Saturday, November 17, 2007

In animation... the Eyes have it.


As Beowulf slashes it's way into movie theaters this weekend, all the talk is about that slashing coming right off the screen in fabulous 3D, so little attention is being focused on an argument going on behind the scenes... is this animation? You may say "who cares", but the fact is there are lots of people perplexed by the process that Robert Zemeckis and Sony's Imageworks animation studio have used to render Ray Winston from a pretty ordinary guy into a buff nordic action-hero. Is motion-capture, the process where sensors read body and face movements into a computer while the actor is acting, a legitimate form of animation? And as such, should a film made primarily using motion-capture technology, be eligible for the Academy Awards® animation Oscar or for that matter, excluded from being considered alongside standard "live action" fare?

So it is that the Zemeckis / Sony system used for Beowulf, which began with Zemeckis' Monster House, and later famously used for The Polar Express, has come under closer scrutiny for it's flaws rather than it's sophistication. The case in point has become Sony's own admission that there's something lacking. It's all in the eyes.

As reported on Forbes.com, journalist Rachel Rosmarin characterized critics of the two earlier animated films as being "disturbed by the creepy, soulless eyes put into characters faces...". In an interview with Kenn McDonald, Sony Picture Imageworks' animation supervisor, McDonald said, "We took that criticism to heart". Their idea for a solution? The Imageworks team turned to a technique developed in sports medicine called electrooculography. In this process electrodes are attached to the actors eyes, then that info is blended with the 121 facial muscle motion-capture nodes already applied to the actor's face, to measure even the most minute muscle movements. Imageworks also had specialists come in to chat about "eye construction and the psychology and physiology of eye movement." And to think, all Walt Disney could think of was to bring barn animals into the studio to teach his animators to observe natural movement.

After all of this, Rosmarin reports that Sony's visual effects supervisor, Jerome Chen, commented on the results by saying, "The eyes in Beowulf are more successful. I never envisioned we could get this real. But for some people there might be moments that don't work". Let that sink in for a moment (that whole "might be moments" thing). Yes, that was the visual effects supervisor speaking. I wonder how stone cold dead the eyes of Sony's executives looked when they heard that one. 

Bottom line is that Sony's Imageworks is approaching an artform as if they were building a new video game controller. They are way out of their league and clearly have no instincts on how to proceed. Art is created by artists, not sophisticated machines and clever algorithms. Supervision of talent requires an understanding of that talent and backing by a company that sees that understanding as second nature. Sony's inability to grasp this must be the source of waves of laughter over at Pixar, Warner and Dreamworks.

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