Universal Pictures has released a first look at Cats, its theatrical adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s long-running stage musical. In a behind-the-scenes piece, director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech, Les Misérables, The Danish Girl) says the film uses “digital fur technology to create the most perfect covering of fur.”

Our hope is that this does not turn out to be another situation like The Lion King or anything involving Andy Serkis where live-action filmmakers diminish the vital role that animation artists serve in their filmmaking. And while it’s too early to say exactly what the production process is on Cats, if there’s anything we learned from the new Lion King, film studios will be evasive about their techniques to hide the fact that a film is animated.

Looking at the Cats trailer, there seems to be a lot more going on than “digital fur.” We’ve all seen enough motion capture by now to know that a lot of the bodies in this trailer (and perhaps all) are mo-capped. And if they’re being mo-capped, there’s no way to achieve this standard of motion without animators. (A sidenote: If it doesn’t look right, and frankly a lot of people feel that it doesn’t, it may be because using animators to transform live performance into animation is not necessarily the best use of an animator, but that’s an aesthetic choice made by the creators, not the animators.)

One of the consistent things that has happened in recent hybrid films is that the role of the animation and vfx teams has been sidelined as a way to boost the role of actors. This is understandable to an extent. The physical presence of live actors has been reduced in many of these hybrid films to the point where we’re no longer seeing their actual bodies onscreen, yet it would be a mini-scandal if audiences knew this since the studios are still selling the actors as the main attraction. To keep the illusion that the entire actor is actually present in the film, and that audiences are getting their money’s worth, studios need to pump up the role of actors and pretend that animators aren’t involved. That’s why the first behind-the-scenes publicity piece we’ve seen for Cats is of the actors dancing and emoting, even though it’s highly questionable whether the physical bodies of these actors are present in the finished production:

But this is all a marketing issue for the film studios to figure out. The main concern for the animation and vfx industry should be to help audiences understand that what they’re seeing onscreen in a lot of recent superhero films and hybrid productions is not a physical actor but a photorealistic animated character. The much-touted photorealistic animation character is already here and has been here for the last decade. Unless you work as a Hollywood publicist, there’s no point to keep this ruse going.

Cats will open on December 20, 2019 in the United States. Screenplay is by Lee Hall (Billy Elliot, Rocketman) and Hooper. The film is produced by Working Title Films and Amblin Entertainment, in association with Monumental Pictures and The Really Useful Group. Debra Hayward, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, and Tom Hooper produced; Lloyd Webber, Steven Spielberg, Angela Morrison, and Jo Burn executive produced.

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