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Well, the wait is over and, whether one likes it or not, Avatar looks like the game changer that James Cameron, Jeffrey Katzenberg and other promoters of 3D movies said it would be, quieting critics who said the technology would never really work in live action. It also looks like it will be the film which legitimatizes motion/performance capture, especially as a way for live-action directors to enter the wonderful world animation (though sometimes without necessarily admitting it’s animation). It also helps that, despite its occasionally comical mixture of Star Wars and FernGully, it’s a pretty good movie.

As I wrote a year ago, “I suspect 3D will not go away anytime soon; the question , I believe, is whether or not it will go beyond being a niche market.” Avatar’s success certainly solidifies 3D’s place in the cinematic mainstream, though calling it a live action is problematic. (In this regard, do read Brad Brevet’s “Should ‘Avatar’ Be Considered for Best Animated Oscar?” on RopeofSilicon.com here and Steve Hulett’s follow-up comments on The Animation Guild blog here.) Thus, Kristin Thompson’s comments on Beowulf that “It’s still fiendishly difficult and expensive to shoot live action material in digital 3-D, so most projects are animated,” perhaps still seems to hold.

In regards to his use of motion capture, Cameron has been especially boastful about how he has overcome the last obstacle to the technology’s acceptance, that of being able to reproduce not only the reference actor’s bodily actions, but their exact facial expressions as well. As a result we are left with the spectacle of critics gushing over how, for example, Sigorney Weaver’s avatar face looks just like Sigorney Weaver’s actual face (see comparison below). This, as Brevet points out, is something that animators have been doing since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (actually since Otto Messmer’s pre-Felix the Cat work on Charlie Chaplin cartoons).

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Rodney Dangerfield posess with his animated alter ego

Also, the film really does not fully address the problem of the uncanny valley, as the mocap characters are not meant to be realistic humans, but highly stylized humanoids; a better test would be to see how Cameron would do on a follow-up to Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.

Cameron also boasts that his work on performance capture technology will eventually lead it to becoming more commonplace and cheaper. I suppose so, but less expensive approaches already exists. For instance, director Neill Blomkamp in an interview about his District 9 with Todd Gilchrist notes:

Pretty much in any shot with an alien interacting with a human, which 99 percent is Christopher interacting with Wikus, there was Jason Cope, who was the actor who plays Christopher and who also plays all of the other aliens in the film. He was always on set in a lycra, light-reflective suit, and he would be interacting with Sharlto. It was not performance capture from a data-recording standpoint; like, there were no motion-capture cameras around. But once our live-action camera was tracked, the animators at Image Engine would sort of trace-animate the motion of Jason, almost literally like tracing him. That rotomation would become the essence of the performance of this digital creature, and then they would paint Jason out and put the digital one in, and you would have both performances and they would both be real and they would both be interacting with one another. It’s just very difficult and very expensive to paint someone out of a moving-camera [image] and then replace them with something, but we factored that in.

And despite District 9’s $30 million budget, it doesn’t suffer much in comparison with Avatar and, I would argue, is the better film.

District 9

The comparison between the two films is also interesting in that Blomkamp’s training and experience was an animator and special effects artist, while Cameron’s was not. (True, Cameron can draw, a skill which is often considered the holy grail of qualifications to becoming an animation artist or special effects artist, he never had any particular training in either craft.)

Fantastic Mr. Fox and the New Animation Paradigm

… The idea was breathtaking. Picasso’s love for American comic strips was mentioned in Gertrude Stein’s book, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. He was now thinking about making an animated version of Don Quixote! Since he knew nothing about the intricate process of making animation, Picasso had left it up to his courtiers to find someone who could help him make the picture.

One of those people was a friend of the producer, so here we were sitting over a beer as I faced this mind-jolting possibility. A stream of thoughts were jostling each other through my head. Imagine working with Picasso on a storyboard! … Where could I get an animation crew in France? Would Picasso do more than just draw a storyboard? Could he learn to animate?

— Shamus Culhane, Talking Animals and Other People,  p.385

Fantastic Mr. Fox is the latest example of the recent trend of live-action filmmakers into animation, something that would have been considered an anomaly only a few years ago, or the stuff of Shamus Culhane’s shattered dream. If there is something anomalous about Fantastic Mr. Fox it is not that it is animated, but that he chose to do it using stop motion rather than motion capture, the current technique of choice of former live-action directors like George Miller (Happy Feet), Robert Zemeckis (Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol), and the team of Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson (for their forthcoming Tintin trilogy). (Mocap, of course, is increasingly used for such live-action/animation hybrids as James Cameron’s Avatar, while I suppose the low budget choice would be Flash, as Ari Folman did with Waltz with Bashir.)

Though this paradigm shift is probably all to the good, it has not always been greeted with enthusiasm by the animation community. After all, motion capture is often seen as something other than real animation, which live-action folk seem to latch onto as a poor substitute for “the intricate process of making animation.” Amid Amidi in a recent post on Cartoon Brew, made a similar point with regards to Flash in giving advice to Jonathan Demme about a possible animated version of Dave Eggers’ novel Zeitoun:

…I beg you not to use cheap Flash/AfterEffects-style animation. Don’t Waltz with Bashir this film, and compromise the personal impact of the story with mechanical movement. Maintain the integrity and vitality of the graphic illustration that initially drew you to the project, and bring it to life with the nuance and lushness that only traditional hand-drawn animation can provide.

Though Anderson’s film has been largely given a pass, it encountered some unusual public grumbling from some crew members. Thus, in August, the Spectacular Attractions blog reported on the reaction by cinematographer Tristan Oliver to Anderson’s decision to direct the film long distance from Paris, rather than working alongside the film’s crew in London’s Three Mills Studios communicating via email and sending copies of his favorite films on DVD “to give an impression of what he’d like to see.”

I think Wes doesn’t understand what you can do, and he often wants us to do what you can’t do, and the length of time the process takes … I don’t think he quite comprehends that, and how difficult it is to change something once you’ve started. It takes a big amount of someone’s time to change a very small thing. I think he also doesn’t understand that an animator is a performer. An animator is an actor. And this is the secret to animation: you direct your animator, you do not direct the puppet, because the puppet is an inanimate object. You direct an animator as if you’re directing an actor, and they will give you a performance. So we’ll get a note back from Wes saying “that arm movement is wrong.” But that arm movement is part of a fluid performance. And that has been really quite difficult for the animators.

            Later on, a story in the Los Angeles Times further noted

The move did little to endear Anderson to his subordinates. “It’s not in the least bit normal,” director of photography Tristan Oliver observed at the production’s East London set last spring, when production on “Mr. Fox” was about three-quarters complete. “I’ve never worked on a picture where the director has been anywhere other than the studio floor!”

Moreover, Anderson had no idea that his ignorance of stop-motion … and exacting ideas concerning the film’s look would so exasperate his crew.

“Honestly? Yeah. He has made our lives miserable,” the film’s director of animation, Mark Gustafson, said during a break in shooting. He gave a weary chuckle. “I probably shouldn’t say that.”

Now that the film has been released to general critical acclaim, all seems forgiven. And I must say I found the film quite charming and very much a piece with other Anderson films—perhaps a bit too self conscious but nevertheless likeable.

But the episode brings up the question of how live-action filmmakers will adapt to animation when their knowledge of the medium is deemed less than adequate. The reaction by Tristan Oliver and Mark Gustafson to Anderson’s methods is nothing compared to the reactions I heard regarding director Joe Dante’s handling of the animated segments of Looney Tunes: Back in Action.

In live-action, first-time directors with little or no training pose a similar problem; and over the years, producers have learned to deal with such situations. I believe Elia Kazan once noted that when he went on the set of his first Hollywood movie, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, he didn’t have a clue what he was supposed to do; however, the cameraman, Leon Shamroy, told him he should stage the action and he would handle the camera. Something similar seems to have been the case with Orson Welles on Citizen Kane with cinematographer Gregg Toland. (Welles would acknowledge his debt to Toland by giving him equal billing in the film’s credits.)

A Hollywood cinematographer once confided to me that he was dubious about taking a high-profile assignment because he was tired of the sometimes thankless task of educating first-time directors. As thankless as these sorts of tasks might be, Hollywood has adjusted to the process and not a few of these first-timers have gone on to long careers behind the camera. It would seem the animation industry is in the process of learning to adapt in a similar fashion; the process might not be without pain, but as Fantastic Mr. Fox shows, the results need not be all bad.

P.S. (December 3rd): Another low budget choice for live-action filmmakers doing animation would, of course, be Bob Sabiston’s Rotoshop, a computerized rotoscope process used by Richard Linklater in Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly.

Brian Henson on Digital Puppetry

Brian Henson at the Center for Puppetry ArtsSid the Science Kid Brian Henson, Jim Henson’s son and co-chair of The Jim Henson Company, showed up today at Atlanta’s Center for Puppetry Arts to give a fascinating presentation about his company’s use of “digital puppetry” in their new PBS preschool series, Sid the Science Kid. The talk coincided with the Center’s new “Jim Henson: Wonders From His Workshop” exhibition.  Yesterday, he gave a similar talk at the American Film Institute Theater in Washington, DC.

Henson explained how the company’s approach to puppetry, which has always been designed with television in mind, has evolved over the years; starting with the hand puppets of shows like Sesame Street to the animatronics in films like Dark Crystal and Labyrinth to the real-time motion capture of Sid the Science Kid. For Henson, the evolution seemed natural, as he and his father have always looked to the latest technology to make their work more effective.

The Jim Henson Company's Frances Sid the Science Kid is not the first Henson project to use motion capture, but it was the first to be released. (The first was Frances, another preschool series, based on the Russell Hoban books.) One of the attractions for the company, according to Henson, was the fact that the process enabled them to show their characters from head to toe for the first time, something not really possible with their usual puppetry methods. Both puppeteers and puppets are used as motion capture actors, rather than using actor actors. Henson claims that shooting for each episode takes about two-and-a-half days, which, of course, does not include postproduction process. As the show is being done on a low budget, one can expect that the economics of the process factored into their decision.

To judge from the clips shown (on a big screen), the resulting animation is a mixed bag: while the general look is good, the characters tended to lack weight. I remember this being a problem with such early mocap shows as Nelvana’s Donkey Kong Country; the problem here is not as acute as the earlier show, but it is nevertheless still annoying. It is also interesting since Henson made a point, in demonstrating how he manipulated a Muppet for the TV camera, to give a sense of weight. (There is also a problem with lip synch, though this not really a significant issue.)

The fact that The Jim Henson Company has given its imprimatur to motion capture is certainly important for proponents of this technology. However, those who see mocap as something akin to the bubonic plague, are more likely to feel a growing sense of unease.

By the way, a few days ago, The Jim Henson company announced, “two all-new innovative CGI-animated series, Dinosaur Train and The Skrumps, at MIPCOM Jr.” However, there was no indication whether or not they will be using mocap.

September 30th Update: Alan Louis, the Center for Puppetry Arts’ Director of Museum & Education Programs, sent over the following image of Brian Henson after his presentation when he was signing autographs. (By the way, the top image is from the reception held before the event.)

Brian Henson at Center for Puppetry Arts