Thursday, November 08, 2007
The Rat vs. the Dragon Slayer
The film "Beowulf" has been approved for submission for the Best Animated Feature Oscar by the Academy. You can read more about it here. I haven't seen Beowulf, and I usually keep my negative thoughts off of this blog, but I find this a disturbing development.
To my mind, submitting a motion-captured performance as "animation" is akin to submitting a heavily retouched photo as a "painting". Let me back up a bit and say that I'm not wholly opposed to motion capture (or "performance capture", as Mr. Zemekis would have me call it), just as I'm not opposed to Photoshop and digital collages; these technologies have their places. The fact that I have yet to see a compelling or life-like performance created with motion-capture is beside the point. The question becomes, "what is animation?" I'm sure that many animators worked on Beowulf to clean up the capture data, massage performances and animate non-human characters elements. But does this extra work beyond the raw capture data make it animation? Where do we draw the line between recorded action and creative animation? Between the retouched photo and the painting. The more I ask myself this, the more I realize that these are the wrong questions to ask, because the answer require a level of semantics that distracts from the more important question: "Which is the best film?"
As visual effects and digital cinema become more advanced the term "Animated Feature" loses its significance, at least when judging the merits of a story, because the line between performance and visual effects is becoming blurred. I believe the category of Best Animated Feature should not exist, because it creates an arbitrary distinction between mediums and ultimately ghettoizes animation into a separate category so that it can never compete for Best Picture. If you want to make distinctions, do it by genre, not by medium. Ratatouille is the best reviewed film of the year, but it will never compete directly against the year's live-action films because the Academy has it squarely seated at the kids' table.
Posted by Victor Navone at 2:05 PM
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I was invited to a screening of Beowulf over the weekend in 3D IMAX. The story was not bad, but I left the movie with a lot of questions. The biggest question is why was this not live action? The mo-cap looks weird (though a lot better than Polar express) and the character designs are unappealing. The 3D IMAX made the movie feel like a glorified theme park ride, but I cant image this movie will have any entertaining value on a regular screen. Beowulf is definitely not for kids. It is gory, violent, and there is nudity and adult situations. I think this film is getting good reviews, but I dont get it.ReplyDelete
I won't curse on your blog, but that Jeffery Wells guy is an idiot.ReplyDelete
"...and Ratatouille (a perfectly respectable and in fact beautifully rendered example of '90s style animation)."
I read it again (for some stupid reason) and yeah... that guy is a dummy and I do NOT like him. Not one little bit. I hope Remy poops on his head and it comes out as a little golden man.ReplyDelete
I personally think that because the category is not really genre-based but medium-based, that motion capture films should not technically qualify, but I guess that depends on what the academy defines animation to be. I personally think that films like Beowulf fit better under the best visual effects category.ReplyDelete
By my definition, only one of the three nominees should have even qualified (cars,monster house, and happy feet).
Most of all, however, is the point that these awards only matter if people think they do. As the case may be, since I don't think most people within animation consider happy feet to be an animated feature due to its motion capture, I think there are people who don't consider the award to be that relevant.
I guess what is good about beowulf is that its is adult in nature, and may help the acceptability of more adult subject matter within animated film.
Hey man, I completely agree. It really is degrading the significance of what "Animated Feature" really means. I hope this is not a trend of things to come...ReplyDelete
"If you want to make distinctions, do it by genre, not by medium"ReplyDelete
Thanks for that insight. Talked about this with a fellow animator, honestly I could not agree more with it. Quite a few animators see mocap as a thread, while in reality its a technique with its own merits and limitations. I guess it really is not about medium its about the message.
1) I don’t have a problem with the Animated feature category. In the short term (next ten years or so) it will benefit the medium, at least until Animation can genuinely address significant adult concerns on a regular basis (as live action has done).ReplyDelete
2) I’ve not seen Beowolf yet so I won’t get specific, but I liked Monster House a lot and can happily see it as a valid ‘style’ alongside the latest Pixar feature. It is animated but it’s a different measure of animation and a different style. Arguably Beowolf is likely to be less cartoon animated and more ‘invisible VFX animated’… you know… all those VFX people that say when you don’t know it’s an effect they are happy?
3) My concern over animation has always been that in most cases the audience can’t ‘relate’ to the character’s plights as well as they can in live action. I still think we’re too early into the medium’s history to figure out what we can do to compete with that level of audience sympathy. I think that Pixar is certainly mining one area very well, by featuring childhood fascinations like toys and goldfish.
My concern would be... about the quality of these films that are competing for the academy awards. (that besides that Beowulf seen and judged as 'animation', is pretty hmmmmmm... ) I mean... aren't the oscars supposed to only bother with really good films, with quality first of all? But there are way to few animated features, so if you're gonna consider a bunch of them for the awards... you're left with very little to choose from. So there you go, some junk like Beowulf (I'm judging solely based on the trailer, which is an incomplete view of course...) gets to be nominated... I go... ammm... you know...ReplyDelete
This debate seems to really underscore the growing rift in animators that I find very disturbing.ReplyDelete
The studios and directors we artists work for make the determination about what "tools" and "techniques" we are to utilize in the making of their films.
To categorically exclude your fellow animators who, by all intents and purposes, use the same skill sets to create basically the same final product is short-sided and elitist.
I think back to Walt Disney and Snow White. Could you really say that the animators that utilized rotomotion on the dance sequences are any less animating their characters then the artists that did not use this technique?
Would it be fair to say then, that no COMPUTER animation is animation in the context that an artist didn't sit down with a pencil and paper and DRAW the frame? What about multi-planed cameras achieving the camera effects does that mean any animated feature that uses it shouldn't be considered animation???
I am of course exaggerating these techniques to make one single point, we as animator's are allowing an outside body to dictate to us the "rules" of animation . . . when in fact I would venture a guess that many of us became animator's to try and tell compelling stories with whatever tools and techniques we could learn and develop.
I am of coursed biased towards Beowulf because I worked on it. However, as long as the Academy sees fit to segregate their awards into "Best Picture" and "Best Animated Picture" I believe Beo should be in this category. Animator's were given scenes with specific acting performances in mind, and they set out to create that performance using all the tools available to them, did Pixar artists (Whom i have an immense amount of respect for trust me I really really do) , but do they have more claim to the title of animator simply because they didn't have mocap to jump off from. . .
After all, if you simply remove the base starting point that is mocap then all the same techniques used in Ratatouille were used in this film. As an animator I'm always refereing to reference, I personally try not to be a slave to it, but I think most people would agree, that as a base to start your performance there's nothing better than acting it out a few thousand times to get a feel for the action and acting. . . Who better to provide that reference then the actor's who are "voicing" the characters? I'm sure a lot of animator's watch the video of the actor in the recording booth at least to get a baseline performance to jump off from.
At the end of the day aren't we all setting keys and breathing life into inanimate 3D models?
I really wish that as a community, we would stop this civil war that's brewing between Performance Capture and Key-Frame animators. . . It's counterproductive and divisive and ultimately is degrading to artists who really have little say in what tools they use. Instead we should all be banding together to further this artform that we all share the same respect and love for!!!
I liked Monster House too, but I didn't feel that the motion capture worked particularly well. I thought it was weird to combine stylized models with non-stylized motion. To me it looked like people in cartoon suits. My favorite bit of motion was when the John Heder character was dancing while playing the video game, but it also distracted me because the character was fat and John doesn't move like a fat person.
Look at this debate you've started Victor! :)ReplyDelete
I figured it would rile up the people working on mocap (I've been there).
Anyway back to Monster House. It's really the story telling that captured me and felt strangely fresh (with in animation) and yet familiar in a good way (Goonies etc...). My biggest gripe about the mocap was that is bobbed around too much. Most of the mocap I've ever seen does this. It was something to do with the fact that the mocap sessions with less movement in them seem like they're not getting value out of the process. I really don’t like this way of thinking and it’s led to far too many characters weaving around and shaking their legs when they really should have been standing still. Anyway for the most part I forgive Monster House and instead I want to congratulate some really nice touches that you rarely see in animation. I particularly liked the babysitter’s mannerisms.
First of all - Happy birthday, man. Sorry I missed it... You know the time difference and all that. Secondly, you're right, but you're expecting too much of the Academy. It was made up by studio moguls to celebrate themselves, not the art form. More about that on my blog.ReplyDelete
Kristafer, you're absolutely right about studios giving us animators the tools to tell the stories with. You can tell a great story with keyframe animation, and with mocap. However, one of the biggest problems in the distinction between the two are the performances themselves. To me, mocap lacks a sense of life. There's a lack of believability when I watch a mocap animated film. The biggest culprit here is probably the uncanny valley, and as Victor said, many times photo-real captured animation doesn't sit well with stylized characters or different proportioned characters. Now Beowulf is rendered in a photoreal manner, yet I still feel that it's missing that special touch that breathes life into it. Yes, it is much better than previous films, but I'd say that the performances in Ratatouille are more believable than those found in Beowulf.ReplyDelete
Keyframe animation just feels more handcrafted and believable to me.
But that's also probably the problem. Most of us here are artists and animators. We see the world very differently. We're going to view animated films quite differently than the higher ups at the academy or the general public. But it's people like us that need to make these distinctions and decisions.
That doesn't mean I don't think Beowulf is a good movie, nor do I think mocap animators work any less harder than keyframe animators do. They are simply tools in the end. Kristafer, I'm sure you and your colleagues have worked extremely hard on the film - you wouldn't be as proud with your work if you hadn't. I just think the technology needs progression.
Lasseter said it best when he mentioned that technology doesn't make the motion picture, but people do. We're not animators because we move objects from point A to point B, we're animators because we breathe life into characters, which is something technology and software will never get you. I know few more accurate statements when it comes to animation, and that's why I think mocap has a ways to go still. I don't find mocapped characters to be as alive and breathing as a keyframed character. It's the performance. As it seems right now, technology progression will help that. And maybe eventually we'll see mocap performances that rival keyframe. But in the mean time, I do view them as two separate means to animate. And I don't think mocap films fit in the animation category entirely, but then again, I'm not exactly sure where it should be placed either.
This comment has been removed by the author.ReplyDelete
Looks like we'll have to agree to disagree.
I believe that there are instances were mo-cap and keyframe animation can exist in harmony and even converge to create something astonishing - Gollum comes to mind. I have friends who worked on the LOTR films and they're great animators who added a lot to the mo-capped performances (especially in the faces, which weren't captured) as well as creating keyframed characters. As I understand it, Happy Feet used mo-cap in the bodies and keyframes in the faces, and I thought it was pretty successful, probably because the characters weren't human. In these cases the performance is divided so evenly between mo-cap and keyframe that it's hard to separate one from the other and define the medium. In the case of Beowulf (and Polar Express and Final Fantasy) the majority of the performance seems to be generated by the live actor, and therefore does not qualify as "animation" in my mind, but rather a recording, with animators brought in to do the technical work of stitching the pieces together and cleaning things up. The life of the character is coming primarily from the actor, not the animator. Animation means "to give life", but my argument is that the life is already there when you use mo-cap data. You're just refining and plussing life; the spark of inspiration rests with the actor.
I'll admit I don't know the details of the production on Beowulf. I could be way off base, so if you can shed some light about how much of a character's performance in a given shot you created from you own ideas, I'd be interested to here about it. Maybe I'm totally wrong about the way you guys worked, but it seems to me all those dots on the actors' faces and bodies don't leave a lot to the imagination of the animator.
"did Pixar artists ... have more claim to the title of animator simply because they didn't have mocap to jump off from. . ."
I would have to say 'yes'. Does that make me elitist? Perhaps. Maybe in 5 years I'll be eating my words and begging for a job on a mo-cap show.
"After all, if you simply remove the base starting point that is mocap then all the same techniques used in Ratatouille were used in this film"
Considering the "base starting point" comprises the all the main acting ideas of the shot as expressed by someone other than the animator, the remaining techniques to be applied are mostly technical. I'm not saying that YOU or any of the other artists who worked on this film are not talented, hard-working animators, I'm just questioning whether the final product can be called "animation".
"Who better to provide that reference then the actor's who are "voicing" the characters? I'm sure a lot of animator's watch the video of the actor in the recording booth at least to get a baseline performance to jump off from."
If the physical performance of the voice actor is what you're after, then why not just film him, instead of digitally copying him and calling it "animation"? Okay, that's a question for Zemeckis, not you. As for watching the recording booth video, it's rarely useful, because the actors have to contain their physical performances to stay on the mic. These videos are usually only good for facial reference, if that.
"My concern over animation has always been that in most cases the audience can’t ‘relate’ to the character’s plights as well as they can in live action. I still think we’re too early into the medium’s history to figure out what we can do to compete with that level of audience sympathy. I think that Pixar is certainly mining one area very well, by featuring childhood fascinations like toys and goldfish."
Huh? I get more emotionally involved in some animated films than I do in most live action films. I still get a lump in my throat every time I watch Toy Story, The Iron Giant or Dumbo. This was true before I ever started animating, so it's not a professional bias. These stories and settings are just metaphors for real human issues. Do you think Finding Nemo is really about fish? Animation is a metaphor for real life (except in the case of mo-cap, where it's literal; another reason I don't think it qualifies as "animation").
Films like The Iron Giant and the Prince of Egypt still effect me emotionally in a profound way even when seeing them again and again. I believe animated films have an enormous capacity to make 'Art' and 'Story' come together in a satisfying way. I've just observed that the subject matter hasn't spent much time wrestling the full breadth of human issues. I'd like to see that change during my lifetime, and I hope I can be a part of that.ReplyDelete
I guess you're referring only to American animation. Japanese animation has tackled about every subject under the (rising) sun.ReplyDelete
Hey Victor. i totally agree about the themes running through animated films being universally accessable. Finding Nemo had lots of pretty mature things going on. Not living because of fear and affecting your children with that problem is a pretty deep and complex thing, its definatley not "just For Kids" i think that maybe the sytle that its done in just seems to give the naysayers ammo in this instance.ReplyDelete
However, i beleive creating a stylized beleivable world which characters inhabit is more of an acheivement than just copying reality.
I agree that even thought I liked the movie, Monster House’s motion capture didn’t worked particularly well, nor did Polar Express. I think it comes across as stiff because to me the definition of animation is “an exaggeration of real life” not “capture real life”. So is animation the attempt to entertain through exaggeration and performance capture the attempt to mimic reality (even if it’s fantasy).ReplyDelete
Also I think that thanks to todays 3D animation adults CAN relate’ to the character’s plights as well as they can in live action now.
Beautifully put Victor, I couldn't agree more. Essentially the academy fails to see what we all know - that animation is just a medium, not a genre. The director of an animated film, is a film-maker, whose chosen medium is animation - the subject matter of the film will also determine the choice of technique - i.e. hand-drawn, stop-mo, CG, mo-cap and yes even live-action (I'm thinkin Jan Svankmajer here).ReplyDelete
They're going to have to address this sooner or later, right now things are moving too fast for the dinosaurs to keep up. It's just a shame Rat misses out on the chance at being nominated as a film in it's own right - because it's the best example of an animated film transcending the genre in which it gets defaulted into.
Animation purely an art and should be treated in same way.ReplyDelete
I won't go too much into this but I have one suggestion for Academy.
better start giving Oscar to Camera manufacturing compnies instead of cinematography. Better give oscar to software devloper instead of VFx directors.
Now what if the animator is wearing the mocap suit and works out the shot and then later on adds the final love via mouse/keyboard, would that be called animation? Or would that cross over into puppeteering?ReplyDelete
The current tools are great but still very time consuming and frustrating. What if the tools evolve into something more hands-on? Would we still call it "Animation"? (I'm actually serious about it)
My first thought when I heard "they" were going to make a big budget movie about Beowulf was..YES, that's going to be awesome! Then I saw the first trailer and my enthusiasm dropped immensely. I thought it was going to be a live action movie with some stunning effects and semi animated/mo-cap'd creatures like Gullom e.g. Now, I know that story comes first, but if the characters who's going to tell the story doesn't seem believable, or "real", then to me, that's going to ruin the experience. I have the feeling that "Beowulf" is another "see how close we can get" movie, like "Final Fantasy" was a few years back. I've never been a big fan of mo-cap and it definitely won't help when the characters are suppose to look like actors and actresses that we all know. I think people will walk out the theaters saying WOW, I can't believe how much that looked like Angelina, more than they'll say WOW, what a great movie, if you get my point. Now this is my standpoint before I've actually seen the movie, so I might have to eat it all later, like after I saw "Transformers".ReplyDelete
About "Beowulf" being in the animation category, I'd have to agree with Victor. I do not see mo-cap as a genuine form of animation, simply because it's motion from the beginning, where as animation is something dead/still you bring to life, which is the whole idea and meaning of animation = give life/soul.
You raise an interesting question. In this case, I think that mo-cap is another "tool" at the animator's disposal, but because the animator is choosing the performance ideas himself, he still remains the creator, rather than using someone else's performance. Thus I would still consider this to be "animation", though I don't think it really fits with the spirit of animation as pioneered by Disney. This is more for creating "realistic" performances that can hold up alongside live actors. I've often wished I had some sort of realtime input device (such as mouse-capture) to allow me to time out the beats in a scene in realtime, then apply that timing to my poses.
Huh? I get more emotionally involved in some animated films than I do in most live action films. I still get a lump in my throat every time I watch Toy Story, The Iron Giant or Dumbo.
Couldn't agree with you more! Particularly Dumbo! When he goes to see his mother, and she's chained to the back wall of her cart and can only reach him with her trunk... geez, I get choked up just thinking of it. Dumbo is the ONE MOVIE in history that is sure to make me well up every time. It reaches the audience on a more powerful level than any movie I can even think of!
Victor also said:
Animation is a metaphor for real life (except in the case of mo-cap, where it's literal; another reason I don't think it qualifies as "animation").
That's a very good point! When animating, we're "critiquing" reality with our own spin on it. As an anti-mocap buddy of mine (who, ironically enough, works for Image Movers Digital) said, "real motion is ugly." Its the animator's job to take real motion and make it pretty. Take a look at the horse running thru the snow toward the beginning of Beowulf! I don't know if they mocapped the horse, but I'm sure they did. They didn't concider camera angle or any of that, and the legs lose all silhouette, making it look completely wrong, even though it's right. Animators take all of these values (such as silhouette) into consideration.
I work in games, and our studio uses a lot of motion capture. On occasion, the mocap works well for the character, but more than half the time, I scrap the mocap and start from scratch, because I had no control over the actor at the mocap studio, and couldn't tell them what I wanted. A benefit of mocap is that it saves me time. If I have a long list to do, and some of those things (such as abrupt falls, or hit reacts) will be less noticably "out of character," I'll simply clean up the mocap. Walks, runs, idles, and attacks are the ones I fight for the right to keyframe (I feel a song coming on).
"Ratatouille is the best reviewed film of the year, but it will never compete directly against the year's live-action films because the Academy has it squarely seated at the kids' table."ReplyDelete
Amen. I couldn't have said it any better.
I'm watching your lecture right now and decided to pause it and drop by to see any new posts. And Oh, I find this debate that sadly, divides fantastic films in such harsh way.
I also disagreed with the Academy considering Beowulf for the Best Animated Film, but I also found no reason to nominate it for Best Special Effects, it seems that movies like Beowulf are the new underdogs. At least I know the wonderful crew at Image Movers don't say "We're doing an animated flick" or even Zemeckis. They respect both mediums and they call them and define them rightfully.
Personally, I was ANTI-MOCAP for some time, then I read a Beowulf article which describe Zemeckis decision of going mocap instead of key frame.
For a live-action director like Zemeckis, shooting the scenes, working with the actors takes a lot less time thank working with a crew of animators and finishing each scene. The difference of time is tremendous, so directors like him are used to work fast, acting happens in real time.
He described that on the blue-screen stage, he's there with the actors, he just focuses on the acting, he doesn't worry about the camera, or the lights, or the editing, or the set. So for a director like him, making films that "look" like animation, using performance capture is very seductive.
And what if the character's don't always feel right, or the lip sync isn't beleivable or the weight feels awkward, this is almost new technology and in coming years it's going to show up tons of progress, Zemeckis is fighting to get there!
Remember that tv show called Reboot? Movies made like that??? To hell with it! And look at us now.
The ideal thing is to have three categories, Best Film, Best Animated Film, Best Performance Captured Film.. hopefully!
Just wanted to make my "filmmaker decision" point
Ok, back to your lecture! HYAAAAAAAA!!!