Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Another day, another holler...

NOTE: Please see my previous post for further blather.

It looks like I will have to table (shelve?) much further commentary on the performance-capture issue, as we have a long holiday weekend coming up and my main internet service is on the fritz. That said the dialog on CARTOON BREW yesterday was lively and interesting as always, though a quick glance at the general news headlines of the day renders such issues fairly insignificant.

Despite that admission, I still cannot refrain from taking the subject of animation seriously and now after going on five decades of obsession with the medium, I cannot make myself care less, even though sometimes I wish I could. More than even as a practitioner of the artform, I am an enthusiast and want to see the animator's art considered an art, and I make the distinction on behalf of the standard bearers whom most of my colleagues (and most general observers) would consider artists who have elevated the form to that status. Those people include Milt Kahl, Jim Tyer, Rod Scribner, Len Glasser, Doug Sweetland, Ray Harryhausen and Nick Park among a century of others in various mediums. And a significant number of 2D artists I include in these ranks have done enough rotoscoping over the past nine decades to elevate the status of that tool as well; they would include Dave Fliescher, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, Ken Muse and Ray Patterson, Mark Davis, Art Babbit, and Grim Natwick among many others. When someone argued that there is a great deal of art that goes into the design, modelling, rigging, surfacing in performance capture, I felt they made the case for me that 2D rotoscopers are responsible for more than translating photostats: by converting the 'stat's into line drawings they are in addition themselves doing the modeling, surfacing, rigging and design, which are undeniably artistic vocations in any medium. In addition they are either by accident or intention making an statement about the source material. That to me allows rotoscope to be part of the art of animation, although I don't tend to like it myself. Someone argued that it sounded like it boiled down to what one likes vs. what one dislikes and that is not the case. I find myself in the peculiar position of defending rotoscope despite my dislike for it. Someone else commented yesterday that raising the very questions of 'what is art?' and 'what is animation?' is "boring" and essentially moot. I couldn't disagree more, especially on a sites dedicated to serious discussion of these issues.

I apparently need to make it clear that when I hold the words "art" and "artist" separate from "skill" and "creativity" I am not trying to denigrate any one's position, contribution, ability or potential ability. I am also aware that there is often overlap in all these terms in many areas of the process, but ultimately for the terms to have any meaning they should be held apart. Even when I compared performance capture to being closer to audio-animatronics, I was careful to choose an example of that medium I consider pretty masterful: the recent added figures of Geoffrey Rush and Johhny Depp's characters to Disneyland's PIRATES rides. The point isn't to slam anybody but the results in my opinion are more similar, although admittedly not the same. There too, if anything, performance capture suffers in comparison, since in addition to excellent sculpting, the posing and acting in audio animatronics has to be arrived at more through an animator's sense of observation and analysis, and not direct recreations of meticulously filmed and captured performance data.

In any case, I have certainly used up enough space on CARTOON BREW on the issue, although I have the nagging suspicion that my point was still mis-understood by many. My ultimate assertion is that the jury is still out (in my opinion) on whether performance-capture is actual character animation and I would not rule out an overwhelming body of work may come along and do so. Until then tho, if people are going to make the argument it automatically IS animation, they cannot make it (to me anyway) on the grounds that it is "the same thing as rotoscope." There might be a better argument, I am open to it, but this one holds no water here and when someone as esteemed, knowledgeable and influential as Jerry Beck makes that argument, I am going to take the bait and post a counter-argument.

Several interesting things were said in the aftermath, not the least of which was in wondering what flesh-and-blood actors think about all this. I certainly recall the 1992 Academy Awards, where Screen Actors' Guild members (like Sally Field and Shirley Maclaine) made onscreen digs and insults toward BEAUTY AND THE BEAST for being nominated because SAG members were utilized for their voices only. This ultimately led to the creation of the BEST ANIMATED FEATURE category to prevent further acrimony, and now I have to wonder that if actors want credit for 'animating' CGI figures in performance-capture situations, then they will have to allow the turnabout of admitting that animators are actors also... It could get very confusing.

Someone else pointed out that I am not allowed to discriminate between the type of performance capture I have been critical of (BEOWULF, FINAL FANTASY) and the type used in cases such as Peter Jackson's KING KONG and LOTR, and also MONSTER HOUSE, which I have nothing but praise for. Alas, I am afraid it is impossible for me not to discriminate between these cases, since in the case of LOTR, for instance copious doses of the animator's art are required to transform (as opposed to translate) the 165 lb. Andy Serkis into a 55 lb. creature with a face out of an exquisite nightmare. It was instantly obvious to me that it was a synthesis of motion capture, filmed reference, and very expert and sophisticated character animation. On the other hand, if the goal (and/or the effect) had been to digitally re-render a verbatim image of Mr. Serkis wearing a Gollum costume and makeup, I am afraid we'd be back in the dubious territory of BEOWULF and FF again.

I had to laugh when someone rejected "Nancy B's" definition of "animation" as 'breathing life into inanimate objects.' The critic in question fired back that "that's just one definition..." No my friend, it is in fact THE essential definition of the word, whether you like it or not. That said, I don't know if this definition proves anything one way or another on the performance-capture issue.

There seems to me to be only one purpose and place (apart from one-off, live-action stunts in SPIDERMAN-type action films) for literal realism in animation and that would be in the world of games. I cannot help but think that game figures that appear indistinguishable from real actors would be immensely appealing to gamers and would enhance the experience considerably, especially (duhhhh) in very realistic action games featuring human characters. I don't doubt we will see that come along sooner than later and I totally understand the value of it there. With time flying and internet access dwindling, I will have to leave the topic there for now.

Happy Thanksgiving EVERYBODY!


Weirdo said...

Very interesting and insightful. I didn't like "Monster House" that much. The characters moved in a very clunky manner, but that's just me.

Stephani Soejono said...

Thank you for a thoughtful post.

I think, the main reason why some people are up in arms for one or the other is mostly, because of ignorance. Everyone else in the "industry" says it's bad and therefore it is, without verifying claims whether it's true or not. Very few people who hasn't done rotoscope or mo-cap would actually defend its validity as an art form.

And that's similar to how people scoffed at CG at its early years, no? I remember a few people who shall not be named told me that, CG isn't a valid form of animation, it's stiff, it can't achieve the esthetics of 2d, and most of all these people are horrified that some CG Animator has no traditional animation experience. And then a couple of years later, boom, there's The Incredibles, and the characters are moving just fine. It even has *gasp* esthetics!

I'd say give it time, for Hollywood to finish playing with its latest novelty toy and for people to smarten up, from both managerial and artistic end that no, mo-cap doesn't cost less money and mo-cap isn't always going to look awkward.

Tim said...

Here, here!
I couldn't agree more.
I have a friend (with very impressive traditional animation credits) who was cleaning up performances in "Polar Express". He was told not to alter the actions at all. Yet at one point his instincts took over. He couldn't help himself and embellished a facial expression and head shake. He was subsequently called into the director's office. Fully expecting to get fired, we was instead asked with a certain amount of awe, "How did you know how to do that?"

Mike Gillett said...

Will - I agree with you. All of this stuff (and most waaaaay over my head) is really nothing but tools. And tools can be over used and abused. The computer (for animation or illustration or desk-top publishing) is limited by the operator's skill and, certainly, talent. Not every tool for every project. I've seen Norm Abrams on PBS! Right tool - right job!

The project has to have soul to begin with. It is all well and good to be able to animate eyelashes fluttering in the wind... but if they don't help tell the story and help you care for the characters, they are nothing more than distractions (and perhaps intended to distract from lack of story and character development - perhaps it is "easier" to do so than put forth the really hard, ground work of concept and design!). There was an art teacher that often said, "Great idea, but the rendering shoots it down!" Spellcheck is a great program for doublechecking spelling and even grammar, but it does nothing for content. Same idea...

"Polar Express" had no reason to be an animated film... if all they were doing was making lifelike characters and true to life backgrounds... it should have been live-action. Exaggeration and imagination and emmotion are all why animation was concieved and why it should exist. Not to "dazzle" us with what can be done... but instead, WHY it was done... Have a great Thanksgiving...

Will Finn said...

Thanks for all these additional comments. I think the argument will rage on for a long time to come, maybe it did way back when Max & Dave Fliescher built the first rotoscope! I certainly think that there are examples of motion-capture that synthesize true animation (like the ones I mentioned) and deserve to be called that. I just am very nervous about the BEOWULF style being used as an industry standard. A colleague told me yesterday that he felt the whole point of BEOWULF was to entice gamers into theaters, which makes some more sense to me now. I wonder if it worked, though...?

Uncle Phil said...

great post Will.

Interesting idea about Beowulf bringing gamers to the theater. Though, I have a hard time believing that that would be reason to produce a film in this way.

I feel that it's a decision based on control by a director, in this case Robert Zemekis. We all know that he can make a solid film. But I wonder if he sees this form of filmmaking as a way he has total control of every aspect on screen, from when character's blink to the color and shape of fire. If he's not happy with any aspect of a performance he can have it changed.

I don't think he's interested in the art of animation. Though I do feel that he's interested in the art of filmmaking and is carving a totally new path that suits him. I may not be a fan of the process, but I have a lot of respect for someone just going for it.

I just hope that studio execs don't see one as "better than" the other. In television we have enough problems with execs saying "kids don't want to watch cartoons, they want live action."

i don't know where I'm going with this... so i'll stop.

happy thanksgiving! I hope your doing well.
btw.. I'm on book 4 of the Tezuka's Phoenix. Mind blowing stuff. Do it.

Thad K said...

Will, I have to ask, when did Ken Muse and Ray Patterson ever use the rotoscope? Being familiar with these two animators' (amazing) work on the Tom & Jerry cartoons, I'm puzzled at them being included as those who used the process.

Unless I'm misremembering, Disney and the Fleischer's were the two major studios that used it extensively. Warners only used it on a few cartoons for just single gags like the stripteasing lizard in "Cross-Country Detours", Dorothy Lamour being too hot for Jimmy Stewart to handle in "Hollywood Steps Out", and Adolf Hitler in "Daffy the Commando".

Great POVs as always!

David Nethery said...

Happy Thanksgiving to you , too , Will !

And you are right on-the- money with this discussion re: mo-cap and animation.

Will Finn said...


correct me if I am wrong (honestly!) but I think Ken M and Ray P did at least some or all of the rotoscope dance sequences in Gene Kelly's ANCHOR'S AWEIGH and INVITATION TO THE DANCE. If I have that wrong, I welcome correction.

Thad K said...

As much as I dislike the ANCHORS AWEIGH scene, I never saw the problem being it used the rotoscope. It seemed more like Muse, Patterson, and Ed Barge were tied down to making Jerry as mechanical as possible to match Kelly's dancing. (The stark differences in drawing style is apparent as it is in the contemporary T&J cartoons.)

Will Finn said...

Thad--I haven't seen ANCHOR'S AWEIGH in a while. INVITATION TO THE DANCE, which was made much later features some almost TV-era HB designs. I don't know if you've seen it but there is a very cute segment where Carole Haney was rotoscoped as a large but coy lady serpent. Now that I think of it, I believe Mike Lah did the animation there. It has some real moments and is one of the more imaginative uses of roto I can think of.