Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Off to Skull Island... (Part the Second)

Ray Harryhausen always said it took a very special kind of actor to perform in his type of film -- interacting/shadowboxing with stop-motion creations that simply weren't there on set -- citing Kerwin Mathews (Sinbad in Harryhausen's classic The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, 1958) as an exceptional actor in that regard. Arguably, what was an extraordinary task in the era of stop-motion animation pioneer/mentor Willis O'Brien and his acolyte/breakaway sucessor Harryhausen's films is now expected of almost all screen actors, given the new CGI-dominated landscape. Instead of Harryhausen instructing William Hopper to play off, say, the eyeline-defining 25-foot-black-head-on-a-stick-standin for the Ymir in 20 Million Miles to Earth, directors Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller have the entire cast of Sin City performing against green-screen sketches-of-sets in Texas to play off their absent co-stars, who will later perform on the same green-screen in abstentia imagined environments and already-in-the-can (or to-be-filmed-later) performances.

Thus, what was the unusual province of low-budget marginal actors and non-stars in the 1930s-70s is now the norm, punctuated with aging action stars like Arnold Schwarzeneggar providing the physical templates for their CGI simulcrums -- virtual performances, of a kind -- which 'perform' in their place as necessary. The stop-motion-animated skeletal Arnold that figured so prominently in the final act of James Cameron's sleeper hit The Terminator (1984) was a transitional keystone: now, Arnold is enhanced and/or supplanted by a CGI-simulcrum in almost all his films, at some point or another. A CGI-simulcrum Arnold dominates a surprising share of screentime in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003), evidence of how far we already are in the blurring of special effects & screen acting. It is not hard to project an upcoming Schwarzeneggar opus in which the CGI template already on hand from the actor/governor's younger self dominates the film, enhanced with CGI-touched-up closeups of the still-living performer for the sake of versimilitude; a concept Peter Laird and I mused & chuckled over back in the early 1990s, then far-fetched, now business-as-usual in Hollywood.

In this regard, then, let me acknowledge and touch upon the extraordinary performance Naomi Watts gives in King Kong, for the life of the film and of Kong is so strongly felt in part because Watts so beautifully inhabits Anne Darrow and the film as a whole. In hindsight, Watts demonstrated her chops for this once-unusual kind of performance in one of the most surprising sequences in David Lynch’s full-of-surprises Mulholland Drive (2001): when the frail ingenue Betty (Watts) gets her shot at an audition in a producer’s office, we aren’t prepared for the conviction and power of her performance. Playing off hunky Chad Everett (the handsome but undistinguished actor I still can only associate with the 1960s TV show Medical Center), Watts sweeps us off our feet in the emotional force of the moment, invigorating the hoariest and most risible of soap-opera schtick with breathtaking intensity. It’s a delicious (and distinctively Lynchian) scene, and incredibly relevent to King Kong. Just as Watts vicariously lent momentary conviction and dimension to even (chuckle) Chad Everett, her Anne lends support to her CGI co-star. Anne and her character arc, defined in large part by her mercurial dynamic with Kong, is such an affecting experience that we do not only believe in her bond, her love, for Kong, we come to share it.

All of which would have been for naught were Kong -- specifically, the Kong created for Peter Jackson’s version of King Kong -- unworthy of such a performance, such devotion, such love.

Thankfully, he is. Ohhhh, is he ever.

But there is more -- much more -- to this. Dig:

We're in an age where the term "animated feature" is no longer distinctive: most Hollywood films we see are in fact "animated features," punctuated with live-action components. While this would seem self-evident in certain genres, bear in mind that almost all live-action films from the major studios are so CGI-enhanced (placing landscapes in windows, supplanting live skies with CGI skies, etc.) that the chances of your seeing a non-CGI-enhanced "major" feature in now almost nil. With the emergence in 2004 of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and especially Robert Rodriguez's initial batch of made-in-Texas CGI-constructed live-action fantasies (culminating in the already-cited Sin City), the mutants have indeed taken over. We've come a long way from the anachronisms of silent-era live-action/animation curios like Max & Dave Fleischer's Out of the Inkwell and Walt Disney's Alice and their 1990s descendents Cool World and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, which are as relevent to the new age of cinema as are Willis O'Brien and Ray Harryhausen's populist monster-movie fusions of live-action actors and stop-motion creatures.

The true nature of the crossroads we're at in 21st Century cinema has already spawned noisy-but-empty exercises in tedium like Van Helsing: seamless technological versimilitude guarantees only the relative illusion of high production values will be slathered over the most voidoid of turds, if the studios deem said turd worthy of such window-dressing.

Still, there's no computer-generating talent, nor is there any magic bullet for the emotional vacuum most CGI creations embody. What's been forgotten by all but a few in the post-O'Brien/Harryhausen era is that shopping-out effects sequences in the crazy-quilt production mode Hollywood has indoctrinated as the norm is inherently antithetical to the convincing creation of life on the screen.

For instance, though Ang Lee reportedly dedicated intensive attention and time to 'directing' the CGI 'performance' of The Hulk for his ambitious 2003 adaptation of the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby Marvel comic character, the failure to infuse the Hulk with any recognizable personality traits was almost a given. You cannot 'shop out' or 'outsource' a performance: the many hands behind the CGI Hulk -- the character, that sense of being alone -- doomed the project from the beginning in a way most audiences and critics were unable to articulate, but all felt. It wasn't just the fact that Eric Bana -- playing the Hulk's human alter-ego Bruce Banner -- seemed in no way connected to that green CGI brute in purple shorts; it was the fact that no single presence or personality was evident or could be felt in the Hulk. He remained an impersonal, soulless CGI confection.

On a conscious level, we all reacted to that. On an unconscious level, we knew there was literally nothing there.

The multi-effects-house school of film production is by definition destructive to a film like Ang Lee's The Hulk. The end result is, by definition, unavoidable. Primary lessons have been lost: there is a reason, for instance, that Walt Disney and Dave Fleischer assigned particular animators to particular characters in their animated shorts and features. Betty Boop animated by anyone but her creator Grim Natwick simply wasn't Betty: she'd pass for a shot or sequence when the necessities of tight production deadlines and scheduling required other animators animate Betty for a shot or two, but unless Grim's hand was behind the key sequences, it just wasn't Betty (until her look, movements, and manner was suitably codified later in the series). Disney and his directors made sure Bill Tytla animated Stromboli in Pinocchio because they understood Tytla was as much a performer as an animator: Bill inhabited his creations, from the winged-and-horned demon in The Night on Bald Mountain sequence of Fantasia to Stromboli and beyond, in ways that indeed communicated directly to audiences. Assigning animators was inherently a form of casting, and "casting" Tytla as Stromboli was a masterstroke, a perfect fusion of animator and character.

Those men were also alchemists: they projected essential aspects of themselves into their animated creations. The same was absolutely true of O'Brien and Harryhausen's work, via their interaction with those stop-motion-animated puppets. It was their distinctive personalities and performances we responded to (and still respond to). Thus, Willis O'Brien was Kong in a measurable way: Kong embodied and projected vital elements of O'Brien.

Stop-motion animation was not a mere technical exercise in the hands of a true artist.

Ray Harryhausen has often recalled in interviews and his books that when he worked under his mentor O'Brien on the animation of Mighty Joe Young (1949), there was one particular Joe puppet Harryhausen felt a great affinity for, and that affinity comes through in the particular sequences Harryhausen animated in the film using that puppet: those sequences, in fact, define Joe's personality in ways that carry the film. Harryhausen's most memorable solo stop-motion creations, from the Rhedosaurus of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms to the Medusa of Clash of the Titans, were recognizably extensions of Harryhausen the actor: they acted, reacted, moved and inhabited their cinematic worlds in ways our unconscious minds recognized as distinctively, uniquely Harryhausen's way of acting, reacting, moving and inhabiting the world. It wasn't just a matter of similar movements or stances -- though those manifest threads are self-evident upon scrutiny, from Harryhausen's 1940s fairy tale shorts to his final feature Clash of the Titans -- but of the literal projection of the artist through his art, the alchemy I referred to above. Artists like O'Brien and Harryhausen expressed themselves so eloquently through their stop-motion creations that we recognized them and reacted to them as projections, loved them as such.

I know from an early age, long before I stumbled upon the first articles on O'Brien or Harryhausen in the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland, the child I was recognized upon seeing 20 Million Miles to Earth for the first time that it was somehow, mysteriously linked to "that monster" in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Little did I know at the time that Harryhausen had pursued the path he did due to his own overwhelming, definitively formative exposure to O'Brien's magic in the original King Kong: art as communicative disease.

As children, we unconsciously respond to these things. We grasp them on an organic, beyond-words level. This is something the best puppeteers have always understood and worked with. There's a reason Jim Henson, Frank Oz and their fellow Muppeteers always played the same roles on Sesame Street: the puppeteers were their puppets. The kids would know when Big Bird was right, and would respond on a gut-level if Big Bird was "wrong." It isn't just a matter of vocal performances (though that has an organic reality, too: since Mel Blanc's death, we've all missed on a very real level the Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Yosemite Sam et al of our youths), it's physical, interactive, and children know when Bert & Ernie aren't really Bert & Ernie. It's a sort of alchemy, it's magic; as children, we respond to this. As adults, we may consciously forget, but when confronted by as soulless and fragmented a non-personality as the CGI Hulk of Ang Lee's film, our unconsciousness makes the same assessment. The kid in us all knew there was nothing really there.

All of which brings me (at last!) to Peter Jackson and his Kong. Jackson never, ever forgot his childhood perceptions of film, and of the original Kong; never forgetting, Jackson has attended to his films with the necessary childlike intensity of play and zeal for creating convincing realities on a primal, organic level. Hence, the alchemy and magic of his King Kong is genuine.

From his first film, the delightfully daft gorefest Bad Taste (1988), Jackson demonstrated a fundamental grasp of cinema and its potential that was intoxicating. Even with no money to work with, the ever-inventive Jackson and his cronies pulled off ambitious effects (including almost seamless forced in-camera, live perspective shots using detailed miniatures) that lent their cheapjack opus a sense of expansive scale and scope that belied its impoverished means. En route to the reportedly $200+ million budget of Kong, Jackson has never lost sight of the core issues of cinema, its fundamental nature.

Unlike Ang Lee (or, more to the point, the insufferably detached George Lucas, whose films since the 1977 Star Wars and his magnificent production of The Empire Strikes Back have been steadfastly soulless confections), Jackson understood that it is not the director that infuses life into special effects and CGI characters. As The Hulk painfully demonstrated, the work of many hands adds up to a dramatic cipher, however involving the narrative and dramatic context, if we do not feel, sense, and believe in the organic totality of a character. Fragmented among multiple effects house and technicians (and, yes, artists), however attentively Ang Lee directed the performance of his Hulk, the CGI Hulk would be less than a hulk: a thing of disconnected illusory movement and images, shards of a notion of a character, splinters and bytes of what might-have-been. Lee's Hulk will sadly forever remain a fragmented cipher: less, in fact, than the sum of his parts.

As in theatrical puppetry, the creation of cinematic characters via effects requires a single, organically-identifiable personality be projected into a 'virtual' character, and it must obey the rules of such alchemy: it is unavoidably either the animator or the puppeteer who instills life in the character.

If Kong were to live, he had to have a single, solitary, and strongly felt soul injecting life into that otherwise soulless simulcrum. However much Naomi Watts poured into her heartfelt performance, she would have been stranded high and dry (much like Jennifer Connolly, who gave an excellent performance in The Hulk) were the CGI-spawn-of-Skull-Island Kong unworthy of her (or our) devotion.

Thus, Jackson knew his Kong depended entirely on Kong being a perceivable extension of a single personality: a soul had to be enfused into the CGI beast. With the reality of 21st Century theatrical feature film production belying the remote chance of a single animator being the soul of his Kong, Jackson embraced the model he had already forged in his remarkable Lord of the Rings trilogy: he cast his Kong.

Thus, the heart and soul and voice of Gollum, the incredibly versatile and personable Andy Serkis, was Jackson's perfect Kong.

Andy Serkis played -- he was -- Gollum, the greatest CGI character in the history of cinema.

Andy Serkis is now Kong, and we are in the thrall of a new spectacle: the perfect synthesis of technology and art, of CGI and performance, of computers and magic.

[Continued tomorrow...]


Blogger Mike Dobbs said...

While I agree with your statements here about the changing nature of the relationship of live action and animation, I just need to point out that Grim Natwick only worked on the first six or so shorts featuring Betty Boop. This is not to take away anything from Natwick who was a fine animator and acknowledged by most people as the character's creator.

The Boop shorts many people remember most were animated by people such as Willard Bowsky (who loved adding spooky elements) Doc Crandall (who helped refine the look of the character and Myron Waldman (who created Pudgey), among others.

I would be remiss in not pointing this out!

Blogger Mark Martin said...

Thank God for YOU, Mike Dobbs!

Blogger HB3 said...

Yeah, but, is it racist?

Blogger SRBissette said...

Howdy, Mike -- "the first six or so shorts" is all I was inferring -- I wrote:

"...unless Grim's hand was behind the key sequences, it just wasn't Betty (until her look, movements, and manner was suitably codified later in the series)."

The reference to Betty being codified "later in the series" (six cartoons later?) as a character (and studio property) multiple hands could effectively animate was my clumsy shorthand attempt to address the fact that Grim Natwick was critical only early on.

Thanks, in any case, for clarification and correction, and naming the other animators who brought Betty to life -- "later in the series."

And no, HB3, Betty Boop wasn't racist.

(tee-hee, giggle)

Just go see the fucking movie, will ya?

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know what you're trying to say here, but I think I disagree. For one thing, much like Andy Serkis was Gollum, Ang Lee donned the mocap suit and provided a substantial portion of reference for the Hulk. The idea that CG is somehow so much more complex than 2d or stop-motion that an individual animator cannot be assigned to a character is also a false notion. In 2d features, any animator credited with with a particular character is in reality usually taking the lead on that character, and supervising a team who follow up in assisting, and animating other scenes. It is perfectly possible to have lead animators assigned to cg characters as well.

I agree with the general thrust, that it is probably better for one individual to take the lead in defining the character. A lot of the rest here seems to be the same slobbering reverential treatment that is so often thoughlessly given to Harryhausen and O'Brien. As if O'Brien and Harryhausen had some secret knowledge that has eluded the CG artists. And as if Jackson is somehow privy to this, being the Kong/stop-motion fan that he is.

It comes across as an attitude that might develop as a result of knowing the animators behind the stop-motion and cartoon films, but not knowing the artists behind the CG. Some of the key guys behind Kong had stellar stop-motion backgrounds, but that also is not neccesarily the key to why one performance worked, and another performance failed. Part of it is that these artists come from an artform that has matured, and while cg was in it's infancy, artists from stop-motion and traditional animation backgrounds have a century of work to build upon.

The reason the Hulks's performance was a failure is mostly down to the eyes. There were a few bizarre scenes that defied the law of gravity, but mostly it comes down to a lack of expressiveness in the eyes and face. You will see much the same thing in the mocapped film "The Polar Express". There is a glassy, detatched look that fails to engage with an audience. That's the main thing. Acting is done through the whole body, and limp gesturing doesn't help either, but it is mostly the eyes that let down these performances. Compare this to the expressiveness seen in films like the Incredibles.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

additionaly, I believe the Hulk was almost handled entirely at ILM.

Blogger SRBissette said...

Hello, anonymous, and thanks for reading and posting your comments.

My broad point is one I believe is true: whatever the medium (and in terms of stop-motion animation and CGI, I am not arguing anything is inherently "for" one or "against" another), the viewer responds unconsciously to the infusion of an artist's personality in a work. The viewer also 'feels' it when there's a vacuum there -- no infusion of personality -- or when piecemeal work doesn't add up to a coherent infusion of personality: a character.

Even in the context of a lengthy, five-part writeup (a far broader canvas than any publisher would ever offer me), I have had to rely on a certain amount of shorthand. I chose to reference Harryhausen and O'Brien not to lionize them per se or argue stop-motion as inherently superior (it isn't; we could cite many sloppy and characterless stop-motion-driven films of yore: THE LOST CONTINENT, DINOSAURUS!, THE GIANT BEHEMOTH, etc.), but to make the point that when there's a strong guiding hand (in the case of O'Brien) or clearly individualized puppeteer/animator (Harryhausen, Tytla), the results usually engage viewers on a more compelling level.

Given the one-two punch of Gollum and Kong with Jackson and Serkis's collaborative efforts with the WETA team, it seems obvious to me they've forged the first compelling means of coherent characterization via CGI in the context of live-action/CGI fantasy (clearly, PIXAR and others have amply demonstrated strong characterization in all-CGI features and shorts). This is the first coherent expression of a new principle in such films, and as such worth noting and discussing.

I chose THE HULK as a handy reference point; your noting the lack of life in the eyes of the character is accurate and I agree, but you're missing my point. THE HULK failed in part because the effects-created character didn't have an identifiable personality; as the CINEFX article detailed (the most intensive in-print analysis of the film's production I know of), yes, ILM handled the effects by and large, but it was still a fragmented affair -- typical of today's productions -- and there was no coherent expression of a potent and individualized enough personality in the Hulk. The fact that the Hulk, as a character, also bore no relation to Eric Bama's performance (as alter-ego Bruce Banner) was an even graver flaw (though as the TV series proved, the separation of performances -- Banner and Hulk embodied by different performers or, in the case of the film, methods of performance -- still could have worked, had the Hulk been a identifiable personality in and of himself). That the HULK was "almost handled entirely at ILM" misses the point: to my mind, much of what ILM has produced is technically accomplished but devoid of character or soul, and that's another discussion altogether.

As masters of the form like Phil Tippett (to cite the man whose career spans both stop-motion animation and CGI) have noted time and time again, this is character creation & animation, not just special effects. This is clearly central to the success or failure of a given film when the titular centerpiece of a given film -- KING KONG, THE HULK -- is a single character. In terms of characterization alone, the striking contrast between the failure of Ang Lee/ILM's THE HULK and the success of Jackson, Serkis, WETA's KING KONG is obvious, and worth analysis.

As the excellent two-part CINEFX group interview of top-drawer effects/CGI celebrities and experts hammered home, almost all contemporary Hollywood films are dependent upon collapsing postproduction pressures that demand "more and more" (quantitatively and in terms of superficial quality) effects in less and less time, forcing increasing piecemeal farming-out of specific setpieces and effects while cutting off artists from active involvement in films in their seminal creative phases. Thus, the organic involvement on a pre-production level that was characteristic of the best work of O'Brien and Harryhausen is increasingly remote -- in fact, if you want to get into it, O'Brien's post-MIGHTY JOE YOUNG career anticipated the norm of how such fantasy films are produced today, with O'Brien and Pete Peterson reduced to 'hired hands' rushing their best efforts through compressed post-production windows, their final efforts mismatched with sequences by other effects houses (see THE GIANT BEHEMOTH, the complete version, that includes the laughable ferry boat sequence O'Brien & Peterson had nothing to do with) or compromised by cheapjack producer shorthand (see THE BLACK SCORPION, where it was decided the black matte was sufficient for the climax, though the animation was completed). Harryhausen saw this and correctly diagnosed what was happening to his beloved mentor; thus, Harryhausen forged his relationship with a producer (Charles Schneer) and maintained a strong enough hand as co-producer in that relationship to remain integrally involved with all facets of production. As Paul M. Jensen has accurately noted (in his remarkable career-spanning analysis of Harrhausen's films), this was as much of a detriment as a strength: for Harryhausen and his methods, directors were interchangable functionaries, and many of the films suffer for that.

It seems obvious to me that, despite enormous odds, Peter Jackson and WETA have developed a comparable model for the new era of filmmaking we're all enjoying. This has been facilitated in part by their geographic specificity of production (New Zealand), which has granted both an autonomy almost impossible in Hollywood today; but there's also no denying the track record they've racked up with the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy and now KONG also is critical to their autonomy. Across the board, as a team, they've infused everything they've done with tremendous personality and power, in stark contrast to the sterile soullessness of Lucas's empire (and, by extension, some of ILM's efforts, though there are lovely exceptions to that assessment). Thus, Jackson, Serkis, and WETA present a new template -- related to the old (of O'Brien in his prime, and Harryhausen throughout his career), and most importantly artist-driven from top to bottom rather than commerce-driven.

Your observations and assessment of POLAR EXPRESS are also on the money; in one draft of my writeup, I began to address that film, too, but chose to cut back and maintain my focus on live-action/CGI fusion fantasy. That it led to a rather extensive diversion (in which I wondered aloud if Robert Zemeckis was the 'problem,' citing Jackson's THE FRIGHTENERS as the obvious bridge between the two filmmakers -- Zemeckis produced the film -- and the least personable of Jackson's films as well) also prompted me to cut that digression, which is neither here nor there.

Thanks for pushing for further discussion -- happy to engage further!

Blogger SRBissette said...

Anonymous: Please note, I have posted our exchange on TODAY's blog -- January 13th, 2006 -- and I hope you'll join in there, too.

Hope you're OK with this; I'm happy to continue here, but few will be seeing our posts here in the comments of a mid-December posting.


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