and evil in a positive way. Some of the success of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, which took in $47 million on its first weekend, the most ever for a movie opening in December, may be attributed to that.

The task ahead will be to find uplifting, even humorous ways to deal with the conflict that we now face, namely terrorism in general and the recent terrorist attacks in particular. "Humor and comedy can be a good thing, an empowering thing," says Mitchell. "Think about Osama bin Laden. Here's this horrible person, a mass murderer. We can empower ourselves by making fun of him."

Of course, the goal will be to empower the public in a way that brings people together and mends the fabric of society rather than further fueling the hatred of entire ethnic groups. Plato wrote in The Re public in 360 BC that "Those who tell the stories also rule society." Today, at a time when they're needed the most, filmmakers must meet this challenge, lead us forward, and make a positive contribution. The world is watching and waiting.