ACTING for ANIMATORS
Andy Serkis and the Uncanny Valley
Obviously, somebody -- I'm guessing it was Andy Serkis -- wanted the Caesar ape to be ever so slightly more evolved than all the other apes in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. And, equally as obvious, somebody decided that Caesar should locomote more like a human, more erect. He shouldn't move like that all the time because, after all, he is still technically an ape, and so somebody -- again, I'm guessing it was Andy Serkis -- decided to split the difference. The net result is that Caesar is neither here nor there. He has the posture of a human maybe 35 percent of the time, especially when he is standing majestically on top of boulders and burned out buildings. And when he is doing patently ape-behavior things, like having physical altercations with lower-status apes, the erect posture disappears. Probably, most date-night moviegoers would not have picked up on this, but it drove me nuts, and it triggered an Uncanny Valley response. Here's why:
Visual information feeding into the human brain doesn't just gush in there all in one big whoosh. It's more like a game of Clue, arriving in bits and pieces, in a hierarchal fashion. This is the reason there is an Uncanny Valley effect at all, even with photoreal humans or robots. The first bit of information that goes into the brain is the basis for what Malcolm Gladwell calls "blink" or "gut" reaction. It basically establishes for the brain the rules of the game on this particular image. Once that registers, the rest of the information coming in tries to adapt itself to that initial reaction. A photo-real human, for example, registers initially as a human (not a car, boat or elephant). The Uncanny Valley effect happens because the subsequent incoming information does not fit the "human" rules of the game. Something is "off". Our brain said that this is a human, but something is not right in facial expression or gesture, and so we feel ill at ease, discomforted.
The first time Caesar makes an appearance in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, he is in his 35%-of-the-time human posture, walking around like Arnold Schwartzenegger or Sylvester Stallone. My brain immediately registered: "That is a human." In order for the story to work properly, my brain really should have registered: "That is an awfully smart looking ape." Once my brain concluded that was a human, however, the subsequent information coming in would not conform. Suddenly, Caesar's costume, with all that digital fur, looked for all the world like one of those old Western Costume ape costumes you could rent for Halloween. The creative choice to have Caesar walking erect like a human put the animators behind the eight-ball. Regardless of how wonderfully they did their work, there was still going to be a disconnect because ape fur goes with apes and erect posture goes with humans. Andy Serkis's Caesar is an incomprehensible hybrid.
I was telling a good friend about my reaction to Caesar and, since he had not yet seen the movie, he asked me if all the apes in the flick looked like they were wearing cheap costumes. Bingo! Perfect question! The answer is, "No!" Alll the other apes looked like apes, and their fur was working for me. The only one that stuck out was Caesar, the Andy Serkis character. What is more, Caesar was lost in some vocal Never-Never-Land, grunting like an ape in one scene, nudging toward human speech at other times and seeming to be downright metaphoric at other times. In the final full-screen ECU of Caesar's eyes they were 100 percent human. I suppose that is intended to telegraph that, the next time we see Caesar, he will be in the Roddy McDowell (Dr. Cornelius, 1968 version) ballpark. Unfortunately for Andy Serkis, Roddy didn't win an Oscar either. The good news for animators, I suppose, is that make-up artist John Chambers was awarded an honorary Oscar for the movie that year.
"I'd love to build a ginormous room with LED-panels and video-projectors aimed in from all of the walls, floor, and ceiling to light multiple actors with the light of virtual environments. It would be like getting to make movies on the Holodeck. " Paul Debevec
Acting for Animators Workshop Schedule
September 21, Shanghai Film Museum co-lecture with Stuart Sumida for DeTao Masters Academy
September 23, Alpha Animation, Guangzhou China
September 24, Peking University Grad School Lecture, Shenzhen China
Date TBA, Oriental DreamWorks, Shanghai
September 26-28, Animex Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur (keynote + masterclass)
September 30, Singapore, Nanyang Technological University School of Art, Design, Media
The Congress (the movie, not the government)
The end-credit-roll for The Congress really ought to be running up front with the title because its size (250 animators, 23 different "supporting" financial organizations, 25 co-producers, associate producers, executive producers and just-plain producers -- and more and more and more!) indicates what a complicated piece of work the movie was to make. Ari Folman, the genius writer/director behind Waltz with Bashir (2008), produced The Congress for Pixar lunch money, a mere 8 million Euros, according to the film's Wikipedia entry. Creative financing led to the participation of animation companies in five different countries: Walking the Dog (Belgium), Studio 352 (Luxemburg), Alex Gellner (Germany), Orange/TigerBells (Poland), Snipple (The Philippines) and Ari Folman's own Bridgit Folman Film Gang in Tel Aviv, Israel. Half of The Congress is live-action which was shot mostly in LA. The half that was done on Toon Boom Harmony was first shot live-action and then laboriously referenced -- never rotoscoped, never traced at all, just referenced. The cinematics were elaborately detailed, which gave Ari Folman and Yoni Goodman, Director of Animation, personal control of the film's look, which was critical because the final animation was parceled out among all those various studios internationally. The end result is fun and colorful, suggestive of old Max Fleischer cartoons, Betty Boop and Popeye style painted with a Hieronymus Bosch palette.
Mr. Folman’s inspiration was Stanislaw Lem’s hallucinatory satirical science-fiction novel The Futurological Congress, which, compared to the movie Folman made, seems thematically tame. The movie's complicated plot centers on an out-of-work, aging actress named Robin Wright, a character Ms. Wright herself portrays. In a sort of psychedelic Paul Debevec Hollywood nightmare scenario, Ms. Wright, saddled with unavoidable family expenses (her son is slowly going deaf and blind), sells to a movie studio all digital rights to herself for an unspecified lot of money plus her promise never to personally act again. Henceforth, according to the deal letter, 100 percent of Robin Wright will be a manipulatable and digital character wholly owned by Miramount movie studios. The CEO there intends to keep Ms. Wright “forever young”, an eternally beautiful action star in her own "Rebel Robot Robin" film franchise.
Fade out – Fade in twenty years later, Ms. Wright, now 64 years old and not particularly overjoyed about her lot in life even though she drives a hot steel-gray convertible Porsche, visits the animated fantasy world in which her digital self is a celebrity. The purpose of her trip is to renew her contract, but she soon discovers that, during the time she has been away from the biz, somebody invented a psychedelic elixir that allows a person to physically become the digital celebrity of choice. Feel bad-ass? Couple of gulps and you're Clint Eastwood! Sexy? How about Marilyn Monroe? And, after she signs her new contract, you too can be....Robin Wright!
I’m still uncertain about the point of The Congress other than we should be careful what we wish for -- and that life may suck big time if you make deals with Hollywood producers. On the plus side, there is something to be said for being alive in the first place and, as presented here, the alternative animated world isn't an improvement over what we already have. It doesn't matter really. This movie is still well worth watching, and Ari Folman deserves a standing ovation for making it at all. Browse those end credits, and you'll see what I am talking about. I want to party with Ari Folman.
I loved Waltz with Bashir and, though bewildered a bit, love this one, too. New animators entering the industry would be smart to study what has been accomplished here. It is impressive what can be done with animation when you really put your mind to it, even if you are working with a limited budget. Ari Folman has bigger things on his mind than merchandising clumsy snowmen, princess dolls and stump-stupid cave-families. I hope he is selling the clone-rights to himself because the entertainment industry could use at least a dozen more just like him. With cc's of Ari Folman around, we could all be having a lot more fun.
Want to see the movie? You’ll have to download it from Amazon.com, which is what I did, because it isn't playing in cinemas anywhere. It is also not yet available for purchase as a DVD.
Until next month...
Copyright © 2012-2017 Ed Hooks