Are New Oscar Rules for Mocap a Power Grab?

I’m writing this from Edinburgh, Scotland, where my wife and I have been enjoying a really wonderful Society for Animation Studies conference. A full report will follow when I get back home, but I can’t help responding to the Motion Picture Academy’s new rules for defining what is animation (see press release here), which states in part that,

a sentence regarding motion capture was added to clarify the definition of an animated film. The language now reads: “An animated feature film is defined as a motion picture with a running time of greater than 40 minutes, in which movement and characters’ performances are created using a frame-by-frame technique. Motion capture by itself is not an animation technique. In addition, a significant number of the major characters must be animated, and animation must figure in no less than 75 percent of the picture’s running time.”

It was mentioned during one of the conference’s many discussions of motion capture and drew some incredulous responses from the packed room (the person reporting it wasn’t sure if it was correct), but a comment by Sheridan Institute of Technology’s Tony Tarantini made around this time about James Cameron’s assertion that there’s no animation in Avatar is worth reporting. He basically felt that at a time when animation is becoming the dominant mode of production, Cameron is try to take it [the field] away from animators.

In the paper my wife Vickie and I gave yesterday, we discussed how live-action directors, like Cameron, liked motion capture because it enabled them to do animation in a way similar to the way they film live-action (i.e., they direct actors instead of animators). For whatever reason, he does not want to see himself as an animation filmmaker and I suspect the new rules regarding motion capture were added in part to assuage people like him; it would also please Pixar, DreamWorks Animation and Blue Sky, as it would reduce possible future Oscar competition. (Needless to say, I feel motion capture is animation.)

In a discussion about the new rules at Cartoon Brew, a number of people felt that motion capture films could still be considered animation if the data was finished by animators frame-by-frame, while Ryan McCulloch asked whether this would disqualify Happy Feet, which won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature several years ago (I believe it was the same year that another mocap film, Monster House was also nominated)? And the ever sane Floyd Norman said, “This is only going to get crazier.”

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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.

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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.)