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Yes, But is It Animation?

With the growth of motion/performance capture, Oscar-winning animator Gene Deitch contemplates the future of animation.

Although mocap will not be the end of work for animators, perhaps it will put an end to creative animation. All images © 2007 Paramount Pictures and Shangri-La Ent., LLC. All rights reserved.

OK, mocap. As a movie-making tool, its extremely useful. Just for one thing, it will prevent many deaths and injuries to stunt persons, as well as simultaneously putting them out of work.

What Im concerned about is that, if motion capture is perceived as a form of animation, it could put me and my animation colleagues out of work. Im personally split on this. On the one hand, Im a passionate technology freak, and mocap is currently the most wondrous gadget available. But on the other hand, as an artist of sorts, Id be happier if mocap would not push into my turf.

I recently saw the goggled 3D Beowulf, which was playing at one of the two IMAX theaters in Prague. To my mind, its a generally worthless film, slathered in the current peak of motion-capture capabilities. The end title listed many animators, so we cant say that mocap will be the end of work for animators only perhaps the end of creative animation.

I see animation closely linked to imagination. Animation has no business trying to imitate live action, and live action (however wrapped in digitizing buttons), has no business trying to imitate animation. We animators can animate absolutely anything we can imagine. We are graphic artists, and graphic art can be wildly anything. What we cant do is what mocap can do. I enjoy seeing what they can do, and they are eager to show us.

Facing the Future

Of the mass of new exotic functions listed in the credit titles of Beowulf, one caught my eye: Facial Wrangler.

What dya wanna be when you grow up, son?

I want to be a facial wrangler, Dad!

I guess therell soon be a course for that. Facial wrangling indeed has an ominous future.

But of course there was much, much more. As an IMAX feature, what the movie is all about, basically, is spears zooming at your eye, arrows shooting at you, dragon flames belching into your face, stones and bodies hurtling at you. Thats what the film was basically about and it does it superbly.

And, yeah, its a great technical advance in the attempt to create fairly realistic human figures out of pixels, but the joke is that not only do the mocap figures look like excellent quality mannequins, but that even the real Angelina Jolie is made to look like a mannequin!

The saddest note is that there is only one laugh in the entire movie: Beowulf just barely misses getting his private parts pronged as he falls toward the metal tip of a spire and, oh yes, its also a bit funny how those same private parts are ingeniously masked as he fights the monster Grendel buck naked.

I suppose the justification for this technology is that this type of extreme-action fairy tale could only be made in this way. It would be too dangerous to do for even the bravest and most skilled stuntfolk.

Is it really technical advancement when Angelina Jolie is made to look like a mannequin?

But, hey, we should be able to do something more worthwhile, with the whole world of graphic art and cartoon storytelling at our pencil-tips, and even pixel-tips. Im by no means putting down CGI. Creating the illusion of motion and life frame by frame is what our particular and perhaps more modest magic is all about, whether created on punched paper or computer screen. That marvelous illusion of creating motion phase by phase goes back a millennium before film, and certainly will not succumb to any form of real-time gimmickry.

The problem we face today is one of definition and delineation. My guess is that just about any movie made today has some animation in it -- special-effects animation were not even supposed to notice.

We may simply have to give up trying to categorize films by their technical process of production, which will surely be more and more a mixed bag of tricks, and simply judge them as films. Do they tell a story worth telling, and do they tell it well? Thats really what movies are all about, isnt it?

Gene Deitch is one of the last surviving members of the original Hollywood UPA studio of 1946 and the instigator of the CBS-Terrytoons renaissance of 1956-1958. He was also animation department chief of the Detroit Jam Handy Organization, 1949-1951; creative chief of UPA-New York, 1951-1954; director at John Hubleys Storyboard Inc., New York, 1955; president of Gene Deitch Associates Inc., New York, 1958-1960; creative director for Rembrandt Films, 1960-1968; and star director for Weston Woods Studios, Inc., Weston, Connecticut, 1968-1993. He has worked for more than 40 years with the Prague animation studio, Bratri v Triku.