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With more and more games and animated movies using performance capture technology, will it be the death of traditional hand animation?
25 Mar 2018
With more and more games and animated movies using performance capture technology, will it be the death of traditional hand animation? This week, Story Board Artist and Animator, Ben Bowen, suggests there is room for them both to live together:
This month sees the arrival of Rockstar & Team Bond’s LA Noire, a game that’s been purported to be the next step in interactive narrative. To bring the game closer in line with the films it’s based around, the studio used innovative facial capture technology that far exceeds the capabilities of the current crop of animated avatars seen in games like their own Grand Theft Auto IV, or even the blockbusting Call of Duty saga. But how, if at all, does this new launch towards photo-realism affect traditional hand animation in games, which has already taken a battering at the hands of motion capture?
Some animators might baulk at it – to some it must seem as if artistic creation has been swiped aside, but in reality it’s more of a step towards physical movie-making than creating an animated film. You still require artistry to create such titles; the actors themselves, for example, as well as the various production artists who’ve created the world from concept up to final design. Animators are also brought in to smooth things out, correct errors or areas where things don’t quite work and to often add extra character. But to some extent, the wariness is justified.
Back when Back to the Future’s Robert Zemekis started dabbling in the uncanny-valley world of Polar Express, a hushed silence swept over animation internet boards everywhere – the sound of people afraid for their jobs. Then it was unleashed and everyone drew a collected sigh of relief. Whilst the art was beautifully rendered, the loose-limbed and strange facial features of Tom Hanks and his young cast pulled many out of the picture. Still, it still meant that producers started looking at mo-cap as a shortcut, a shortcut that doesn’t always work.
Whilst such animation has been successfully added to movies mainly in the form of special effects, most performance caption movies, particularly Mars Needs Moms and Final Fantasy The Spirits Within, have fallen flat on their rigid, weightless (yet very pretty) faces.
Meanwhile, traditionally animated fare has made a comeback (Disney’s wonderful Princess and the Frog and the ceaseless output of Studio Ghibli finding western audiences) and hand animated movies from the likes of Pixar and Dreamworks consistently rake in audiences. Possibly the only performance caption film of any particular success was Monster House, thanks to its stylistic advantage on top of the zany, thrilling and somewhat ‘80s throwback plot.
With the new Tin Tin also walking to the perf-cap beat, there is the sense that maybe some producers aren’t quite getting the picture. Audiences seem to be put off by films that veer towards the uncanny. Interestingly, a movie like the new Rise of the Apes has used CGI to sidestep a tricky issue – using live apes to tell the story – and it’ll be interesting to see if it pulls it off. Tin Tin might also manage to finally hurdle the fence, but the internet cynics feel like they should animate it properly, with character and crafted nuance. It’ll be interesting to see how it turns out.
The other fact is that motion-caption does take jobs away from traditional animators when its applied. This is arguably fine when mo-cap works, but too often the light, weightless look of a character unadjusted by an animators touch can be seen and some might be left wondering why that choice was made. To an extent the initial rush to apply this has died down, but the same mistakes are often seen repeated today.
Gaming has also undergone the same transition. Away from hand animated sprites and beautifully painted backdrops of adventures past such as Monkey Island and Kings Quest to the hyper-realised titles like LA Noire. Yet despite its (arguably) creepy look, performance-caption will probably work in its favour. A similar title, Mafia 2, made by the very talented 2k Czech, who have an excellent eye for period detail and drama, failed to quite engage with gamers last year. The hand animated avatars, beautifully crafted in the real-time cut scenes, lack the punch and verve in the performance to really pull off the more subtle acting that’s allowed by something like LA Noire. There, veins pop and jaws clench, and the actor sells the performance, no matter how loose limbed they may appear.
There is a time and a place for motion caption and hand animation and the two can often meet together for pleasing results. Performance capture is not something to be afraid of nor even entirely relied upon. It’s turned into something that has its place in the entertainment world and both Hollywood and the gaming industry are on a learning curve. As virtual representation catches up with life, interactive entertainment will certainly be an interesting thing to watch from now on – but only if the art is given room to breathe by choosing the right course.