Copyright 2001 www.tombraiderchronicles.com

[ November 18th 2001]

Thanks to digital technology, movies are no longer the same medium they were a decade ago. The rapid evolution in sound and imaging software has transformed filmed entertainment from the bottom up, removing the assurance that what the camera sees is, was, or is remotely related to something real.

Seeing is no longer believing, even to the tiny degree it once was. Though the new technology is not yet able to create a fully convincing illusion of a human being, it is already sophisticated enough to produce the richly expressive cartoon characters of "Shrek" and "Monsters, Inc." as well as the eerily naturalistic detail down to skin pores and split ends of the synthetic human figures in this summer's science-fiction epic "Final Fantasy," or the three-headed dog, conversational snake and heroic satyr of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone."

The technology is also good enough to have provoked ethical and aesthetic debate. When computer graphics imaging (C.G.I. is the industry shorthand) becomes detailed enough, and when voice synthesis software becomes smooth enough, filmmakers will be faced with their own version of the great cloning debate. Is it right to make dead actors work again, to make living actors do things they didn't do in front of a camera, or to create actors out of whole pixels, who might take on an existence of their own?

If the fragments of information that have leaked out are any indication, a new film by Andrew Niccol (the screenwriter of "The Truman Show" and the writer- director of "Gattaca") will confront those issues head-on. Titled "Simone" and set for release in the spring, it's the story of a down-and-out movie producer (Al Pacino) who creates a digital replacement when a temperamental actress walks out in the middle of a film. The replacement named Simone, or Sim(ulation) One becomes an overnight sensation, requiring Mr. Pacino's character to maintain the fiction that she is real something that will certainly pose a problem at news conferences and awards banquets.

It is telling, though, that Mr. Niccol has reportedly cast an unknown actress in the role of "Simone" rather than constructing the character from digital scratch. (A spokeswoman for New Line Cinema, the studio behind "Simone," declined to comment on the truth of those reports.) The technology is there to present a semiplausible human figure, like Dr. Aki Ross, the comely heroine of "Final Fantasy," but it is not yet advanced enough to simulate the ineffable energy that passes between an actor on the screen and a viewer in a movie theater. For the moment, if a filmmaker wants a spectator to identify with a character, it's safer to begin with organic matter than a cloud of numbers.

Released in May, "Shrek," with its cuddly, cartoonlike characters bobbing along with the eerie weightlessness of balloons from the Macy's Thanksgiving parade, has been the biggest hit of the year. The more realistically styled "Final Fantasy" proved to be one of the financial disappointments of the summer. It's possible that teenage boys, the target audience for "Final Fantasy," were simply put off by a female hero. (Action films with women as protagonists have historically fared poorly, a point driven home by the mediocre box-office performance of "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" this summer.) But it's also likely that the digital characters in "Final Fantasy" contributed to the cold, sterile feel of the film.

Why does "Shrek" seem warmer to audiences? Most likely because the characters come with instantly recognizable voices those of Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz and others while Aki Ross owes her voice to a less well-known actress, Ming- Na. The voice performers in "Shrek" have been encouraged to express their own personalities, and their characters have been designed as extensions of them.

The same is true of "Monsters, Inc.," which opened this month. Its creators, the director Peter Docter and the executive producer John Lasseter, did test animations of the Mike Wazowski character, the wisecracking, one-eyed monster, using audio clips of Billy Crystal's voice drawn from other films before approaching Mr. Crystal about performing the role.

But in "Final Fantasy," the voices including those of Alec Baldwin, Donald Sutherland and Ving Rhames seem no more personal than those of television announcers reading copy they've never seen before. The voices are detachable from the characters, and probably deliberately so: it will be much easier to replace them when the film is dubbed for international release. But the consequence is a certain robotic quality, an eerie disjuncture between voice and body that exaggerates the artificiality of the human figures rather than erasing it.

The first synthespian superstar didn't have to deal with the voice-body problem, because she was born to a medium that didn't yet possess the power of speech. Gertie the Dinosaur was a character invented by the newspaper cartoonist Winsor McCay (the creator of "Little Nemo") for a 1914 vaudeville tour. McCay would come out onstage and pretend to sketch Gertie on a large drawing board actually, a movie screen.

Gertie would then come to life, in the form of an animated film painstakingly hand- drawn, frame by frame, by McCay. Standing next to his creation, McCay would interact with her, coaxing Gertie out of hiding, offering her some greens to munch on. Nearly nine decades later, Gertie has lost none of her personality and charm; she still jumps immediately to life in McCay's preserved film footage, a fully rounded character with a glow of inteligence and affection. Gertie's direct descendants include Felix the Cat, Mickey Mouse, Betty Boop, Bugs Bunny and the whole stable of cartoon stars who developed distinct personalities in the hands of gifted directors and animators. (Less distinct personalities, like Oswald the Rabbit or Sniffles the Mouse, died timely deaths.) Today's C.G.I. processes are nothing more than technologically advanced versions of traditional animation techniques, with the computer console replacing the drawing board and animation stand of the past. Animators deal with pixels as well as paint brushes, combining techniques to create such memorable images as the stampede in "The Lion King" (1994) and the invading armies of "Mulan" (1998).

What distinguishes C.G.I. from traditional animation is its aspiration to photorealism. The new processes can easily handle detailed textures, three-dimensional modeling and complicated, shifting perspectives in ways that would be prohibitively time-consuming and expensive using the old, analog methods. Of course, filmmakers of the pre- digital era had their own aspirations to photorealism and again, it is interesting to see how large a part dinosaurs played in the evolution of this technology.

Willis O'Brien was a San Francisco newspaper cartoonist who, in the early 20th century, developed a method of animating small clay and rubber figures. Built around flexible metal frames, the figures could be moved in tiny degrees for each frame of film shot, creating a final impression of (relatively) smooth, independent movement.

O'Brien used his method in a series of short films, most with prehistorical subjects The Dinosaur and the Missing Link" (1915), "R.F.D. 10,000 B.C" (1916) culminating in the 1925 feature "The Lost World," in which a group of explorers discovers a remote island populated by living dinosaurs. Though O'Brien's creatures moved with enough convincing authority to terrify audiences of the 1920's, none of them possessed Gertie's vivid personality.

But then, eight years later, O'Brien supervised the creation of the most enduring synthespian of all time: King Kong, the giant gorilla who, when he wasn't trampling natives underfoot or trashing the Third Avenue El, revealed a touchingly tender, childlike side, as well as an innocent, erotic curiosity as he held Fay Wray in the palm of his hand, poking her with a giant finger and undressing her down to a silk camisole.

Modern C.G.I. (which reached its maturity in 1993 with yet another dinosaur picture, Steven Spielberg's "Jurassic Park") is a combination of the two traditional techniques drawn and stop-motion animation polished and made more efficient by computer technology. Now, it is possible to automate many of the time-consuming processes that made traditional animation so expensive, using computers to fill in what animators call "in betweens" the transitional moments between the extreme character poses conceived by the artists. The scale models of gorillas and tyrannosauruses that Willis O'Brien animated frame by frame can now be fashioned out of pixels rather than wire and clay, a more efficient process and, when it is done with care, a more photographically convincing one. Sooner or later, and probably sooner, the old techniques will go the way of the dinosaurs they so often brought to life.

But it is one thing to animate a raptor, something else to animate Tom Hanks.

Even if the technology existed to create a perfect computer model of Mr. Hanks, who would inhabit it and bring it to life? In cartoons, that role would fall to the director or supervising animator; presumably, the same would be true of the synthetic cinema of the future. But one of the great sources of creative energy in movies comes from the collaboration, or even from the conflict, between director and performer, who may both have very different ideas of how to construct a character or play a scene. Potentially, synthespians could make the movies more of a director's medium than ever, because there would no longer be recalcitrant stars, accompanied by recalcitrant agents, coaches and hangers-on, to contradict the director's desires.

But this would not be the motion picture medium we know. It would lack tension, spontaneity, the grain of lived experience. It would be something closer to a puppet show, in which all of the performers are manipulated by a single person the man behind the curtain.

Back in 1980, when "The Empire Strikes Back" came out, George Lucas mounted a campaign to have Yoda, the lovable, backward-speaking sage ("Ready are you?"), nominated for a supporting actor Oscar. Yoda was, of course, the creation of Frank Oz, the puppeteer who designed him, operated him and gave him his voice. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences declined, but it is difficult to see on what grounds. Mr. Oz gave the character everything except his presence in front of the camera. No computers here: this is puppetry of the kind practiced since Punch and Judy.

Two years ago, with "Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace," Mr. Lucas offered the world another synthetic performer, this one constructed out of pixels rather than latex. And just as Yoda has become one of the most beloved figures in fantasy filmmaking, so has Jar Jar Binks, a chattering, dreadlocked alien geek apparently designed to enchant generations of children, become one of the most abhorred. At least a half-dozen Web sites (one www.jarjarmustdie.com is the headquarters of the International Society for the Extermination of Jar Jar Binks) are devoted to despising him. Though Jar Jar's voice was provided by a professional actor (Ahmed Best), he is clearly a solo creation of Mr. Lucas in a way that Yoda was not. Here is a case where collaboration would have added something significant to a character, or at least helped Mr. Lucas keep his worst instincts, for cutesiness and fussiness, in check. Perhaps Mr. Lucas conceived Jar Jar as a sort of Yoda in reverse gawky, callow and exasperatingly verbal but the joke was lost on much of the filmgoing world.

AT&T Labs recently announced a breakthrough in speech generation software that will be able to replicate voices so perfectly that no human listener could tell the difference. Combined with the rapid progress in C.G.I., the technology will eventually offer some ghoulish possibilities the prospect, perhaps, of an elderly James Dean doing Depends commercials. It is the old Frankenstein scenario, played out in the most modern terms. Perhaps we will be able to bring back Cary Grant or Marilyn Monroe, but, like the mad doctor's stitched-together monster, they probably won't seem quite like their old selves. There are more aspects to a screen persona or, for that matter, to any human presence than a voice and a look. The software will never be written that can generate star quality the ineffable combination of gestures, impulses and instincts that continue to bring a sense of life to images recorded as long as a century ago.

When he was still a working film critic, François Truffaut developed a notion he called the "privileged moment." For Truffaut, this was the time when the real world, accidentally in most cases, poked its way through the cinematic artifice, revealing something unexpectedly personal about the performer. The example he liked to cite was the shot in "Singin' in the Rain" at the end of the "Good Morning" number, when Debbie Reynolds bounds over the back of a couch and lands in a demure, sitting position and then, apparently unconsciously, reaches down to adjust her short skirt, making sure that she isn't showing an undue amount of thigh. It is a moment that reveals more about the actress than the character she is playing her modesty and her professionalism and as such it seems almost startlingly human, a genuine flash of truth. It is a reminder that movies originate in flesh and blood and human emotion rather than storyboards and special effects. C.G.I. can be mightily impressive, but only human gestures can be transcendently moving.

A CHARACTER in Jean-Luc Godard's "Petit Soldat" (1960) memorably observed that "cinema is truth 24 times a second." The figure today is considerably less than that maybe two or three times a second, at most. Animation, as practiced by Disney or McKay, never pretended to reproduce the real world; indeed, much of the charm of traditional animation lies in its transcendence of reality, its ability to transform the world according to our desires. If animation has become so closely associated with children's films, it may be because it has such special access to the realm of childish imagination, a world that pre-exists adult reality and offers a comfortable, comforting entryway into it.

C.G.I. aspires to something different: a reality that is realer than real, more vivid and more dramatic. The most widespread use of C.G.I. is not to create fantastic planets and sprawling, surreal urban environments but to touch up photographic images to change the color of a character's costume, to place a cloud in just the right spot, to improve a sunset, or simply to arch an eyebrow as Robert Zemeckis did with a close-up of Jodie Foster in "Contact" that the performer neglected to arch herself. Much of the dreamy, nostalgic vision of Paris in Jean-Pierre Jeunet's recent film "Amélie" was created by digitally retouching actual locations cars were removed from quaint, curving streets, graffiti was wiped away and perfect clouds were placed in the Parisian sky.

C.G.I. presents one clear and present danger: that films will soon be driven, not by story and character and sense of place but by the technology and the effects it can produce. Classical film style is based on a sense of integrity, an integrity that is at once psychological, dramatic and spatial. When that integrity is ruptured as it is routinely in music videos and in the films that imitate them (like "The Matrix," "Swordfish" and "The Fast and the Furious") there is a loss of weight and wholeness. The medium becomes little more than a comic book (or "graphic novel," as the more serious comic books are called) that happens to move and speak (like the anime the Japanese have been turning out for years).

If movies become a medium in which anything that can be imagined can be presented in photo-realist terms, the consequences will probably be a shrinking of the sense of fantasy and escape, because nothing will seem extraordinary anymore. As shocking as they were, even the images of the attack on the World Trade Center seemed weirdly familiar, accustomed as we are to seeing New York blasted by aliens ("Independence Day") and flattened by tidal waves ("Armageddon").

In the end, we will probably come to accept synthespians as an illusion, one of the countless illusions that make up a motion picture. Films function only with our willing suspension of disbelief; artificial actors are no different. Like Tinker Bell, that Edwardian synthespian played by a theatrical spotlight, they come to life only if we clap our hands if we really, really want to believe in them.

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