December 20, 2004

Not only skin deep

Illustrator Michael Paulus assembled a delightful exhibit, combining two seemingly incongruous views of familiar humanoid forms. He proposed scientific-like renderings of the skeletal structure of popular cartoon characters.

What intrigues me the most about this exhibit is how many people find it absurd. Cartoon characters aren't "real." How else is Roger Rabbit able to endure so many takes of refrigerators smashing his head, if there were a "real" skull under those ears? But the really good animators understood long ago, that the only way to get the audience to invest in a character and believe in them, is to make the characters more-- real.

Every animation studio worth it's salt provides their animators ample opportunity to closely study human and animal form and movement. The 'guru' of life drawing for animators, Glenn Vilppu gives frequent seminars while teaching at The American Animation Institute. "The bed rock of drawing the figure is the ability to draw the figure in any position from memory. Constructing the three dimensional figure from simple volumes is as important today as it was 500 years ago to the artists of the Renaissance."


A recent "innovation" in animation tools is Performance Capture. A process Robert Zemeckis and Sony Pictures used to record and translate into digital information, the body and facial movements of an actor. The process of capturing the motion of a full body is widely used in all moving media, from TV, Film, and especially video games. The holiday film Polar Express attempted to inject a more "believable" personality into it's animation by capturing not just the body, but the facial movements of the actors. The result is less than spectacular, as the audience is left with that uneasy feeling you get seeing an ultra life-like doll with dead glassy eyes... that never blink. Why? For much the same reason. Check out CNN's review-- 'Polar Express' a creepy ride.


Compare that to the overwhelming success of The Incredibles. A film that made no attempt to 'capture' the movements or direct facial expressions of the voice actors. Instead, Brad Bird and Rick Sayre at Pixar struck a balance between outrageous characters, actions, designs and believable personalities in familiar circumstances.

I think the biggest ground that we broke was in being able to combine caricature and intentional direction, very specific things, with a base of correctness, of a physical correctness of bones, muscle, skin, all these things working on a character like Bob, so that you believe hes alive, said supervising technical director Rick Sayre in an interview for about.com. But it wasn't enough to make this character believable, they had to make him 'unbelievably' powerful and vulnerable enough to warrent the awe and concern of the audience. Now THAT'S "performance capture!"

If you haven't seen The Incredibles... check it out. It's going to be a knock-down drag-out battle to the top between 'The Incredibles' and 'Shrek 2' At this point, it's "too close to call."

- Lito

Posted by Lito at 02:17 PM