CGI, Animation And The Push For Reality

“Unreal images have never before seemed so real” – Stephen Prince.

In 1994 Robert Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump released to great success, bagging the ‘Best Picture’ Oscar (amongst a multitude of other awards) along the way. It featured groundbreaking CGI, slotting Gump into key points in history, and allowing him to ‘meet’ the late President Kennedy. The following year, 1995, saw the release of Pixar’s Toy Story, the first ever feature-length CGI movie, which became the root for a new trend in animated cinema. Pixar, DreamWorks Animation and Blue Sky Studios began producing more and more CGI movies and traditional hand-drawn animation fell into the shadows.

The new technology opened up a realm of possibilities, but not without taking its fair share of missteps. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001) sparked an enormous critical debate, with many critics heavily lamenting the “mannequin” characters. The motion capture technology used in Final Fantasy was still very much in its infancy, and certainly, this was still the case when it was used by Zemeckis in The Polar Express (2004) and Beowulf (2007), and again the reception to both was negative:

“The digital children (of The Polar Express)…have been rewritten as the cast of ‘Night of the Living Dead’’ – Lisa Bode.

Tom Hanks in The Polar Express.

While Final Fantasy, Beowulf and The Polar Express fixated on achieving realism to their detriment at the early stages of the technologies’ rise, the likes of Avatar (2009), The Adventures of Tintin (2011), and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) moved the technology closer to maturing fully as it strived to reach peak realism.

Realism works on the basis that the audience must perceive what they are seeing to be actually grounded within the world’s physical reality. So, for example, Gollum in Lord of the Rings (2001) is perceptually realistic because of the way in which he interacts with his surroundings, and vice versa. Through the lighting, texture, colour, shadow etc he becomes viable. These same principles apply when looking at fully CGI movies, and if one of these factors are removed the image becomes less realistic. The Polar Express and Beowulf relied heavily on these principles, though in many respects fell short. You can’t help but ponder the decision to create fully computer-generated worlds when the films are so intent on appearing as ‘real’ as possible.

Digital technology has created possibilities that were previously unfeasible but rather than explore this, Zemeckis in Beowulf strived to make it appear photographically real, leaving the audience inspecting the technology rather than focusing solely on the narrative. Perhaps with a more stylised approach, as has been done in the likes of Toy Story, then this wouldn’t be the case. Put plainly, the characters in Zemeckis’ Beowulf and The Polar Express just aren’t believable; ironically for the latter, being a film about having belief in the unreal.

Beowulf used CGI to allow for the characters to age dramatically over the course of the film, and appear taller, or more muscular than the actors were in reality. So not only do we get Ray Winstone’s burley tones voicing Beowulf, but we also get a buffed up hero version of him too. Is it necessary?

Ray Winstone in Beowulf.

Realism is a hugely prevalent issue in the CGI movies of Pixar, DreamWorks and Blue Sky Studios, but I’d argue that the way in which it has been utilised is key to the believability of those studio’s films, no matter how far fetched the narratives are.

“Perception does not only serve to inform us about the size and relative position of objects in our close environment, but it serves to inform us as to what can be expected from other being on the basis of their behaviour.” – Johannes Riis.

In the films of Pixar realism is primarily used in setting out the world we are watching. The dynamics of the characters and objects within the story worlds are constructed as a way of firstly creating a sense of familiarity in the audience, and secondly as a way of enhancing the narrative space.  Predominantly a more stylised realism is used. Due to the blend of stylised realism and perceived realism, the audience finds it easier to relate to the film.

Pixar’s Toy Story.

If what we perceive as realistic was completely disregarded in Toy Story then it wouldn’t have been the same film. It would have been an avant-garde piece that lacked the widespread appeal of the actual film. Realism is used as a way of making the story world understandable to the audience. The audience enjoys feeling a sense of familiarity within what they are viewing, but the familiarity doesn’t have to be as rigidly conveyed as it is in the motion capturing works of Zemeckis in The Polar Express and Beowulf, and that of Spielberg in The Adventures of Tintin. The majority of Pixar’s movies are set on Earth in one form or another; therefore to achieve this familiarity, realism is necessary. But due to the stylised realism of the films, the audience understands that the rules of physics are different to reality, leaving the filmmakers with more freedom for creativity when developing the films in question. The same can also be said of James Cameron’s Avatar.

The realism in these films has been used imaginatively to achieve dynamics that are completely separated from reality, and yet are still believable.

Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) was the first feature-length animated film to come out of America. As front-runners in the field of animated films, Disney had a major influence over the rest of the industry. The films from the animation studio feature a very distinct style, but the “perceptual cues” make it easy for the audience to buy into the alternate worlds. Walt Disney was very precise in his decisions as to what was placed within the scene, making sure everything added to the established reality.

“The animals, the shadows they cast, the air they breathed, the clouds that floated over them, the rain – it all had to be right, just what you would find in such a place.” – Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas.

Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

The emphasis that Disney placed on the realism of the films is plain to see. But a claim that the films lack imagination because of this would certainly be a weak one. The same would apply to a lot of the CGI films. I’d suggest that it’s the way in which realism is utilised that determines whether it stumps or widens the scope for creativity.

Zemeckis’s decision to make Beowulf and The Polar Express as he did perhaps showed a lack of imagination, but certainly not a lack of ambition to develop and improve a new technology in motion capture animation. Whilst these early examples of motion capture animation appear lifeless, robotic and devoid of emotions, it’s fair to say that the technology is now at a point where motion capture performers such as Andy Serkis are serious contenders come awards season. Who can watch his performance as Caesar in the Planet of The Apes films and not agree?

Whilst Serkis still finds himself shunned at the Academy Awards for his mo-cap work, the mere fact that the possibility of him being nominated has been in discussion over the years shows that the technology will likely very soon be accepted as a viable performance method by the powers that be. For the regular cinema goer, it already has been accepted following the successes of Avatar and the Planet of the Apes movies. Painters have strived to achieve realism in their work, as have the early filmmakers, and now too are the people pushing the capabilities of CGI. Film is the prime realist form; CGI is not quite there yet, but it’s making big strides.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Ben says:

    Completely agree about the Serkis shuns at the Oscars. He is leading the way in this field and certainly should have been nominated for his work on Apes. It’s a compliment to say you never once realised Caesar wasn’t “real.” The next insult would be to make a separate category entirely for this type of performance. It deserves to be alongside and included with the standard acting performances too. Great post.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Luke Kent says:

    Absolutely, it’s crazy that his incredible performances have not been more widely praised and rewarded. His performance as Caesar is incredibly powerful, and his Gollum is iconic, he deserves more recognition, hopefully it’s just a matter of time before he gets it 🙂


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