Monday, November 19, 2007


With the advent of the mo-cap controversy over the new BEOWULF movie, I might as well bring some of my observations here. I made a couple of points on this issue over at CARTOON BREW, careful not to use any ad-hominem attacks, and not surprisingly I am already seeing my opinions lambasted as 'garbage' even as I am (ironically) castigated for not showing enough respect for the people who do mo-cap work. And this from people who don't even give their actual names!

Part of the problem is that in order to make emphasis on most comments pages, the only way I know of doing it is by using CAPITAL LETTERS, when very often italics would be more discreet and appropriate. ALL CAPS tends to look like SHOUTING, and I don't as a rule like to have to shout to make a point. That wasn't my intention in this case anyway...

Another problem is that I do not mean to suggest that everyone (or anyone) who executes mo-cap has no talent or is not an artist or animator. What I said was that it is not required to be an artist, or even an animator (in the technical sense of an animator being someone who can also create a performance without mo-cap). It goes without saying that one could be both artist and animator and still be doing mo-cap work, but in many cases, these capacities are not as fully engaged as they would be in a more traditional animator's job. And at the risk or being misunderstood, I use the term "traditional" to embrace all the techniques of animation: drawn, painted, CGI, cut-outs, flash, clay, models, etc.

That said, whatever the relative merits of one movie or another, I was only moved to comment because I object to the continuous and automatic comparison of ALL motion-capture (or performance capture) to ALL rotoscoping: the very old process of drawing over frame stills of motion picture film to create animated images. Rotoscoping was initially invented as a way to create fluid and lifelike motion in the early days of film. Since then, it is usually deployed as a device to save time and money when trying to animate "lifelike" and "realistic" motion, and often is seen as a crutch. In my opinion, it tends to actually be a crutch, but nonetheless it has occasionally been done well. For rotoscoping to be done even competently, one would have to have some considerable animation chops; in drawing, timing, acting etc. Because of that, I could call most of the rotoscoping I have seen "artistic", because the artistic ability of the animator involved (or lack of ability) is painfully obvious to the professional eye. I've worked with rotoscoping a bit, I don't like it and I agree with Milt Kahl, who tended to reject rotoscoping in favor of using filmed material as a casual reference point only, if at all. I tend to tolerate rotoscoping best when it is "plussed" either by caricature and/or stylization. By then of course, there is arguably little point in doing it.

I haven't seen the BEOWULF movie yet, (I'll definitely post about it when I do) and for the record I have no ill-will toward Robert Zemekis, who I believe to be a fine filmmaker. For that matter it should go without saying I have no prejudice against anyone who worked on the movie. But from what I have seen of the BEOWULF trailers, they tend show off the kind of lifeless, robotic character movement that make a great argument for not making movies this way. Based on what I have seen, I cannot call it rotoscoping, let alone animation. As Mark Mayerson has excellently put it, the "essence" of the performance has been largely (if not entirely) rendered by the actor who supplies the 'capture' data. I am well aware that the people who have to interpret that data have a lot of work ahead of them and there is incredible skill and discretion involved. They also have to answer to the dictates of directors and supervisors who are the ultimate arbiters of their work. Still, I have to wonder how much actual art is necessary, and I say that as someone who has had a lot of experience in rendering a performance without such aid, which I continue to appreciate as an art when done well with any media. And to reiterate a point I had to make elsewhere, I am talking here exclusively about the movement of the characters and not the considerable and obvious art and design work that precedes the motion on mo-cap films.

MAKE NO MISTAKE: In my opinion also, sometimes in mo-cap, when there is a lot of additional work done to augment the performance, as in LORD OF THE RINGS, KING KONG, and MONSTER HOUSE, the results transcend the limitations one often sees in motion capture and becomes it's own thing, which I respect as falling into the category of animation.

The only constant corollary then to me between mo-cap and rotoscoping is that both can be done well or be done poorly. Where it differs tho is that to do rotoscope at all, someone has to have some knowledge of how to translate a photographed image into a coherent line drawing and that process is an artistic one, for better or worse, and is not accessible to anyone who can hold a pencil. Furthermore, the object of rotoscope (while often hazy and misguided) is not to re-create photography in its entirety (unless one is out of one's mind). This does seem to be often the goal of motion capture, and if what I have seen of BEOWULF gives any indication, the brass ring of mo-cap would be something indistinguishable from an actual filmed performance of real actors. Maybe that would be impressive to me without the use of the flesh-and-blood actors to provide the source data, but as long as that is the impetus of the thing, it remains largely dependent on the actors' creativity and artistry more than anyone else's. Either way, I am not entirely sure what the point of pure verisimilitude would be, since movie cameras and live actors already do this surpassing well and with comparative ease.

This reminds me of being told in second-grade science class that a genuine diamond could be created instantaneously out of a lump of coal by using advanced technologies to simulate the millions of pounds and years of pressure necessary, but that the cost of the resources would vastly outpace the value of the diamond that would result from that process.

To be clear, I am not a purist and embrace all the new and emerging technologies in enhancing the art of animation. Furthermore, I would not hesitate to use some mo-cap if I were directing a CGI project with a lot of crowds, and/or dance/fight choreography. I thought the technique was put to excellent use in these areas in the anime film APPLESEED, for instance. But I would draw the line (no pun intended) at using mo-cap for every principal character (especially human ones) and have to wonder why we weren't making a live-action/green screen hybrid. I also do not like seeing the terms thoroughly re-defined by technologies that, in my humble and un-anonymous opinion, fail to exclusively earn the right to do so to the extent that is being promoted.


Michael Sporn said...

Excellent statement. Thank you. Unfortunately, Beowulf is still a lump of coal.

Richard Gaines said...

Hey, Will. I definitely agree with you. Animators have now become technicians and programmers while artists tend to fall on the way side. Although I haven't seen the movie, I've been reluctant (call me close-minded or reclusive) to pay $10.00 or something for the bulk of the tripe that's been coming out.

Also, great artwork below! I like those fish characters' expressions.

Weirdo said...

Wonderful post. I like it when people calmly explain their positions, instead of shouting. Very thoughtful, and right on the nose in some points. If you need to do a crowd scene, mo-cap would be beneficiary.

Jorge Garrido said...

I still cannot believe how crappy that Beowulf movie looks, and how easily people are impressed by cold as ice, souless "realistic" CGI. People rave about the damn "graphics" like its a new video game for the XBox 360 instead of a movie. Modern audiences are like children, impsressed by shiny objects and "simple tricks and nonsense" instead of artistry.

People fell for this 5 years ago when that horrible Final Fantasy movie came out(at least that was real keyframe animation), and now they're being taken in again! Unbelievable.

Wouldn't you all rather just see Angelina Jolie in the flesh? I would!

pappy d said...

In rotoscoping & mocap sometimes the net effect of your efforts is less life than the original live performance.

IMO if it ibues with life, it's animation. If it subtracts life, it's something else.