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.