Thursday, 7 January 2010

Where next for CGI in film?

Last night I watched the CG-animated Madagascar (2005), which I rather enjoyed in the same way I rather enjoyed Over The Hedge (2006), screened over Christmas. It's not conceptually better written than, say, Monsters Inc. or the first 25 mins of Wall-E, but I was struck how mature the pacey vernacular of the production was. Whilst I roughly expected the minutely choreographed slapstick I was still enthralled by its invention and execution. In other words, somewhere between Toy Story 2 (1999) and Monsters Inc (2001) the possibilities for new content-ideas in CG-animation got more or less as good as it could get.

Now, to this one adds the e-motion capture which set the bar almost at its current peak right at the gun - 2001's LotR, The Fellowship - and you begin to see that the noughties have been a decade not of inventing computer graphics but of finding the best way to use them on the screen. The fact is though that Monsters Inc. and The Fellowship remain unsurpassed high watermarks in terms of the technology. Though re-appropriation of these tools gives us the chance to examine them afresh, there is little that's genuinely new to be introduced to.

The final chapter in all this is 3-D. I've been slow off the mark to try it, largely as I can remember the awful dichromatic card specs and because of the snakeoil-like marketing circus that accompanies such ventures. However, going to see Up and Avatar, both released in 2 and 3 visual dimensions concurrently has given me an opportunity to investigate the possibilities without prejudice. The new 3-D technology certainly works rather well (an excessively long trailer for the animated Christmas Carol with Jim Carrey was particularly good at re-creating snow), although I've seen nothing that demonstrates it's an important, sine qua non element of the visual component of story-telling.

Avatar is, of course, the case in point. Released at the close of the decade it used a richly detailed animation background onto which e-motion-captured acting was overlaid and then conflated into 3-D. Whilst, once again, the use of the technology pioneered and rubber-stamped in 2001 was given new life through new imagination, there was basically nothing new to see. Incidentally, some people have talked about the detail of the alien world, Pandora, but I found a lot of the invented wildlife strangely contrived and certainly less awe-inspiring than the simple fact of anything David Attenborough confronts us with from the real world. As for the 3-D experience, again, I found myself looking afresh for 20 minutes but then becoming quickly tired of the glasses - which are an impediment, especially if you have to sit them on your face beyond 2 hours. I have tried to resist the dogged Ludditism of the influential (insightful) critic Mark Kermode, who made up his mind uncomfortably early that 3-D wasn't for him. Yet I must admit that it's simply not necessary.

The key is simply this. Does the means alter or become the content? The example of Avatar is perfectly instructive here. As I've suggested the CG-animation and 3-D rendering of the film adds nothing to meaning of the images. The exception is, possibly, the e-motion-capture. In Cameron's film, the fact that a human/actor is occupying an animated figure is what the film is, in a literal sense, nominally about. Cameron investigates this Cartesian assimilation in a very low-profile way, preferring to tell the story. This is admirable, especially as this has also been exhausted (although not in protagonised animation) by The Matrix (1999). Cameron's principal interest is clearly storytelling. It is a great shame then that Avatar is such a long-winded, over-familiar tale.

I found Avatar tiresome. However, it's clear that Cameron had been captivated by the possibility of aligning computer graphics and humanity - digimorphism, if you like - and had wanted to make a film in which this was part of the content. Avatar is actually a 2001 film postponed in production by its director's not unreasonable perfectionism. So we have the answer to this blog's question. We haven't gone anywhere 'next' with CGI in nine years. For the time being the future lies with the interactivity of gaming.

UPDATE: A pertinent digression.

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