Sunday, November 07, 2004

As Long as We're Talking Computer Animation...

Have you ever seen anything more terrifying than The Polar Express?

Roger Ebert has referred several times to the phenomenon where we readily assign human traits to cartoons and allow ourselves to feel like they're real, but when things are too close to being real, they seem fake because we focus on what's wrong with them instead.

I love Robert Zemeckis, for he is, after all, the director who brought us Back to the Future, but Polar Express looks like a huge miscalculation. Digital actors are not here yet. It will take plenty of bold, failed experiments like this one to get there, not that anyone really wants fake actors in movies, but for some reason everyone's determined to make it happen even though it's a terrible idea.

The look of this movie is creepy through and through. It has the surreal, terrifying quality of a nightmare. Yes, take a perilous train ride, meet five different weirdoes who all look like wax figures of Tom Hanks (isn't the point of multiple roles usually to try to look different in each one?), arrive in a bizarrely metropolitan North Pole where fanatical elves congregate in worshipful, near-fascist celebration of the Pope-like Santa Claus. No, no, and again no.

This is not live action and it is not a cartoon. I don't know if people will know what to make of it. I certainly don't.

For more upcoming computer animation, see:

Madagascar, from Dreamworks, about animals trying to escape from the zoo. Stupid domesticated animals. Don't they know they'll never be able to function in the wild? But hey, Ben Stiller is in it.

Robots, from Fox. Hey, it's a big step up from Ice Age. And look, Robin Williams and Ewan McGregor. And...Halle Berry. Yes, she's an excellent voice actress. To detour for a second, isn't it nice how Pixar casts actors based on what they bring to the character instead of just to throw big names into the movie? What's the point of casting an actress who's pure eye candy and delivers convincing line readings about 1% of the time to do voice acting?


Kenny said...

Oops, hey--not that you can really tell from the trailer, but the plot of Madagascar apparently really is about how these zoo animals can't function in the wild. So, nice.

Anonymous said...

For more on the creepiness of not-quite-human digital (or robotic) creations, check out this essay about the "uncanny valley".


C said...

my co-worker could not shut up about how fantastic polar express is. visually and story wise, he saw it this weekend in imax 3D. he went in expecting the worst though. also, his wife got a little motion sick. that's what she deserves though for buying tickets to polar express instead of the incredibles like he asked.

his kids liked it. but they're kids and you can't trust them.

i'll weigh in with my opinion in 2 years when it comes on tv.

Anonymous said...

As someone who has actually seen Robots, I can confirm that Halle Berry is not very good in it. She also has a somewhat small part as most of her role was cut out, leaving her character as somewhat of a plot device.

Robin Williams is of course hilarious. And Ewan McGregor is just fine. I'm quite optimistic for the film as the version I saw was very funny, but I am of course biased in its favor due to familial bonds.


lydia said...

A tiny part of the section of my heart devoted to voice-acting died when I saw Halle Berry's name on the Robots trailer. Stay away, foul no-talent so-called actress! Go model or something. Wasn't Storm bad enough? Yes. And I refuse to even connect her with the character of Catwoman.

Zack said...

I totally want fake actors in movies. Why would nobody want that? Polar Express looks terrible and awkward, just like Final Fantasy X looks awkward but I think the technique is cool, and I look forward to future movies that will use the technique to create something brilliant and touching.

lyan! said...

I'm mixed. I too like the 'concept' of the fake actors, but like Kenny, i think that the closer we get to 'most real' the less real they could look. Now, i'm not opposed to the idea of having completely rendered backgrounds, and then having live actors in them, but then you run the risk of that being awkward since the actors aren't really seeing anything, they're just 'acting' as if they're seeing it, and sure thats fine and all, but c'mon. Sometimes you need to see it.

And by the way, why is it that it still costs millions of dollars to do it all digitally? why not just get a really creative set designer and do something that is, well, real? I think of how rad the wonka's chocolate factory was in the original and the reason why? it was constructed: real. Sure, i guess for the remake they could do it with CG, but i think it then becomes less believeable because they couldn't really make it. I just hope they wont cop out and go CG, i think that'd take away from its magesty. Anyway's that's my beef with the whole thing.

Like in Ray, there's this one scene where he's trying to woo his girl by saying he can hear the hummingbird out the window. THe bird, CG, is buzzing and whoo-hoo, but c'mon, how much cooler would it have been if they'd just got a hummingbird to buzz a bush for real? That was the weakest moment for me, and mostly because it felt they went to CG as a cop out -- god forbid we can't make animals work anymore. Or spend maybe a day trying to get the shot to be right.

Zack said...

Cost will eventually not be an issue. CGI gets cheaper as the machines used for CGI get cheaper. Once somebody makes a program or a suite of programs that makes perfectly believable fake actors, those programs can be sold as middleware to studios. I still think that fake actors will only look fake until they get so good that we can't tell them apart anymore. Human perceptual systems are limited, both by our sensory organs and by our brains. Human eyes are not cutting edge compared to other animals, and I can't believe that billions of dollars spent to fool the human eye will not someday fool the human eye.

I imagine human voices will be fakeable eventually too. We have less mental machinery dedicated to hearing, so you might think it would be easier, but we also have less progress in the field, and less human interest in it, so I expect it will take much longer. Probably nobody will care until somebody decides they need to hire James Earl Jones 30 years after his death, and they'll try to make a JEJ-bot by working backwards from his recorded materials.