You don’t hear live-action performers fretting about being replaced by animated CG creations (at least, not yet), but the prospect of actors having a hand in animation seems to have the toon community in a tizzy.
The Annies snubbed the performance-capture “Beowulf” in every category except production design, and the Academy’s animation branch rewrote its rules earlier this year to specify that “characters’ performances” must be “created using a frame-by-frame technique” in order to qualify.
But “Beowulf” did qualify, and motion capture (which figured prominently in 2007 Oscar nominees “Happy Feet” and “Monster House”) is here to stay, playing a growing role in future toons.
The concept of live-action reference footage providing the skeleton upon which animators build the characters’ performances is nothing new, explains animation historian Leonard Maltin: “The first real motion capture occurred when Dave Fleischer put on a clown suit and his brother Max traced his movements, one frame at a time, in 1915. They patented the device that enabled them to do this, and called it a rotoscope.”
Disney continued the tradition: “In ‘Snow White,’ they had a woman in a dress doing a scene, and the animators basically animated on top of it — nobody contends that’s not animation. Now, you have the ability to record the motion, so it gives you a huge head start,” says “Beowulf” senior vfx supervisor Jerome Chen.
Seated before a monitor at Sony Imageworks’ Culver City headquarters, Chen proves his point, demonstrating just how much tweaking the raw data required to create “Beowulf’s” expressive human characters.
“The data that drives the face looks like a flapping puppet,” he says. “It won’t record volume, meaning if the actor squints or purses his lips, it tells you when they did it, but it won’t tell you how much they actually moved.”
In every shot, the animators must decide how to interpret those timing cues. “There are other cases where we may use almost none of the data,” says Chen. “I had more than 60 animators working on ‘Beowulf’ for a year — that’s more than ‘Stuart Little.’ There’s not a single frame of the movie that didn’t need to be touched by animators.”
With “Beowulf,” the result is the medium’s most photorealistic toon to date (intended as “a Frazetta-style, graphic-novelish look,” per producer Steve Starkey), and that aesthetic may be one reason animators are having such a hard time recognizing the degree of animation that went into it.
Virtual photorealism, as seen in “The Lord of the Rings'” Gollum character, is one application for performance-capture technology. “I’m using it pretty extensively on ‘Iron Man’ as a tool to help create animation that feels more lifelike,” says director Jon Favreau.
But the technique is just as vital for an emerging thread of stylized projects. “In the case of ‘Neanderthals,’ I’m using it for different goals,” Favreau explains, referring to his next film, a motion-capture toon. “What I’m hoping to get is a spontaneity in performance, comedy and timing — all the areas that are very difficult to achieve in traditional animation.”
“Neanderthals” is one of three upcoming mo-cap pics announced by Imageworks. Chen will helm one, and Marvel producer Avi Arad is eyeing the technology for a third, based on James Patterson’s “Maximum Ride” series. There is even talk that Pixar may blend motion capture with traditional animation on “John Carter of Mars.”
Partnering with Disney, Zemeckis’ next project (a performance-capture adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” starring Jim Carrey) will forgo photorealism, embodying “a painterly style reminiscent of 19th-century London,” says Starkey.
Favreau imagines a more overtly “cartoony” aesthetic for “Neanderthals,” explaining, “My taste lies in all of the conventions that have come from animation, like squash and stretch and the way that you stylize the laws of physics.”
The way it typically works, animation helmers record dialogue tracks separately over the course of several months or years. In many cases, co-stars never even meet during production.
With motion capture, the actors can perform in the same space. Hypothetically, they could act the entire script through in chronological order as they would a play, improvising if the project calls for it.
As a director with live-action roots, Zemeckis is searching for a way to tell stories that are impossible to do in the real world (consider the gravity-defying shot in “Beowulf” where the hero wrestles a sea serpent). But he wants to do so without sacrificing the contributions of his cast — the reason the animators take their performance cues from the actors themselves.
Other directors see it differently. On “Neanderthals,” Favreau says, “It would just be used as data and reference by which an animator could be unleashed on the material and bring another level, and my hope is that you would get the best of both worlds. You’d get the spontaneity of a real-time performance, but shot in a very actor-friendly way, because you’re not waiting for lighting and setups and costume changes and makeup.”
The technology affords untold benefits to filmmakers. For example, on “A Christmas Carol,” Carrey can play Ebenezer Scrooge in the past, present and future without resorting to prosthetics or a younger stand-in.
In the future, rather than pushing photorealism further, Starkey explains, “What’s going to advance is the ability to get much more of the performance of the actors in the characters themselves. That will define a form of ‘realism’ in and of itself, but it’s up to the filmmakers to decide whether they want to skin these characters and light it so that it looks like reality.”