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« Rewriting (Art) History | Main | TV Alert »

December 02, 2002

Digital Dreams


You’ve touched on the topic of digital photography, both still and movie version, commenting on the perceptual differences between pixels and film. I noticed a story in the L.A. Times (which you can read here) dealing with what appears to be another step along this path:

Now, [Robert] Zemeckis is threatening to go further still [than in his films “Roger Rabbit” or “Forrest Gump”], changing the very core of the moviemaking process in a little-known project called “The Polar Express.” The plan this time is to create a live-action movie without filming any true “live” action. All of the scenes in “The Polar Express” will be shot with digital cameras in front of a blank screen, with sets to be filled in later by computers. The actors will be covered in motion-capture sensors so that each move of an arm, each flicker of an eyelid and each wrinkle of a lip will be stored on a computer and used as guide for the digital animators who will create the actual movie footage…Unlike digitally animated movies such as “Final Fantasy” and “Shrek,” which relied heavily on motion-capture technology to create fictitious characters, the team behind “Polar Express” is striving to create images that actually look like the well-known actors who will “star” in the film.

I presume that the effort to animate real actors (who could far more easily and cheaply step in front of a movie camera) is the result of a desire to integrate recognizable actors into the graphic style of “Polar Express” author and illustrator, Chris Van Allsburg.

C. Van Allsburg, Jumanji (details)

I have no idea how successful this effort will be—the story mentions that some of the high tech tools needed to pull this off are still under development with filming less than three months away—but I’ve decided to take a wait and see attitude here.

This requires some self-control on my part. My first reaction was a rather dyspeptic voice in my head: All this digital special effects stuff is just a way for studios to keep raising the ante as their business position is being undercut by the spread of cheap digital technology. The competitive advantage Hollywood studios bring to making movies is financial—they can afford a $200 million budget, unlike most folks—and they want to keep cineplex audiences used to complex effects like this in order to wall out the more sparsely financed competition. But my second thought was a memory of how intrigued I was by the backgrounds in “Snow White” which, unlike most other animated films I’ve seen, were done in a watercolor style that emphasized their artificiality, their incorporeality, their—for want of a better word—watercoloriness. Think what that film might have been like (as a visual experience, anyway) if the same technique could have been applied to the figures as well.

And then I remembered a conversation I’d had talking about aircraft simulators, of all things, with a colleague who was also an art buff. He’d started riffing on being able to program a simulator so you could go zooming around inside various paintings, including Rubens’ highly inventive “portrait” of his home, the Chateau de Steen. “Wow,” he remarked (speaking as the pilot of the simulator), “it’s mighty nice in here.”

P. Rubens, Chateau de Steen

Hey, I can always dream, can’t I? That someday we’ll get ourselves a visual talent like Rubens who’ll make movies using devices like this?

Or am I just fooling myself?



posted by Friedrich at December 2, 2002


Still, I'm curious to see how it turns out.

Posted by: Anna on December 2, 2002 8:13 PM

Fascinating, thanks.

You might get a kick out of looking at Eric Rohmer's recent movie -- er, can't think of the title. "The Lady and the Duke," maybe? Tale of an English aristocratic lady trapped in Paris during the Revolution, very dull and boring. But Rohmer had the exteriors done in a fascinating way -- huge flats, painted in the style of neoclassical city-view paintings, with the (small) crowds and actors digitally laid on top, and with occasional odd, live touches behind too. I remember one image with live actors, then the painting, and behind some of the painted trees, some ducks or geese (obviously live, so to speak) flew by.

A fun idea -- put your actors playing period characters into paintings that seem to be from that period. The story was a bore, though, and the images (shot digitally, assembled in the computer) lacked sparkle. I find that the quality of light is one of the biggest problem with computer-and-tape. It seems dead, or flourescent -- I always feel like I'm in a badly-lit corridor.

Oh, and one of the reasons the studios have been pursuing digital characters and animation so fervently is that they'd like to do without stars. They hate it that the top stars can get 20 mill, and they hate it that the top stars get to run the production. The studios want to be boss -- and digital characters don't give any lip.

Of course, I read recently that for "Shrek 2" Jeffrey Katzenberg has agreed to pay Eddie Murphy and Cameron Diaz 10(ish) million each, just for voice work...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 3, 2002 12:21 AM

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