Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Beowulf: Animation or Live Action?

Snow White, The Flinstones, Ratatouille. You think of these movies and you think animation. They were animated in a certain time, using the technology they had. Could one not also say the recent Zemeckis films— Beowulf, Polar Express— as doing the same thing?

For those not in the know, Robert Zemeckis has been making films that combine computer generated actors and motion capture. The contraversy is that is a film is not animated by hand, it's not animation.

I have decided that it is indeed animation, and I challenge those who oppose.

First point, one needs to remove the contention that Zemeckis's films are poorly animated. I agree, since I feel the actors show very little facial animation. The characters seem a little lifeless. When comparing animated results, I feel Remy's animated gestures win over the shiny eyes, but under-acting, of Beowulf.

Second point is to remove the argument that the movie's objective is to make the characters as realistic as possible. Yes, it is my firm opinion, being a producer, that if you want to make your actors seem as real as possible, use real actors on a green-screen. What about Gollum? Yes, use motion capture since we don't have one of those in real life.

Once one removes those two points from the argument, here is my take on the contraversy:
I think there is a paradigm shift in the animation industry, and Robert Zemeckis has brought this to light.


Marriam-Webster defines animating as:
4 a: to make or design in such a way as to create apparently spontaneous lifelike movement

Animators are essentially actors. Instructors state this in animation classes. For example, in Ratatouille, animators needed to act out their characters for Remy's actions. Then, they exaggerated these actions, and the end result looks believable and lifelike. How are they moving Remy around? Using a computer, and a mouse. Basically, tools. Now let's examine Snow White. How did Ollie Johnston animate Snow White and the dwarves? He used celophane paper, pencils, and paints. Basically, tools, and he did it with what was available at that time. No computers.

Now regard Beowulf. It's computer animation. How is Grendel's mother animated? By someone using a mouse and a computer? Almost— the animator is using a new type of tool, called motion capture, or mocap for short. An animator can walk around as a woman to add that special life, accentuating the hip swing. Or an animator can crouch. Or act. Or be an actor.

Can actors be animators? Can animators be actors? Why not? The tools are there for them. Instead of drawing or animating a timeline, they are using a device that reads their body motions and applys the motion to something that isn't spontaneously alive (see definition above). Perspectives should not be so restrictive that one believes animation is only done in a specific way, because it is done in many different ways. Wallace and Grommit is one example, there are many others. Shadow puppetry is debatable.

So therefore, I conclude that motion capture is just another way to animate because the basis is that it is an extension of existing tools.

Before the opposition calls in, I'd like to point out that Disney used the tools that were available to him at that time. He viewed real footage of people in dresses to get the quailty right for Snow White. If Disney reincarnates in a few years, he might be using mocap for his animations as well. Forget the idea that current motion capture films look poor. These devices are going to get better, and better. In the future, one can plug themselves in and remake Snow White using Angelina's body, and animating the whole cast. No one will know or care, as long as it looks good.

It's the future we need to explore. If in 10 years there's a new device that reads your mind to create animation, is it live action?

As much as I love Disney and traditional hand-animation, the industry is shifting its paradigm and we have to recognize that.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Flash CS3-- All Hype, No Class


As a Flash Professional, I've been using Macromedia's version of Flash MX for many, many years. I considered it to be a workhorse and an excellent integration of user interface and productivity.

As years passed, I moved over to Flash 8 and enjoyed the new additions and minor bug fixes. They also addressed some interface problems that actually added some improvement over Flash MX.

Then came the mega-merge and Adobe was in charge. At first I wasn't too upset. Adobe has released some good software. Illustrator, a great tool which managed to set the standard for vector drawing.

But with Adobe's CS product line I've been noticing a similar trend: software-bloat. While some may argue that new features pave the way to a better future, I say that their programmers are underpaid and overworked. New features rarely need to take up so much space. I firmly believe in the "lean and mean" mentality of software. In other words, my tools should work hard and fast without much overhead. Sure it's a stretch, and I'll give allowances for newly revised versions, but Adobe is considered a top notch company and should have programmers that can keep the code wrangled in. Bloat is unneccessary.

Flash CS3 is the extreme end of bloat. While the upgrade is a must for MacOS Intel users, it is a step backwards for Windows users. The size of the install is staggering. Additionally, I found very few features worth noting.

Above all else, I found the new interface to be pathetic. And I will explain.


The best user interfaces are about having options and delivering functionality when asked for. Give me a function when I want it. Don't _ever_ give it to me when I don't want it, because you will just give me another set of steps to get what I want. The faster I produce, the better for all parties involved. Not only speed, but you want smooth and intuitive. These are key components of user interface design.

Flash CS3, on the other hand, is now a glaring, bright utility. While you may think this is good because your mother always said to turn on the lights while you read, it doesn't work here. In design terms, the eye generally goes towards the brightest spot on the interface. When you have multiple bright spots, the areas compete for attention. Thus, the problem with the new color scheme. I've used Flash CS3 for hours and hours at a time, and my eyes feel sore at the end of the day. Above all else, THERE IS NO OPTION TO CHANGE THE UI COLORS. Adobe, you violated a crucial rule.

The rest of the interface is a tad buggy. It seems that Adobe tried to make things easier by having single taps fold your windows, and allow auto-docking. Too bad it always did it when I didn't want it. I can't tell you how often I've place the Actionscript window into the timeline. The old way had the arrow or a specific drag point to merge windows. Made sense, because it's there if I want it, or not if I don't. Another violation to the rules.


The programming side of Flash, which forces the designer/developer debate, has changed as well. While hard core programmers drool over the ability to program DOOM in Actionscript 3.0, the rest of us designers are still trying to wrap our minds around prototypes in Actionscript 1.0.

This is a rift that will eventually separate the prgorammers from the designers once and for all. No more "Flash Guru" job postings, the difference will be too great to get someone who can code 5000 lines and design at the same time.

Scripting, to me, should be scripts. Small, simple, easy. No class constructor planning, just lay it out. I hope Flash retains this, but I fear it will someday be lost.

In conclusion, be aware that I rarely upgrade. I rely heavily on what works to my needs and how I was trained on a piece of software. The best software is like a musical instrument, that you can play easily, smoothly and create beautiful pieces of work. Although some enjoy banging on drums, I perefer piano. Let my fingers float and stay out of my way. Alas, Adobe, you got in my way with this upgrade.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Jon Stewart vs. Crossfire


Did Jon Stewart Kill Crossfire?

He just may have ... we linked to Stewart's infamous / legendary appearance on Crossfire a while back in which he took the show to task saying that it was damaging the country. Well, it appears that CNN head Jonathon Klein agrees with him. Crossfire co-host has just announced his plans to exit CNN for a new gig a MSNBC and Klein quickly followed that up with an announcement that Crossfire was closing its doors. Says the Washington Post:

"CNN/U.S. President Jonathan Klein sided yesterday with comedian Jon Stewart, who used a "Crossfire" appearance last fall to rip the program as partisan hackery. "I think he made a good point about the noise level of these types of shows, which does nothing to illuminate the issues of the day," Klein said in an interview. Viewers need "useful" information in a dangerous world, he said, "and a bunch of guys screaming at each other simply doesn't accomplish that.""

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

McDonald's Pathetic Commercial

Recently, there has been a McDonalds commercial airing which I find miserable and pathetic. The commercial starts off with a a hummed jingle. It continues with some shmoe guy with a go-tee telling his girlfriend that he is going to McDonalds and she says to order for her, because he apparently knows what she wants. Well, according to his voice-over, no he does not. And orders everything on the dollar menu. He gets back and pulls each item out until she takes the one she wants. He then retorts that he knows her better than anyone else.

What makes this commercial so poor? It's not in the concept, but in the execution.

First, the jingle bookmarks the beginning and end. It's not hummed in a special way, but just hummed. Kindof bla. Now, commercials are edited in several different ways and in some ways the jingle serves as bookends to the commercial. on the shorter edits, the jingle comes quickly, and becomes overused, thus becoming cheesy.

Now let's focus on the visuals. I feel the director was trying to do something cool and stylish, but in the end managed to ruin the McDs experience. It's a washed-out, grainy style with no bright colors. Hm, I'm not sure if that's how McDs would like to be known to consumers, as dreary and grey. It's important to be sexy and appeal to the public, but if you cannot come up with a reason other than 'because it's cool' you need to do some rethinking on your visual design.

Another poor visual design they try to get away with is the hand-held camera effect, or what I like to call 'shakey-cam'. I have often criticized against using this effect. If you don't have a reason to use it, don't use it. If you do use it, make it look like you're not doing it. Subtlety is key here. Over doing it will dilute its effect, and, wow, did this shister director ever use it too much. Not only does it seem like we're on a boat, but it is a fake movement, moving back and forth along the same axis. Cheese-ball.

Finally, the acting. Our director didn't tell this man how to act. He says everything with a fake half-smile, his delivery is lame, and his gesture to buy all of the dollar menu, fake. That gesture didn't look like he spontaneously got this ingenious idea to buy the whole dollar menu, but rather a flimsy, over-practiced gesture. You see, the trick to acting is not to act. Make it look like you've just come up with the solution just then and there. This wasn't done in any of the acting, so the characters seem banal. If you have the budget, get professional actors.

With all this pretentiousness, this commercial becomes diluted and a poor representation of the McDonald's campaign of "I'm lovin' it". I'm not lovin' it. I'm hatin' it. But yet, they continue to use it again and again. I've seen this commercial aired often, having been cut up many different ways. Sometimes with the girlfriend present, sometimes without, and sometimes without the actor requesting the whole menu. It helps get rid of the bad acting, but it makes the message very, very lame.

McD must have payed hamesomely for it if they are trying to squeeze every ounce out of their poor investment, but yet the commercial screams 'extra-value meal'. Hehe, they must've gotten it off some studio's dollar menu. So now you see why it's better to go with a moderately-priced director with design foundations, such as myself.

This makes me wonder. A company of McDonald's magnitude surely can do better, but alas, they chose not to. Has the level of acceptability dropped to an all time low, or is just McDonald's lack of descent employees?

Friday, November 19, 2004

CRITIQUE: The Incredibles and Children's Animated Features

The Incredibles, directed by Brad Bird, his second after The Iron Giant. Although it's Disney's film, it's amazing how much Pixar got away with. If you don't know, Pixar and Disney don't like each other. Disney, the grandfather of animated features, has gone stale. Their formulas no longer work, and it's time for a new boss. That boss is Pixar, which, someday will become as stale as Disney, but until then, we will enjoy their films.

The movie is wonderful. Why? From the ground up it was planned to be well and the rest of the pieces fall into place (unlike Hollywood these days). The script, is well written. Three act stucture that works, likeable characters with flaws, character's actions have consequences, and a nice and tidy plot.

The biggest applause I give is how Pixar did NOT create a kiddy focused film, but rather created something that was layered for kids and adults. Let me try to explain why I feel this is a better approach for this. Children's movies and shows these days tend to have a perfectly-moral main character. The bad guys are evil without any ambivilance or reasoning to their badness. What this does to most people after a certain age, is create a fantasy world of perfection. In other words, boring. Now let's think about if we start adding hints of morally challenging concepts into a script. It becomes more adult themed, but when a child watches it, there are lots they don't understand, but enough that they'll love the action, the characters, and the funny one-liners that they do understand. Later, when they mature, they'll go back to these movies they loved as a kid and they'll get even more out of them as an adult. The result? Movies with longevity and a wider audience.

Then from script, we go into the visuals. These visuals were well thought out. There are many articles on the humanizing comfort theory, most noteably, roboticist Masahiro Mori. In short, the theory is that the closer robots look like human, without being human, it starts to look eerie, and we get uncomfortable. Pixar did their homework and designed characters that looked like comic strip humans, which worked out wonderfully.

I would like to point out that this is the exact OPPOSITE as a forthcoming movie, The Polar Express, directed by Robert Zemeckis. While they are falsely touting it as a major animation acheivement, they are trying to make it lifelike as possible. The risk? It may look fake and cheesy, which is starting to surface in some reviews. I'm unsure why Zemeckis went this route, especially since he barely captured any of the numerous facial gestures and emotions from the actors. He could have easily gone real-life with blue-screened sets, a la Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.

Problem with Disney, as said by Pixar:

The next speaker was Andrew Stanton, the writer and director of Finding Nemo--a thoroughly engaging guy who gave a talk on his work and the Pixar way in general. He showed some amusing voice-casting tests in which the studio did new animation to existing soundtracks with actors they were considering using (Al Pacino as Hopper in A Bug's Life and Billy Crystal as Buzz Lightyear, for instance), and outlined five rules that the company developed when creating Toy Story:

1) No Songs
2) No "I Want" Moment
3) No Happy Village
4) No Love Story
5) No Villain

Stanton mentioned that at one point, Disney brought in a famous lyricist (apparently Tim Rice) as a consultant on the project, and he recommended that the studio add songs, an "I Want Moment," a happy village, a love story, and a villain.

Another Pixar rule: "Like your main character." By way of example, Stanton showed some early Toy Story storyboards and soundtracks in which Woody *wasn't* likable at all. In the end, the character had some of the imperfect character traits the unpleasant Woody had shown, but they were no longer dominant.

I'll go on to add that Disney is such a heartless, no-integrity, shallow bunch of executives, because in their contract with Pixar, they state that Pixar gets first bid for any projects that Disney wants to do. SInce DIsney owns the rights to Toy Story, Disney said to Pixar, "Hey, make Toy Story 3 by 2005, and Toy Story 4 by 2006?" Pixar declined, because there's no way any studio can do great work in two years. Disney says, "Ok, then, we're going to make it somewhere else without you." DIsney is now forming their own 3D studio, after shutting down their old 2D studio and firing gobs of fantastic artists, which they'll never be able to get back.

Disney's blindness towards good plot and mental-challenging concepts will produce short-lived features, such as Toy Story 3. It's a very executive thing to do, get the money now, and dilute the integrity of the franchise.

Diluting the franchise is something that Bill Watterson of Calvin and Hobbes fought valiently against (see article here), whereas Berkeley Breathed succumbed to the mountains of cash, thus diluting and ending Bloom County. But I must say, Bloom County is cool, and may someday have a revival.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

CRITIQUE: I (Heart) Huckabees

(Warning: Some small spoliers)
Overall, the movie was good.

It's a movie with a basic plot, but shrouds itself in existential philosophy. At times, it's hard to understand, but the characters themselves are attempting to figure things out, which helps viewers not use so much of their brain power.

It's about a man, Albert, who is trying to figure his failing life back together. He hires a firm and they help him out. He ends up winning in the end.

But what the writers do that is so interesting, is that the plot is shrouded in Albert's trying to analyze his existence, through unusual means. And through unusual characters. In addition, the plot is cyclic, stepping into a deeper exploration of choas versus order.

It's deep, but there's good characters in it. And written very well. At one point, I thought they were getting into Albert's antagonist, Brad, too much. But when thinking about the idea behind the movie, they had to show it in order to get to Albert's conclusion and understanding of what was happening to him.

Seemingly chaotic, everything had a point in this movie.

What would have made it better? I think a better way to show that Albert was figuring things out on his own, by watching Brad's life fall apart. Too much attention on Brad may have not carried my sympathy for Albert all the way to the end.

But overall, a good movie. Recommended.

Saturday, October 30, 2004

CRITIQUE: The Cat in the Hat

Yes, I know it's old, but I just saw it on HBO.

This movie was a total letdown.

But the thing about it was that it could have been saved-- but with a lot of changes.

To start, the director could have been a little more controlling of Mike Myers performances to get him to stay consistant with the tones and mood changes in the movie. It felt as if Mike had the reins, and was bouncing off the walls. It lost focus. I think this happens sometimes with green directors and 'funny' actors.

Another aspect was, of course, the writing. The plot was too cheap. The boy/boyfriend conflict was not real at all. It felt contrived. And absolutely get rid of the toilet humor. Not only was it unsuitable for such Dr. Seuss integrity, but it seemed, well, forced. Oh, and is it really that hard to get the cat to rhyme?

In my over-analytical opinion, the REAL conflict was the kids with the cat in the hat. That should have been the plot center, not some Disney rule about tangible villains (Disney and other studios like to always have silly 'rules' in their scripts, such as villains in their kiddy movies. See Toy Story to debunk these rules!).

Here's how to save the plot: The boy was a an unruly boy, and the girl was a obsessive perfectionist. Good. Conflict between them makes these characters interesting. The mother is too busy to pay attention to the kids. A good setup.

Get rid of the boyfriend, unless he's used as a device to keep the mother occupied and looking the other way. Nothing more.

Use the mysterious crate as the ultimate opposing conflict for the end. I liked how the crate took over the house, but it should have been utilized throughout the script. Have the cat taking things out there, that just escalates the problems for both the children. One thing would be more unrley than the boy, so the boy starts to see that he needs to restrain the cat, therefore learning that he needs to restrain himself.

The girl, should right away feel a little snubbed by not being invited to her friend's birthday party. In the movie, it came a little late. Bring it in right away. That way she would reasonably be more apt to get with the cat to be jumping around on the couch and breaking rules, effectively loosening her up a bit.

Then the crate takes off, because the cat and the children are preoccupied with the Thing One and Thing Two. THat way, the crate represents the ultimate peril, which is too destroy everything to the point of no return. The kids then struggle to find how to get things back to normal before the mother's party. They also struggle with the cat wanting to be unruly, but in the kids combine their skills to restrain the cat and solve the riddle of the crate.

This improves the script, because now you don't need to have the kids going outside the house, which to me felt too disjuncting from the indoor problems.

I liked the babysitter falling asleep and staying asleep. It was ridiculous, but blatently so, which set a good tone. Too bad the tone was not well followed through the rest of the script.

Oh, and the fish was a little too whiney. He should have been the voice of reason, which stated the way things are in the real world, but isn't followed in this world.

Overall, don't see this movie. Someday, someone will come along and make a Cat in the Hat movie that will impress even the late Dr. Seuss. Then go see THAT movie.