Face it, animators: Give up on your 'realistic' humans

Robert W. Butler
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Like medieval alchemists struggling to transmute lead into gold, filmmakers seem determined to create a 100 percent believable animated human character.

I understand the whole alchemist thing (who couldn't use some cheap gold?), but I have doubts about the value of an animated character indistinguishable from a real, breathing human being.

For starters, there's the price tag. You could buy an army of no-name human actors for what it costs animators to create just one of the characters in last weekend's box office champ, Disney's computer-animated "A Christmas Carol."

It's a good movie (hard to mess up Dickens), but among its weakest elements are the human characters that director Robert Zemeckis tries to present with photo-realistic authenticity.

Zemeckis has been down this path before with "The Polar Express" and "Beowulf," both of which got a knuckle rapping (from Yours Truly and lots of other critics) for the "dead-eyed look" of the characters. Curiously, "Carol" works best when its more cartoony characters take center stage.

Like Jim Carrey's Scrooge.

Outfitted in a skin-tight suit and hundreds of motion-capture dots, this marvelously physical actor portrayed Dickens' miser for the cameras, which recorded his every move and facial expression. These were then transmuted into the animated character you see on screen.

Here's the thing: Scrooge is not photo-realistic. He's clearly a caricature — a sort of giant human spider with an impossibly elongated nose and chin.

On the other hand, when Zemeckis tries to give us"realistic" humans (like the Christmas carolers Scrooge assaults) they just look creepy, like the animatronic lineup in Disney World's Hall of Presidents.

One of my colleagues had some intriguing thoughts on the situation.

Watch a sleeping baby for a minute, he said, and you'll see more natural facial movement and emotion than hundreds of animators could create in hundreds of hours.

Animators may never capture the subtleties, depth and spontaneity of the human face.

I'm not sure they should.

Did I believe in the old man and the kid who take a balloon ride to South America in Pixar's "Up" (on DVD this week)? Yes, absolutely. They were living, breathing entities with whom I was happy to invest my intellectual and emotional concern.

And yet they weren't "realistic." They were cartoons.

As "Carol" richly illustrates, computer animation is great for many things. Zemeckis and his bunch have gotten good at shadow and light, at illuminating a scene by candle flame, at making snowflakes fall with just the right blend of lightness and weight.

What would be so wrong with putting real actors into that world? That's what Zack Snyder did with "300," his big, wonderful, homoerotic sword-and-sandal epic. He hired real actors, filmed them on a soundstage and then surrounded them with a computer-animated environment.

And it worked — "300" was a magnificent blend of human faces and a make-believe world that felt more real than actual reality.

Why did Gollum work so well in Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings"? I think it was because he, too, was something less than realistic.

Computer animation technology isn't going away. After all, how else are you going to create dinosaurs and monsters? You need it to turn a handful of extras into a vast army of combatants. It can give us car wrecks and complex action sequences that would risk the lives of living stuntmen.

But for a human character I want a real human face.

And then they could put the money they've saved into better scripts.

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