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MOTION CAPTURE: Evolution sparks a revolution

MOTION CAPTURE: Evolution sparks a revolution

EDITOR’S NOTE: Press Play is proud to welcome critic and historian James Clarke to our lineup of contributors. His work has been published in The Guardian, Resurgence, Empire, and Splice. He is the author of Movie Movements, Studying Brokeback Mountain and Animated Films.

By James Clarke
Press Play Contributor

Here’s a question: do performance capture artists dream of abstracted, painterly sheep? Or are photorealistic ones the order of the day now and for the foreseeable future?

It feels like a bit of a lost world to us in 2011, but in the early 1980s, a number of American-produced films hoping to carry the baton of the classically styled animated features synonymous with the work of the Disney animation studio, particularly between the 1930s and 1960s.


The Disney studio continued to produce animated features after its founder’s death in 1966. But by the late ’70s and early ’80s, the market for the family audience had shifted to the vanguard that was led by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas and followed by Robert Zemeckis, James Cameron and Tim Burton. There was the sense amongst studio executives, the industry and audiences that Disney might need to reboot its approach to live-action and animation production. In 1989, The Little Mermaid resuscitated the studio’s animation soul (and commercial viability). But prior to that, other studios and filmmakers ran the animated feature film gauntlet, producing the likes of The Last Unicorn (1983) and An American Tail (1986).

One such filmmaker was Ralph Bakshi, who started directing animated features with Fritz the Cat (1972) and continued on until the early 1990s.

Perhaps best known now for his partial adaptation of The Lord of the Rings (you can read an interview with Bakshi recounting the experience here) Bakshi also directed Wizards (1979), American Pop (1981), and the sword and sorcery film Fire and Ice (1983), made in collaboration with illustrator and painter Frank Frazetta.

As of this writing, Bakshi is retired from the film industry and lives in New Mexico, where he works on his collage-based fine art. In a number of interviews since his retirement, Bakshi has second-guessed his decision to use rotoscoping, the practice of filming a live action performance and using it, frame by frame, as reference footage to paint over with animated cels. Bakshi used rotoscoping in The Lord of the Rings, American Pop and Fire and Ice. He has conceded that he applied the technique as a solution to a practical problem and, we might infer, a budgetary constraint.

That said, when money and time were in short supply over at Disney during the production of Snow White (1937), rotoscoping was employed there as well, to more efficiently create the action of the Prince in motion during the film’s ending.
E (cinema) volution

Too often people talk dramatically about game changers and revolutions; rather than functioning as “mode jerks” (to borrow a useful phrase coined by Stanley Kubrick), with a cooler view, we might better think about the concept of forms evolving. I think this term typifies the process more appropriately. It applies to the evolving sophistication that takes us from tracing to Rotoscoping to performance capture. It’s worth making the point, too, that rotoscoping also exists in animation’s parallel universe of visual effects; both media eternally bound together in exciting ways.
In effect, rotoscoping is a process of tracing and mimicking rather than interpreting and transforming human movement. But animation “proper” is an act of transformation.
Evolution has taken its course and we now find ourselves at a moment in time where rotoscoping manifests itself in performance capture, an adapted technique of which I am an enthusiast, and keen to see evolve further. To date, it’s been most commercially popular in James Cameron’s Avatar, but let’s not overlook the major, trailblazing work in this realm of director Robert Zemeckis, his elegant compositions and camera movements well suited to the long take possibilities of this form. Writing about Robert Zemeckis, Press Play publisher Matt Zoller Seitz observed in 2009:

“Cinema, like every art form, has always had an aspect of omnipotence. Art lets man play God — or at the very least return to a childlike state of openness that lets the imagination run free. And many of the technological changes that marked this decade in film were all about building a bigger and better train set. From the use of CGI to create fairy tale landscapes and grotesque monsters in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Star Wars prequels, to David Fincher adding and subtracting years from Brad Pitt’s face in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, flights of fancy don’t seem so fanciful anymore.

“I’ve just given myself a natural segue to start bashing Zemeckis as a soulless high-tech noodler — a label hung on him by hostile critics who miss the 1980s showman who directed Used Cars and Back to the Future and think he’s lost touch with his artistry, and maybe his soul. I can understand their dissatisfaction — I loved the old Zemeckis, too. But I’m impressed with what Zemeckis has become. The three films he shot in the 3-D motion-capture process — The Polar Express, Beowulf (2007) and this year’s A Christmas Carol — strike me as the most technologically, stylistically and tonally radical blockbusters to appear on U.S. screens since the heyday of Stanley Kubrick.”

Rose-Tintin Spectacles

Just two months from now Europe will see the release of Steven Spielberg’s next feature film, The Adventures of Tintin (2011), the latest in his line of adaptations of existing books. How long have I been waiting for this one? Only thirty years or so.
Spielberg has described performance capture as being “digital makeup” and I think that’s a useful place to start. We also might look to Waking Life (2001) as a useful antithesis to the likes of Avatar and Beowulf. Indeed, in the book Hollywood Flatlands we read, “Technologies of camera and film…are the new human gestures. The contents of the psyche are externalized in technological effects.”
Whilst Hergé’s Tintin books were very much a part of growing up and developing an enthusiasm for reading here in the U.K., the fact that the new film is Spielberg’s latest directorial project is what has me more intrigued and excited. It will be fascinating, I think, to see how this director explicitly applies the principles and dynamics of animation to the adventure genre. All the more pertinent is that, throughout Spielberg’s career, the “spirit” of animation has been significant to a number of his choices in staging elaborate action. Witness the balletic and joyful (in terms of delighting in genre filmmaking) scene in which Indy, Willie and Short Round escape from the mines that provide relatively light action-comedy relief from the Temple of Doom just down the corridor. Then, too, there is Spielberg’s tip of the hat to the pleasures of animation history and to the solace to be found in film in The Sugarland Express (1974), during a rare moment of quiet and repose as Clovis and Lou Jean watch a Road Runner short.
For those who might remember the second “generation” of Comics Scene magazine that ran during the early ’90s, there always seemed to be some bit of news and information about an adaptation of the comic Plastic Man that Spielberg was supposed to executive produce.  Perhaps now the performance capture tools exist to make such an adaptation possible. It’s heartening to hear Spielberg talking about how his experience of producing Tintin made him think like a painter.
Having found ourselves wandering, then, into the contested realm of discussions about computer animation and its relationship to the process of performance capture, we might also find ourselves in proximity to the well worn trail of discussion about the uncanny valley wherein performance capture tries to mimic photorealistic proportions and then falls short by being neither abstract nor realistic enough in its realization. The perils of the uncanny valley, then, should perhaps encourage producers and audiences to seek out opportunities for non-photorealistic interpretations of the human face. Whilst The Polar Express (2004) was generally criticized for its “dead eyes,” this element was countered by many other positives of narrative construction, shot composition and tone. The film also faithfully adapted for the moving image the illustrations in Chris Van Allsburg‘s same-named source book.

Another interesting aspect to consider is how performance capture’s possibility for a painterly aesthetic is making all the more acute the live action tradition of invoking the lighting effects of painting. As an arbitrary example we might refer to the work of John Toll and the influence of the Dutch masters on his work in Witness (1985), or we could cite the influence of Henri Rosseau’s paintings (such as Surprised!) on Vittorio Storaro‘s visual scheme of the jungle in Apocalypse Now (1979).
I’m playing around here a bit, but perhaps a more accurate name for performance capture is ‘performance painted’. Indeed, I have often wondered what a performance capture film could be like if it used digital makeup and costume to achieve the same look of a Édouard Manet painting. Or — can you imagine a story set during the medieval age wherein the performance captured forms resembled the graphic qualities of the medieval representation of the human figure?

Such an approach would immediately challenge the aesthetic of transparent realism, the kind that makes you forget you’re watching a movie, somehow placing you right there in the setting of the film and its attendant views of the world. This might be a not very savvy commercial move.
What this cluster of thoughts seems to lead to, particularly in relation to considerations of the uncanny valley, is that even now, popular cinema arguably remains far too shackled to the demands of photographic realism (matched by the realism of narrative logic and psychological realism). I’ll make reference here to the book Hollywood Flatlands: Animation, Theory and the Avant-Garde:

“From Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs onwards the laws of perspective and gravity are reinstituted, flatness is repelled and the films no longer explode the world with the surrealistic and analytic cinematic dynamite of the optical unconscious that had been developed in 1920s cartooning.”

So, whilst we can celebrate the achievements of this first American animated feature, Snow White. we might be mindful of how its commercial success quickly, widely and deeply established a template for animated feature aesthetics in mainstream cinema.
Animation historian Michael Barrier writes:

“…it is computer-generated animation, in its various forms and with its still-limited capacity for subtle movement and emotional shadings, that dominates theater screens and DVD sales.

“Computer animation has infiltrated live-action films to the point that ‘live action’ is frequently all but a misnomer. By the same token, an ‘animated’ film may rely so heavily on live actors, through motion capture or sophisticated new forms of Rotoscoping, that it can be called ‘animated’ only through an elastic use of the term. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, with its usual perspicacity, has begun awarding a separate Oscar to the Best Animated Feature just when the line between animation and live action has become impossible to define.”

Then, perhaps, the fascinating and exciting question is this:  are we now teetering on an exciting moment where popular filmmaking finds a home for more abstract images that find a way to fuse the photographed and the painted? Are we about to see the cinema of spectacle become the place where non-photorealistic dreams can come true?
In broadening our understanding of the intersection of animation, photography and performance capture, there’s an unsurprisingly thoughtful and energizing discussion of the issue to be found here by Kristin Thompson, who has written extensively about the film adaptations of the Lord of the Rings novels.
Earlier this summer at the 2011 Comic-Con, Robert Rodriguez gave a presentation about a proposed adaptation for our digital age of the Ralph Baskhi/Frank Frazetta collaboration Fire and Ice. Rodriguez explained how he wants this new rendition “to look like you just stepped into one of his paintings, where you get to see his world, and how he saw people, anatomy, and composition and color. It will feel like it’s real, but not real. It’ll be his reality. He saw things differently. He painted from his imagination. He didn’t take a photograph and just paint it.”

Rodriguez’s affinity for the possibility of film as a painterly, illustrative form, rather than an exclusively a photographic one, found dynamic expression in Sin City. His presentation of conceptual art for the proposed Fire and Ice film suggests a thoughtful interpretation of Frazetta’s melodramatic images (sort of Maxfield Parish via Conan); Rodriguez understands that it’s a process of adaptation and not of transliteration. It’s all about survival of the storytelling fittest.
It seems reasonable to say, then, that the potential of performance capture lies in the embracing of its distinctions from photorealism. Striving solely to make performance-captured imagery look photorealistic does seem a little meaningless. What excites me is that performance capture can function as digital makeup, costume and puppetry combined.
A little while back when I worked as a lecturer in film, I encouraged students to read even just a little of E.H. Gombrich’s work. Here’s E.H. with a line of thought we can draw from “traditional” art to the art of cinema, and the possibilities we might hope and wish for with performance capture as we witness its emergence:

“The paintings in our galleries are seen one day in bright sunshine and another day in the dim light of a rainy afternoon, yet they remain the same paintings, ever faithful, ever convincing. To a marvelous extent they carry their own light within. For their truth is not that of a perfect replica, it is the truth of art.”

James Clarks is a British writer — his most recent book being Movie Movements: Films That Changed The World of Cinema (Kamera Books). You can follow him on Twitter .

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