Wednesday, August 8, 2007

New Academy Guidlines for Animation

There is a new rule being considered regarding the eligibility of movies for best animated feature for the Oscars. A new clause may be added saying that to be eligible a movie cannot start with live action, and simply use technology to augment that performance. Essentially this means that movies using motion capture techniques will not be considered animated movies. This would mean that both Monster House, and Happy Feet would have been ineligible to win last year. This has important implications this year as well, as the upcoming Beowulf movie is created entirely using motion capture.

What is the problem with Motion Capture? There are traditional concepts of animation that were developed in the earliest years of the genre. Some of these important techniques include squash and stretch (an objects ability to distort in an exaggerated manner), Anticipation (a character's behavior leading into an action), overlapping motion (different parts of an object moving differently), and many more. These concepts are all exaggerated, making realistic and entertaining motion. Motion Capture, on the other hand, simply takes data from an actor and transplants it onto a model. This results extremely subtle expressions and movements. Putting these movements on animated characters can have unpleasant results.

There was a theory devised in the 70's by Japanese robiticist Masahiro Mori called the Uncanny Valley. It was originally conceived pertaining to robotics, but applies perfectly to 3D animation as well. Essentially it tracks the relationship between realism and empathy. As a character's realism increases, a person's empathy towards that character also increases. This relationship only exists to a certain point. When a character is very nearly life-like, but not quite, the empathy level drops into a valley, before rising again at 100% realism. There are a number of reasons for this. When something is very nearly life-like, but not exactly, it becomes creepy. One common concept is to reference zombies. Reanimated corpses are humans, but they're not living. This concept played out in the Stepford Wives, where female robots were made to replace the women of the town. It's eerie because as life-like as they are, something was slightly off.

Regardless of the reason for this phenomenon, it can be seen in movies such as the Polar Express. The characters are incredibly life-like, but something is slightly off. The results are just creepy. Another example was last year's Monster House. The performances the actors give are so subtle that they just don't work on the animated characters. It's impossible to exactly match how a person would act, since we see other people every single day. This is what makes animators different from traditional actors. Screen actors can make a wonderful performance with the most subtle gestures and emotions. Animators, on the other hand, need to exaggerate everything. When you see an animator acting out a sequence to reference, the performance is beyond comically exaggerated. When you see the same actions on the final character, however, they fit. This is why animators really are actors for their characters.

There are certain negative implications with this new rule, however. Pixar has always been a firm opponent of motion capture, relying on straight animation for all of their movies. With their movie Cars losing last year to Happy Feet, they could not have been very happy. They may have been using some of their newfound clout stemming from their partnership with Disney to try to stack the category back in their favor. Even though I firmly feel that motion capture results in inferior animation, I sincerely hope that this is not the reason for this new rule.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This was a deep discussion, Harry. I'm impressed! xxoo Mom2