For a primer, read my previous post.
Let me focus on one problem that will be a microcosm that mirrors the larger issues at hand. As I noted yesterday one of the things that big budget CG imagery lacks is a sense of connectedness. For years called “stiffness” or “coldness” by reviewers, CG has had a difficult time warming the eyes of it’s viewers. It’s not universally true of all CG projects. There are some smaller groups, short projects or individual artists who are doing some very fresh things artistically in CG, so the problem isn’t the medium. And I do think occasionally feature films do a fair job of creating pleasing imagery for many scenes (I’ll show some in later posts). But the klunky nature of the imagery in CG happens much more than it ought to. Why? As I said in my previous post, I think the system in which the images are made has flaws- it is a manufacture & assemble system. And even how we pose and animate characters in CG is a micro-mirror of this problem- the assembled image is made from characters whose poses are assemblies of many controls and parts.
For example, check out Ogre Fiona’s face, arguably the better of the bunch in the promo image from Shrek 3.
Yet it doesn’t completely work for some reason. Why? Well, it’s two emotions on different sides of her face. This side says one thing…
Let’s examine how one creates poses and animation in CG. In CG every part of the facial control system (in fact every system) is isolated. That current paradigm has been necessary so that you can get the detailed control you need to get the shapes you need. But ultimately these things are just very complex articulated puppets with many restrictions to their ability to change shape. They have more variables to control than any other form of animated character. The most complex stop motion puppets have a miniscule fraction of the control of Cg puppets. Handdrawn characters are as direct as the tip of a pencil. Clay characters are totally malleable directly with your fingers. Animating Cg characters is a bit like handling uranium. You touch them only through thick gloves inside a box. One friend of mine, a 10+ year Disney veteran animator, described that his experience animating CG characters was about as easy and elegant as “drawing with boxing gloves on”. So we have these nifty digital toys- highly detailed, almost infitely subtle- yet burdened under their own complexity. Again bright minds are working to install a new paradigm of creating shape and form with these puppets, but for now the current system reigns.
The reality is that which is so easy to get in one clean line in a drawing is accomplished by an arrangement of multiple rigid elements in CG. So how we even pose the characters is an assembly of moved parts to create a sense of something alive and breathing. The best CG animators can rise above this limitation, many others lack the experience to do much more than get all the kinks out of their motion. With so many disparate and isolated pieces to move it’s a huge workflow challenge to make everything feel like it’s moving together, motivated by will or emotion and with purpose (this one fact alone accounts for perhaps 90% of the cost of cleaning up CG animation.) Many younger and less experienced animators working in film (and there are a lot) are doing all they can to just get the basic stuff working right. Never mind thinking about a higher plane of existence. If we could find ways to allow animators to work at the speed of thought on creating these performances and set them free from the assembly or parts paradigm then we can tap into a wide talent pool that currently is stifled by the technology.