Sunday, November 26, 2006

An Animated Political Trial

The N.Y. Times has an article about the forthcoming film Chicago 10. It's a work of "experimental cinema" in the words of Brett Morgen, co-director of the film. The subject is the trial of the Chicago 8 after the 1968 Democratic National Convention, which was marked by violent demonstrations against the Viet Nam War.

One third of the film will be animated using motion capture done by Curious Pictures in New York. Hank Azaria, who does voices for The Simpsons, is one of the voice cast and acts the parts of Abbie Hoffman and Allen Ginsberg.

I'm interested in seeing this film purely for its political content, but I'm a little wary of the animation. This paragraph in the article caught my eye and set off a few warning bells.
“Traditionally the director has been at the mercy of the person who’s drawing,” Mr. Morgen said. “Once you’d communicated what the action was supposed to be, it was really in the hands of the animator. Now, as the director, I get to control whether I want the eyebrow to go up, if I want it to go down, if I want the hand to go here, the hand to go there. So it’s allowed me total control over performance.”
This quote indicates to me that Morgan really has no understanding of animation. I seriously doubt that he feels "at the mercy" of live actors or attempts to direct their eyebrows. We'll see what the results look like on screen.


Steve Schnier said...

I have to agree with your concerns. But I also wonder why they've chosen to illustrate the event through animation. It seems much more suited to live action.

Anonymous said...


I wouldn't be too concerned. Sometimes when one is quoted in an article, things are taken out of context. My comment about animation was in response to the difference between hand drawn and mocap...what i was trying to imply was that a director can get the exact performance without a great deal of re-drawing when working in mocap. When we started this project we were working in hand drawn 2d and I felt that I wasn't getting the performances I needed.

Since no one, not even the reporter who wrote the article has seen the animation, I would reserve judgement until you see the film. Also, I believe you might have misquoted the times when you referred to the film as "experimental cinema" The word used in the article was "experiential cinema" which just goes to show you how things can easily be taken out of context.

Mark Mayerson said...

I did indeed misquote the Times. The term was "experiential" and not "experimental." My apologies for the mistake.

I am completely willing to give the film and the animation a fair shake. However, having seen the press report the "death" of 2D animation, many of us are wondering if we're about to see a similar onslaught in favour of motion capture and against keyframing. I hope not.

Boris Hiestand said...

As a 'keyframe' animator and 2d animation fan, I understand all these concerns, but I'm a little tired of traditional animation people being so fundamentally 'against' any other form or way of using the medium. People get so precious with their way of seeing things that sometimes they lose track of the bigger picture.

Personally I welcome any new developments within the craft. This looks to me like a very interesting film, and I would love to know more about it.

Mark Mayerson said...

I want to make it clear that I'm not against any kind of animation. Personallly, I don't think that mocap is animation. It's something else. But I don't care if people choose to make movies with mocap.

What I am against is a bias in the media that affects how audiences view animation and how producers choose to work. I think that the process of animation has been devalued at least since the advent of TV animation and that new technologies are further devaluing it in the public mind.

I'm going to write more about this in the future, but I think that animators need better public relations. For the most part, the media coverage of animation concentrates on how many drawings (or polygons or characters) and how long things take. When this is the way animation is viewed, it's no wonder that technologies like motion capture, which promise faster results, are seen as improvements.

Boris Hiestand said...

I consider what we do to be a proper craft and maybe even an art, so when a film is mocapped and in 'making of' programs they discuss how amazing that is, but fail to go more in depth into the key framing aspects of it all, that really pisses me off.
I agree that animation awareness is devaluating is the public's eye. This is a sad thing, but only for us.
I do believe that the general audience doesn't give a monkey's hoot how these films are being made- they just want to be entertained. How we make the damn things and how much time we spend on it is our problem, I believe they think, and I can't blame them.

Mocap now is like rotoscoping way back when. A lot of Snow White was rotoscoped, isn't that animation? I'm thinking of Gulliver's Travels and much of Don Bluth's work, and more recently Gollum(key framing over maocap data) and A Scanner Darkly(stylizing and simplifying live action by hand- drawing!), love it or hate it- I think it all definately belongs in the catagory 'animation'.

Michael Sporn said...

If you rotoscope a character and slavishly use every drawing as your final "animation", then it's like MoCap.
However, any GOOD use of Rotoscope would be when a TRAINED animator properly judges the rotoscoped drawings and reworks, revises, and adjusts the timing of the drawings pulled from the live action.
MoCap essentially eliminates the need for a properly trained animator. All the heart of the animation, all the soul of the film is being placed in the live-action actors' hands. This is appropriate, I guess, since it's getting harder to find trained animators.
I absolutely agree with Mark. This is not what I consider animation. There may be good films using this process, but it's posing as animation. The audiences don't care when the film is good - see Happy Feet - but a medium is dying.

MGMUA said...

I Really Hate Ted Turner! He Ruined MGM/UA!

Mitch K said...

The models in that poster still look pretty stiff... would they even be able to properly convey an actor's emotions? Probably not.

The artwork is ugly too.

Pete Emslie said...

In today's Globe and Mail there is a small blurb about "The Polar Express" playing on ABC. In it, Andrew Ryan states, "Originally presented in IMAX format, the film is driven by remarkably lifelike animation and vivid attention to detail."

Therein lies the problem. Once again a rather clueless journalist seems to believe that the "remarkably lifelike" results are a precedent-setting form of animation, and I suspect he is completely unaware of the motion capture process that was involved. By some weird coincidence, I had just watched "the Polar Express" for the first time on TMN only two nights ago. While I was pleasantly impressed with the story and the whimsical content of the visuals, I never once accepted it as a legitimate form of animation. For me, mocap is neither fish nor fowl, not qualifying as animation in my book, and looking rather like odd, waxwork-type figures moving around realistically, yet unnaturally, therefore not really qualifying as live-action either. Though I understand the filmmaker's intent was to create the illusion of the book illustrations come to life, the overall effect fell short in that regard and looked instead like a live-action film shot through some strange filter device that sucked out all of the humanity.

Unfortunately Mr. Ryan is only the latest in a slew of entertainment journalists who has praised the process without knowing what is behind it. Worse than that, the insinuation is that its "remarkably lifelike animation" is somehow superior to its poor, cartoonish, hand-drawn ancestry. Is it any wonder why guys like me, Mark Mayerson, Michael Sporn, and a great many others are feeling rather resentful of a technology that is taking work away from authentic animators who have spent decades honing their craft? For me, the magic of animation will always be the illusion of drawings that seemingly spring to life onscreen. That was what first inspired me to pursue cartooning and continues to fascinate and appeal to me to this day. The hand-drawn feature was a distinctly different art form from a live-action film. Today, with the various forms of CGI, including mocap, that line is being blurred to the point that "animation" is in great danger of losing its identity as a unique form of screen entertainment.

Danelectro said...

Its comments like mr. Morgan's that make so many people say that animators feel like gods, owners and controllers of their own world, giving the impression the all animators are selfish control freaks with very low self-esteem. Sometimes it's true, but it isn't some golden rule we all must follow. I wonder what Tex Avery and Brad Bird would say about this.