Thursday, February 4, 2010

Animation or Not

I've probably shared this story before, but it's a good one so I'll share again.

Tissa David tells how she came to New York from Hungary via Paris with no other dream than to animate for UPA.

She went up to their offices at 666 Fifth Avenue with a portfolio.  "We may have work in the trace and paint department."  "No, I'm an animator."  That was kind of shocking, since women were not considered to be animators in 1958.  But her foreignness somehow outweighed her femininity and she was told that Grim Natwick just fired another assistant and he might need another.  So she was introduced to Grim, and said he'd work with her -falsely claiming they both spoke a little German to make up for her lack of English and his non-existent Magyar -if she could answer one question:

"What is animation?"

"Animation," she stuttered, "is animation."

Taken aback, "I've been asking people that question for 30 years and that's the best answer I've gotten yet."

Grim Natwick, one of the principle architects of this field, was searching for the meaning -the spirit- of his craft.

I'm nowhere near Grim on the talent meter, but I could probably out-talk him in any language neither of us knew.  So I've talked it through some, and in light of James Cameron's assertion that his film "Avatar" is not animation thought I'd come to his defense.

Let's look at the world of being made of two things: nouns and verbs.  (forget all those pesky adverbs and prepositions)

Nouns and verbs.  Form and process.

Painting is form.  Watercolor is process.
Travel is form.  Running is process.

Film is form.  Animation is process.

The debate on whether motion capture is animation is seeded in the feeling that calling it animation is "good" or "bad".  There is no value to the term it's simply a process.

To define animation, you can look at what distinguishes from other processes of the form.  The most obvious one is live action -in which thousands of images are captured in camera, altered through lab processes and projected in a new state.

If capturing the image is paramount to the form -and in film it is -the manner in which that image is captured will define subsets of process.

Here's where history comes into play.  At an early point, it was discovered that imaged can be recorded onto film through a temporarily stopped camera.  This is a clear break in process.  In order for this process to meet the requirement of form, images must be manipulated one frame at a time.

It's clear, "animation" is the frame by frame manipulation of images for the film form.

What about puppets?  Seems like a live action process.
How about clay?  Seems like animation.
How about this swooshing logo?  Wait a second...

Swooshing logo.  Like this:

There's a different animal. Some images were created/captured single frame, but most were developed through trickery. Not exactly animation, not exactly live action.

This is a middle way: motion graphics

It can be created using crafted elements such as the logos above, or live action elements:

The process of animation has always been riddled with shortcuts -cycles, pan and scans, reused art, and rotoscoping. All of those are components of the process. As Richard Williams says "Animation is an extension of drawing", with that in mind drawing develops with tracing and with model study.

Rotoscoping is still a single frame process, therefore animation.

Along comes this technology. Motion capture. Is this something new? Neither fish nor fowl? It may be.

It's not animation, that's for sure. It's not a single frame process of creation -no matter how much re-rigging needs to be done. In that regard it's similar to flying logos, it's akin to motion graphics. Information is used and technology (whether its an optical bench, motorized camera, video generator, or computer) creates a picture from the inputs by interpreting the missing information.

At the moment, motion capture seems an awful lot like motion graphics. But let's look at the original definition of live action: "thousands of images are captured in camera, altered through lab processes and projected in a new state." Couldn't this just as accurately define "motion capture".

One thing it doesn't resemble is animation.


Michael Sporn said...

And is cgi animation when they primarily draw the keyframes then allow the computer to inbetween - rerigging as they go along to get the best effect? Is that truly single frame animation? How does Flash fit in?

roconnor said...

Flash is a tool, and CGI is shorthand for several tools.

Much Flash "animation" is motion graphics. Same is could be said for cgi.

It becomes a matter of degree, and that's the question: where is the tipping point? How many created frames does it take to go from motion graphics to animation?

That's a tougher question, as the answer is qualitative, not quantitative.

The greater rub comes in when value is place on the terms "animation" "live action" and "motion graphics".

It only makes sense that animators feel their work is of superior merit, just as a sculptor might think carving in marble is highest artistic expression.

I have no problem with motion capture becoming animation. It may happen at some point -but then it ceases to be motion capture and simply becomes motion study. At the moment, that's not what it is. As technology advances, it will move farther and farther from single frame techniques.

A Santarelli said...

Not to get all high fallutin' but there is a quotation from Goethe which I think is very useful in deciding where in the spectrum of artistic endeavors particular disciplines ought roughly to be placed. Goethe said: "The begining and end of all literary activity is the reproduction of the world that surrounds me by means of the world that is in me, all things being grasped, related, recreated, molded and reconstructed in a personal form and an original manner."

If one substitutes "artistic activity" in place of "literary activity" above, one has a very useful tool for evaluating the artistic purity (I'll resist the temptation to use the word merit) of various art forms -including most saliently, the much and fashionably maligned motion capture as practiced in Avatar.

Stepping back for a moment, I have always held the notion that while still an absolutely legitimate and potent art form, photography must necessarily be somewhat less artistically pure an artistic endeavor than say painting or drawing, precisely because of its reliance on a predominantly mechanical, i.e. impersonal, image capture system.

Both photography and painting seek to create an image in order to communicate something about existence, an artistic truth if you will. By Goethe's definition, the more this image, this "reproduction of the world that surrounds me" is filtered through, informed by and imbued with the putative artist's personality and experience ("by means of the world within me") the more potent the artistic expression. The painter starts with nothing and has to provide every scintilla of input whereas the photographer, while still burdened with some of the same considerations as the painter (framing, lighting, subject matter) is indisputably burdened with providing less as the camera's lense and film automatically create the image at a certain point.

Because the painter has to generate and orchestrate far more (ALL) of the elements of the produced image, then said image must be impregnated with a higher quotient of the artist's personality -which is to say the world within him, than that of the photographer's image, which, again, at a certain point in its creation is handed over to the impersonal physics of light and film emulsion... (see subsequent post for second part)

A Santarelli said...

Coming now to the matter at hand, the golem of motion capture. To my caffeine sharpened mind, it seems that one could very profitably apply the same test above and conclude that because the Avatar animators were given high res motion capture data and high def facial close up film reference of the actors' performances AND told to match it exactly, adding nothing in terms of acting choices, i.e., poses, gestures, expressions, blinks, nods -all the usual elements which animators typically manipulate to create a believable animated character -then what the animators were doing is something far less than what is usually connoted by the term animation.

I would give the Avatar animators all due praise and credit for bringing their animator's skills to the task of 'mindlessly' replicating their reference material the same way I would value rotoscoping by a good animator as opposed to rotoscoping by a bad animator. When I see rotoscoping by a less skilled animator there is a pervasive lack of understanding in the quality of the line work which is typically weak, spindly and meandering and does not at all accurately communicate the form and volume of the moving source shapes to be rotoscoped. However, if a skilled animator should be so unlucky as to have to take on the damn unrewarding task of rotoscoping, the resulting work benefits from the skilled animator bringing to bear the talent of knowing how to use line to accurately translate the flat film source into credibly rotating forms and masses that convey the illusion of depth.

In conclusion, because the Avatar animators were pinned down and forbidden to provide any performance input, their work cannot be considered animation in the most valued sense of the word. They "merely" (in quotes because as conceded above there is absolutely considerable skill involved) translated the actors' choices into the CG builds.

One final qualification: obviously the animators that worked on Pandora's fauna were doing full blown animation work in that they had few if any restrictions on their work.

roconnor said...

Pinning a categorical process on the difficulty or freedom of the work is a tricky proposition.

Ideally, a distinction of crafts can be made by a purely reasoned checklist.

Ultimately, the process (live/animation/etc.) has to serve the form (film). In some regards motion capture does that better than animation, especially economically.