Saturday, August 11, 2007

Mo' better mo-cap?

Subject: Cinema
I got a bit too snarky a while ago with regards to the animation in "Happy Feet". Obviously, I've been outside the "biz" for a while, and likely don't have the skillz to actually get hired doing anything approaching it.

But I still think that, try as they might to put a "realism" edge on the modelling and environmental effects, that only served to make the attempt to load that up with anthropomorphic gags all the more absurd and empty.

In mild contrast, I recently watched an HD recording of "Madagascar". As far as I could tell from the credits, it was mostly lacking mo-cap. It was rather typical straight-ahead cartoon animation with predictable gag gestures and expressions and timing, with exaggerated cartoony characters and a look, when compared to "Feet", is almost a little bit crude (still way more advanced than what I had access to back in the day, of course). But, then again, it doesn't set up expectations for being anything but a straight-ahead cartoon comedy. It helped that the writing was simple and amusing and not particularly weighed down with any baggage. Nothing special, nothing groundbreaking, but entertaining enough for a short escape.

It's easier to engage the suspension-of-disbelief mechanisms when you're dealing with obvious abstractions, and crossing the line into attempted realism really challenges that if it misses the mark. And where that line is will be different for everyone based on their experience. And mood -- boy howdy, mood can make-or-break a borderline case, without question.

But back to the "mo-cap==soulless" thing for a moment. Another film I watched that was most definitely all about the mo-cap was the recent French release of "Renaissance". It's a starkly graphic, hi-contrast film-noir crime drama set in a wildly futuristic Paris. All of the characters are mo-capped and rendered into a 3D-yet-flat black & white (and no gray) world. The resulting technique is definitely interesting and provides for some unique visualization. The classic noir formula is well served by it. But I was constantly brought out of the whole "disbelief" thing and was ultimately disconnected from the whole thing.

There were two primary aspects of how the characters were animated that I think contributed to that, because it seemed that they were disconnected themselves. The mo-cap for the motion was one thing, but then there was a whole seperate effort to work on the characters' eyes.

The eyes, of course, are critical as I've said many times before. So it's definitely important that careful attention is paid to the eyes and how they communicate in each shot. And in this film, sometimes it worked reasonably well. But more often than not, there was a subtle sense that what the eyes were saying didn't quite match what the body-language was saying. It was a little disconcerting. Even if in fact the eyes tracked the actors' originally eye movements perfectly, the tweaking put it's stamp on it.

It may have been that the body-language acting was a little "off" but the eye cleanup was too good, if that makes any sense? And again, the approximation of realism in the one contrasted the by-hand efforts of the other such that the mind just has a hard time reconciling it.

Subtle stuff, though. I was probably attuned to it only because I was looking for it. It's still a rather neat and different show, and I'd recommend renting it at least once for the experience. There's some really cool sci-fi imagining going on, especially in the architecture and infrastructure. Fun stuff, and despite my distractions, it otherwise held my attention through the whole thing.

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