Monday, March 13, 2006

A New Breed of Celebrity

Have you ever wondered why the saber-toothed tiger from Ice Age looks an awfully lot like Dennis Leary? Or why numerous other animated characters often resemble the actors who voice them? These resemblances aren't coincidences. With the increased usage of computer generated (CG) content in movies making a cartoon character resemble a real actor is simple. Hollywood, however, is trying to take this a step further and create true virtual actors.

Currently, many prominent celebrities have already been digitally copied. To do so an actor and their movements are scanned by laser into a computer. Digital animators then transform the scans into digital files. These copies then are used primarily for stunts, which an actor is unable to perform due to contractual stipulations or if it is too dangerous for a human to perform.

Though digital clones of real actors have been used in such short scenes, it has become quite common to have full parts played by CG characters. Jar Jar Binks in the Star Wars prequels or the more substantal role of Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy are two prime examples. The only difference is that most of these digitally created characters are based on the imaginations of their creators, where anything goes.

That is where Hollywood has fallen short in its quest to create a truly virtual actor. When creating a fictional character, whether it be an alien or monster or some other fictitious creature, it is easy for the audience to believe that is how such a character would move or how its facial expressions would look. Yet, when creating a virtual human it has been nearly impossible to create movements and expressions that are identical to the real world. To create such life like animation it takes almost 90 people an entire day to create approximately three seconds of animation. Therefore, to make the average two hour movie it would take 2,400 days or close to 8 years. According to Shuzo Shiota, head of Polygon Pictures the leading digital-animation studio in Japan says, ""The amount of information that the human expression, skin, and body … require is just too huge for CG animators."

George Lucas, one of the fathers of the digital effects revolution, has vehemently attacked the idea of digital actors saying that "Acting is a human endeavor and the amount of talent and craft that goes into it is massive - and can a composite reproduce that?" Lucas may have a valid point. By creating digital actors it defeats the purpose of going to the movies. When seeing a human act it adds depth and emotion. A digital actor on the otherhand may provide similar emotion, but it would be merely an illusion. An illusion that once revealed might ruin the experience and equate to nothing more than watching a cartoon. However, it is difficult to foresee the potential of creating digital actors since we lack the technology create such an illusion.

Can You Clone a Movie Star?
Lucas Attacks 'Digital Actors' Idea

1 comment: said...

To touch on your first paragraph, yes, the computer generated characters are increasingly bearing likenesses to their voice acting counterparts. One of the reasons for this may be that the producers want to give characters some attributes (even have CG characters who embody physical mannerisms) of the actors providing the voice-overs so that they are endeared to the audience and more familiar perhaps. I agree with Mr. Lucas that human talent cannot be replicated, but the animated / CG characters can make creative headway with professional voice actors and skilled animators.