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John Holbo - Editor
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Past Valve Book Events

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

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JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Friday, July 28, 2006

Artifice and Freakin’ Reality

Posted by Bill Benzon on 07/28/06 at 03:10 PM

A recurring issue . . .

The animation blogosphere is up in arms over remarks Mike LaSalle made in a recent review of Monster House, an animated film using full computer generated imagery (CGI) and motion-capture (mocap) technology for character animation (like Polar Express). LaSalle said, in effect, that the mocap technology is the greatest thing since sliced bread and will allow animation finally to present deeply expressive human actions and expressions. The animators object, strongly: here, here, here, and here. I tend to agree with the animators: mocap has a way to go, and well-done traditional animation is fine.

This conversation is taking place on two levels. On the one hand, it’s about the appropriate technique for creating animated images of human beings—cf. this somewhat older post about Polar Express. But it’s also about nature and aims of animation. Disney aspired to realism in his animation; Warner Brothers went for a more abstracted and stylized look. CGI has aspired to photo-realism, but Brad Bird explicitly rejected it for his characters in The Incredibles. Is realism just one stylistic choice among many, or is it the standard such that any deviation must justify itself in . . . just what terms?

This issue arises more generally, of course, than in animation. It privileges live-action film over animation, in general, and realism over fantasy in live-action films and other narrative forms. Is this a bias we can lay at Plato’s feet? Is it deeper than that? Not so deep?

Does Shakespeare get his place in the canon because he evades the terms of this discussion?


Comments

That would probably be Mick LaSalle, ,here.

By on 07/28/06 at 04:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Reluctant as I am to deaden any debate, especially one that raises the prospect of Plato and his cave, I get the sense that the drive toward verisimilitude in animation is principally a technical issue. Which is to say, there can be no more readily quantified measure of the success of an animation than its realism and animators are getting closer to reproducing the hairs on heads all the time. I wonder if once this technical grail is achieved by those pursuing it, the notion of realistic/mimetic/stylistic might become moot, in a manner similar to live-action once contending with representing reality in the face of technological limitations (frame rates, black and white film, lack of sound), but now a distant memory (all the more so now CGI in live-action is pretty much able to depict anything the real world throws up).

By on 07/28/06 at 09:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think that’s true for at least some of the people involved, most likely the people closest to the software. Certainly 1000s of articles have been written for tech journals on techniques of CGI realism—I’ve even read some of those articles, though not recently. But Mick LaSalle’s not a tech person; he’s a critic. And there are lots of folks like him.

By Bill Benzon on 07/28/06 at 10:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Mick LaSalle is one of the most preternaturally wrong critics around. I read him for years while living in the Bay Area (and I just critiqued his silly review of Pirates last week.) I just never, never agreed with him about anything. Weird.

By John Holbo on 07/29/06 at 05:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It should be noted that Walt Disney was not shooting for realism in his cartoons and movies, per se, but BELIEVABILITY. That’s why he nabbed a highly respected art instructor to start up figure drawing classes at the studio in the 30’s. They were animating the cartoonish Goofy and Mickey but drew from real life to grasp the notions of physics and anatomy. That’s why their characters ended up looking like they had weight and balance.

And that is what animation has been about all along. We are not trying to recreate photorealistically what we see everyday—what’s the point? What animation has been about throughout the ages is to capture elements of our world and transpire them through the medium—stylized characters that we can somehow relate to and believe in.

That was my main point in my Polar Express post—there’s absolutely no need to animate on a photorealistic level. What bothered me the most about that film was how Zemeckis and Co. tauted this new technology as something that will change the way Hollywood makes its films. And that this is the new wave of “animation.” Fooey. The audience for the most part had major problems with the film, especially with the characters. They looked dead and creepy. Is that what realism is all about? No. You shouldn’t rely totally on computers and technology.

There’s more to animation than what Zemeckis, LaSalle, and the general public think. Just because actors are doing the acting in the mo-cap suit doesn’t make it a true performance. Something gets lost from the suit to the computer. You need the human element involved, and that’s why animation works.

By Ward Jenkins on 07/29/06 at 08:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

. . . there’s absolutely no need to animate on a photorealistic level.

Right. Whenever I think about this issue I compare the dinosaurs in “The Rite of Spring” episode of Fantasia with those in the Jurassic Park franchise. The “Rite” dinosaurs are more convincing as living, breathing, animal beings. Their movements are smooth and weighty while the JP critters just sort of bounce, tumble, and collide.

By Bill Benzon on 07/29/06 at 09:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Well I just saw A Scanner Darkly and it convinced me that Keannu Reeves is a far better actor when animated. So, in this one respect, animation is entirely superior to live action.

By on 07/29/06 at 09:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

(I realize that line about Keannu is a bit of a cheap shot based on the widely accepted but not much considered assumption that never acts effectively. I happen to think that his style worked exceedingly well in that film.)

In the larger discussion, its extremely obvious that the texture of animation has an appeal that goes beyond its verisimilitude. It’s interesting to think of what animators will do with their new options, but if its going to be any different from live action, there’s going to have to be a sort of poetics of the CGI-facial-expression-based movies LaSalle is horny for. And, while that poetics will be able to express new and interesting things, the poetics of non-CGI animation will retain its own nexus of representational pleasures and insights. So, yeah, its neat and new, but, uh, the blues kept feeling good even after they invented rock and roll. Or something.

And this is to say nothing of the more pedestrian fact that a new technology, with its cost and complexity, reduces the size of the pool of potential artists taking advantage of all its wonderful new capabilities.

By on 07/29/06 at 10:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ascendant though they may be, animated films have yet to convince me that they’re really in competition with live-action films. The gems of the genre are things like Antz! and Bug’s Life--it seems CGI is reluctant to move out of its larval stage. CGI is most effective (I think) and most interesting when it foregrounds its artificial rather than verisimilar qualities--Jude Law’s character in AI, for instance, nicely provokes anxieties about the artificial becoming uncannily life-like. CGI certainly has virtues, but to claim that verisimilitude is one of them seems to betray a sort of misguided ideal. I think the real issue here is why LaSalle thinks verisimilitude is worth going to bat for, and secondarily what gereric expectations CGI can invoke and deliver on.

By on 07/30/06 at 02:52 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Gerald McBoing Boing won an academy award in 1950, during the Disney heyday, which would argue that relative contrast is a strong factor in what attains privilege.  On another note, I’ve always liked Mick LaSalle’s reviews, agree with them or not.  I’ve appreciated that he likes movies without a lot of pretension, although I must say, I thought the first Pirates movie was so lame, you couldn’t get me into the current one.

By on 07/30/06 at 07:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

FWIW, here’s an article about some of the CGI techniques used in Monster House. The mocap movements were not, for the most part, taken as-is. There was considerable manual tweaking of the body movements and facial gestures.

By Bill Benzon on 08/03/06 at 04:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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