Saturday, November 24, 2007

Friday, November 23, 2007

TOM & JERRY'S NUTCRACKER

My family was roused from our tryptophan post-turkey lethargy yesterday by a new Cartoon Network special featuring MGM's classic cat and mouse duo in a new version of THE NUTCRACKER, which was quite enjoyable and had some very good things in it. It's not perfect, but to it's credit it is easily the best incarnation of the team since the original TOM & JERRY unit was shuttered in 1957 (only to be outsourced to various franchisees over the following five decades).
The people in charge of this one are Tony Cervone and Spike Brandt , two of the guys responsible for some of the better LOONEY TUNES animation in the post-ROGER RABBIT era. Here they have done an impressive job of synthesizing the original TOM AND JERRY style (which evolved radically over the 17 years they were in production) and adding a little bit extra on top of that. The visual result is both classic and contemporary, which is pretty hard to pull off. The characters (including a considerable cast of new ones) are all consistent with the amalgam models of Tom, Jerry and Tuffy, and the poses and acting seem to have a touch of Chuck Jones' Looney Tunes from around the time of shorts like SCARDEY CAT and WEARIN' OF THE GRIN. (This does not however bear any resemblance to Jones' TOM AND JERRY shorts, which is a good thing in my opinion.)

The animation itself seems to have been executed with some sort of FLASH type program that yields uneven results. It may also be to blame for the super-zippy timing that left me woozy after a bit, tho the aspects of the traditional end of the animation equation is by and large nicely done. The classical music (mostly from the original ballet) leaves one missing Scott Bradley's jazzy scores and the sound effects (particularly on the most violent gags) are faint to the point of seeming non-existent. I'll let viewers themselves judge from there, but overall it is a huge step in the right direction for this sort of thing. TiVo it or better yet, pick it up on DVD and show your support to the artists who made it (CARTOON NETWORK maginalized the credits beyond belief last night, shame on them!). It is definitely worth checking out.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

THANKS FOR EVERYTHING...


"I've looked all over this thing and still can't find the cooking instructions..."

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!

Monday, November 19, 2007

BE A WOLF

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.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

New FF / Blog Plug


My friend Bill Riling is a multi-talent. He storyboards for film and TV (OVER THE HEDGE, KING OF THE HILL), writes (he co-created the story for the upcoming SHREK THE HALLS TV special with Theresa Cullen), he draws great gags and is an encyclopedia of cartoon knowledge. Plus he met Charles Schulz in person three times! He at last has a blog, currently dedicated to an original comic strip titled LEWIS & CLUCK. Go there now! LINK-OLA





There is yet another color installment of FOSSIL FOOLS at this LINK.