Back before the dawn of time when I was in college, there was a neighborhood a few blocks off campus of rental duplexes mostly inhabited by college kids. A lot of them had dogs, and the dogs would pal around together, running up and down in a pack between the duplexes. One of those dogs was Sebastian.
Sebastian was a boxer, about knee-high, and even though he had that grumpy, furrow-browed face boxers have, he was actually a sweet-natured, everybody-pet-me thing. Although he was the tallest of the dogs, he always had trouble keeping up with the rest of the pack because poor Sebastian only had three legs, having lost one after being hit by a car (in that politically incorrect way college kids have, we nicknamed him “Tripod” – insensitive, but granted with affection, I assure you).
Sebastian, as his name suggests, was a male, and I don’t think you have to be a dog fancier to know that male dogs pee by lifting a rear leg. What non-fanciers may not know is that males tend to always lift the same leg. Sebastian’s wont, as I remember, was to stand on his left while he lifted his right. The car accident had cost Sebastian his left rear leg; the one he was used to standing on.
Here’s the thing:
Common sense tells us, OK, the dog loses his left leg, why doesn’t he just pee out that way and stand on his good leg?
But as watchers of America’s Funniest Home Videos know, dogs – having a brain the size of a walnut – don’t always have a lot of common sense.
Sebastian had been standing on his left and raising his right since he was a pup, and that little walnut brain had managed to program itself to think that’s the way it was supposed to be, come hell or high water or missing limb. So, Sebastian learned to balance himself on his two front legs so he could continue to lift the one rear leg he still had and pee out in the same direction he’d always had.
I remember me and some of the other guys often sitting on one of the duplex porches watching Sebastian go into his two-legged stance (this was years before cable – our entertainment threshold was pretty low), and one or another of us would invariably pronounce some variation of, “That’s impressive…but stupid.”
As I’m looking over the Sound on Sight Twitter debate about whether or not The Adventures of Tintin should be considered an animated film or not, I’m reminded of Sebastian as I consider the whole concept of motion capture technology.
It is impressive, and I don’t think it’s stupid, but I still get stuck on the question of: Why?
Don’t get me wrong. There have been things done with motion capture I doubt could have been pulled off any other way: Gollum in The Lord of the Rings films, say, or Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011 — Caesar may be the best thing about Rise; maybe the only good thing, depending on your tastes). And so on. It does have a unique value.
But when I look at entire films done in motion capture –like The Polar Express (2004), Beowulf (2007), and now Tin Tin – I’m a little bit at a loss. How much of a difference would there be in these movies if they were completely digitally-animated films rather than mostly animated films with motion capture performers in the leads?
I’ll give you Gollum and Caesar, but the knock on most motion capture human characters – and I have to go along with this –is they feel neither animated nor human, but a kind of doughy, plasticky hybrid.
In a more high-tech, more sophisticated way, what’s being done with motion capture (and I concede the problem may not be the technology but how it’s being applied) reminds me of what Ralph Bakshi tried to do with rotoscoping in movies like Wizards (1977), American Pop (1981), and his attempt at an animated The Lord of the Rings (1978).
In it way, rotoscoping was a primitive form of motion capture: animators would shoot live-action footage, than create animated figures over that footage. Bakshi used the technique as a way of producing animation on tight budgets. In Wizards, he built fantastic images atop his live-action figures. But in Lord, and especially in American Pop, Bakshi used rotoscoping to create more “realistic” animation, so real-worldly critics began to wonder why he was bothering to animate the films at all.
That was Bakshi’s three-legged dog: trying to make animation as much like real life as possible. It’s a bit paradoxical if you think about it – trying to take a medium to the point where you defeat the very magical qualities so unique about it.
And I’m wondering if at least some of the applications of motion capture aren’t the same thing. Do you want a real-feeling Tintin in something so clearly unreal as The Adventures of Tintin? Might not Beowulf have actually been more impressive if the B-man had, indeed, been a live-action man doing battle with Grendel?
Frankly, I don’t know. I’m torn between the ideas that maybe we just haven’t learned to use motion capture as well as we might…or that it’s a three-legged dog.
But looking at how adamantly people were tweeting about Tin Tin, I thought I’d open the question to all of you out there and see what you have to say.
So, gang, what is it? Is motion capture technology the next evolutionary step in animation? Or maybe it’s just a new tool in the toolbox, to be applied judiciously? Or is it “Impressive…but stupid?”