Some Thanks, Merry Christmas and a Happy 2005

I've recieved such an overwhelming response to my commentary and analysis of THE POLAR EXPRESS, that I find it hard not to say THANKS! Thank you all for the responses and to the thoughtful dialogue that should exist between artists and audiences. I do feel that I should give props to Ethan at Persistence of Vision, to James at Seward Street, to Jared at his Little Crockpot of News and Thoughts blog, to Lili and Eddie at fwak! Blog, and especially to Amid at Cartoon Brew, for the exposure. My blog traffic went through the roof this past week, and now I feel so exposed, so naked. But hey! That's a good thing, I guess. We are all entitled to some "naked time," every once in a while.

I liked what James mentioned in his blog about us artists and animators being open to constructive criticism, as it should be about wanting to make things better. That's the whole point of my POLAR EXPRESS essays: to see what could've been done to make the movie more enjoyable and a little less irritable and unsettling.

I love the Holidays. Spending time with the family is so special to me and I wish the best to my readers for the coming year. Thanks for making these last two months of 2004 a great experience for me. I only hope that you guys have had just as must fun reading my ramblings as I have had rambling.

And now, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas, and a truly great New Year for 2005.


The Polar Express: A Virtual Train Wreck (conclusion)

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.)


In the meantime

Sorry for the delay in concluding my review/commentary of THE POLAR EXPRESS, but I've been out of town and finding time to write has become a bit of a challenge. I've got some good stuff to say in the next installment, and I don't want to post just anything, so just wanted to let you all know that I haven't forgotten ya.

In the meantime, here are some links that I frequent from time to time.

Loobylu is a great artist blog that pretty much got me started in all this. It's Claire Robertson's blog and she's a great illustrator from Australia and you can check out her work HERE.

I like is a pretty cool blog with loads of links to things that are very interesting. I like.

Tirade is Ronnie Del Carmen's blog on art, interests, etc. Ronnie works as a story artist at world-famous Pixar Studios, and I've been a big fan of his work for about a year and a half now, even buying two issues of his comic, Paper Biscuit. You can check his work out HERE.

Michel Gagné is a fantastic animator who worked on THE IRON GIANT and made the incredible short, PRELUDE TO EDEN. Amazing special effects animator along with possessing an eye for the fantastical with his bizarre Insanely Twisted Rabbits book. He's working with a Flash animator and have come up with The Insanely Twisted Puppet Show which promises to be one of the most intriging offerings for the next year. Let's hope he gets the show greenlit.

Some other artists I'm digging:
Adrian Johnson: cool designer/illustrator from the UK.
Tim Biskup: great illustrator who was a former animator/background painter and now is part of that underground, "low-brow" art movement.
Arthur DePins: French illustrator/animator who's made some of the best Flash animation I've ever seen. Be sure to check out his amazing shorts L'Eau de Rose and La Révolution des Crabes.
art smear is a blog started up by artist James Palmer, a fellow Atlanta artist who has mastered Painter. His work evokes an oil painterly look, but is entirely digital. You would never know it was done in the computer. Take a lookie-see.

In the following weeks I plan on having a post of my influences, chock-full of links. I'd like to see what you, my readers, are influenced by too, so shoot me an email and I'll see what I can do.

Thanks for being patient.


The Polar Express: A Virtual Train Wreck

This is Part One of two. Click here for Part Two, where I try and "fix" the characters in Photoshop.

I've delayed posting my review of THE POLAR EXPRESS for some time now because I've been so perplexed by this film. I mean, the film as a whole is not so bad. It's got some great visuals and some wonderful camera work by director Robert Zemeckis. I usually have a large grey area for movies, and this falls right in the middle for me. I do not hate it. Nor do I love it. I do feel that there may have been far too much emphasis placed on the technology, promoting all the hoopla about the motion-capture mumbo-jumbo in recording Tom Hanks' movements and his "acting," and not enough interest pushing the story and characters. But was there enough there to push? I dunno. It was, after all, based on a children's book, and so the story gets stretched far and wide in many places. Read: it's rather thin.

But being an animator, there was this immense build-up of animosity towards this film and what it meant to the feature animation community. Should I dismiss THE POLAR EXPRESS solely on the fact that it's not really animation even though it's purporting to be an "animated" film? Is it really animation, after all? And why in the heck do all the characters look so bizarre and so unconvincing?

That's my main question. Why, with all the millions pumped into the production of this technological "masterpiece," do all the children still look so creepy? It's ironic, don't you think? I mean, you read Newsweek's article on the film and you'd believe that this was the second coming of filmmaking. But after reading about 500 visual-effects specialists working for three years, and about 72 cameras capturing Tom Hanks' movements, 194 "jewels" on the actor's body for recording thus movements into the computer (152 on the face alone), and $164 million spent on the movie, I just have to say: SO WHAT? So what if you spent so much on the technology for this film. If you can't make believable characters and put them in a likable story, it's like putting paint on poo. You can't hide the stink.

So, what's going on here? Motion-capture is what the big hub-bub is all about. And guess what? It's nothing new. But don't tell the promotional department at Warner Bros. They want you to think that what Zemeckis & Co. are creating here is the next level in motion picture making, that this is where's it's heading to. Not so. This technology has been used before in other movies, most recently in the entire LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, and even going back as far as 1997's TITANIC, for all the little crewmen and passengers on that doomed ship. Actors in the latter film were recorded doing basic movements like walking, picking things up, waving, talking, etc. In the LOTR movies, the technique was ramped up and utilized the best most notably with the full-fledged digital character of Gollum. It's also used extensively in the gaming industry, capturing movements for characters fighting, hitting, dodging, blocking, all sorts of moves.

But actually, it doesn't begin with TITANIC or with games. It's really a gussied-up version of rotoscoping, if you ask me. Rotoscoping: tracing over live action movement. Some animation purists will balk at the use of this technique, but believe it or not, it's been around since Max Fleischer created a device to do such a thing in 1914 for his "Out of the Inkwell" series. It's been used for help in many animated films throughout the years, including SNOW WHITE and CINDERELLA. Ralph Bakshi used it extensively (and not really for assistance) in several of his films. Was it animation? Not really, as here Bakshi and his artists were just drawing over live action that was shot specifically for each scene. Why do it, then? I would like to think it was for a unique look, to give some sort of different aesthetic to a dying art-form (this was the 70's, remember). But it probably was because of money. Ralph didn't have enough money to pay for any "real" animation, so he just decided to film it all with actors and get some dudes to trace over everything. It's interesting to look at, but I do feel like after watching AMERICAN POP, that it really would've been an incredibly boring movie if it was just live action only. And it does get old after about an hour of it.

So, now, we've got POLAR EXPRESS, and after talking with several of my coworkers, we've all come to the conclusion that this movie would've been a much better film if it was live action characters in a digital environment. That way, you would've still kept the whimsy of the environments, setting, and overall look, yet kept the characters from veering off into "living-dead land." As I mentioned earlier, I enjoyed the film. To a certain degree. I enjoyed the use of the camera as you can definitely tell that Zemeckis was having fun with his new-found freedom from the usual restraints of camera work within a live action setting. If you've ever watched a movie being made, you know how much time is spent on getting the camera and lights set up. It literally is like watching grass grow. Very tedious and time consuming. So you can see where he's wanting to go with this film. Zemeckis just wants to have fun. And he does with several shots, like the lost ticket scene. Also with the train on the frozen lake. There's some great visuals going on here, but I swear, each time we cut back to a reaction shot of the characters, I was thrown out of the film like a Bob Knight chair. It was so hard for me to watch this film.

Why do this to an audience? Why subject us to freakish half-dead soulless children up on a huge screen? It's frustrating me, I tell ya. I just had to figure this out. Why do these kids (and Tom Hanks, too) veer into the now-famous uncanny valley? This narrow, yet horrifying proverbial trench of seemingly realistic characters being so close to reality that they become eerie and unsettling? Dr. Masahiro Mori's concept here was originally coined for humans' relationship to robotic design (in the 70's, even). And now, with almost-real cyber humans sharing space up on screen with real human counterparts, it's been resurrected as a very truthful description for what is going here. Others have brought this subject up on various blogs, such as Robot Johnny (although he was talking about Pixar's INCREDIBLES), Comic Con's The Beat, and the excellent Intelligent Artifice. Why do this anyway? Is it to boast that ultra- or even hyper-realistic humans are the Holy Grail for CG artists? Some feel that it is. But is it worth it? Once these artisans and engineers reach that level, then what? It's not going to make a dent in the long run, save for a few footnotes in CG history. Film history buffs may find it interesting for a paragraph, but this achievement will not force us to scrap our history books entirely.

Chuck Close, Big Self-Portrait (detail), 1967-68, acrylic on canvas.

Take a look at history. When photography was introduced in the mid- to late-19th century, everybody thought that it was the end of painting. Not so. Painters reacted with interest as the Impressionists took to the subject matter in similar ways that the fledgling art-form of photography was focusing on: everyday life and regular subject matter. It became a different tool, rather than rendering painting extinct. The same thing has been going on for years in the animation camp. The question is always brought up about computers taking over 2D, or traditional, hand-drawn animation. And many on both sides of the fence always agree that CG animation will not force 2D animation extinct. Again, it's just a different tool brought to the table. As for the issue of realism in art, take a look at the Photorealism, or Hyper-realism art movement of the 60's and 70's. These artists resorted to photos for reference and painted EXACTLY what they saw. It was not a progression to a level that was the upmost for artists, but rather just another art movement. No one expected that this was where all art was heading to, but rather another way of looking at life around you. Warhol and the Pop Artists did the same thing, but in more abstract and conceptual ways, without all the super- and hyper-realistic details and over-the-top information that the other artists were painting. Just another mirror to make us look through.

My main problem with THE POLAR EXPRESS is not that they are trying to give us a new and creative way of looking at films, but rather that the filmmakers are suggesting that this is the end-all be-all thing to filmmaking in general. That what they are doing is the shiz-nit, man! And the fact that Zemeckis himself has suggested that what he's doing is not attainable by any animator:

"I think when you see the movie, you’ll realize it’s absolutely nothing like an animated movie,” Zemeckis said. “You’ll see such subtlety in the performance of these characters that you would have to have the genius-of-all-genius animators. In my opinion, there’s no animation in the world that could have created it.”

I'm surprised by Zemeckis's comments here. (You can peep the full article here.) Considering that he was important in bringing about the Second Golden age in Animation with WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?, it's very disheartening for me to read this quote by him. It's the equivalent to the general population out there saying that you're the best artist ever if you render EXACTLY what you see onto paper. Which is complete crap. (Throughout my life I've encountered countless people who suggested to me that I was a better artist because I could draw exactly what I see.) But rendering is not the same as looking at something and depicting it a certain way that only you uniquely see it. Painter David Hockney has the best title to a book of his work, "That's The Way I See It". That sums it up for me as an artist. We artists are not here to visually re-render what we see in front of us, verbatim. Where's the fun in that? Cameras can do that already. We artists are here to interpret the world around us in ways that others may not have imagined. To offer something new to the table. To look at life around us through new and unique offerings.

I've established that the reasoning for hyper-realistic characters are not necessarily important, but I haven't talked about why exactly do these characters look so creepy. I'll have to do this in my next post. This one got too long! Stay tuned....

UPDATE: Click here for part two of Polar Express: A Virtual Train Wreck (conclusion).


Ward 2.0

After about 6 years I finally got new glasses. It was a monumental event for me as I was itching for a new look for... well, 6 years. At the time I got the new glasses, my hair was getting retched. Since I keep my hair relatively short, it starts to look iffy in just over a month. And since I use some sort of sticky hair wax stick to make my hair have that mussed-up-just-got-out-of-bed-but-still-look-cool look, it starts to have an adverse effect on my hair when it gets longer. The longer my hair gets, the more wax I need to put in it. Add the fact that I hate to shave and it'll be about a week before I do get around to doing it, I began to look like a street urchin, on the verge of asking somebody for some change.

So, yes, new glasses. I got a pair of those narrow retro-ish, yet contemporary frames that make me look like I'm ready to give a dissertation on the indie film I saw at Sundance last night. I like them. After getting my frames, a new haircut and finally getting around to shave - boy, did I feel like a new man! I felt like Ward 2.0. Ready for my new project! Bring it on!

But alas, it couldn't last. It never does, when you have your hair done up by a stylist, right? I couldn't get that look right, no matter how long I stood there in front of my mirror. And you'd think that it's easier with short hair? Not so. So now, after about 2 weeks, I was back to where I started. Only now, I look like a down-and-out filmmaker.


Ava's First Joke

Q: Why did the toilet cross the street?

A: To get to the cupcake treat!