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The Emperor's New Clothes

I know I must be alone in this, and I know that there is nothing I can do about it except eventually accept it and go with it, but I do feel that I am waving at a computer-generated Emperor and politely telling him that he is wearing no clothes...

Barry Purves © Bare Boards Productions

I know I must be alone in this, and I know that there is nothing I can do about it except eventually accept it and go with it, but I do feel that I am waving at a computer-generated Emperor and politely telling him that he is wearing no clothes. Sadly, I feel I am deafened by the surrounding crowd saying how lovely the Emperor's clothes are, and how his wardrobe will never be the same again. I am sure it won't, but I still remain to be convinced that his wardrobe will be better.

I have a basic psychological problem with computer-generated animation, in that as soon as I am aware of any involvement of computers, a huge barrier comes between me and the screen. I can sit there and be wonderfully impressed and dazzled by the technology, but I cannot get beyond that. However spectacular the images and effects are, there is something nagging away in my mind that says, "Oh, it's computers." and I dismiss it.

I realize this does an enormous disservice to the skill and artistry behind the images, and says more about my own naiveté, my stubborn technical illiteracy and fear of things I do not understand, but the more complex the "magic" becomes, the less magical it feels. I just accept these effects without seeing any wonder in them.

If I sit in a theater, and I am presented with the illusion of a magician sawing his assistant in half, and placing the two halves at either end of the stage, that impresses me. I know it is only a trick, but with the performers physically in front of me, and with the limitations of the stage itself, I know the boundaries of what is possible, yet they have appeared to go beyond these. I have been happily tricked.

But if the same illusion happens on a piece of film, I am not impressed as I subconsciously know it has all been done with clever editing, or computers have erased any tell-tale part of the image that would have given the game away, or it could have been filmed over a period longer than suggested, and various body doubles replaced.

Reversing the situation, if an animator was to animate a complex dance sequence with huge leaps and jumps, it does not impress as much as its live-action equivalent when you know the physical limitations and gravity the dance has to overcome, but which an animator is not troubled with and can ignore.

I am no longer impressed by Stallone, on film, hanging from an edge of a mountain, when I know that computers have erased thick steel hawsers supporting him, and the sheer drop does not exist and has been generated by a computer. The so-called reality of film is somewhat less than real.

One of the Great Fallacies

That the camera never lies has proved to be one of the great fallacies of the twentieth century. It now seems that the camera nearly always lies and certainly cannot be trusted anymore, and sadly, I feel that I can no longer believe anything I see. This is totally disorienting.

Knowing that publicity photos are nearly always retouched, can I believe that a certain model really has such blue eyes, or that her waist is really so ludicrously small? Should I meet this model, how disappointed I would be in her dull grey eyes and spreading waistline.

Knowing that politicians can be diplomatically removed from incriminating photographs at the press of a few buttons, what can we trust?

I think what basically worries me is that computer technology and image manipulation has now removed the boundaries of what is possible, and when anything is possible, I am no longer thrilled and excited. Knowing there are no limits, my brain is dulled and no longer surprised, let alone involved. I personally am far more in awe of what George Méliés achieved a hundred years ago, with his enormous technical restrictions than some of the special effects laden epics of today.

This is probably my loss, as computers are now such a major and inevitable part of film production, and everyone says that they are just a tool for the artist. But I can't help feeling that it leads to unimaginative shortcuts and a certain sloppiness. Location managers no longer have to find the absolutely right location when the modern railroad ruining their pastoral landscape can be removed in postproduction. So what if there were not the clouds in the sky that the director would have liked-press a button and there they are. This may, of course, make more financial sense than having a crew wait around for the right clouds, but some directors could have improvised with the clouds they had and come up with something better than expected.

Pushing the Limits

But having said all that, of all the recent films that have used computer animation, the one that impressed me the most is Babe. It pushes what could almost be possible to its limits, but does not go beyond. The mouth movements of the animals are so understated, and so well married to the live-action, that you do not question that they are talking. If the computer animators had given them more exaggerated Disneyesque expressions, it would not have fitted the live-action element, and the whole film would have fallen to pieces.

I have to say that I feel Babe is an absolute masterpiece; a film that is led by its story and characters, and where the effects serve the film and are almost invisible. Of Jumanji, I do not feel the same admiration at all. The basic story seems flawed and incidental to me; I cannot actually work out just how the game is played or what the game element is. But supposedly that does not matter, just sit back and enjoy the special effects.

Again, I feel the animals that work the best in the live-action settings are the ones that do not push the credibility over the edge. The expressions of the monkeys are absurd and lose credibility very quickly; the charging rhinos, however, are all too credible, with some wonderfully detailed and quirky movement as they crash into each other.

Babe © 1995 Universal City Studios, Inc.

Of Toy Story, I am in total awe, as it is such a well told story, its gags so perfectly timed, and its characters so rich and true. That it is all computer generated is almost incidental. The film is so well directed and seamlessly constructed that it could work in any medium. There are a few awkward moments with the humans who still look less credible than the toys, but that is nitpicking.

What is unique toToy Story, and where the computer technology scores over any other methods, is its freedom of camera movement and camera angles, but again this is all motivated by the story. Too many films are showing off the technology's capabilities, without necessarily finding a justification for them-the incessant morphing of the headgear in Stargate comes immediately to mind.

Bridging the Gap

As part of that extinct race of dinosaurs known as model animators (and how ironic that a dinosaur is really making us extinct!), it is fascinating to actually study computer animation. Traditional cel animation and model animation have their own qualities, and now computers are somewhere in between, bridging the gap.

Drawn characters are full of stretch and squash, and their elastic anatomy works in their own stylized world. Against the drawn backgrounds, it is easy to accept a character rushing away with its legs taking a beating to catch up. Model characters work less well when they try this, unless, like Nick Park's wonderful characters, they are heavily stylized to begin with. The convention set by their accentuated mouth shapes carries through to their bodies, but even with Wallace and Gromit they could only stretch so far. A 10 ton weight that flattens a drawn character cannot flatten a model character without this convention being clearly established.

Barry Purves' Next © Bare Board Productions

Model characters have a stronger psychological reality, because we can see that they do exist physically, especially when they relate to their environment, and we expect them to react within certain physical boundaries. When they cross these boundaries, the effect is naturally humorous.

I have tried, with my own work, which cannot really be described as humorous, to see how far I can push what is credible with puppets. It clearly depends on how stylized the puppets are, and how stylized their environment is. With my film Next, I initially thought of the film as interpreting each of Shakespeare's plays as a series of wild gags, often involving Shakespeare detaching a limb or his own head to be used as a prop, and then miraculously appearing complete in the next scene. This may have worked with a drawn, or even a caricatured claymation Shakespeare, but as soon as our puppet was designed, I realized that his detail and "realism" would not allow for this.

Such humor as there is in the film comes from the character doing realistic things in an environment that appears to be realistic but proves to be very elastic. Just where do all those props come from, and how does he appear to be leaving the stage and coming on the other side at the same time? What he does looks almost possible-if I had made his actions totally impossible, the film would have been a very different, less elegant film.

Barry Purves' Achilles © Bare Boards Productions 1995

With Screen Play and Achilles, I laid my cards on the table, and said that this film is all going to happen within this confined area, but out of these boundaries will conjure up the illusion of different images. It's the "before your very eyes" thing again. It is this slight of hand that interests me, but I cannot see a way of combining it with computers.

Computer characters have some of the characteristics of both drawn and model animation (as shown in The Mask), but I still have the feeling that, again, anything is possible, and that they don't actually exist in any tangible form; and this for me, destroys their credibility. I certainly did not, for one second, believe in the CGI creature in Species, and so failed to be scared by it. The men-in-suits creature at the beginning of the film was far more credible and scary, but it clearly was there in the same space as the actors.

Nine Months on Mars Attacks!

I have just spent nine months in Hollywood working as Animation Director on the Warner Bros.' Mars Attacks! This has been an incredible education into the workings of a feature film, but a very disturbing experience to see how things are led by money and studio politics. The contents of the film itself, seems such a small priority. I was also surprised at how terrified anyone was of that word "Culture," but that's another story.

The live-action film, Mars Attacks!, is a War of the Worlds story, with Martians invading America. Anything to do with Martians and their flying saucers was originally intended to be stop frame puppets, with the whole film conceived as a homage to Ray Harryhausen and those wonderful, simple monster movies of the 50s and 60s.

The Martians were to be seen both in heavy spacesuits reacting with live-action characters on Earth, and in a near naked state in their own totally animated environment, in their spaceships. The animation tests of the naked Martians were looking good and suitably creepy. We had spent months working on bizarre little Martian gestures and ways of moving. The suited Martians were less convincing as we were working in something of a vacuum, with no live-action action to play against, but this would have come with more rehearsal. We were animating puppets in an empty space, with takes lasting up to 20 seconds, when probably, in the film the same Martians would only have been glimpsed in a quickly edited sequence with a whole load of other business going on. Little wonder that the puppets crumbled under such cruel exposure.

However, the film ran into serious script problems which sent the whole production months behind schedule and over boarding, and with the live-action having to be shot after most of the animation. In a flash the whole model animation team, puppets, sets and facilities were dispensed, to be replaced, eventually, by computer generated Martians.

Trying to Be Objective

Trying to be objective about what effect this will have on the film, I do think it was a mistaken decision. The feeling of the film will now be very different, and any idea of an homage has to be lost. The suited Martians on Earth will, I agree, probably look more convincingly related to their environment, but I shall be interested to see how, perhaps, a limb will have slightly stretch, in order to match a live-action actor's movements.

The computer work will allow for a lot of fitting in with the live-action, and for last minute decisions to be made (decisions that really should have been made in preproduction), and the whole thing will look very slick. I shall be interested, too, to see if they resist throwing in every trick in the book, just because those tricks can be done.

Of the scenes inside the saucers, with the naked Martians, this is where I am most concerned that the computers will fail. All these scenes depended on the acting abilities of the animators. Here the Martians really had to be convincing and have their own body language and peculiar little gestures, unlike anything we have seen.

This is where I think the team of animators I had assembled for the film would have excelled. We ignored animators' reels where everything was all flashy images, and instead concentrated on reels where characters were acting.

There is no doubt, after Toy Story and any of John Lasseter's films, that computer characters can act (mainly because John's staff are actors/animators first, and technicians second), but I do feel that the sustained closeups needed for these scenes would have been perfect for model animation.

A Unique Edge

Model animation, by its very process, has a slight unpredictability and spontaneous feel to it-even the animators cannot exactly predict where the puppet will go-and this does give it a unique edge. With drawn and computer animation you can feel the character moving from plotted key position to key position. Puppet animation evolves in a unique way, and this certainly would have helped the Martians.

Because of the one-to-one relationship between an animator and puppet in the actual process of animation, a lot of the character and the passion of the animator himself goes straight into the puppet and its performance. It is the most purely personal and honest form of animation (often revealing surprising aspects of the animator's personality), and acting is the most undiluted, whereas with drawn and computer animation, it is, to some extent, animation by committee. There are, of necessity, so many more people involved, and something really does get lost on the way.

I also get the feeling that computer characters have to keep moving-certainly on the evidence so far, perhaps, a held closeup would reveal too much. Puppets do not need to be remodeled each frame, and can take long unsustained shots.

Barry Purves' Rigoletto © Bare Boards Productions

There is no doubt that computer characters do have some enormous advantages over puppets-they do not have to be secured to the floor; they do not have to be suspended on wires when they jump; wearing of clothes or a long cloak do not get in the way of the animation process; a move can be erased in the animator is less than happy (and an animator knowing he can always do something again makes him, unconsciously, work at less than a hundred percent, like an actor at a dress rehearsal); and so on; but there is still something missing. I still do not believe they are there. I do not feel I could reach out and touch them. The slickness and sophistication of computers somehow removes the characters from reality, and in my mind, destroys their credibility and thus my involvement in their story.

Comparing the new James and the Giant Peach (though I have only seen a rough cut) and Toy Story, I really did so warm to the former's characters-it is easy for me to believe in them and their world, because I can almost touch them. The Toy Story characters, however brilliantly animated and designed, are still distanced, for me, by the slickness and feel of computers.

Energy and Spontaneity

Up until about six years ago, I would always animate without any form of video recording playback or a monitor for reference, and I probably feel that I did my best animation under those conditions. My concentration was more focused, and I made sure that I was certain of every movement, or believed in every gesture, before I animated it, and I would do a shot in a complete session without breaking and losing attention.

Now, with sophisticated equipment, I have the chance to look at a movement and wonder whether it is too large or too small, and analyze it endlessly and immediately all manner of doubt and choices are planted in my head, and the original spirit and instinct can be lost. I can break a shot and go for a break, play back the tape, and carry on, but the impetus is lost.

Wherever possible, I strive to make each take the equivalent of a live performance, and hope that some of that energy and spontaneity comes across. Computers, sadly, come across as too rehearsed, controlled and rather cold.

Working on a test on Mars Attacks!, marrying animation into a live-action scene, all the technology involved made me feel I was trying to recite a speech from Hamlet whilst someone was shouting telephone numbers directly into my face. It was hard work, impossible to concentrate, and probably the performance suffered.

I did find, on the film, everyone had an absolute consuming compassion for the new technology; and too often it made things so unnecessarily complicated, with the original intentions getting lost in the process.

In my own work, I am striving to get back to what animation is about-the acting of the characters. Achilles was an attempt to make a film where I could concentrate on the acting, unhindered by any technology.

There probably always will be a small band of model animators around, but we will now be regarded with quaint curiosity-in the same way that people look at writers who still write with pens. Today, it seems, the method of writing is of more interest than the words that are actually written.

Barry Purves is a Manchester-based filmmaker who is now developing a feature based on Benjamin Britten's opera, Noye's Fludde, for his company, Bare Boards Productions.

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