Finally! I'm back with the conclusion to my commentary on THE POLAR EXPRESS. If you missed the first installment, just scroll down a bit or click HERE. Okay, let's get back to it.
If you checked out the Newsweek article that I mentioned last time, you were subjected to the above image, with multiple Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks all dolled up in hi-tech mo-cap gear. Here is where Warner Bros' marketing was really banking on the prestige of Hanks getting all dirty, showing that he's willing to go the extra mile to give us, the audience, something worth watching. But, unfortunately, we are given the actual image from the movie from where this performance was captured. A "before and after" scenario, I guess. It's all too telling, if you ask me. Do you see what's happened from Point A to Point B? Somehow they spent millions of dollars to literally take the soul out of an Oscar-winning actor's performance. That's quite a feat!
I sat there just staring at this image, trying to figure out what happened. What exactly is going on here? Why does the image on the top look so engaging, so vibrant, so full of life, but the image on the bottom - which is supposed to be the exact same performance of the actor "captured" by the computer - look so dead and puppet-like? I went around the internet searching for anyone who might've tried to explain this. I found nothing. There were many who talked about it, who went on about The Uncanny Valley and such (which I mentioned in my previous post), but never anyone who really sat down and analyzed the movie and its characters, frame-by-frame. This is when I decided to do some investigating on my own.
With a vigilant eye, I studied Hanks and his avatar, nit-picking all the most minute details. I noticed several things. First, his brow and the area around the eyes did not have that same subtle intensity that you see from the original image. (What's happening here in the story is Hank's character, the Engineer, is singing into an intercom, while the children on the train are being served hot chocolate. Oh, and keep in mind that this is not a scientific study, just me having some fun, trying to figure some stuff out. And I feel I should say that all images from the film are copyright Warner Bros. So there.) There's a slight twinge in Hank's eye that you cannot make out in the Engineer's image. I know that the glasses are in the way, but even still. Also, the area around the mouth is not as emotive either. There's some stretching going on with the real Hanks that is not picked up in the fake Hanks, just outside the edge of the mouth. I understand that they added some weight to the Engineer, and it's reflected here, but I also know that bigger people are just as capable of emotion, so I'm not going to let that by. Even with weight, you should be able to feel the intensity of the Engineer singing into the intercom. And I'm not seeing that here.
Also, when Hanks pulls his head up to belt into the mic, there's some straining going on in his neck area. This, again, is lost in the digital version. The way he thrusts his head up and out, with his shoulders going down, and the way his right arm is positioned all get mussed up, and become stiff and weak. There must be something in the way that the characters are created, or "modeled", that no matter how much the digital artists tried to tweak to get the body just right, the CG model would still win. All the characters I've seen in FINAL FANTASY and THE POLAR EXPRESS have a puppet-like, marionette-style of construction. The shoulders, the way they walk, the way the head is held in turns, etc. - even when you are capturing real live action for the performances - all have a stiffness to them that apparently cannot be tamed.
My experimenting did not stop with Tom and the Engineer. I decided to grab some images from the film of the main Hero Boy (yes, that's his official name), and his friends to see if I could do better. Now, I am not a CG animator, nor have I ever done any CG modeling or shading and lighting, so these experiments are just that - experiments. I know that there are many many things involved when the animators and digital artists created these scenes in the movie. I'm very familiar with the CG realm as I see it in action on a daily basis here at Primal Screen. So, I'm just going into Photoshop and tweaking the characters to see what could've been. That's all.
Here we have our Hero Boy, just getting on the train and looking out at his neighborhood. For this scene he's unsure about this strange vision of a huge steam locomotive barreling through his town, and so he's excited, yet very wary. So what's up with his face? He looks like he's pissed off at the Engineer for forcing him to get onboard.
Here is my version. Nothing too major, just some subtlety added to the eyebrows and mouth. Now he looks like he's engaged with what's going on, and not angry.
Here, the boy has gotten his ticket and is apparently mesmerized by the darn thing. He looks so vapid. The one thing that I noticed in the movie, was that it seemed like they wanted to light Hero Boy's eyes with such intensity that we would be in constant awe of them. But in reality, they looked like doll eyes. It's just not natural to be able to see all of the iris all of the time. There will always be some shadows present, even with the most dramatic, intense eyes.
And thus, I softened the intensity of his irises and pupils by adding a little bit of shadow just underneath the upper eyelid. Also, I widened his mouth, and again, tweaked his eyebrows.
This was a doozy for me. I got this image from the teaser trailer, when the boy is gazing out at the lights and sounds of the train going by in front of his home. Since this trailer came out a full year before the movie was released, there's a slight possibility that they had changed some details in this particular scene, so I dunno. The boy looks downright freaky. Here, you see what I was talking about his irises being lit up to the point that they are oddly illuminating. Almost like they're about to vaporize you.
After many attempts, I finally came up with something that was halfway decent to me. After working on this one, I came to the conclusion that this character was simply designed poorly. I understand that the filmmakers used real kids for the look and image scans for all the characters, but sometimes what is real does not transpire well into animation, or rather, digitally. There has to be some tweaking to get it to look right. And my main problem with the Hero Boy (besides his eyes) were his eyebrows and his mouth. Maybe the original boy from whom they used to model for the CG character had downturned eyebrows, but I guarantee you that he did not look pissed off and mad at everybody all day. If the filmmakers could've just raised the eyebrows a bit, especially in this scene as he's watching in amazement at this fantastical event, then there could've been some more humanity put into the boy. Just these subtle touches make all the difference in the world.
I did not like the look of this boy at all. He's supposed to be the lonely boy, with a (possible) broken home, poor, untidy, without any spark of drive left in him. Well, his creators felt that to convey this type of sad sack you should give him a dull haircut that makes him look like he's wearing a nicely round fur helmet, making his ears protude, Dumbo-like. Also, they give him strange, rat-like eyes, with no lips at all. He looks like a death mask. But alive! Terrible character design.
Again, I had to fix the eyebrows. (What's with the eyebrows?) I made them more pronounced, and raised them just slightly. I gave him tussled hair, since he's supposed to be "unkempt," but I think I went a little too far. But the roughing up does give some personality to him now. There needs to be some assymetry to this character and you can do that with the hair. Hair can do wonders for character design, as it's unique for each character. You can do so much with hair to convey any type of personality, even with a simple lock. I fixed the bridge of his nose, as it was too strong. I gave him a turned-up nose, similar to a childhood friend of mine. Also, I had to do major work around the character's eyes to try to steer away from that mask-like quality. Plus, I gave him some lips. He was a toughie. I'm not sure if he's at tip-top shape, but he's better off than he was, that's for sure.
As for the girl in the background, I did some touch-up, but I decided not to get too far with it on her. She was the better designed of the bunch, but she still had problems with her eyes and her skin. The creators made a costly mistake in rendering her skin for this movie, making her seem "ashy," or having seemingly very dry skin.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to conclude that THE POLAR EXPRESS has some terrible character designs. If they could have just hired somebody with an inkling of aesthetic value to determine what needed to be changed and fixed, then all this could have been avoided. But here we are.
Some other thoughts about motion-capture:
One thing I admired Peter Jackson and his co-horts on THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, was his uncanny ability to notice the details. And when something wasn't looking right in his eyes, he acknowledged it right away and worked hard in fixing the problem. Sometimes things don't go the way you imagined them and with Gollum, he proved the hardest character to design and depict on screen. They originally were going to use actor Andy Serkis's voice for Gollum, and some performance actor do the mo-cap bits, but when they checked out video of Andy in the soundbooth, performing Gollum's voice by twisting and wriggling his face and contorting his body to get the voice right, they felt that maybe he would be the perfect guy to do the performance for the character. And boy, did he get into the character. (If you ever get the chance, read Gollum: A Behind the Scenes Guide of the Making of Gollum, written by Andy Serkis himself. It's a fascinating read.) The boys at Weta Digital created a program that dealt with facial expressions, lining up digital skin to Andy's facial details when he created a particular expression.
As they grabbed Andy's performance via mo-cap, Weta had actual animators go in and tweak the performances to make sure they fit the appropriate scenes. Some scenes required more animation, using "keys" (main poses) and having the animator actually manipulate the digital character to give it that extra umph. Just the same, some scenes were mostly mo-cap, with hardly any animation involved. The face was the only place where they used animators entirely. So yes, motion-capture can be a good thing, like picking up on subtle things that the body does for a particular motion that maybe the animator would not realize. Mo-cap helped further the production, simplifying some motions that animators could've had a hard time working on. Here on LOTR, animation and mo-cap worked hand-in-hand: a happy symbiotic relationship. Peter Jackson was recorded to have said that even with all the technology used, they found out that what Disney did in the 30's was still the most reliable way of getting personality into the character.
And as I recall, there was possible talk of Oscar for Andy Serkis's performance, remember? I'm not hearing the same for Oscar-winning Tom Hanks, I'm afraid.
More thoughts. Looking through that wonderful book, The Art of The Incredibles, I came across some interesting quotes:
"In my opinion it's always been a fallacy, the notion that human characters have to look photo-realistic in CG. You can do so much more with stylized human characters. Audiences innately know how humans move and gravity works, so if a human character doesn't feel right, they'll feel something's wrong. But if the weight works for stylized characters, the audience doesn't question it - like the Dwarfs in SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS, which were so cartoony and stylized. In THE INCREDIBLES, the characters are cartoony heroes but they can be hurt and they have this family dynamic that makes them believable." Ralph Eggleston, Artistic Director for THE INCREDIBLES
There is so much leeway given to stylized human characters, so when you get into that uncanny valley of photo-real digital humans, the audience will notice even the slightest of quirks. Here's another quote:
"From the beginning, we all wanted the cast of characters to look like cartoon people instead of photo-realistic people. In animation, it really takes a bit of exaggeration to make something look convincing. The great caricaturist Al Hirshfeld most typified this. He could perfectly capture a person's identity by simply sketching curlicues for hair and pinholes for eyes. The faces and attitudes he drew were often more recognizable in the abstract than if they had been rendered out realistically." Teddy Newton, Character Designer on THE INCREDIBLES
That's what I was talking about in giving a certain motion that extra umph. Even though every little detail is recorded by motion-capture technology, the performance up on screen still looks stiff and robotic. As an animator, I understand that real life looks dull if rendered exact, and I've had to pump up some scenes to give them that extra bit of life to an otherwise banal movement.
So now, we see that THE POLAR EXPRESS is doing quite well at the box office of recent. I know why. It's got that feel-good Christmas-is-in-your-heart pap that the general public seems to enjoy. And I guess that most audiences will wow and awe at the "magic" of the setting of this film. They'll be amazed by the look and feel of it, because to the unknowing eye, it's something that's new and exciting. That's fine. But we know better, right?
What I find incredibly ironic with the film is that in the story, our Hero Boy has a hard time believing in Santa and in Christmas as a whole. It takes a roller-coaster ride of a trip to the North Pole to finally understand what it means to really believe in Christmas. It's even stamped on his ticket: BELIEVE. Only when he truly believes can he finally hear Santa's sleigh bell that is given to him as the first gift of Christmas. As I watched the screen, I could not help but laugh as I somehow knew that we, the audience, were really the Boy, wanting to truly believe in these characters. But, alas, in the end, we still cannot hear that darn sleigh bell ring.
(This commentary was written in December '04. I am currently working on a follow-up to all this Polar Express hubbub and will post it sometime in February '05. If you are a new visitor, don't forget to check out The Ward-O-Matic's main page for the latest. Thanks. --Ward.)