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Avatars Anyone?
   Upgrading Movies to 'Near Reality'
   by T.B. Meek

It was purported that George Lucas held off on the second Star Wars trilogy until computer generated effect technology was advanced enough to address his ambitions for the series. The result however, was not up to the caliber that eager fans of the groundbreaking original trio had longed for. What they got was the loquacious, ebonic jabber of Jar Jar Binks, the big rubbery, computer spawned, humanoid duck, who seemed unreal onscreen, though more alive than some of his wooden human counterparts (Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman). Worse however, was the preposterous scene where Binks and his ducky comrades battled a phalanx of droid storm troopers. There’s not a human in sight and the entire battle sequence looks like a cheesy animation project hacked out by a teen on the household PC.

That was seven years ago. Lucas’s endeavor sparked talk about films being made without actors or sets, where the environment and players would simply be digital renderings. Final Fantasy (2001) was one of the first to make that leap and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004), was unique in its way of pasting live actors into an ‘other world,’ yet neither movie made audiences or filmmakers forget thespian craft and live flesh and blood emoting.

That said Andy Serkis did deliver knockouts as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings series, and later as King Kong in Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake of the classic ape yarn. Also noteworthy were the interpolated-rotoscoping techniques that Slacker director Richard Linklater applied to Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006), which for all intents and purposes transformed live action film into a trippy 2D cartoon.

Then in 2004, Robert Zemeckis dropped The Polar Express and “performance capture” animation on audiences. The rich 3D rendering proved as wondrous as the enchanting children’s Christmas story the film was based on. As the titled train’s conductor Tom Hanks was transmuted into a glabrous, colorized version of himself. What’s on screen, like Serkis as Gollum, isn’t really Hanks. Essentially the actor provides the voice, likeness and physical movements for the character. The computer sucks in all this information, allowing for further input from the director and animators, and after some intense CPU crunching, spits out the synthetic onscreen doppelganger.

With his latest, the retelling of the Olde English poem, Beowulf, Zemeckis takes “performance capture” technology to the next level. The normally portly Ray Winston is transformed into the Adonis chiseled hero of the title, and the first time we see a nearly nude Anthony Hopkins as King Hrothgar, it takes a while to figure out it’s not the Oscar winning actor in the flesh, but his avatar. Of course, in Winstone’s case, a young, more athletic stallion was used to get much of the Beowulf character’s physicality up on the screen. The grit and real world quality of the experience is much improved from The Polar Express. But even so, as you are hurled into the teeth of the Zemeckis’s animated wizardry, there’s something not quite genuine enough to make you believe that it’s something more than a Pixar production or an Entertainment Arts videogame straining its steroid injected hardest to emulate carbon life forms. It nags you. It’s not readily apparent as to why, but as the story builds and you see the characters in close-ups more and more, it hits you. The eyes have it.

Quint’s description of a shark’s eyes in Jaws, as being “cold and lifeless” is dead on. How many times have you ever walked through a Best Buy and can’t tell if the basketball or football game unfurling on the gigantic flat screen before you is an actual flesh and blood contest or digital fantasy? As you walk closer, flip-flopping your conclusion, the truth becomes clear. The eyes give it away. They don’t move, and when they do, it’s not natural.

When you’ve got a warrior battling trolls and dragons, or a legion of elves frolicking about the North Pole, audiences come to the screen with a ready willingness to suspend disbelief. That’s the nature of fantasy. Zemeckis’s slick chicanery would not wash per se if Atonement were produced with “performance capture.” When it comes to drama or something deep felt and visceral, people want to see the characters pour themselves out on screen. They want real tears, real blood and the tortured, twisted lines on one’s face as tragedy befalls them. It’s an emotional moment that viewers want to connect with and no computer in Hollywood or Silicon Valley can provide that. Not today.

It is also the fantastical that has garnered Serkis with such opportunity for success. In the afore cited examples he’s playing a nonhuman life form that exists only in the recesses of the creator’s mind. And with advancements in technology, the rendering that the computers can cook up today is far superior than most of the hokey incarnations staged yesteryear—no disrespect intended for James Cameron’s magic in the Terminator series or the dinos in Jurassic Park and I would make the argument that Lucas did better with the first trilogy, than the second if we’re talking simply about transporting and audience to a world that is believable.

With such leaps in technology it seems almost inevitable that some day a computer will be able to suck up all Jack Nicholson’s performances from an online film archive and return his artificial likeness onscreen, in any setting or any form. Imagine having the Jack who consumed the screen in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest on tap for any and all future productions? Such a resource might be too much of a good thing; a preverbal bottomless box of chocolates.

No, audiences need new blood. Jack will remain enshrined in his rightful cinematic pantheon and viewers will continue to require a deep emotional connection from films embodying the challenge of the human spirit in the material world. That’s not to discount the power of computers in filmmaking, they’ll still fill in and elevate those bump-in-the-night, deep-space and future world thrillers to a higher level of “near reality.”

T. B. Meek


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