Polar Opposites

Ed Hooks:
THE POLAR EXPRESS has reignited the debate about whether motion-captured photoreal humans can ever transplant actual live actors on screen. Tom Hanks portrayed live characters through the magic of body mo-cap and facial performance-capture. The results are impressive, and the film set a new standard for this technology. However, the characters are still a few yards short of the goal, and the problem lies in their eyes: you can mo-cap bodies and facial expression, but you can't mo-cap eyes, so the characters projected a 'videogame quality'. The eyes just aren't right - you couldn't stop noticing them in the movie.

Part of the theatrical transaction for stage and live-action film is that an audience member willingly suspends their disbelief in the non-reality of what is before them, in order to experience empathy with the characters. Photoreal animation creates a dilemma, because it aspires to mimic reality. As soon as a mo-capped human appears, the audience expectation is that the entire character will be realistic; if any part isn't believable, it ruins the illusion. Game players cut videogame animators a lot of slack when it comes to mo-capped humans and strange eyes; feature film animators don't enjoy that luxury.

In life, we make eye contact with one another maybe 20 per cent of the time. The rest of the time we glance around framing thoughts, keeping a look out for predators, whatever. We focus at times close up and at other times far away, depending on the thought. For mo-capped photoreal humans to come of age, the animators will have to figure out how to give eyes random focus that's correlated to the thought process. This isn't likely to happen soon. Even if a method of random focus can be developed, how will that be co-ordinated with human thought? Humans are hardwired by nature to recognise and respond to facial expression, particularly in the eyes. Our sense of sight is many times more powerful than our sense of hearing, and for a good evolutionary reason - if we couldn't detect predators until we heard them, we'd all be prehistoric lunch.

So, are the eyes really the windows to the soul? They're as good a measure as we're likely to get. But the minute interplay between our brains, optic nerves and light sensors is still a subject that's more easily explained by art than science, which is why programmers and mo-cap gurus are having such trouble: you can't mo-cap a soul.

The Polar Express reportedly cost upward of $170 million. Because I'm writing this before we officially know how well it did, I predict that if the producers were hoping for a classic, the problem with the eyes will ultimately prove to be a deal killer. The movie should serve as a cautionary warning to other film producers that might be toying with photoreal humans. Get the eyes right, or don't do it at all.

Ed Hooks is the author of Acting for Animators. He's taught at companies such as Disney Feature Animation, DreamWorks and Rising Sun Pictures.

Mick Morris:
PERFORMANCE-CAPTURE IS back in the limelight, thanks to Bob Zemeckis' remarkable movie The Polar Express, with Tom Hanks playing several characters. Financially it is reported to have been a success, having grossed $260 million at the time of this issue going to press. In its first five weeks, it became the highest-grossing IMAX release ever.

The biggest criticism levelled at it by cinema-goers, is that the characters' faces are lacking warmth and emotion. Eyes are important in particular, and it's true that we do have some difficulty believing these characters, because their performance is betrayed by a lack of emotion in the eyes.

That said, I think the team - Zemeckis, Hanks and Imageworks - deserves the utmost respect for what it achieved here, in what is a highly ambitious project. Knowing how dif. cult it is to capture full-body and facial for just one subject, doing this successfully for four characters is a massive achievement. The characters' eyes and lips have received criticism, but are two areas that were not optically mo-capped - this is impossible using current optical technology. Lip-roll is particularly difficult to get right. Huge improvements are being made in this area, with eyes and lips being more accurately tracked, and we will soon witness some extraordinary performance-capture in productions of this genre.

Meanwhile, it has been proven that performance-capture and more traditional animation techniques such as rotoscoping and keyframing are not mutually exclusive. The beautifully accomplished Gollum in Lord of the Rings, played by Andy Serkis, is a fabulous example. The schizophrenic performance is so believable, it is genuinely moving. A combination of rotoscoping, mo-cap and keyframing, underpinned by great acting skills, it's a wonderful example of performance-capture succeeding.

Can this new crossbreed be put in the box called 'animation' any longer? It's not live action, and it's not traditional mo-cap as know it. We also understand that movies such as these would not be possible without the immensely talented teams of animators behind them. When these different disciplines all merge and the artists within them pull together, something new and amazing can be created that is so much greater than the sum of its parts - as is the case with The Polar Express.

I believe that with the making of movies such as The Polar Express, and the creation of characters like Gollum from Lord of the Rings, we've arrived at the brink of something very special. A new era in CGI movie-making is evolving, where actors and animation artists from all disciplines will combine to produce truly innovative work. The Polar Express is a movie about lost innocence and belief: I think it's time that we as an industry started to believe in performance-capture.

Mick Morris is Managing Director of Audiomotion Studios, which recently won an award for Best Services and Outsourcing Company of 2004.

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