Thursday, August 27, 2009

Replace the animator? I agree. 100%

Another storm brews among animators.

In a fluff piece promoting James Cameron's new film Avatar, the director and producer make predictably outlandish statements about the importance of their film, the height of its artistry and the momentousness of their accomplishments. So far, par for the course.
Of course there's the usual noise about performance capture and yadda-yadda. But the line that seems to be getting animator's undies in a bind is this....

Landau says. "Our goal on this movie was not to replace the actor, it was to replace the animator. If you think about it, what a great actor does and what a great animator does are antithetical to one another.
"A great actor withholds information. Dustin Hoffman in All the President's Men can sit there and do nothing. No animator would ever allow that, they would put in a twitch. So our objective was to preserve Sam Worthington's performance and have that be what you see in those characters."

The general reaction from animators? A predictable call to arms and an overriding sense of indignation. "Insult" is a word I've been reading a lot. But why? Here's where I think the real truth lies in this...

"We pitched to people that we were preserving their performances," Landau says.
"We said, 'Look, what we're doing is the 21st-century version of prosthetics. No longer will you have to sit for hours and hours in make-up for you to give the performance of the Grinch or the Godfather. We're going to do it with CGI (computer-generated imagery) but it's going to be you, it's not going to be somebody's interpretation of you."' 

Actors, like animators, care about their craft. They have professional pride and they're (usually) very good at what they do. They don't like the idea of people messing with their performances, as if somehow their performance weren't enough. Having 'animators' tweak their performance is insulting to the actor. Really. How do animators feel when they see somebody (usually in another department like finishing or FX) took their shot- without their knowledge- and changed it for some reason? Here's a hint. WE FREAKING HATE IT! So what allows us to think we have the right, nay the responsibility, to do the same to the actor? Just because it's rendered? If I'm an actor I hate that some guy gets to torque my performances around.  In films like Avatar motion captured CG effects are not really about animation and it's not about animators. It's about what Landau says- it's 21st century prosthetics. It's the new age version of foam ears that Leonard Nemoy wore to play Spock. Avatar is not an animated film. It's live action.

I eagerly await the day when mo-cap technology gets so good that animators won't be stuck wiping the poo from the data or twiddling the performance because the director can't keep his hands off it and trust his actors. I say get the tech good enough to let the live actors do their job. It'll be a good day for actors and it'll be a great day for animators because then we'll finally be left with only one option- do what animation alone is great at doing. The impossible, the fantastic, the wonderful, the exaggerated, the un-mocapable. When mo-cap tech gets so good that you don't need to shoot video reference of yourself and then copy it to get a scene, but the directors can just get the actors to act (which is often what they'd prefer if given the choice), then we'll finally be done with this nonsense that says that the final arbiter of good animation is how closely the motion can hew to live action. Will there be fewer jobs for 'animators' once the tech gets that transparent and good? Yeah, probably. Will the jobs that exist for animators be more interesting and rewarding? I like to think they will be. Because then we'll be animating and doing the impossible and not cleaning up after somebody else's performance. No sane person would ever attempt to use mocap to do anything like this....

Meanwhile, we spend so much time in animation trying to re-create this...

They're both great, but in completely different, practically incompatible ways. The actors' performances in the second make it amazing. No animation could top them. Ever. The animation in the first makes it amazing. No live action or mo-cap could top that. Ever. I personally can't wait until we can just accept each kind of greatness for what it is. But I'm weird that way.


Elliot Cowan said...

Hey there.
Terrific examination of the subject.

Anonymous said...

you're starting to sound like John K. "animation should consign itself to the lowbrow slapstick comedy genre it was meant for and stop pretending it can achieve anything else." which will of course get you mixed responses.

The acting craft is great, it can help us understand what it is to be human. I can understand actor's being worried about their performance, their vision, being changed by someone else. It gets up my nose that the acting done by animator's is not accorded the same esteem, though it can have the same effects. Our craft is different because we work as a team, but a live action actor and an animator both elicit emotion through the performance they present through a character.

I find it hard to believe that the computer will be able to remove the animator until we have full AI, because it will have to extrapolate the subtlety's the actor intended into an anatomy size and shape that physics make an impossibility for the actor to mimic. Look at Golum, it took an army of animator's to take the mocap data, bend the silly human crouched over into a new believable skeletal structure, take the facial reference (early mocap days) and create an empathetic facial performance. Serkis got critical acclaim, the rest of the team that were essential to bringing gollum to life were credited - after the caterers.

I think it's bad directors. I think a fully animated character is possible to animate completely seamlessly with live action. I think that director's aren't able to adapt to a new style of directing where they have to have their vision clear and describe it from the beginning in the boards, instead of having some poor guy in a costume do it again and again while they say "hmmm, no ... I don't know, make it a happier sneeze. I'll know it when I see it." Mocap's not playing to anyone's strengths, you're removing the actor's total control over their character, you're denying the animator's ability to act, and you're giving director's the illusion that what they see on set will be what they get.

The zany stuff in animation is great. But animation can also be used to tell stories that can't be done using humans. Avatar you could have totally done those blue guys with some good prosthetics, so what justifies the expense? If you're going to use CG push it to somewhere you couldn't get a cheaper way.

Sorry, I know you believe in animator's Keith (and sorry I put words in your mouth) but I come to a different conclusion then you did in this post. I believe that you can use animation to tell a good story you can't tell any other way, that isn't necessarily only humorous. I believe an animator can create an equivalent emotional performance as a live actor. I think mocap is a sign that a director doesn't know what they want, so better mocap isn't the solution as much as clearer directing is.

Sorry, I've gone and ranted at you when I want to argue with Landau. Thanks for providing a space for the discussion ;)

jim said...

Anon, I agree with you, but I also agree with Keith. I don't think he's treading into John K. territory or suggesting that animation has to be goofy and humorous... just trying to question why we feel the need to imitate life so closely (and tediously) with our animation.

I think it's revealing that Don Hertzfeldt's last two films are serious, emotional, and thought-provoking... and they're done with stick figures. If there ever was an argument that strong animated storytelling doesn't require nuanced motion or insane amounts of polish, Don's "simple" animation goes a long way toward showing us how it can be done.

And by the way, a shot from Don's last film has some of the best character animation I've ever seen. No mocap, no moving holds, no perfect arcs, but the character is amazing and you feel it in your gut. I feel embarrassed when I look at my stuff in comparison, frankly.

Peter Hon said...

I see the dilemma sort of how 3d animation slowly pushed hand drawn animation out of the lime light. And like Keith said, aiming for photorealism sort of sent animation on a one way train to slowly killing itself.

It happened with Disney when Pixar came around. And as much as I hate to say it, it'll probably happen again to all of the 3D animators when mocap becomes the go to tech. I don't think Pixar will go out of business, but a lot of folks who make their living doing realistic moving hold animation are gonna have a harder time finding satisfying (meaning not cleaning up curves and mocap data) work.

Closov said...

Just wanted to say, I'm really enjoying reading your own blog and seeing your new material these days, it's frank and shows a maturity that will hopefully spread.
Slightly related, I think you'll appreciate the sentiment of this tribute clip to Oliver Postgate. Although the subject material probably won't be familar to you, there are some great observations thrown in.


Thom said...

If Keith isn't saying it, I will. :) Animation is best when it exaggerated, alive and FUNNY. That is its strength. There's nothing wrong or demeaning about believing that. Life would be pathetic without humor and comedy. This old debate always reminds of the great satirical film, Sullivan's Travels. Watch it some time.

Jim makes a fine point, though, that you can tell moving stories with very simple characters. I've seen a few pretty good ones. I'd only point out that they were all under 10 minutes in length. So, animation's secondary strength may be to tell short, moving stories with simple characters.

Where it falls flat, IMO, is when it is pushed into telling long, mostly serious stories with detailed characters. Yawn! We'll never be able to match the subtlety of real, live human beings. Real, live emotions are not a matter of super-subtle eyebrow and lip movements. It's just a fact of life; The creator (in this context, a person) is always greater than the created (a drawn image of a person).

So anyways, I hoist my glass to the hope that the animation industry will someday wholeheartedly embrace what it does best: Make 'em laugh! (Ironic that I chose a live action scene to illustrate my point, but Keith already chose a good cartoon.)

Mike B said...

I agree with you, Keith. I think it's great that technology is advancing to the point of capturing the actor's emotions as accurately as possible. I don't think it's taking away from animators and I don't think it's leaving animation in a niche designed solely to make people laugh. this article makes me think of what you previously posted about Syd the Science Kid's process, using puppeteers to capture an exaggerated performance. Also in Beowulf, the best performance IMO was that of Crispin Glover's character. He's such an amazing actor that gave so much to the performance of Grendel. Not to say Anthony Hopkin's isn't a great actor, but it didn't translate as well within the movie and his character appeared stiff to me. I think when it boils down to it, it's about performance and believability within a character. If it can be achieved when an actor is most "in the moment" then it will give that much more to the audience. I'm still learning as an animator, and still learning to capture those little nuances within a performance to bring a character to life. I don't feel threatened by this, but inspired.

Thank you for your great posts. I look forward to them all

Anonymous said...

What about animators such as Peter Chung and Chris Landreth who use the medium to express inner psychological states visually? There is so much potential to use the animated language beyond just gags, humor, or comedy.

Keith Lango said...

I think the stuff Landreth & Chung are doing are a great exploration of what the possibilities of animation can be. I suppose they could use mo-cap (Landreth did for Bingo), but his better, more abstract stuff doesn't work that great with mo-cap. In my opinion, at least.
I'm not advocating that animation live in the kiddie ghetto of the slap-stick gag. Mind you, I love slapstick cartoon animation. I never grow tired of it. But I also want more variety than Tex Avery. What I am saying is that I think when animation shackles itself to live action it cuts itself off at the knees expressively and creatively. Miyazaki's work is not all gags and goof, but it wouldn't work as some kind of dumbed down version of live-action lite. In animation the range of our subject matters is wide, wide open. Comedy to tragedy and all points inbetween. What I'm asking is why don't we use animation's strengths when we animate any given genre or topic, instead of trying to shoe-horn animation into being something that displays its weaknesses so nakedly? This isn't about gags vs. serious film.

Example: The Cartoon Brew recently showed a short called "My Day". It's not a gag fest by any stretch. The subject matter is kinda weighty and not a little unnerving, but it uses animation's strengths in telling the story in a way that is powerful in a completely different way than live action would be.

I wonder why I have to spell out everything down to the every jot & tittle for folks. We're animators fer cryin' out loud- we of all people should be able to use our imaginations when we think. Heh.

Paul said...

great points kieth. photography didn't replace drawing and painting. mocap won't replace hand animation. if anything, it may replace film and video in a lot of cases.

movies like avatar are live action films that use mocap instead of 35mm to capture an actor.

Anonymous said...

I think the real problem here is not whether animators want to spend time cleaning up mo-cap performances. It's mind numbing work. I think most of us would agree that any technology which allows us to spend our efforts elsewhere where we can have more creativity is worth development.

I think the real issue here is that Landau is implying that VFX animators are worthless pests who currently act as a broken cog in the almighty movie machine. He, like many other producers who don't understand animation, is making us a scapegoat. He's trying to deflect the anger from actors who don't like their performances being meddled with by directors, and he's channeling them at us. He's saying "Don't blame the tech, blame the animators. They're the real problem."

Animators who work in VFX get so little respect for what we do already, the last thing we need is more people cheapening our craft with slander like this. I think the entire animation community has every right to be pissed off. Especially those people who busted their asses working on Avatar and are having their faces thrown in the mud. Landau talks as though no animators were involved in the process, which definitely was NOT the case.

I definitely will not be giving Cameron my money at the box office now.

jerO said...

I agree with the core point. The photography analogy is stong as well.
What I love about animation is the data, and how it's presented. The "twitch" comment is amusing, because it's almost ironic to me. Normally what people are striving for in MoCap is the "nuance" of human movement... all the little undulations and garbage that make something feel (unstable) alive.
The Hoffman angle just to me illustrates what both good acting and good animation strive to do. Tell a good story without a bunch of distracting visual static.

Independent of semantic hangups, a 'stylized' motion design needs a skilled animator as much as 'zany' does, which I believe was the spirit of the piece.
Not sure what I'm bringing this up, and I'm amazed it's on Youtube, but Firebird from Fantasia 2000 is a tremendous example of something you're not getting anyone in a suit to perform.

Anonymous said...

interesting points Keith. You've talked about this before, using the visuals to describe the characters' feelings. (I think you did, wish you used labels on your posts so I could track it down) I wonder if it can sustain a feature length film.
Did anyone see [a href=""]Mindgame[/a] ? I think it may lean this way.

[a href="]Orgesticulanismus[/a] Is a great example of the strength of 2D.

but where does that leave CG? Landreth's thing doesn't feel like it's the true strength of CG, and what's more I find it more distracting then helpful to the story. Makes me think of the rabbit's stomach growling in Pixar's Presto, it was very difficult for them not to make it feel like an alien about to burst out. As you've discussed before Keith, I think the fully fleshed out renders constrains the movement language available. What did you think of Horton hears a Who?

We're humans and we respond best to humans. I wonder if the inside out (emotions represented visually) can ever reach the emotively evocative level necessary to really have cinema that stays with people longterm the way live action can.

I love Miyazaki, but I don't undestand how you mean that what he does is leveraging the strength of animation.

-the 1st anonymous poster ;)

autisticanimator said...

I thought you said nobody thinks animation like Looney Toons did anymore, so who's going to want to even try to meet up to it, much less top it in any way shape or form (inside of America that is, not someplace like France where they still love 2D)?

ivan olea said...

Hey Keith (great fan of yours) and Other Posters.

I believe the goal of mocap has always been to eliminate the Animator from the "Production Process". We can all rest easy now that it has been stated openly and by one of the leaders of the medium.

I want to go back to the Animation Production Process because I think it holds the key to understanding their intentions.

Animators cost money and, though misguided and I believe incorrect, they believe that in eliminating the animator from the "Process" they save money. Enough money in fact that it becomes a powerful motivator for any Producer or Director to champion the cause. I believe this has been the objective ever since the game industry began experimenting with mocap as a labour saving tool.

I also believe that those who champion "Performace Capture as a form of animation which does not require Animators" are generally Live Action Producer's and Director's.
I would like to make a few points here.

1. For a Live Action Producer and especially for the Live Action Director, not having a physical set to walk into and be a part of can be really fustrating.

2. This leads to other fustrations. There are certain things that exist in Live Action that do not in Animation I chose the points below because they are reasons why people choose to follow a career in Live Action Film, like:
i. Shooting and working with Actors on a stage
ii. Almost immediate feedback on acting choices
iii. The close relationship Actors and Directors form on set
iv. And let's not forget being able to take your investor's through an expensive and elaborate set so they can go gah-gah and see where there money is being spent.

3. I think the danger in the idea that performance capture is there to eliminate the animator is that they will extend the attack to Animated Films in general, i.e. "Performance Caprture will eliminate the Animated Film" and by this I mean the process, reducing the animator to a technical artist, or cleanup artist. I have always believed the idea is to reduce the Animators title and as a conseqeunce their wage.

4. Finally I firmly believe in the theory of the uncanny valley. They can't have it both ways and I don't see it occuring anytime soon.

So to end my rant (sorry for the length) I would like to champion a cause of my own ...

"Let's flood the film industry with animation friendly Director/Producer's. Animators that can Direct both Animated and Live Action Films who understand both mediums and their strengths and weakness. Artists of Story and Performance!"

I wonder if they dislike us because we have so much fun and enjoy what we do sooo much.

Ivan Olea
(Australian Animator)

Wayne Gilbert said...

Hi Keith,

You're doing a great job keeping people to date on things squirming through the industry. Technology vs the art has been around in one way or another since the craft of animation began. My experience has been that animators don't insist on twitches and movement to keep a character 'alive', producers and under experienced directors do. The best animators have done their reference homework and can create performances that equal some of the best actors.

John Cleese goes into an open eyed coma in 'A Fish Called Wanda'and No one is going to tell him to liven up the take, but that wouldn't be allowed in animation. Orson Wells does the same in Catch 22, one of the longest reaction takes I've ever seen during which he does nothing - context and character.

We need context and character - story. That is the hard part.

Why is the guy in the Avatar trailer pushing his wheelchair by hand when the world around him has advanced so far - maybe the film will reveal.

Don't think UP would have worked with performance capture,

Anonymous said...

Very nice reading! Many thanks, Keith, for the courage to share your thoughts. My feelings resonate with yours on this subject.

(Oh, and Wayne: Thanks for Simplified Drawing for Planning Animation. Great stuff!) :)

Anonymous said...

Hey Keith,

I agree with you people with creativity and imagination will always be able to find solutions will always have something appealing to say or show. Iam not sure what the debate is about the most important thing in a film is story anyway. Whether you call it character development or something else. For me at least, acting is an element of story have a good story even with mediocre animation you will get the feeling you want across. I am not saying this is better or this is worse all iam saying is that if you know the art of telling a good story then you are at least half way there. In out time society and individuals look way to much troubled about money and more than anything iam surprised to see this coming from artists. They do pay the bills i know but trusting your instinct and yourself was never a bad thing.


Andrea said...

Good times, noodle salad!

Anonymous said...

Here's the thing.

Avatar could have been 100% animated, and it would have been just as good. In fact, theres no proof that it wasnt (unless you believe the PR hype. Ive talked to my animator friends on the project and they are "mums the word" about how much was animated. Smells like coverup to me)

SO whats the point of hiring big name actors and spending a bazillion dollars on fancy performance capture suits? To me, its about budget and credit.

But, of course, you cant credit animators or pay them like movie stars, because they are just clueless nerds who like to animate twitches to ruin performances.