Friday, January 13, 2006

Followup conversation to my lengthy KING KONG analysis...

Bringing a conversation on a December comment thread to the fore:

An anonymous commenter responding to Tuesday, December 20, 2005's post "Off to Skull Island... (Part the Second)" just posted the following comment:

"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."

[posted 1/12/2006]

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

[posted 1/12/2006]

To which I've just replied -- and now bring up here, so everyone can read it and re-engage, if you wish --

SRBissetteĀ said...

"Hello, anonymous, and thanks for reading [my blog] 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!"

I'll add a few points here:

* Yes, I know Willis O'Brien and Pete Peterson worked on THE GIANT BEHEMOTH (1959), one of the films I cite as a 'bad' stop-motion example. Note my contextualization of this later in my reply; like all of O'Brien's post-1949 projects, O'Brien and Pete Peterson were relegated to freelancers contributing effects as outside contractors, far from the heyday of O'Brien's studio-subsidized work under the umbrella producer Merian C. Cooper offered at RKO.

* Yes, I know Phil Tippett was among ILM's effects team. That's no longer the case, nor has it been for some time, hence my reference to Tippett and ILM as separate entities.

* If anyone wishes, I'm happy to dip into the ol' SpiderBaby library and cite book titles, magazine titles/dates, etc. regarding my references in the reply. In the context of the comment thread, though, I was writing off the top of my head and what was in easy reach.

Carry on!


Blogger Marky Mark said...

Yes, cite all references please. With full indicia, publication dates, page numbers etc etc... One can never be too thorough! This is FOR THE RECORD! Your reputation hangs by a thread.

Blogger SRBissette said...

Mark, you dog!

Why didn't you post the review you emailed to me for everyone here:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Steve -

Apparently Zemeckis is aware of and at least moderately chagrined about the limitations of Polar Express as far as communicating expression and having an element of storytelling goes - Neil Gaiman has talked of Zemeckis saying that his production of Gaiman and Roger Avary's BEOWULF should benefit from learning from the mistakes of POLAR EXPRESS, and goes into a bit of detail here:

Chris B.


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