Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Beowulf... Why?

Robert Zemeckis, a very talented filmmaker, is back this season exploring the highly unpromising vein he started mining with The Polar Express. Beowulf is a loose retelling of the Old English epic poem. Like Final Fantasy, these Zemeckis films are photoreal depictions of human characters. The innovation that Zemeckis has clamped onto is procedural; rather than animating from scratch, he records actors’ performances, this go-around with a new motion capture technique that photographs them from multiple angles. I saw the rig he uses for this at the SIGGRAPH convention this summer; it looks like a geodesic dome fitted with dozens of lights and cameras.

Despite my misgivings about motion capture, I came to the film wanting it to succeed. I saw it on the first weekend, and in IMAX 3D. Unfortunately, I have to report that the film was an almost complete failure. Only two scenes really worked: Angelina Jolie’s seduction of the hero, and the final action set piece. For the most part it was a flat, frigid bore.

The question I was left with was… why? If this film had been made in live action with CGI assistance, it still would not have been a good film, but it would have been a better film. I know what Anthony Hopkins and John Malkovich can give a story. What motion capture got out of them was barely 10% of what they can do even when they’re having a bad day.

What went wrong? First, the motion capture doesn’t look that bad. When it’s bad, motion capture looks… dirty. There’s more detail there than needs to be there. Zemeckis has obviously had animators edit the motion extensively. The trouble is not the usual one of too much extraneous detail, but not enough. There’s no intimacy to the performances.

When humans look photo-real we expect photo-real expression. The human face is a highly complex interweaving of dozens of muscles. Moreover, we are extraordinarily adept at reading it; our species has evolved into master interpreters of our own faces. Small subtleties carry enormous meaning. The fault might not be with the motion capture alone, but the character rigs too. 3D technology has advanced enormously, but it still cannot quite simulate all the details of facial movement, at least not when the benchmark is human complexity.

Perhaps it is also the circumstances in which the motion was captured. An actor is far likelier to create a compelling performance on a set, with the actors he’s playing against right there in front of him. A geodesic dome is not quite the same spark to the imagination.

Finally, there is the issue of what 3D folk call the “Uncanny Valley”. This term was coined by MIT researchers on robotics. They were trying to come up with a robot design that would provoke emotional attachment. They found that the more like humans the robots got, the more warmly people responded to them. This perhaps was not surprising. What was more surprising was that there came a point when this effect started diminishing and reversing. People started getting a little freaked out by the human likeness. When the design started becoming completely convincing – like say, Rutger Hauer in Bladerunner – identification and attachment returned. This effect was dubbed the uncanny valley. People in 3D argue about whether it really exists. As one who has fallen in myself (in a mixed media project,) I can testify that it does exist. Does Beowulf fall into the uncanny valley? Well, it’s clawing up the far side, but it’s there.

I go back to the most pertinent question: why? Why bother recreating reality in mathematically defined polygons, when real reality is right here with us? I know the answer in my bones because I’ve made films both in 3D and live action. A live action shoot is terribly frustrating for control freaks like me… and presumably, Zemeckis. A plane flying overhead ruins your best take. The damn cameraman muffles the follow on another good take. The actor scratches his nose for no apparent reason, ruining yet another one. And if you say you’re satisfied with the shot, at 1AM in the morning, when you’ve been up and working your ass off since 6AM, then you will have to live with that for the rest of your life. You rarely get retake days. The 3D world, on the other hand, is infinitely malleable. You can tweak the camera angle or the hue of the hero’s plaid jacket till the cows come home. Yes, there are time constraints because budgets are never infinite but things can be… adjusted. Always adjusted.

The truth, however, is that this kind of stuff doesn’t really matter all that much. Filmmakers can obsess about things intricate like camera movements or subtle pictorial elements, but that’s just the icing on the cake. What matters is story and performances. To sacrifice performance for the flexibility to execute the filmmaking flourishes is terribly, terribly wrong-headed. And I just can’t imagine what other upside there is in a technique such as this.

I believe 3D animation does not need to be confined to family audiences. It can appeal to older, narrower audiences. But I also think animation needs to be allowed to be animation. Let it do what it does best: provide an imaginative restyling of life movement and life imagery.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Obama and Experience

It took me a while to get off the fence, but Obama's Jefferson-Jackson dinner speech finally closed the deal for me. I'm on board with Barack. Here is the speech in its entirety:

I'm sure I'll make a case for Obama irregularly, infrequently and erratically in the weeks ahead. Where I want to start is by addressing what is perceived to be his biggest weakness: that he is inexperienced.

If Barack Obama becomes President in January 2009 he will have spent 12 years in elective office. I have to suspect that a longer experience than that might actually be detrimental.

Perhaps it's that Obama spent 8 years as a State Senator, and the Illinois State Senate is seen as a sort of minor league. Was he not seeing major league fastballs over there? Illinois is a pretty big state... if it were a country, its GDP would be bigger than Sweden's.

Perhaps the craft of drafting legislation is easier in the Illinois Senate than in the U.S. Senate? I can't imagine so. Are alliances and compromises easier to come by in Illinois, where perhaps politicians are not risk-averse, not particularly ambitious, and are unswayed by lobbyists? Again, I don't think so. If anything, from what I hear politics in Illinois -- and particularly in Chicago where Obama is from -- is hairier than what it is in most other places.

Perhaps we look to experience not to sharpen political skills (which Obama seems to have aplenty) but to give a candidate familiarity with the issues. There is overlap, but state issues are often different than federal issues. States don't deal with foreign policy, immigration, and a spate of other areas. If this is true and an important consideration, it should cut against the Governors and Mayors in the race more than it cuts against Obama, who after all would arrive to his inauguration with four years as a U.S. Senator as well.

Obama was ridiculed by the Clinton camp for citing living overseas as a child as a foreign policy qualification. Others may scoff, but as one who grew up overseas, I will not. A child under ten sucks up culture like a sponge. As wonderful as it is for Chris Dodd, for instance, to have been a Peace Corp volunteer in the Dominican Republic in his youth, the experience of being a child in a different culture is far more potent than that. One who experiences that will always have an eye for cultural difference and an ear for human commonality. He will have a firm foothold on the rest of the world.

Obama continued his multicultural upbringing in Hawaii, a cultural petri dish if ever there was one. As a young man, he would live in Los Angeles and New York before settling in Chicago, where he became a community organizer. Reading his fine memoir, Dreams of My Father, you realize what a political training ground that must have been: trying to reconcile the disparate agendas of radical black Muslims with conservative Christian churchgoers, and finding common ground between them. You see him learning to lead from behind, giving people the tools to succeed on their own rather than trying to hog the spotlight.

From there Obama goes to Harvard Law School, where he was the first African-American to be President of the Harvard Law Review. This is a political as well as intellectual achievement. Tellingly, his victory in the voting came from his ability to listen to the concerns of the conservative faction.

Out of Harvard, he could have gone to New York and instantly be earning a 6-figure income at any white shoe firm he chose. He could have gone to Washington and clerked for a Supreme Court judge, as is traditional for a President of the Law Review. Instead he went right back to community organizing. Eventually, he also taught constitutional law.

The first African-American President would come to office far better equipped for his duties than the President who freed blacks from slavery. After all, Abraham Lincoln only served for two years in the House of Representatives. Luckily, that was enough experience to bring change.