June 22, 2005

Neil Gaiman on Mo-Cap

I don't want to talk about Motion Capture. It's not that I don't have anything to say about it, I have lots to say about it. But it's all been said before, and it's been said by much smarter people then me. I just feel like the best way to deal with it is to ignore it.

But sometimes I can't.

Some of you all know that I'm a big fan of Neil Gaiman. And I was a big fan of mythology as a kid. So you might guess that I was tremendously excited to hear that he was turning one of my favourite mythology's into a script for Zemeckis to direct. You can also guess my deep disappointment when I found out it was going to be another mo-cap film, al la "Polar Express".

I'm not against mo-cap, I just don't want anything to do with it. It's not a process that holds any interests for me. It's like cleaning up bad animation all day.

Anyhoo, soapbox rant aside, I feel like Neil Gaiman had interesting (if not misguided) things to say on the subject of mo-cap I thought I would post (and make fun of) them here. Needless to say, I'm too much a fan-boy of Neil's work and will probably go see it no matter what method they use to make it. If it was up to me Popsicle sticks and glue would be a better approach to the work then mo-cap (at least it'd be more fun to work on:)

I'm curious as to why Beowulf is being made as a performance-capture piece. Was there an artistic reason for this choice or does Zemeckis just want to play more with his new toy?

I ask this because I'm not fond of the idea of performance-capture - I think it wastes a lot of the possibilities of animation and gives animators less chance to create their own characters. However, I admit that I did not see Polar Express, and that there may be advantages that I just haven't realized yet to using performance-capture in certain films. Is there a reason that this technique was chosen for Beowulf instead of traditional computer animation or live-action? (And don't worry - this certainly won't keep me from seeing the film!)

I also just wanted to let you know how much I admire you. You're an incredible author, and (from reading your blog regularly) I know that you're also an incredible person. It's comforting to know that I can respect you as much as your writing. Thanks for everything!

- Jess

Hi Jess. I think the thing you're failing to take into account here is the speed of technological progress they're making on this stuff. At least from my conversations with Bob, he feels that Polar Express was the v. 1.0 of what he's trying to do, and that Monster House (which he's producing but not directing) will be version 1.5, and Beowulf will be, at the least, version 2.0 (It's going to be released in October 2007, remember). So while all your criticisms have weight, at least from Bob Zemeckis's point of view they're like someone complaining that early talkies sound unrealistic and lose the dreamlike resonance of the silents, or that colour movies with their big, immovable cameras and static shots are incapable of capturing the painting in shadows-and-light-and-silver capacity of black and white films.

Neither argument was entirely wrong, but it missed what the new technologies would be able to do instead, which leads me to suspect that arguing from a perspective of technical limitations seems a bit problematic. I think it's a very good bet, based on everything I've seen so far, to assume that the problems of Final Fantasy or Polar Express aren't going to be the problems of Beowulf. Which is not to say that Beowulf won't have and create its own new set of problems.

Personally, I miss some of the things Roger and I had in the script when it was live action, but also cannot wait to see some of the things that we came up with once, er, liberated from the flesh, for the motion capture incarnation.

The part of the technology that fascinates me most is simply that as a filmmaker you are no longer tied to the physical shape and size and age of an actor to have that actor perform for you. I don't think I'm giving too much away when I say that the actor playing Beowulf doesn't look like a heroic 20 year old, any more than he looks like a muscular, scarred, but still preserved 70 year old. On the other hand, he's an amazing actor. I love that he still gets to play the character at both sides of his life, and that he actually gets to perform it, not just "do the voice". (As a note on performance capture, I was fascinated at the animation panel at Sundance to see not only that Andy Serkis' Gollum was performance capture, but how much of it was performance capture -- that every expression and motion and tic and hiss was Serkis's, not the animators.)

It may well be that performance capture is going to be viewed, a hundred years from now, as a blind alley that a few people went down for a time, and as relevant and as interesting to what's going on as Smell-o-vision or Sensurround. But I don't think it will be, just as I don't think it'll be The one and only Future of Filmmaking. I think it's a really interesting area and only if a few obsessed filmmakers (like, in this case, Bob Zemeckis) go off and explore it, they can come back with interesting discoveries.

So that's what I think. We'll both find out what worked and what didn't in October 2007...


I just have to say this: Everyone says that Gollum is undoubtedly the best example of what Mo-cap can do. I don't buy it. With Gollum they hired Andy Serkis not just supply the voice, but go in and do what actors do. Figure out the character, who he is, where he came from what his feelings are behind every line, posturing, etc. Everything that you can find in a good Stanislavski or Uta Hagen "Method Acting" book. That is what Serkis brought to the character. I have no doubt that if you removed mo-cap from the equation and had Serkis work with the animators you would have gotten the same results, if not better.

That, and the large body of work that the animators had to do to get "every expression and motion and tic and hiss" to read.

But then again you should probably ask someone who actually worked on the film.

That said, they did use Mo-cap in LOTR in a way that really impressed me. It was with the early pre-viz work. It was when they handed Jackson a stick with a capture ball on it and gave him VR goggles. The stick became the camera and he was able to shoot on set (virtually). That was most impressive use of mo-cap in the film. (In my humble opinion)


There's a follow up by Neil, follow this link if your interested:



jason said...

haha ha. hhaaaaa hah.


so who was the expert on this "animation panel" at sundance?

I hate the fact that for some reason certain directors/producers/etc like to think of animators as a "pain that would rather be avoided" (my quotes, not theirs), than as actors themselves.

melanie said...

As someone else who worked on the film, and on Gollum specifically... you can ask me too.

Anyone who says that Gollum was 100% performance capture, is either trying to sell Andy Serkus, or basing their information on false info.

Anonymous said...

I love how Gaiman says "liberated from the flesh", and then refers to mocap.

Let's see... Let's tie the character down to the actor's physical limitations, and then let's chain some animators to their workstations so they can slave away cleaning up the actor's mistakes. Sounds like liberation to me!

Ward Jenkins said...

Oh dear Lord. It's the beast that'll never die! Mo-cap haunts me in my sleep... Zemeckis just needs to wake up from the fog that he's currently lurking about in.