Friday, February 26, 2010

Be Careful What You Wish For

I'm a little surprised at Cartoon Brew's insistence than Avatar be considered an animated film. I don't know if the reason is because it is the highest grossing film in history and they want animation to have some of the glory or if it's because James Cameron is so insistent that Avatar should not be tainted with the 'A' word. In any case, there are reasons (beyond whatever anyone thinks of Avatar) why I don't think considering it an animated film is a good thing.

Those outside the film business may not be aware of the distinction between production and post-production. In a live action film - one with no animation or special effects - production is the shooting of the film. Post-production is what happens after the film is shot. Those things typically include editing, music, sound effects, dialogue looping, the sound mix and titling.

When a film does include special effects, unless they are done in camera during the regular shoot, they are considered post-production. In the past, certain effects like in-camera matting, hanging miniatures and glass shots were done during production, but most effects were done during post.

In what we would all acknowledge as typical animated films (Snow White, Toy Story), animation is production, not post-production. In films that have animated elements added (Jurassic Park), animation is done in post-production. This may seem like an esoteric distinction, but it's the difference between what is central to a production and what sweetens a production. I am not in any way dismissing the importance of post-production. A film's music score has a huge impact on how the film affects audiences and certainly Jurassic Park's impact depended tremendously on the quality of the dinosaur animation, but in each case, the post-production elements are driven by what has already been shot.

Animators may have worked over Avatar's motion capture and added creatures, but their work was driven by what had been shot (or in this case, recorded). To pretend otherwise is disingenuous. There is no question that Jack Pierce's Frankenstein make-up added to the audience's perception of Boris Karloff as the monster. However, many actors at Universal played the monster (Bela Lugosi, Glen Strange), yet Karloff is generally considered the definitive performance. While Avatar's animators supplied more than digital make-up, it's still the underlying motion captured performance that counts.

I've written extensively on how fragmented the process of making an animated film is and how so many of the acting decisions are made before the animator starts work. The character designs, the storyboard and the voice performance all make acting decisions that constrain the animator's interpretation. There is no question that motion capture is yet another constraint, probably larger than all the others. To insist that Avatar is an animated film is to marginalize animators even more than they are in what are generally considered animated films. Is this the direction we want things to go? Better to agree with James Cameron and focus our attention on films where animators create, not enhance, performances.


Ke7in said...

I got the impression from most of the Cameron articles I've read that he's not so much driven to help audiences understand the differences for any other reason than to make sure the actors get their credit, and especially Zoe Saldana after she was not nominated for an Oscar.

And on the flip side I think Cartoon Brew may be pushing for this idea more because they, like myself, prefer the motion capture from films like Avatar and the Lord of the Rings movies to the stuff that Zemeckis keeps pumping out. To continually marginalize the latter (and rightfully so) while distancing it as far as possible from the good stuff, perhaps they hope they can have an effect on what gets made?

Brubaker said...

Oh yes, I agree with this very, very much.

Knowing Amid Amidi, I wouldn't be surprised if he's insisting on counting Avatar as animation because of its success.

Michael said...

I'm glad to see someone say this, because I've seen a consensus forming in some circles that it is most definitely an animated film and I disagree. I've been surprised to see the Brew say this, and much less surprised to hear a "prominent" Disney pundit bloviating the same thing recently.

Your points illustrating the difference are very well put. I would make a cruder argument, that no one seems to categorize Roger Rabbit or Mary Poppins (or even the Star Wars Prequels) as "animated" films, although they have extensive animated elements to varying degrees.

There are lots of fine lines involved in such discussions, but I don't see how it could be claimed as a flat-out animated feature.

Thad said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Thad said...

Mark, I'm with you 100%. I actually wrote about this in a comments thread on Avatar at Cartoon Brew, but if I got an actual response to the illogicality I pointed out, I never saw it.

I’m a little confused by these call-outs. This site has reams of posts dissecting motion capture, and begrudgingly conceding that it technically is animation. It’s clear that if allowed to, you would not consider it animation. Yet now when one of these motion capture films is actually popular on a critical level, you’re all for it being considered animation, and chastising the film’s director for not considering it so.

Personally I think anything by James Cameron is a waste of time to even think about. Mo-capped or not.

Amber Gail said...

I've often felt that there is a general lack of knowledge or understanding in your average movie-going population about what constitutes animation. I was personally glad to see Cartoon Brew putting up those posts, if only to have some form of public recorded discussion about considering Avatar as an animated film. Would some of the shots (with the creatures, especially) be the same at all without the animation work done? I'm curious to know if some of those scenes had any in camera work done at all.

I agree, Avatar is definitely not an animated feature. I like your take on animating during production, rather than in post. Leave it to you to think for yourself! It's definitely not the same argument I've read elsewhere. Thanks for the insight!

Amid Amidi said...

Mark: An issue you don't address is that many live-action films have fully-animated characters in which there is no question that they are animated. Like your own example of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. Those characters, by your definition, are also considered post-production. So what's your point of making this distinction? It doesn't matter at which part of the process animated characters were created; it's that the characters are animated.

Actor-aided animation performances have been occurring since fairly early in animation's history, and will become increasingly common as the art form evolves. This is an evolution that has to be acknowledged at some point.

Brubaker: Your assumptions about why I write about this are incorrect. I write about this quite simply because I feel it's animated.

Tommy José Stathes said...

So in other words... a computer picking up an actor's movements and translating it into imagery is the same as Max Fleischer tracing the outline of his brother? There are technicalities but then there is humanity, which clearly has no value as CGI becomes more of the norm.

Mark Mayerson said...

Amid, the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park are unquestionably animated and they are also unquestionably post-production. What that means is that they are there to serve the needs of a live action film and a live action director. Those animators working on Avatar or any other mocap film are serving the same purpose while not animating so much as repairing or enhancing.

I acknowledge the evolution that you talk about, but I don't value it. For me, animators should be central to the making of animated films, the same way that dancers are central to ballet. Films that use mocap are the equivalent of ballets without dancers.

Pete Emslie said...

"I acknowledge the evolution that you talk about, but I don't value it."

I second that, Mark. Even aside from all of this controversy over whether mo-cap is animation or not, I'm even bothered by the impact mo-cap is having on more traditional make-up effects. I think it first hit me when I was watching that 2nd "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie with the Davy Jones character. As impressive as that squid face was with its moving tentacles, I couldn't help but feel that there was something rather impersonal about it when compared to something like Charles Laughton displaying such humanity shining through his monstrous getup as Quasimodo back in 1939. For me, the low-tech approach is far more interesting.

And in regard to mo-cap as animation, I just don't buy it. It's a special effect, not true animation, even though animators are providing the high-tech surface material. In the case of Avatar or Davy Jones, the animator is in the role of make-up artist to varying degrees, just being called into service to make the actor look like he or she is supposed to in the role.

Quite honestly, I'm getting really weary of all of this modern day blurring of the lines between live action and animation. Heck, I'm not even that keen on CG animation in general, as I'd far rather watch the magical illusion of a cartoonist's drawings seemingly springing to life onscreen. You can keep your realistic light, shadow, hair textures and water ripples, etc. - give me pencil lines and flat coloured areas anyday...

Steve Schnier said...

Mark, you've really hit the nail on the head with your definition. Does the animation add to the performance -- or enhance it in the way that a matte painting or special effect would?

Excuse my simplification, but you get the point.

Steve Schnier said...

A side note - its interesting to watch the debate between two film historians. Both sides of the discussion have a lot of merit.

Ignacio Ochoa said...

In an animated film,the character performance is done by an animator.
The animator also the puppeteer, take an inanimate object and through his technique, make that this object appear to move. The big difference between animator and puppeteer is the time that both employed to achieve this illusion of life. The puppeteer do his work with a risked live performance, and the animator construct this character performance in detail, step by step.
I think that Motion Capture technique is more close to the puppets that to the animation.

Without animators there is not animation.

From my point of view. Avatar is not an animated film, is a very good "virtual puppets" film.


(Sorry about my english, I´m from Argentina)

Michael Sporn said...

I have to agree with Ignacio Ochoa here. The actor creates the performance in motion capture, just as the puppet-actor creates the performance in puppetry. It's not worth arguing over except that animators want to defend what they do for a living. James Cameron defends what he does. I imagine Bob Zemeckis might have his own thoughts (though they might involve money.)

Anonymous said...

I find this debate a bit confusing. first of all Avatar sets new standards for the way that films are made. The whole pre-production phase melts into the post-production phase because not only can the director now film a performance that he can replay in real time over and over again from every angle. he can storyboard it realtime in exactly the way he wants it. He is no longer trapped with the restrictions of the filmed actions. That is why post-production is called post-production! Back in the days of Jurassic Park it was something that was administered post-production. The dinosaurs were put over the film after the fact! This doesnt happen anymore. Cameron, WETA, ILM and Framestore among others have the ability to literally shape the image in whatever form or way at every step of the production. Other films relied heavily on the shot plate. Avatar in many ways has transcended that. Is it therefore an animation film? Or is it a Post-Production film? Or even a Mocap film? I don't know. I don't think there is a word yet to describe it because it is such an amalgam of technique. One thing I do know for certain is that it has been done to perfection. Trying to either put the film into the category animation or mocap does not do it justice. One more thing I would like to note is that as someone who has done Mocap cleanup and animation I can say it is not just an idiots job. Ignacio Ochoa really over simplifies it when he says avatar is a puppet film. Because he thinks animators only polish up the shots... you've seemingly never done it anyways an animator can put things into a performance that no live actor could at that moment. Yes you may say polish but it adds to the performance and is incredibly difficult to do for a lay man who does not animate. An animator can exaggerate or time certain movements to certain beats to let the performance do exactly what its supposed to do. Also an animator can exaggerate the pose, slow down certain moments or speed them up to put a viewers focus on them. It's a bit like saying that what they do in a modern music studio when they enhance the music on the computer is just dressing the sound up. and that new studio's make the same albums they did in the old days... anyways I think only time will show what we wil call these films. I liked Avatar for what it was a good movie and it has proven itself beyond all expectations. The film itself is a discussion killer.

Ignacio Ochoa said...

Hi Anonymous.

I never thought, and never I said that to polish a shot of mocap is an idiots jobs. I never would say this, and I understand perfectly everything that a animator can contribute and to improve of a motion capture. Besides, not everything that we see in "Avatar" is mocap. But the actions of the main characters are in a great percentage, product of mocap, and not work of animator; therefore I believe that Avatar is not an animated film.
I said: "...I think that Motion Capture technique is more close to the puppets that to the animation."

And when I speak of puppets, I do not speak of a smaller art. I speak of a magnificent form of expression; I speak of an enormous element of communication; and I speak of an art, that as the animation, have an unique magic, and it should be faced with all respect.


Thad said...

What Ignacio said. Except I'd rather watch even the worst stuff by Jim Henson over this garbage. That's what I know and think.

jrsmith said...

Mark, I agree with you that calling Avatar an animated film may marginalize animators more than they already are. However, that doesn't change the fact that Avatar is an animated film. I'm not enthusiastic about calling it animated (same with the Zemeckis mo-capped movies), but I have to concede that it is.

Animation isn't determined by whether a performance was created by an animator or whether the animation is done in production or post. It's determined by whether there was frame by frame manipulation. This is why rotoscoping is considered animation. It's drawn frame by frame, even though the performance was created by an actor in real time. Likewise, the artists who worked on Avatar had to clean up the mo-capped performances frame by frame. I wouldn't call them animators, since what they do is more analogous to cleanup or even ink and paint. But even though they're not animators, they're producing animation. And since the vast majority of Avatar consists of this produced animation, I consider it an animated film.

If Avatar teaches us anything it's that the term "animation" is becoming more and more irrelevant. Animation first and foremost is defined as a technique, but it's also an art when the technique is used by an artist. These days pretty much every movie, video game, etc. uses the technique of animation, but it isn't animation that I care about. I care about the art animators produce.

Unknown said...

Joshua - I think I prefer the definition of animation as 'bringing to life'. The central performance comes from the actor in this case, and while the performance can be enhanced and manipulated by mo-cap artists, the actor is the one that brought the spark of life to the role. They are the ones that made the acting decisions and creative choices. Mo-cap isn't just a tool for animators any longer, it has become its own entity and I think needs to be seen seperately to animation.

warren said...

I don't see the point of all the hullabaloo of claiming 'Avatar' as an 'animated film'. To do so is also to envelop films like 'The Wolfman' where CG rigs were created from scratch to bridge the transformation scenes from a normal Benicio Del Toro into a practical effects-dressed Del Toro - which also boasted a digitally enhanced performance. To top it off, a wholly animated Wolf Man run was used instead of a mo-cap run because the director thought that the animated one felt more believable. (ref)

Does this qualify 'The Wolf Man' as an 'animated film' as well?

I don't think many would say so. I don't think many would say that any of the newer Star Wars releases qualify for that distinction either even though mo-cap was rarely used for most of the aliens and the entire environment was CGI.

Just a bunch of smoke. That's all this discussion is. Yes, Avatar blurred production methods. Yes, it's a melding of many ways of filmmaking. But to argue it's an animated film is a stretch. World class animation was done and added to the performance, no doubt about it, but in my mind it's no more an animated film than 'the Lord of the Rings' trilogy or 'King Kong'.

And to lump those digitally enhanced performances into 'special effects' or 'animated feature' does a disservice to the character animators who worked on those films. A well-developed set of skills are needed to do this type of work. Clearly this is a new class of professional at work here.

Anonymous said...

Avatar was made "with" animation, so in a way you can say Avatar was animated.

Rotoscoping is labeled as animation, so why not Avatar?

Cartoon Brew has the right to think what it wants. And so should you for that matter.

So I don't get why this is even a debate.

Cheers! :)

Ricardo Cantoral said...

I think people are confusing motion capture with roto-scoping. Avatar was motion capture and though animators are employed, to what degree do they have over the final product ? I don't think very much and certainly not to declare this picture animated.

Also I second Thad about Cameron in general. Has there been a greater con-man in the past twenty years ? Titantic was as formulaic as a romance could get and this latest dreck has been declared rip off of not only Dances With Wolves but James Cameron's own previous film, The Abyss.


Hanging miniatures... now there's a term I haven't heard in a while..

Ryan Cole said...

Animation is a process in which an inanimate object is made to deceive you into thinking it moves. The romantic idea of animation would be people who, through their craft, their skill and hard work, breathe life into something not living: a drawing; a puppet; beads; whatever.

Avatar's appeal is makeup. Awesome makeup, albeit on an intensely digital level. Really, all Motion Capture would be closer to digital makeup and effects rather than animation, but that's a mouthful when you're trying to describe the genre. This is Lon Cheney wearing a mask and giving a great performance, only now the mask is full-bodied and exists in a magic box of zeroes and ones.

Avatar is not an animated film, nor should it be. If it was, who cares. I wouldn't recommend Avatar if I were asked what to look for in terms of good animation, I would be more inclined to recommend it as a live-action film you can study for pose reference.

Ryan Cole said...

Oh look, Pete Emslie pretty much said all of that in these comments half a month ago. Dagnammit, Pete!