Thursday, December 29, 2011

Audience preferences & Tintin

Mark Mayerson continues to impress me with his thoughtful analysis of animated films and the medium in general. He has a great post up that addresses audience preference for films that hew more closely to their world as they perceive it everyday. As is his usual approach he takes a look at history, noting how Disney's feature film successes coincided with the studio's great efforts to make animation seem more 'real' to audiences. He looks at the current popularity of CG films over 2d films in this light, drawing some pretty cogent conclusions. You should definitely check it out.

I'll use Mark's thoughts as a jump off point for my own. I'm thinking that in a few years you could rewrite Mark's post and swap "hand keyed CG" for "hand drawn" and "performance captured" for "CG". A quick survey of many of the most popular animated films today seems to reinforce Mayerson's assertion that audiences prefer things to be more real. There has been a trend in films where the style of character animation, cinematography and editing are becoming more like live-action lite. The goal of many keyframed scenes is to closely emulate a video-recorded performance in a lot of these films. Current students and working animators see this and thus they are working to advance their skills in this style of realism based animation. Jobs are as competitive as ever, so if you can hit that style you have a better chance of working in the biz today. That serves for today. But I'm not sure how much runway is left for it.

At some point performance-capture tech is going to become that much easier, that much faster, that much cheaper & that much more accurate so as to negate the need to keyframe these kinds of scenes. Why pay an animator for three weeks to keyframe a single copy of himself doing an amateur acting job when you can just as easily put a professionally trained star actor in front of a camera and get the real deal, extract the data from the video & spatial capture and put it on a character? And on top of that you can have six takes in an hour? You're telling me that the director of Rango wouldn't want to take all those beautifully acted video reference performances of Johnny Depp and toss them onto a CG puppet? One may say "Yeah, but it wouldn't be stylized.". You don't think they're working on that, too? You should check out Hans Bacher's experiments turning photos into painterly images using off the shelf Photoshop tools. There will be an answer to the stylization question, as well. Count on it. Of course we're not there now, but look at how far the tech has come since the first Zemeckis zombie-kiddy film. If we follow the technology arc (and if no global black swan event occurs to disrupt things) it seems to me that in another 10-15 years we might just be there. And if pressed I'd say I'm being too conservative. It might be as soon as 5-7 years. Remember- the iPhone came out in June of 2007. A measley four and a half years ago. Now we're all talking to Siri the all knowing feminine voice in our phones like a bad Star Trek episode. Crazy, huh? Forward thinking folks are already messing with dual Kinects hooked into real time engines for performance capture without the need for suits, cumbersome calibration, data conversion, etc. The current results are predictably poor, but promising. It's just the beginning. This path will get better. Start thinking now about how you'll adapt. What skills will you need to gain now so that when this hits you'll be in position to take advantage? Where will the work be? Perhaps more importantly- where will the rewarding, creative work be?


Meanwhile, over on Cartoon Brew Amid Amidi discusses how the tech used in the making of Spielberg's Tintin is already making an impact. The word he uses again and again is 'realism' and how it's here to stay. The performances in Tintin aren't amazing, but overall they're not creepy like Polar Express, either. There are hits and misses- just like the best of Pixar's hand keyed films- but overall the stuff I see in Tintin is not distractingly creepy. Perhaps the corner has been turned on the Uncanny Valley. At least it doesn't seem impossible to get pleasing performances from quasi-realistic motion capture characters anymore. This means something. Amid also notes the tactic of using a 'virtual set' and how this will affect and change production roles for artists and technicians in 'animated' films. Extrapolate these advancements in technology into the future and it doesn't take much imagination to see where things are headed. Prudence suggests one ought to note this and start preparing now.

Nothing stays static for long. The highly paid animators of Disney & Dreamworks in the mid 90's never would have imagined that 15 years on they would be scratching and struggling to stay employed. CG animation in 1996 was every bit as limited and clumsy as mocap is now (trust me, I lived through it). Not to be sacrilegious or anything, but the only thing that still holds up today from Toy Story is the storytelling. The animation looks quite dated. No king of the pencil back then could imagine that in just a few short years that same tech would advance so far so quickly. Couple that cognitive blindness with a core misunderstanding of what it is that most audiences want and you paint a picture of a grumpy old dinosaur telling the mammals to get off its lawn. Ironically what most audiences want is the very thing that Walt tried to give them way back in the day, but the technology limited him. My guess is that if Walt were alive today he'd be doing what Peter Jackson, Steven Spielberg or Gore Verbinski are doing. Perhaps therein lies a hint at a plan for the rest of us.



26 comments:

notanymike said...

Does that mean the two options for the animator are: take a career path in acting which implies having to suffer through living under a celebrity status, or scrapping art altogether and get a degree in math and programming; as all animation/cg related jobs will only be open for those types of people? Are people going to value innovation over expression to the point that expression has no value at all?

Keith Lango said...

@notanymike: Feature film is a rather small subset of the animation biz. Of course it has long been seen as the apex of the artform in terms of prestige, budget, skill, etc. thus it tends to dominate the conversation and the mind share of animators and industry types alike. However there are other avenues, other opportunities. It's not just animator, actor or programmer. That's too bound a set with a low horizon line. My personal suggestion would be to think and act like a filmmaker, not a worker bee. Animators' identities are too caught up in animating. It was true of 2d animators, I see it to be true of CG animators as well.

GW said...

But look at the other side of the story. SANDDE, Rhonda, and Leonar3do. The first allows you to draw lines in 3D, the second lets you draw out wireframes, and the third is a modeling tool not for animation. These point to progress in the expressive, less realistic forms of 3D animation.

Also, keep in mind that progress is sometimes very slow. Karl Sims made Evolved Virtual Creatures in 1994 and it seems to have only been a few years that people have been experimenting heavily with evolving virtual beings on their hard drives.

There's loads of tricks he's uncovered that are aching to be used. His image evolution techniques could be used to augment 2D artmaking on the computer.

There's too many ideas slanting the other way to say that this sort of animation is going to take over the market. But more than that, motion capture is flawed in its conception. It's a form of reference more than anything, and there needs to be another way to synthesize ideas, not just copy and augment them from a source for true creative expression. That's why motion capture, despite its current hype is going to be outmoded or reduced to a smaller role.

Keith Lango said...

@GW: all true. But again-- what do audiences want? We all know what animators and artists would like, and those of us who love those forms of expression enough will find ways of self producing those forms of art. But in the world of feature film animators can tilt at windmills all day and it won't matter.

GW said...

I say find out by two means, first by asking them directly and second by showing them previews to a wide variety of animated features. If they see for themselves, they can decide. Showing them a wide variety of choices also helps them realize the available options.

The Optimistic Pessimist of your Theories said...

Keith, one major aspect that escapes both you and Mark in your musings on 2D vs CG and the OLD analogue vs NEW technology is the simple fact that people still draw. Very much so.

The strength of 2D animation is that it is anchored to one of the fundamental roots of art and the process of creating beyond any one animation medium.

The technology will grow and evolve, for sure, but I believe it will come full circle.
With the expansion of touch screens, virtual manipulation and new human interface and input technologies, the traditional processes will be brought directly into the digital production even more so than now. And there will be more folks using it and a broader range of things that we can do with it as well.

I only hope that the production software becomes simpler, more intuitive and less convoluted as soon as possible, tracking back to the more archaic interfaces most humans are accustom to. Those with less buttons and more actions and physical doing.

So why does CG3D and Mo-Cap seem like the be all and end all at the moment for big feature productions? Here’s one sliver of a perspective; 2D Anim, the simple traditional pipeline employed, lets say a few 100, vs 3DCG Anim, the newer and more intricate tech pipeline that now employs lets say a good 1000 or so with many more roles and tiers in the production. A bigger hive with more specialist worker bees. Mocap is that hive minus the few 100 or so specializing in one part of the production, sadly in KeyFrame Animation. To $THEM$, for all intents and purposes, it’s the same “Bigger” & “Better Looking” package minus a few grunts.

So tell me, with the biggest animation industry at the moment (in terms of volume) arguably being the Animation Education Industry, what do you think all these kids will do if your prediction of the future arrives with no changes to the current direction or model, or alternative perceptions and content in the mainstream feature industry? Will they simply help produce more TV Animation? More TVCs? More I-phone/Product Apps & Games? More? Internet?? Pffffft!! There will be animated feature films made in a greater array of ways in the future as there have ever been made in the past. Most likely from the same monolyths of the industry such as Disney Feature Animation and so on.

The Audiences herd mentality is defined by what is currently out in the market, and what’s currently in the market is Spielberg, Lucas, Jackson, Cameron, Weta, etc. All simultaneously directors and men with $means$ to make their merchandise. But the terrain will roll & change and… surprise surprise… so will the audiences taste. Will they have become more enlightened as a collective? Not really. But if you build “the barn”, it’ll draw its crowd.
So what do you need to build “the big barns” of feature animation? Big money wells the likes of Steve Jobs, Philip H. Knigh & Disney Corp™ of course.
Perhaps in the future age of the internet we’ll even see the first crowd funded feature film production, animation or otherwise.

... But I’m getting off topic.

So, to summarise; People still Draw (with ink & lead). Technology & software improves to suit its users needs and desires. And you still need substantial $Dough$ to put on a substation (feature sized) *Show* or to build a feature studio.
What’s changed?

Virgil said...

that first Toy Story didn't really have very good animation indeed :]

Tri Stratos said...

it did make a breakthrough for its time and that is what it counts...
What Keith is trying to tell I guess is another tech will let films like TinTin get new breakthrough as well...will we make it and what is the route to follow is the question!

David Nethery said...

Interesting thoughts here . I appreciate Mark's original blog piece and your follow-up to it, although I see things a bit different than either of you.

You write:

"Why pay an animator for three weeks to keyframe a single copy of himself doing an amateur acting job when you can just as easily put a professionally trained star actor in front of a camera and get the real deal, extract the data from the video & spatial capture and put it on a character? And on top of that you can have six takes in an hour? You're telling me that the director of Rango wouldn't want to take all those beautifully acted video reference performances of Johnny Depp and toss them onto a CG puppet?"

Why indeed ?

So if all this is true , if this is what's really coming in 5 - 7 years , maybe 10 years at the most, then there is actually NOTHING any of us (rank & file animation folk) can do to prepare for it . You say : " Start thinking now about how you'll adapt." but I'd ask: Adapt to what ? Competing with Johnny Depp or other professionally trained actors who will have their mo-cap performances easily and quickly overlaid on CG characters ? The answer would seem to be to ditch animation (as we know it) and concentrate on honing one's acting skills. OF COURSE animators should be constantly honing their acting skills anyway , but if the competition becomes Johnny Depp or Tom Hanks , or even your run of the mill journeyman television character actor, then the truth is that probably 95% of today's animators could not compete at that level. Seems there will be lots of work still for good riggers and modelers , but not so much for animators.

If what you, Mark Mayerson , and Amid Amidi are saying is true then I'd be in despair if I had invested a lot of time into learning to do keyframe CG animation. I agree with the commenter above who goes by the name "The Optimistic Pessimist of your Theories " , who points out that drawing is still very much with us and if traditional hand-drawn animation can be applied with a fresh approach to story/characters/design that doesn't feel like it's simply re-treading the 90's Disney films then hand-drawn is poised for a comeback. I have to hope that at a certain point the mass movie audience having gorged itself on CG "realism" will wipe it's collective mouth, sit up , look around and say "Now what ? " What else is new? " and maybe they'll decide that "Realism" isn't the be all and end all. If I'm wrong then I may as well find a new line of work and just keep animation as a side hobby. (although truthfully I can think of more fun hobbies ... animation done right is way too much work to be just a hobby) .

If what you're saying is true I don't know what the answer is for "traditional" CG animators. For hand-drawn animators it's the same as what Richard Williams said a few years ago in an interview when he was asked:

(continued in next post)

David Nethery said...

(continued from my previous post) -

If what you're saying is true I don't know what the answer is for CG animators.

For hand-drawn animators it's the same as what Richard Williams said a few years ago in an interview when he was asked:


"What are your thoughts about the future of 2D animation?"

RW: "I think it should go graphic. I think it's a shame when the 2D tries to look like 3D because it can't. It shouldn't try to follow the fashion for this burgeoning, expanding computer thing, which is wonderful of itself. The 2D should go do what it does best. The Sistine ceiling is pretty impressive but, you can take a drawing of Michelangelo's and it is, in a way, more impressive than the painting in that you see his direct thinking. There's something good about an old master's preparatory drawing, before he does the painting. And the great stuff, say, Degas' last paintings. You know, those big chalk things of the women in the tub? He couldn't see very well at that point and they were rough as hell. They're the best things he ever did! And I think we should go that way. I think, because the computer thing can take over all the polished areas so beautifully, we 2D artists should just go back to a hand-crafted approach. Obvious drawings that walk and talk."

And I think with a fresh approach ( that isn't simply looking back over the shoulder at what was done in the past) that the hand-crafted approach can still entertain and delight audiences. As much as I hate to admit it , I think films like "The Princess & the Frog" and "Winnie the Pooh" (which were nicely made films , I enjoyed them ) have set us back 15 years. They cemented a certain perception that hand-drawn animation is just nostalgia for "old-fashioned" things , as sort of affectation for the antique or retro. A golden opportunity to remake and revivify hand-drawn animation at Disney was missed.

David Nethery said...

Some further comments:

Re-reading what I posted above it reads too much like I'm taking issue with what you and Mark wrote. I do want to emphasize that I appreciate your thoughts as well as Mark's original piece.

I particularly agree with what you wrote , re:

"My personal suggestion would be to think and act like a filmmaker, not a worker bee. Animators' identities are too caught up in animating. It was true of 2d animators, I see it to be true of CG animators as well."

The big challenge for us is that animation is so craft-oriented . One can easily get caught up in the minutia and spend a whole career (happily) mastering the small details. I have to admit some of my happiest times were as a "worker bee" in the big hive studio (Disney 1987 - to - 1998 ... I was still there for the decline and fall from 1999 - 2004 , too, but those were not always such happy days , especially near the end ... but I digress ... ) There's a certain satisfaction in being part of a group effort on a big mainstream feature film. But in the end I think more lasting satisfaction comes from following the path you recommend: "think and act like a filmmaker" , with the animation being just one aspect of your creative life as a film maker.

lowlight said...

Salient words from "The Optmistic..." and My Former ACAD Teacher (Nethery); I couldn't agree more with both of them as someone who does both 3D and 2D. In fact, all I could add is that if things were in fact this dire 2D/CG animation in "features", if those that do this now should look to re-purpose their craft in other ways, and if audiences are truly asking for this, then what does that say of Japanese companies like WOWWOW, XEBEC, OXYBOT, MADHOUSE, GAINAX and even grandfather animation houses like Studio Ghibli that are still turning a tasty profit on hybridized (blended 2D and CG) and traditional 2D animation despite numerous down economies in the global market?

Perhaps 3D key-framed animation may be "aging", but to eschew it completely in favor of advanced mo-cap techniques in general seems to me to be myopic at best. Remember, Disney was already a "live action film maker", and was always interested in doing (and had done at least one that I can think of) live action films. If that was Disney's end game the entire time, doing more live action in general assuming he had a budget the size of what guys like D.W. Griffith would have had in the 20's, Disney could've easily transitioned from animation production with the money his studio earned with revenue from Snow White. Why go through all of that trouble, meticulously drawing one frame after another, if you could use that artist/animator money to instead hire contractors build sets for movies like "Intolerance" and perhaps try his hand at expounding on what Georges Méliès was trying to achieve 1913 when it came to fusing movies with "immersive illusion"? Seems odd to me, unless of course the illusion was all that was really wanted as it related to the moving "drawn" image itself. I appreciate what's been said by both you and Mark, Keith, I just don't completely agree with it in total. I guess time will tell.

Anonymous said...

I think mocap data is not used "raw" directly into the rig, there's always fine tuning to do and things to improve, even from a performance and not so technical point of view.
There's the area where animators from "traditional" keyframe animation can adapt. If I were a director and I want to do mocap animation, I would certainly hire animators with high experience in keyframe animation to manage all the shots captured, the most technical knowledge, the better. The same happened with 3d animation, animators with 2d background or expertise/education are more valued.

I also agree to the transition from "working bee" to "filmmaker vision". The most important thing on a film is the story, the why we are doing all the production, the message to transmit. The result matters more than the technique used, and mocap it's just another technique in animation, not a new paradigm IMO.

Also I think Keith you forgot to mention the limitations of mocap: human anatomy.

Anonymous said...

Making Animation and CG characters look totally realistic is not really appealing (unless its for visual effects)and to say that animators are amateur actors is just plain rude.Just like in painting if you want something to look like a photograph take a picture.

Anonymous said...

The Original MOCAP

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=n4aQbPZy36c#!

Virgil said...

Nooooooooooo Keyth, don't leave :(

Matt said...

"So long & thanks for all the fish" internet Keith. Hope to cross paths with your real life incarnation one day in the unforeseeable future, but till then, take care and all the best Mr Lango. You are a true gentleman and someone I’ve looked up to initially for your animations and tutorials, but in more recent years for your down to earth demeanour & openness.

Cheers

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Tintin is Peter Jackson's creation right? Sort of made from his WETA studio. Correct me if i am wrong. Animation film is such a huge right now no wonder that online animation degrees enrollment had increased dramatically.

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