Sunday, November 18, 2007

Almost real

A few days ago, some reporter or other called to ask about this new "Performance Capture" thingamajig in the upcoming Zemeckis movie was all about. I said to him:

Well, it's sort of new, but animated films have been using a system called rotoscope for seventy or eighty years. Pretty much the same thing as performance capture now except in a lower tech kind of way ..."

I bring this up because Beowulf has landed at the top of the box office heap. And the New York Times has ruminated on that feature's performance-capture animation process:

The movie definitely pushes digital acting far beyond anything I’ve seen before — but it looks as if the last few yards of the journey toward convincing realism are going to be the really hard part.

Those "last few yards" are always going to be the hard part. Because no matter how you mo-cap, when it's transformed into an animated format, the thing's still looks a little strange to audiences' eyes.

Kind of like what TIME Magazine said about Walt Disney's "Carousel of Progress" at the 1964 New York World's Fair. "Carousel" presented the fine progress of American technology through the eyes of a "typical" American family that happened to be animatronic robots. As TIME put it:

"The Dad, Mom and adorable children in these tableaus talk and behave just like real people ... under the influence of drugs ..."

Walt had the same trouble with androids fifty years ago that mo-cap practitioners have now. Both come close to replicating flesh-and-blood performers, but when you look close, the end product seems just a little bit strange, out-of-kilter and, for want of a better word, creepy.

This doesn't mean performance-capture is a bad bet at the box office. Certainly Polar Express did well, and Beowulf is off to a rousing start. But how it stands up aesthetically? That is, of course, subject to ongoing debate:

"...whenever we stayed too close to the photostats (actors were filmed then the individual frames were used to trace over), or directly copied even a tiny piece of human action, the results looked very strange. The moves appeared real enough, but the figure lost the illusion of life. There was a certain authority in the movement and a presence that came out of the whole action,but it was impossible to become emotionally involved with this eerie, shadowy creature who was never a real inhabitant of our fantasy world.

Not until we realized that photographs must be redrawn in animatable shapes (our proven tools of communicating) were we able to transfer this knowledge to cartoon animation.”

--Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. p. 323; Disney Animation - The Illusion of Life

by Steve Hulett
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