Saturday, November 17, 2007

Beo What The-?

I have never seen either "The Polar Express" or "Monster House" but last night I went to see "Beowulf" (caution - mild spoilers ahead).

I'm not sure why Robert Zemeckis and his crew has embraced motion-capture technology for making movies or why they chose to make the designs in "Beowulf" look so realistic and true-to-life, but all of my reservations about that approach were confirmed as I watched the movie (on a giant Imax screen, no less, but not in 3D).

I'm convinced that the human brain is wired so that when we see something that's really close to real life - but not quite actual living, breathing natural life - that our brain gets very confused and uncomfortable. I don't know why our minds are wired this way but the closer the computer gets to re-creating "reality" the creepier and more uncomfortable it is to watch. You could show one minute of the movie to anyone anywhere in the wold and they would all know instantly that it's not real actors. And I really do believe that our minds are at first repelled by this kind of "recreated reality", and then we have to make a subconscious effort to stifle that reaction in order to sit still and watch it for a couple of hours.

You'll have to weigh in and tell me if I'm alone in this or if everybody else senses this as well. Some reviewers seem to have picked up on it, but not many.

Anyway, I have a hard time seeing the benefits of this pursuit to recreate "reality" in the computer. For all the talk over the years that "digital actors" would replace the real thing, I don't ever see that happening. Audiences felt far more emotional connection to and sympathy with the characters in "The Incredibles" than anybody ever will for any of the characters in "Beowulf". People felt far more emotion for the characters in "Dumbo" and "Bambi" for that matter. Personally, I think the critics embrace it more than the general public because deep down I believe all critics are snobs and they think somehow animation that's "realistic" is okay to like but anything that's more "cartoony" is for children and beneath their notice (plus being based on a century-old poem helps give the picture credibilities with critics too, no doubt). Interestingly, at Yahoo!movies, the critical consensus of "B" is higher than the public's grade, which is settling at a "B-" as I write this. Usually, the public is more generous than the critics.

The real shame of this is that, lurking under the creepy facade of the filmmaking, there is a really good film. In his review of the film, Ralph of KROQ-FM (heard here in Los Angeles) said that he felt it would be one of the best movies of the year if not for the creepy performances of the digital puppets. There were other things that I didn't necessarily like about the movie but certainly if the movie had been made more like most live action movies, with real humans in a real world, enhanced by CG and CG creatures, the movie would have played a lot better, I think. There were several moments that were clearly supposed to be funny that the audience didn't respond to, and I really believe that if it were real actors with real charm and presence the audience would have definitely responded (and the film could have used a few laughs to help balance out the very dark art direction and tone). When we laugh along with the characters in a movie, we relate to them and we are sucked into their spell, their charm - we can't help but like them. There were also parts that the audience laughed at that were not meant to get laughs, including one point where characters referred to the Queen as "beautiful", which the CG version of Robin Wright Penn clearly was not. And there were moments of downright creepiness that were made all the more disturbing by the fact that they were in CG, like one of the first moments in the film, where a more corpulent and more weathered version of real-world Anthony Hopkins gyrates around clad only in a sheet. The sheet keeps sliding off and the audience is lead to believe that at any moment we might see his digitally rendered "naughty bits" but of course that never happens. However, we are rewarded a moment later with a big close up of his motion-captured butt. Now, would a live-action film do that? Would we really enjoy being "teased" in a live-action film that we might see the real crotch of Anthony Hopkins? Good Lord, no. So why does Zemeckis play that beat with a creepy, digital version of Hopkins with added rolls of digital fat? I don't know, but the audience definitely didn't seem to think it was funny, if that was the intention. Again, there might be something kind of funny about this if it was a real actor, but somehow, the digital version made it even more disturbing and off-putting.

Certainly, Zemeckis doesn't help his case much here. I would think that - if you were aware that this kind of CG can be creepy - you would do your best to construct the film so as to make everything as palatable as possible and avoid showing the audience the more disturbing side of CG. But the very first shot involves following a roasted pig as it's carried on a spit, rendered in all of it's greasy, drippy real-world glory. And, as I mentioned, we're treated to a big close-up of Hopkins' digital behind. Also the creature design was not only fairly unimaginative, but also super creepy in 3D, because of the way it's designed and rendered. Far too many videogames and live-action movies seem to go out of their way to create ugly, ugly creatures in three dimensions. They could learn a lot from the 2D world about how to design something that looks evil and creepy but still retains a lot of appeal in the overall design and in the way that it's presented.

Also, the scenes where the digital Angelina Jolie was supposed to be "beautiful" and seduce Beowulf, the audience just had to go along and believe that he found her attractive. Again, in a normal live-action movie, we get sucked into the world (if the movie is good) and when our hero is being seduced by a beautiful girl, we are being seduced as well because we find whatever actress is playing the part as attractive and alluring as the hero of the film does. But with a movie like Beowulf, we had to make an intellectual leap that the CG version of Jolie is beautiful, without the benefit of the warmth a real flesh-and-blood actress brings to the big screen), and I found myself watching the movie like that all the way through: at arm's length, intellectually engaging with the story but not sucked into a world and characters that I cared about.

Again, it's so strange to think that I could feel such emotion to Lady, Tramp, Pinocchio, Dumbo and many other characters with such a high level of caricature and abstraction, painted on flat cels and photographed against a flat background. Even animated characters like Ariel are so much more "beautiful" than the CG "picture-perfect" version of Angelina Jolie because Ariel is a simplified abstraction of what makes a girl pretty.

I don't know, maybe it's just me, or maybe in general us artists are more sensitive to this kind of stuff than the rest of the world. I was very surprised to find the theater only half-full last night, so then again maybe the rest of the world is creeped out by the digital world as well.

Really, in the end, what is the benefit to making movies this way? Why pay great actors to play the parts and then go through all the hassle to put it into weird mo-cap CG in order to remove all the charm and charisma that an actual person brings to the screen? Just so Hopkins can avoid having to do his hair and makeup and he can work in sweat pants? The first film made with this technology - "The Polar Express" - did well at the box office, but Zemeckis's second effort ("Monster House") didn't fare nearly as well (although the critics raved about that one as well), so I can't imagine that the studio thinks this mo-cap approach is a big draw with audiences. Judging by the number of people at the theater last night, "Beowulf" will not do as well as it would have if it were done in a more conventional way, which is too bad.

Anyway, flesh-and-blood actors should not fear that they will be replaced by their digital counterparts any time soon, and real animators won't be replaced by actors performing while wearing mo-cap ping-pong balls anytime soon either. I still encourage everyone to see the movie (because I believe every filmmaker should see everything) and see it in order to judge for yourself. There are many great shots in the movie and some amazing sequences (which I don't tend to notice as much in films where I find myself caught up in the emotions of the story) that are worth seeing just for their own sake. In any case, feel free to weigh in and tell me if you feel the same way I do (I have set up a poll on the right to get an accurate sampling - you can select multiple answers if you want).

UPDATE: I knew there was a name for this phenomenon, but I couldn't remember the name. Jim (see comments) provided it as well as a link to the article about it: uncanny valley. Thanks Jim!


Jim said...

That uncomfortable feeling you feel is a result of the "uncanny valley"

Joon said...


Frequent reader of your blog, but this is my first comment.

Everything you say about Beowulf is true. But I feel that Zemeckis has made some strides since The Polar Express of Terrors. Maybe it helps that there were no creepy kids in Beowulf, but I found myself less distanced from the story than I was in the previous film.

Our brains ARE hard-wired so well to read our fellow men and women that when technology comes as close as it has to replicating photorealistic images of them, there is a wall. Technology has not achieved that level of gathering the data we gather when we interact with each other.

It's still VERY far behind. Even outside the realm of humans! What was with the horse galloping animation in this movie? They moved like mechanical rigs! No grace at all!

Subtle human motions, such as hand gestures while someone speaks, have a floatiness to them that is never believeable. The eyes were never alive the way Davy Jones' were. But these CG humans can't seem to get the big flamboyant moments right either. When John Malkovich's character bellows his snark at Beowulf, the rig does not look like its bellowing. Merely speaking. It's weird. The rigs can't seem to get the extreme expressions right either.

However! Once in a while. ONCE in a while, you saw a bit of performance where you could see the technology grasping for the goal. There were a few shots of Beowulf's second-in-command, played by Brendan Gleeson, that nearly had me. I was amazed. It was a subtle performance moment.

But what's the point of all this work if you could easily have the actor do it?

Simple. Zemeckis wants to play. This is what he's interested in now. The way James Cameron had to go down to the Titanic again and again and test the limits of new camera technology that he'll be bringing into making Avatar.

I also think this would be a better film with real actors. It could've been the film that 300 wanted to be but wasn't (I was more involved in the drama of Beowulf than that of 300).

But as pure spectacle, Beowulf didn't disappoint. It's too bad you didn't get to see it in 3D. I had a great time, despite my misgivings with the Uncanney Valley. The action was exciting and I saw the movie twice in packed houses that reacted well to everything. I think that helps.

John Nunnemacher said...

I am so with you on the dead, lifeless look of overly realistic CG characters. I hate to jump on the old bandwagon, but it seems like Pixar is the only studio who "gets" it: Their characters, especially their human characters, are actually DESIGNED to be appealing caricatures rather than realistic renderings. All the other studios are doing either plastic-looking mannequinns, or lifeless over-rendered simacrulum like these.

Interesting comment about why reviewers seem to like this film ... The first two reviews I ran into had the same "creepy" factor, but then I was surprised to find a 71% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I guess reviewers on the one hand look down on "cartoonish" children's animation, and on the other hand like to feel smug about anything that might knock those haughty actors down a peg or two ... subconsciously this could be a little fantasy scenario for them to play out or something.

Great commentary!

Joon said...

Here's a diagram of Uncanny Valley.

Julie Oakley said...

Oh I so agree, one excerpt on a chatshow was enough for me – it looks like a truly repulsive technique of film-making.

Graham said...

I was fortunate to have seen it on THursday at a free screnning where they had a lot of problems getting the 3d camera to work. I ahve to admit it was fun to watch in even seems like the film might have been made for this purpose. But anyways...

I surprised myself by actually enjoying the film! Would I watch it again? Nope. was the animation bad? Oh yeah. Downright laughable. Any time there was a run cycle or something that involved weight it look like the characters were being yanked around by strings. And why does everyone look so damn sleepy and have such wobbly heads?

The script really saves this movie as well as some great voice acting. I can't help but imagine how much of a better film this would have been if they would have made it in another medium with the same voice track.

Actually...that might be an interesting experiment once I can get my hands on the dvd ;)

Pinflux said...

I haven't seen the film but the trailers did seem repulsive to me. Definate case of the uncanny valley. However, I do hear seeing the film in 3D is amazing and I'd like to see it in that way if just for the spectacle.

I think you should see Monster House - the animation is actually pretty impressive and it's great that Zemeckis went for cartoony looking characters instead of frightening us with 'realistic' ones. It's a neat little story and has some great characters and moments in it too.

Rob Bodnar said...

That's funny...I had received "Monster House" and "Polar Express" DVD's as gifts a long time ago and have never watched them. Beowulf reminds me of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, did you see that one? It all is a little like video game cinematics to me.

andreas said...

i was amazed about all the good critics considering the movie and went to the theater.

i thought it was dull and lifeless.
your points summarize my feelings pretty good.
i really dont understand all the praise the movie is getting.
people are loving it and i cant stop to think that all females looked like shrek people.

walking dead that look like famous people.

pbcbstudios said...

WOW! - look at that fancy POLL!!!

you should have seen - No Country for Old Men.

Juan Pablo said...

Every time a new technology is introduced, its possibilites are explored until they are exhausted. Until the fad is over, and then its useful elements are retained, and the rest is discarded.

Beowulf, and others, are an interesting exploration of ultrarealism that will someday produce great movies -- but not just yet.

It would be easy for me to bash the unnatural, mathematical, video-game-like camera movements... How could they be so careful about realism in every aspect... but left their camera movements so flat and lifeless?

But if we think about it, camera freedom is one of the greatest possibilities of 3D. It must be explored, just like all the new possibilites of new technology.

The biggest problem I saw in the trailer was its perfection. Reality is not perfect. It's complex and chaotic, and while our eyes can't perceive every little detail, they are trained to enjoy and order that complexity. That is what is lacking in many 3d movies: texture. Dirt shouldn't look clean, dirt should look dirty.

Miguel said...

No. It´s just not you. I thought and same exactly the same thing when I watched previous mo-cap pictures.
And 3D animation is very painful to see when they tend to border that ultrarealism and IMHO it requires extra efforts in order to have a soul. Pixar were smart enough to build their sucess on classic animation( oh well they have caught only a fraction of its richness but that´s another story) but unfortunately, we will see more and more crap .
As an animator and animation lover my hopes are in exotic, bastard and modest honest films, in japanese, korean, russian or french animation, in these segments in Yo Gabba Gabba, god, even in these stiff but somehow drawn saturday morning shows... Everything but that rubbish.

Back to the topic, I don´t know if that "uncanney valley" has solid basis but I many people experiment that uncomfortable feeling, and indeed, I do.

harald said...

The effect your describing is commonly known as the Uncanny Valley, and is due to the effect that caricatures and drawings leave enough room to project your opwn feelings and emotion into them, the realistic rendering leaves no room at all, it shows everything, but it is not realistic enough for the brain, it concentrates on it, as it would on a human counterpart, trying to find out wether he/she, as it would with a live person, is lying or telling the truth, -and subconciesly we can do that, (check out literature by Paul Ekman for example).We feel that something is wron with your counterpart and this gives you an odd feeling, you don't believe the characte, or more precisly, his or her emotions, its like encountering a body-snatcher.

Oswald said...

Working as an animator AND critic I totally agree with your post on Beowulf. My reservations concerning perf-cap have all been confirmed.
And I honestly don't understand how seeing some grown men's private parts would have been more harmful than all the slashing the audience gets to see. But I don't want to get into this now...

Unlike US critics, reviewers here in Switzerland are generally stressing the "uncanny valley" effect as well as the lackluster writing.

Personally I would go as far as questioning whether there was a director present at all times... How can anyone stage a well-known story with the main focus on fancy 3D-effects instead of character relationships? Especially someone who ha brought Marty McFly and Forrest Gump to the screen - characters who were embraced by audiences all over the world. Maybe he just wanted to play, got carried away with all the possibilities and forgot that playing meant fun.

I still can't figure out who benefits from seeing perfectly modeled armpit hair when they're in to see an archaic legend. Somehow broad stories call for broad gestures. Instead we get rigs that move like Shrek in a videogame. Sometimes I had the feeling that recognizing the actor's face seemed more important than appropriate facial expressions. Subtle acting is not measured in realistic textures but in lifelike behaviour. Zemeckis' Beowulf however gives us nothing more than virtual versions of extremely detailed animatronics.

(To be fair, at least the characters' eyes look less creepy by now.)

solsetimo said...

Why go to all the trouble and expense of creating an inferior effect if it doesn't even help the story? The technique should aid in telling the story and getting the audience involved in it. All the ads for Beowulf just talk about the technology and not the movie itself. Zemeckis is clearly more enamored with ping pong balls and leotards than he is concerned with telling a story.

Tanja said...

After reading your post on the Beowulf movie (which I mostly agree with), it also reminded me of a comment in a thread over on CGTalk posted by one of the animators that worked on the project (although he has since slightly edited the post, it still has most of the reply that I recalled reading), particularly this bit:

"...Movies like Beowulf are made because of perceptions. Zemeckis' perception is that if he is controlling the shoot, the actors, if he is there, then he can control the performance. He can then pick the camera, the lighting, the set, and design the rest of the sequence later. He doesn't like the idea of an animator interpeting his thoughts into animation, he is no longer in control of that situation. He can't see the continuity when you have 10 animators working on the same character in a sequence. He doesn't get it.

But he understands live-action, he understands the process, and he knows how to get the performance he wants out of an actor, and he knows how light and present a shot through the camera. He now has freedom to retake shots over and over again, and not have to stick with his decisions. This is why it is so attractive. It won't cost him an entire reshoot to change the camera or lighting if he doesn't like it 6 months later. There is a freedom with this technology that can't be bought. If he doesn't like the actor's nose, he can change it, if he needs the actor to beef up, he can do it. He can make those decisions, without having to rely on anyone else, except us artists..."

Jeff said...

"plus being based on a century-old poem"

Don't you mean millenium-old? :)

chickennuggets said...

heh heh- naughty bits....

Cenna said...

No offense, but what kind of an animator are you?

What you meanthat you "even" found Ariel "better" than Angelina's CJ counterpart? The way you phrased it imples that the CJ angelina should look better than Ariel.

In my opinion (and I am not an animator, just an avid theatre goer) animated characters, espcially disney characters, are far better and more realistic than "real" actors.

velops said...

The real benefit of motion capture technology is cost. It is supposedly cheaper than alternative movie making methods. I think directors are trying to replicate the reaction audiences had to Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies.

mark kennedy said...

Thanks all, for the great comments! Jim - thanks for the assist.

Hey joon - great thoughts, thanks for posting - I didn't have the option of seeing it in 3D but I hear it's a better experience that way. I do agree that Gleason was the most successful character. It also seemed to me that Malkovich's character was the least successful (and I'm not sure why that character was even in the movie, but that's another story)

John - thanks, good thoughts!

julie - thanks for posting!

Hey graham - good idea - if you ever remake it in a different medium, let us know!

Pinflux - yeah, I hear the "Monster House" was good.

rob - no, I didn't see that one; that one looked even weirder. All of these movies remind me of video games, to some extent.

andreas - yeah, the women in particular tend to look more odd than the men.

pb - I wanted to, it's not showing around here yet...

juan - yes, you're right about the dirt. I still feel like they could have shot live-action actors and then placed it within the digital world to get the same camera moves, it worked ok in "Lord of the Rings"

miguel - yes, agreed.

harald - thanks for the thoughts. Uncanny Valley is definitely an interesting topic, and there's a lot of great resources about it on the web.

oswald- I'm not against seeing private parts in general, but playing the "tease" that you might see an old, overweight man's private parts didn't buy the movie anything. It wasn't really done in a funny or interesting way and didn't really serve any purpose. However, the way the scene was handled where you almost saw Beowulf's anatomy was well crafted and added some great moments of levity to a tense sequence - at least it would've in live action. The audience I saw it with didn't react, and again I think it's because of the lack of warmth that a live-action actor brings to the role.

solsetimo- actually, I thought the underlying story was pretty good. But I think many people will avoid the movie because of the mo-cap weirdness, and that's a shame; a good story got sacrificed on the altar of questionable technology.

tanja- thanks for that, very good comments.

jeff -yes.

hey nuggets - did you see it?

cenna - are you saying that because I work in animation, I automatically am supposed to prefer animated characters to real people? Live action movies have always been the primary source of inspiration for animated filmmakers and I'm no different. I love animation but I don't want to live in Toontown.

velops - yeah, you're probably right, but Gollum was animated. He was definitely tweaked and pushed to create a great performance, using the mocap as a jumping off point, as opposed to Beowulf which was just straight mocap and no more.

Oswald said...

Hi Mark

sorry, I wish I had written it more clearly :)
I totally agree with you about the genitals. I didn't want to imply anything about you but about the filmmakers. I just thought that concealing genitals in a way that draws unnecessary attention to them didn't serve the story at all. But if being aware of them were important (which I think they are not), why conceal them, since they are no less "natural" than the rest of the human body (believe me, I don't wish to see old men naked, I just don't know how a movie tries to tease me with this).

But this is only a detail, for me the main problem is still the zombie-style mo-cap stuff. Normal performances by live actors may be subtle, but even then their faces and bodies can become pretty distorted (as freeze framing always unveils). Although in Beowulf, to me it seemed that the facial expressions of the characters were even toned down instead of exaggerated which added to the lack of warmth.

Robert said...

Fun fact: "Uncanny" was actually used to describe Snow White way back in 1938

In some of the early sequences there may be an uncertainty of line, a jerkiness in the movements of the Princess; but it is corrected later and hand and lip movements assume an uncanny reality. - NY Times review

mark kennedy said...

oswald - got it, no problem, you are right about the under-exaggeration of everything in mocap - I guess that's why it feels so stiff.

robert - ha, that's interesting. Thanks for pointing that out.

Jenny said...

I just caught up with this. Brilliant post, Mark.

"You'll have to weigh in and tell me if I'm alone in this or if everybody else senses this as well.

I sure hope you're not alone. Certainly I feel the same way, and it's not a result of some prejudice or bias. I just want to believe in the world of every film I see and be entertained, that's all--be it puppets, CG, "flat" cel work, whatever.

If a technique fails to accomplish that, it fails--no matter how expensive, painstaking, or "new" it may be.

Tyson Murphy said...

I also read your blog alot, ad this is my first comment as well.

I was going to comment on the 'uncanny valley' phenomenom. I didn't enjoy Beowulf at all. I would rather see real people or real animation.

Matt J said...

Interesting interview with Jerome Chen, VFX supervisor on the film

The 'is it animation or not' debate aside-there's a further issue of 'is it a visual fx film or not'?!

Dan said...

I had my own forehead-slapping moments as well. One was a scene in the rain with Beowulf and his 2nd in command. It was a 2 shot where the foreground was pouring rain, but the characters were dry as a bone!

My other huge beef was the Angelina Jolie non-character design. Maybe Zemeckis gets aroused at an almost naked A.J., but if Beowulf was truly a seasoned mercenary he's not going to drop his sword for every naked woman he sees. Yet there was very little reason beyond A.J.'s promises that he should trust her. If her character design communicated power, riches, something beyond her words, you might be able to believe she could seduce a hero-for-hire like Beowulf. But instead we get a naked body (okay yes, she had weird heels), and Beo-awful falls for her. Lazy character design like that and frankly boring direction kept me unmoved.

That scene in the rain? It was a funeral pyre scene, but it might have been a state fair for all of its unspecific staging (it was a simple 2-shot). And why oh why did he fall for that tired old "look at me I'm making a digital movie" shot we've seen since Titanic? You know the one...start wayyy behind the boat, fly up to it, graze across the water and then crane around to see the front of the boat. Ugh. Did Zemeckis farm this out to a film student? Forget the bad mo-cap stuff, Zemeckis needs to brush up on basic storytelling.

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