Tuesday, June 21, 2005

mostly a pondering on motion capture

Maddy and I appear to be in Glasgow. We had dinner with Julian Crouch, and enjoyed the peculiar evening daylight of the longest day.

Am typing on the Panasonic W4 and am not quite used to the keyboard yet. It's a lovely piece of equipment, though, and so light and compact I almost left it on the plane. Today it got a real 8 hours of battery life, although I expect that'll decrease somewhat as time goes on. I forgot a bunch of things I should have put on the computer in the rush to get out of the house, and something seems to have screwed up some of the email settings, but I'm sure I'll get it all sorted out.

Neil,I see you're going to be at the MOA on Oct. 10th. Any chance we'll also get a DreamHaven signing? That would be great.Thanks.Garrick Dietze

(MOA is the Mall of America, by the way.) I think the annual DreamHaven signing will probably be at the end of November, although I'll make sure DreamHaven has signed stuff for everyone. (Actually I did this last week and forgot to mention it -- for details, which is DreamHaven's stuff by me website.) As soon as the Mall of America signing is done, I'll be on my way to the UK to be around if they need me for Beowulf dialogue issues *and to watch it being filmed).

I'm curious as to why Beowulf is being made as a performance-capture piece. Was there an artistic reason for this choice or does Zemeckis just want to play more with his new toy?

I ask this because I'm not fond of the idea of performance-capture - I think it wastes a lot of the possibilities of animation and gives animators less chance to create their own characters. However, I admit that I did not see Polar Express, and that there may be advantages that I just haven't realized yet to using performance-capture in certain films. Is there a reason that this technique was chosen for Beowulf instead of traditional computer animation or live-action? (And don't worry - this certainly won't keep me from seeing the film!)

I also just wanted to let you know how much I admire you. You're an incredible author, and (from reading your blog regularly) I know that you're also an incredible person. It's comforting to know that I can respect you as much as your writing. Thanks for everything!

- Jess

Hi Jess. I think the thing you're failing to take into account here is the speed of technological progress they're making on this stuff. At least from my conversations with Bob, he feels that Polar Express was the v. 1.0 of what he's trying to do, and that Monster House (which he's producing but not directing) will be version 1.5, and Beowulf will be, at the least, version 2.0 (It's going to be released in October 2007, remember). So while all your criticisms have weight, at least from Bob Zemeckis's point of view they're like someone complaining that early talkies sound unrealistic and lose the dreamlike resonance of the silents, or that colour movies with their big, immovable cameras and static shots are incapable of capturing the painting in shadows-and-light-and-silver capacity of black and white films.

Neither argument was entirely wrong, but it missed what the new technologies would be able to do instead, which leads me to suspect that arguing from a perspective of technical limitations seems a bit problematic. I think it's a very good bet, based on everything I've seen so far, to assume that the problems of Final Fantasy or Polar Express aren't going to be the problems of Beowulf. Which is not to say that Beowulf won't have and create its own new set of problems.

Personally, I miss some of the things Roger and I had in the script when it was live action, but also cannot wait to see some of the things that we came up with once, er, liberated from the flesh, for the motion capture incarnation.

The part of the technology that fascinates me most is simply that as a filmmaker you are no longer tied to the physical shape and size and age of an actor to have that actor perform for you. I don't think I'm giving too much away when I say that the actor playing Beowulf doesn't look like a heroic 20 year old, any more than he looks like a muscular, scarred, but still preserved 70 year old. On the other hand, he's an amazing actor. I love that he still gets to play the character at both sides of his life, and that he actually gets to perform it, not just "do the voice". (As a note on performance capture, I was fascinated at the animation panel at Sundance to see not only that Andy Serkis' Gollum was performance capture, but how much of it was performance capture -- that every expression and motion and tic and hiss was Serkis's, not the animators.)

It may well be that performance capture is going to be viewed, a hundred years from now, as a blind alley that a few people went down for a time, and as relevant and as interesting to what's going on as Smell-o-vision or Sensurround. But I don't think it will be, just as I don't think it'll be The one and only Future of Filmmaking. I think it's a really interesting area and only if a few obsessed filmmakers (like, in this case, Bob Zemeckis) go off and explore it, they can come back with interesting discoveries.

So that's what I think. We'll both find out what worked and what didn't in October 2007...