Thursday, November 5, 2009

Why I Will Not Be Seeing A Christmas Carol

As you've probably already noticed if you have watched live television this year or been to the movies, Robert Zemeckis, the mind behind Back to the Future, Forrest Gump and Castaway, has remade A Christmas Carol this holiday season. Others can debate the merits in remaking a story that has no fewer than 20 IMDB entries to its credit, I'd like to address the use of Motion Capture as a viable film technique.

Two prior films have been released using the "MoCap" process in recent years, starting with The Polar Express (2004) and most recently, the big screen adaptation of Beowulf (2007). Motion Capture involves the filming of live actors performing scenes, and then translating that movement onto a digital model. Different than Rotoscoping (used often by Richard Linklater in Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly and those stupid Merril Lynch commercials), the movements of the actors are translated into a purely computer generated model, whereas rotoscoping uses the captured movements as a guide for the hand drawn animation overlayed upon it.

Motion Capture has been the gold standard in videogaming for years because it has several advantages. First, it can capture results quickly, allowing videogame manufacturers to save time and money associated with employing an entire team of CGI engineers. Secondly, and most important for videogaming, Motion Capture technology does a tremendous job recreating facial features and a wide array of lifelike movements which traditional CGI has a very difficult time replicating. This is vital when you are creating a sports game and the athletes need to look and move exactly like they do in reality. However, when motion capture technology goes beyond the realm of videogames, it markedly loses steam.

Issues that you wouldn't typically notice in a videogame, really begin to stand out when you attempt to make a feature length film using motion capture. Most glaringly are the eyes of the characters. I never realized how expressive eyes were until I looked into the eyes of the CGI Tom Hanks in the Polar Express and felt pure terror. For some reason, when you slap CGI skin onto a computer model, the eyes become dulled and hollow, looking eerily like revived dolls hell-bent on killing you and your family. Not a great attribute for a children's film. I think the people involved may have realized this, as they made significant strides in Beowulf, but the facial characteristics still felt a little "off". With A Christmas Carol, it seems as though they gave up completely on recreating faces, instead attempting to make Scrooge look "cartoonish", but really just making him look gruesome. Secondly, every film featuring motion capture has been an adaptation of a book, taking fantastical stories that were successful because they allowed children to employ a little imagination and attempted to root them in reality. In a desperate attempt to reconcile destroying childhood memories, the films have been released in 3D, and feature plenty of gimmicks to distract you from their shortcomings.

There are new film techniques coming out every other week, but at the end of the day a film needs to tell a story effectively. If you want to use professional actors, film the film and use CGI when it's appropriate. If you want it to be more lively, use CGI and let your imagination run wild. Unfortunately, Zemeckis and company have their hands so completely tied trying to make plastic actors look human that they have no choice but to adapt a book and use 3D gimmickry rather than come up with an original, thoughtful story. Until motion-capture can change course, it will never rise above the sphere of the console.

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