Gene Deitch On Motion/Performance Capture

Beowulf

Serving as an appropriate complement to this earlier piece on Cartoon Brew, animation legend Gene Deitch has written a piece for Animation World Magazine entitled “Yes, But is It Animation?” in which he uses Beowulf as a jumping point for his thoughts on motion and performance capture. Deitch’s primary complaint is that while the type of work on display in Beowulf is technically qualifiable as animation, it is not a creative use of the medium. “We animators can animate absolutely anything we can imagine,” he writes. “We are graphic artists, and graphic art can be wildly anything.” Beowulf is not even mildly anything as far as animation art goes.

In the end, Deitch concedes that the whole debate about what is and what isn’t animation may be little more than a trivial technicality because a film’s worth is not rooted in its technique: “We may simply have to give up trying to categorize films by their technical process of production, which will surely be more and more a mixed bag of tricks, and simply judge them as films. Do they tell a story worth telling, and do they tell it well? That’s really what movies are all about, isn’t it?”


  • http://johnpannozzi.blogspot.com John Pannozzi

    My first thought was “wow, Gene Deitch is still around?”.

  • Mike Lucy

    I definitely agree with that last line.

  • Kerry

    Brilliant commentary, and I completely agree. Animation/smanimation…is it worth my 10 bucks and 2 hours? Did it entertain me? Was it thought provoking?

    In the case of Beowulf, the answer is a resounding NO, and audiences around the world agree (it won’t make its money back anytime soon).

    The film is a mess, starting with the screenplay. And it’s ugly to the point of being unwatchable.

  • TStevens

    I think it is more positive than negative that we move toward blurring the lines of what is and isn’t animation. That may help to move animation away from the idea of being a genre to being more of a medium used to tell a story. If you debate the idea of what is or isn’t animation it gets away from the basic question of wether we are using the right technique to tell the right story. In the case of Beowulf I think the jury is still out (though most people think it would have been better suited as live action against digital BGs).

  • Pedro Nakama

    “We may simply have to give up trying to categorize films by their technical process of production, which will surely be more and more a mixed bag of tricks, and simply judge them as films. Do they tell a story worth telling, and do they tell it well? That’s really what movies are all about, isn’t it?”

    This is a very good point. It seems like all of the films today are being sold to the public on how they were made instead of what they are about.

  • http://members.shaw.ca/petemslie/index.htm Pete Emslie

    “Do they tell a story worth telling, and do they tell it well? That’s really what movies are all about, isn’t it?â€?

    I’ll be the voice of dissent here and answer a resounding “NO” to the above. Yes, story is important, but it is not the be all and end all as so many seem to believe these days. To many of us out here, myself included, the illusion of a line drawing seemingly springing to life on the screen is still the ultimate magic of moviemaking. I’m tired of all of this technology “blurring the lines of what is and isn’t animation”. I don’t want animation to be some ambiguous thing that tries so hard to simulate live-action – I want to see drawn animation by real cartoonists. Is that really too much to ask?

  • http://www.spiteyourface.com Tony Mines

    Oh GOD! YAWN. Back to this whole irrelevant wrong-headed argument.

    Look. Beowulf IS animation, whether you like it of not. It’s animation because dragons aren’t real, and neither are sea serpents. You can tell it’s animation, because like so much animation, its attempts to convey a reality are betrayed by poor observation skills, bad anatomy and a failure to sufficiently suggest weight or tactility.

    The real question for this forum, which always gets blind sighted by the usual stupid technophobic arguments – is whether or not Beowulf (or Polar Express or anything else) is any good on its OWN terms? Not as animation, not as legitimate cinema – but as a largely mo-caped CG event movie?

    Placed against say, Advent Children, does it remotely stand up to scrutiny? Is the image at the top of this post, unintentionally laugh out loud hilarious? What is up with Beowulfs wrist in that picture? Isn’t it just a bit wrong? Do all the characters arms emanate from the wrong part of the torso? Do they keep failing to convincingly pick up inanimate objects, that are the focus of that particular shot? Is it desperately reliant on everything being dark all the time?

    Answer these questions, and most other arguments on this matter suddenly reveal themselves as redundant…

  • Steve Gattuso

    It’s true that the technology simply hasn’t been used well. It’s like rotoscoping was for the Fleischers: A tool that allows certain things, but is otherwise limited in use.

    I can tick off good uses of motion-capture in features on one hand. Hell, one finger.

  • http://www.bishopanimation.com Floyd Bishop

    I’m probably on the wrong side of this according to most, but I liked the film. To me it was very much an animated film.

  • Chuck R.

    “It seems like all of the films today are being sold to the public on how they were made instead of what they are about.”

    Films are sold to the public on name-recognition: eg: From the creators of Ice Age….starring Jim Carrey —Horton Hears a Who!

    Only execs (are we in the black?), artists (will I have a job?) and geeks (this isn’t how Voltron looked when I was a kid!) care about they’re made.

  • Ogg

    Animation is supposed to let you create worlds and characters that have no rules or obligation to reality. Now, Zemeckis is mostly concerned with making animation look as real as possible. If it makes a good film, that’s fine. Animation is the perfect medium for verisimilitude – in the sense that it’s not realistic, but feels reel. When I see Remy in Ratatouille move, it’s so natural even though he’s doesn’t actually move like a real rat. Even in Cars, I forgot that I was watching animated talking cars after about 30 seconds into the film.

    With motion capture, it’s trying to stick to reality. That’s why I think it’s more creative to use it for films like Happy Feet. Once every character looks almost exactly like a human being, why even animate? You might as well just shoot them on film as live-action whether on location or in front of a green screen.

  • Chris Sobieniak

    I have to agree with what Ogg said about it. I’m more for the free-willing nature of animation not being binded by certain rules when there are ways to create characters in a manner that works on its own plausibility than to be confined to the limits of reality.

  • http://ryuuseipro.deviantart.com John Paul Cassidy

    I agree with Gene Deitch on the whole mo-cap hoopla. But I still have the same philosophy on it as Brad Bird does; Mo-cap is a tool, but it should be used WELL. Both LORD OF THE RINGS and KING KONG did a great job of that, making dynamic use of mo-cap, giving the characters full range of expression.

    The problem with Robert Zemeckis’ CGI characters, IMHO, is the *facial movement*. For example, compare the reactions of Jenny in MONSTER HOUSE (screaming in peril when she gets lifted into the air by the eponymous house) to the more dynamic reaction of Violet in THE INCREDIBLES (screaming before the end of Mr. Incredible’s van ride to the city before the climax). Zemeckis really needs to work on the facial movements. Even when characters in BEOWULF scream, they don’t have any facial stress; They look like they have numb faces! If he’s trying to base his animation on realism, he should at least give the facial features more dynamics. Any real-world human can have better expressions than the “human” characters in BEOWULF.

  • http://www.mbproductions.biz /\/\ikahl

    Tony Mines above nailed it.

    And why can’t we question the validity of the creator, rather than the technique? Mo-cap isn’t bad, but I think there’s some people’s judgement that is. Like John Paul says, the facial expressions are subdued, and lack any accents. The shadows on that wrist of Beowulf don’t look correct at all.

    Gollum was created in a similar way to Beowulf – yet his performance was much more convincing. Why the difference in quality?
    It was the difference in the humans, the ones controlling the tools, not the tools themselves.

    I don’t question the validity of motion-capture, but the validity of Beowulf’s creators.

  • TRF

    I think it will always come down to story. Tell me a good smart and entertaining story and I’m a fan for life. But, give me a bunch of flashy colors, lines, expensive cg/animation/whatever and skimp on the story – YAWN! This is why Pixar has done so well and others have failed. This is why Beowulfs failure is reflected in it’s poor box office draw. Story is more important than anything in my opinion.

  • http://www.negative13.com Geordie M

    What can I post today to get a rise out of people? hmmmm. Oh yeah… There’s always my old stand-by ‘Mocap vs. Animation’.