Captivated

koko.gifIn order to model human movement for incorporation into film animation Max Fleischer, in 1915, devised a system called rotoscoping that would allow animators to trace over live-action film. Koko the Clown was the first figure thus generated. The apparatus was refined over the decades and by the late 70s came to be used in such special effects as the lightsabers in the first three ‘Star Wars’ features. In the early 80s computers began to be used for the analysis of movement. The process involved attaching potentiometers to a body and using the output to drive computer animated figures for choreographic studies and clinical assessment of movement abnormalities.
merce.jpgA little later, to quote from this useful article, optical tracking systems were developed. ‘Optical trackers typically use small markers attached to the body – either flashing LEDs or small reflecting dots – and a series of two or more cameras focused on the performance space. A combination of special hardware and software pick out the markers in each camera’s visual field and, by comparing the images, calculate the three-dimensional position of each marker through time.’ By 1994 the operation was digitised and by 1996 could be seen comprehensively threaded through the effects in ‘Titanic’.
The technology continues to develop, of course, and increasingly assumes a cultural importance quite distinct from its technical achievements. Two of my students pointed out that the use of the ‘bubble suit’, worn by actors in current motion capture practice, features the actor transformed into a puppet for the purpose of modelling realistic movement for a puppet. The actor will enact the moves that are, effectively, imprinted on to the screen figure. The puppet thus animated will have movement capacities that border on the uncanny and will, in excitable circles, prompt the already fatigued assertion that ‘Computer Generated Imagery will soon replace real actors!’ We can dispense with this non-debate by coolly observing ‘It will never happen.’
What, however, is happening, in part due to neo-folkloric attitudes to CGI, is an inexorable process of abasement in relation to animated figures and their imagined power. Despite using movement that is not their own, the CGI figures have an efficiency that results in their being experienced, at some level, as a species of vampiric contender. Puppets and dolls in popular culture (get box-set here) have long been associated with having murderous designs on their unsuspecting human stewards (see definitive scholarly study here). The imprinting of these malignancies onto cartoon characters has been a slower process, impeded by the narratives and personalities attached to the colourful 2Ds masquerading as 3Ds – a cartoon villain is clearly villainous and therefore not to be found in any way uncanny.
zombie.jpgAt the point where borrowed or ‘captured’ movement becomes acceptably realistic, its bearer – the animated figure – becomes unsettling, regardless of character imprinting and physiognomy. It is more goblin than elf and, insofar as it seems to have substance rather than mere spirit, more zombie than spectre. If we persist with the fairyfication, then the animated figure is an embodiment of  an advanced and complicated technology that may be viewed as a stealer of souls, a producer of doubles and an adept at the switcheroo previously practised by the fairies that took your baby away and left you with a spooky changeling. The industrial champions of CGI compound all this with their ‘soon be better than the real thing’ boastfulness.
The animation technologies are themselves embodiments of technological slave systems, in the sense that a machine or component may control another machine or component. To be controlled by a machine is to be forcibly machinised and might suggest a condition in which one’s movements were constantly surveilled or even captured. The term ‘motion capture’ is efficient, especially when shifted from the movies to the experience of having the status of a component.

The Next Big Thing

The animation in Pixar’s ‘Wall-E’ is exceptional. The detail is more, rather than less, than the eye can absorb and the rendering of distressed, battered and grubby surfaces parallels the scuffed production design that distinguished the ‘Alien’ movies when they first came out. The film’s director, Andrew Stanton, has said “Life is nothing but imperfection and the computer likes perfection, so we spent probably 90% of our time putting in all of the imperfections, whether it’s in the design of something or just the unconscious stuff. How the camera lens works in [a real] housing is never perfect, and we tried to put those imperfections [into the virtual camera] so that everything looks like you’re in familiar [live-action] territory.”
snowhite.jpgDisney used to do detail, albeit not particularly grubbily. (He wasn’t averse to dust, though – see cottage-cleaning scenes in ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937) Dirt is probably okay if its removal can be ideologised.) By the ’50s shadow detail and foreground texturing was on the wane – ‘Cinderella’ (1950) is going the way of the greetings card and bland, athleticised Aryanisation is taking over the depiction of faces and bodies. After a partial return to form with ‘Peter Pan’ (1953), it was downhill to ‘Lady and the Tramp’ (1955) and subsequent decades of giftwrap art.
In 1991 Disney did a three picture deal with Pixar, the first fruit of which was the three-dimensionalised and instantly successful ‘Toy Story’ (1995). Although the business relationships between the companies have changed over the years (a good outline of that here) Pixar’s CGI has returned Disney to its role as administrator of the portal to the corporate virtual.
It seems extraordinary, in retrospect, that Disney missed the boat back in the ’50s. While virtual reality technologies were not even a twinkle in Ivan Sutherland‘s eye at this time, the projects of engulfment and immersion of the clientele by means of screen-based enchantment were not exactly a footnote on Walt’s agenda. It must have been abundantly clear that deeper immersion was the ticket to ride but what we got was depth collapse.
The prospect of exerting social control by dissemination of the imagery of bodies defined by competitive sports seems to have been more attractive to the corporation. The equation, within the cartoon product, of the fairytale prince with the high school footballer and the princess with the tireless laundress of his nobly soiled garments produced not only a generic facial rendition but set standards for reduced affect in acting that are still being honed today. American Stranger, in his post ‘Rational Actors’, fingers George Lucas’ ‘The Phantom Menace’ as a prime example of the new botox-face-and-monotone-delivery school of synthespianism and contends that it can be seen in more and more movies. He observes that it’s not the actors themselves who are responsible for this absenteeism:
‘I challenge anyone to hold its performances up to those of the critically acclaimed The Dark Knight, and, excluding Heath Ledger for the moment, say what the difference is. There’s the same vacuity, the same open invitation to allegory. One has to assume they’re told to act this way, since both films are full of actors with proven talent. All that’s purchased are their names and faces (I wonder if that’s in the contract). They inhabit their parts with all the smoothness of an automaton, a styleless mode of performance apparently designed for easy exchange with animated versions, comic book images, videogame avatars, concepts.’
Pixar itself has no truck with this kind of eviscerated acting in its use of character voicing, and many animations, particularly short kids’ cartoons, tend to the hypermanic in the vocal department. If, however, one posits post-Golden Age Disney animations as a precursor to the current out to lunch acting style identified by American Stranger, then one can go on to observe that the vocalising in these films has, obviously, arisen as a response to a graphic genericising of the male and female figures that populate the work. Current zombie acting may mark a return from the manic avidities fuelled by headlong consumption (as seen, for example, in foam-flecked Jack Nicholson acting styles) to a need for a style that is not, say, coolly and cruelly connoisseurial in the James Bond manner but more suited to withstanding an overwhelming battering. If acting styles are taken as a form of recommendation, what are the extreme circumstances on the horizon that might be most effectively countered with stupor and dissociation?