In CG there has always been a kind of short tether to the pursuit of utmost realism. The very foundations of the medium were formulated in recreating a versimilitude to what you can see out your window. Or on your desk. Or under your bed. For 20 years the driving force behind most technological improvements in CG has been the mandate to recreate reality in ever more convincing ways. Each year there were technologies developed to help CG stuff look “better”- ie: more realistic/convincing. Once the technology arrived for making something look “real” it was a short step to create simple to use tools to tweak the data to represent stylizations of realism. It’s not a heretical statement to say, based on a cursory observation of many CG feature films, that “real” and “stylized real” are at the top of the CG foodchain. Pixar coined a term to describe this a few years back- hyper real. This has been the hallmark of their (very profitable) house style since the very beginning.
I think that the following premise is accurate: If there has been an obstacle to achieving realism in CG then any meaningful success over that obstacle has been via a technicological accomplishment. Once that technology was achieved then the stylization of that easily obtained realism was more of an act of editing than raw creation. If you need an example think of the modern “texture artist” in a CG studio. How much are they creating original art versus editing digital photographs to be pasted onto objects? This isn’t an argument of “artistic vs non artistic”. It still requires that the editor have an artistic eye. I’m just trying to define the tasks and skills involved in an objective manner.
So looking at the current trend of character animation in CG, where the top of the foodchain is a kind of “live action lite” realistic-ish motion (but slightly stylized), why do we suppose the end game will be any different? Even the ’stylized’ motion in ‘cartoon’ CG films is still grounded far more in the physics of realism than fancy. And in an industry trend that some thought would never happen 8 or 9 years ago when motion capture was in its clumsy, ugly infancy, we’re seeing more and more animators whose primary task is manipulating motion capture data to match the director’s vision. Increasingly the bulk of this work is artistically editing or adding onto existing data, not necessarily creating new data. And they’re not sticking with doing this for just human or human-like characters anymore, either. The recent hit film Happy Feet mocapped humans while animators and technologists edited the data to work for penguins. Right now that editing task is still a bit primitive, so the need for animators to sometimes heavily edit or even create new data still exists in significant quantity. But the technology for editing this data is being worked on by very bright minds. As with all technology it improves and becomes cheaper. The day will come when they will succeed and you will have the ability to quickly and cheaply do all kinds of ‘artistic’ things with motion data that right now requires the hands of an animator to accomplish. Knowing what we know about the history of CG I say that the technology for capturing and digitally manipulating (ie: stylizing) realistic motion will only improve and the need for ‘animators’ to stylize the motion will decrease. Instead you will have people using cheap, fast and friendly technology to quickly alter motion data resulting in stylized digital motion based on the original. For example: What we can do with photographs now in Photoshop will be just as easy to do with motion in not too many years. The difference in how you spend your days is simple. Are you the one creating the motion/performance, or editing it?
Now mind you, I’m not saying this is the end of the world and that it’s the work of the devil or whatever. There are clearly very talented and artistic editors of all kinds in the world today and we all enjoy their work. But editing is different task and skill than raw creation. So in future years we might need to think about what it means to be called an “animator”. In the old tradition “animator” is a term that was hard earned and not lightly esteemed. It conferred a high level of accomplishment in the art of creating performances with nothing but your talent, skill and work- and some basic materials at hand. It was clear that if you used film footage as the basis of your performance (rotoscope) that you were an inferior animator- if one at all. But the definition of the term “animator” is getting kinda blurred. If the future technologies play out as I suspect they will, can we still claim to be “animators” if we don’t actually animate? If the bulk of the day is spent editing and stylizing motion data to craft a performance then perhaps a different title is more appropriate. I think we may need to create the position of “motion designer” to better describe what happens on data manipulation projects. It’s a different skillset. To me the difference is like that between a jazz musician and a dance DJ. One creates music from scratch using only the instrument, their skill and talent. The other makes new combinations of music by mixing and matching existing music data created by others. Both can sound good in their own way, but you would be hard pressed to find anyone willing to call a DJ a masterful musician in the classical sense.
Now here’s the heretical part that will surely get me in hot water: How long until you can make most (not all of course, but a majority) of the character performances in a film like The Incredibles with such advanced motion editing technology? If you watch the performances of the characters in a film like Monster House (created in large part by editing captured real motion) you might be tempted to think it won’t be long. And when that day comes do you think producers or directors will still hire animators to slowly and expensively ‘hand key’ it when they can hire them to just edit captured motion (directed in realtime with real actors and immediate retakes) with cheap, fast and friendly motion editing technology? Again, you might be tempted to think that they won’t. In the future this might add even more importance to the singular question: Why animate this?