Archive for Andy Serkis

Digital Break-Up

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on May 17, 2014 by dcairns

Animator Randall William Cook became a Shadowplayer some years back, we eventually met at the late, great Ray Harryhausen’s birthday celebrations, co-authored a screenplay together, and Randy and his lovely wife Dom put Fiona & I up (and put up with us) when we were in LA. Randy was also best man/photographer/driver at our celebrity wedding, at which we were the only non-celebrities. So I asked Randy if I could reprint this essay when it appeared on Facebook. In it, he attempts to clarify the whole motion capture controversy. A lot of people are unaware that there IS a controversy, they’ve just heard about this marvelous new technology that allows filmmakers to turn actors into animated characters without the aid of animators. As with most things, it’s a bit more complicated than that… The piece originally appeared at Cartoon Brew.

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Andy Serkis has been throwing the term “Digital Makeup” around again, and causing some pretty fervid reactions as a result. He has his detractors and defenders, among them animators and motion capture editors, people who have met Andy and found him a nice bloke, people who are interested in the art of animation or the in art of acting or in both. But so far I have seen nothing from anybody who was in the trenches and actually worked on Gollum, so I suppose it’s time I weighed in on the matter.

My name’s Randall William Cook, and I was the Director of Animation on the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy.

I worked very closely with Andy. We met on the Mt. Ruapehu location in 1999 and began theorizing about what Gollum was all about (while Gollum was described as “schizophrenic”, I viewed the character as a drug addict trying to re-connect with his supply, a tack which Andy endorsed). We hung out on and off set, rafted together through the Waitomo Glowworm Caves, worked together on set during the live action filming (occasionally with me directing scenes Peter Jackson and I had prepared together), all the while on the trail of the elusive Gollum.

The discussion on this page seems to be focusing upon several points. Is Andy a good actor? I think so. He’s certainly versatile (I had the pleasure of directing him, in his on-camera incarnation, when he played his death scene in Peter’s KING KONG remake). Is he a nice bloke? Well, we have been guests in each other’s homes, attended countless social functions together and generally enjoyed each other’s company and respected each other’s talent. I don’t like hearing him called names, though I can understand the high emotions which lead some to do so. But all that is irrelevant to the real issue. When Andy uses the term “Digital Makeup”, he asserts that the on-screen depiction of Gollum is a 100% faithful representation of an Andy Serkis acting performance. This is, frankly, a misrepresentation of the facts.

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As I have no personal experience of the “performance capture” particulars of any of Andy’s work post-RINGS, I cannot offer an opinion on what he has been up to since RETURN OF THE KING. But let me swear to you here that Gollum was not solely an Andy Serkis performance, with Andy’s every move, gesture and tic scrupulously reproduced in a new, digital character. Rather, Gollum was a synthesis, a collaborative performance delivered by both Andy and a team of highly-skilled animation artists.

Please permit me to cite a few examples, in defense of my heretical assertions.

THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING carried a single card credit, which declared “Andy Serkis as GOLLUM”. This was a bit of contractually-dictated press puffery which didn’t accurately reflect Andy’s participation in that first film. Fact is, Andy’s physical participation in the first film was nonexistent. The first shot, Gollum alone in his cave, was my idea: Peter needed a shot of Gollum to play under the narration, and several ideas were posited. I thought that we needed a book illustration image, something that captured Gollum in a simple image. I acted out Gollum, crouched on a rock in a subterranean lake, obsessing over his Precious, looking around in paranoia for enemies who weren’t there, and Peter bought that approach. I directed Weta Workshop’s Ben Hawker in a mocap session, then animated on top of that (our 12-animator team was pretty busy, so I actually animated a bit on that show, myself). The next shot was a roto-mation job of Gollum’s hands as he was being tortured; a nice makeup job, shot live action (Sasha Lees’ hands made up, I believe), was compromised by jiggly rubber fingers, so the animation department copied the actor’s movements. Mike Stevens animated the shot of Gollum following the Fellowship in Moria, then I animated the two close shots of Gollum, his fingers nervously twitching as he watches the Fellowship through a grate. One mo-cap shot, one roto-mation shot, and three keyframe shots. Andy’s only participation: muttering the word “precious” over one of the shots I’d already animated.

The first Gollum scene filmed, in fact, was made as “weather cover” (an interior shot on a stand-by set, kept ready for when the weather turns foul, forbidding exterior filming). Though the first shot up, it was for the third film: a mountain top was built inside a nearby hotel’s tennis court, and scenes were filmed with Frodo and Sam and Gollum. Gollum pulls Frodo up on a ledge, Gollum frames Sam with Lembas crumbs, Gollum and Sam fight. As Andy was not yet in New Zealand, I was elected to put on a leotard and stand in for Gollum. No photos exist of me in the getup, but let me assure you I looked a fine example of masculine grace and beauty. Really. A year or so later, Andy did a mo-cap session, basically reproducing my choreography. And Steven Hornby and others keyframed some of the shots from scratch as well.

TWO TOWERS saw much more involvement from Andy. Several examples from that film. Gollum, after he has been tamed and led along on a rope, is released and scampers up onto a rock, showing the hobbits where they must go. This was filmed with Andy squatting on a rock. Sam and Frodo come up to him, Sam and Gollum have a staring contest, and Sam backs down. It bothered me that Sam was turning his back on Gollum, which seemed out of character, so back in Wellington I directed animator Atsushi Sato to have Gollum break his look, and precede Sam out of the shot. This isn’t Digital Makeup, this isn’t a “technical” chore, this is an acting choice. And it wasn’t Andy’s idea, but mine. And it was Atsushi Sato who “played” that moment, not Andy. It was a decision within my purview as Animation Director and Peter signed off on it.

Gollum hears the name Smeagol for the first time in 500 years. We used Andy’s body mocap, but I didn’t care for what I thought was Andy’s too-busy facial performance, so I told Adam Valdez to ignore it and animate something subtler. He animated two shots and Linda Johnson animated the third, and they created a memorable acting moment which did not “honor” Andy’s performance in the slightest. There were many times where we honored Andy’s performance to the letter, but this wasn’t one of ‘em.

That film ends with a long mo-cap take of Gollum soliloquizing. Jason Schleifer, Adam Valdez and Mike Stevens had much to do with the acting of this scene, as the animation task was split among them. We also changed the choreography on that one, having Gollum advance emphatically toward the camera, having him wrap his hands around a branch and twist, as he throttles a hobbit in his imagination. Again, acting choices courtesy of the Weta Animation Department.

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We stuck closer to Andy’s performance in the third film, and as the mo-cap was refined a good deal it was used more. There was never what we know as performance capture, however, in any of the films. Ditto facial capture, for Gollum; it was all keyframed. And even when we did reproduce Andy’s expressions with perfect fidelity, Peter or Fran would direct the animators through two, three, twelve or more iterations, with the animators working directly for the director, refining a performance in Andy’s absence. Collaborating on that performance, in fact.

I was honored to work on those films. Our Animation team was first rate, and I was proud to be associated with them (as well as the ones I mentioned, Melanie Cordan and Mary Victoria and many others brought their fine talents to bear in making Gollum act, through a superb facial system devised by Bay Raitt). They are artists, they can act, and they did all “perform” as Gollum to a greater or lesser degree. I don’t see the difference between a performance delivered by a great actor or a great animator (I refer you to Brad Bird’s films, or to TANGLED, if you think that an animator needs to lean on or be supplanted by an actor to give a moving performance).

Let me state that Andy really should be considered the principal author of Gollum’s performance, but there’s a hell of a difference between principal author and sole author. The Animators who helped shape Gollum’s performance are actors of a very special type, working at a high level of achievement. They’re not like Marni Nixon singing for Natalie Wood in WEST SIDE STORY, doing only the things that Andy couldn’t do: they were doing the same things Andy did, in concert with him, and significantly contributing to the realization of a memorable performance.

I can’t speak to the recent performances in Andy’s “performance-capture” career, but the animators on THE LORD OF THE RINGS were most certainly not “digital makeup artists”, and nobody has any business saying that they were.

Short People

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 21, 2012 by dcairns

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

“Shit just got unreal” was my Facebook comment on THE HOBBIT Part The First, which is perhaps a little unfair. The merits and demerits of the movie, the franchise, Peter Jackson the filmmaker and the faster frame rate and the RED camera all deserve a slightly more nuanced discussion than those four words.

I liked it better than Fiona! In some ways it has the same flaws as the LORD OF THE RINGS films before it, only amplified. And the 3D and 48 fps may be problematic in the same way that the digital effects in the STAR WARS prequels were problematic — they make the film seem less of a piece with its predecessors. But THE HOBBIT isn’t as bad as THE PHANTOM MENACE, let’s get that straight…

(Maybe Jackson should have shot at 24 and projected at 48, thereby making the film half as long?)

I enjoyed some of the action and settings, and the HFR probably allowed me to follow the fights and chase more readily than I could otherwise — Jackson tended to film too close in LORD OF THE RINGS, making close-up skirmishes dissolve into blurry chaos. Either because he’s improved or the technology has helped solve the issue, that didn’t happen here. I didn’t enjoy the performances as much. LOTR uses “epic acting,” big, bombastic, cod-Shakespearean and borderline campy, but much of it was done with skill and a kind of good taste. Here, I felt the usually reliable Ian McKellen was huffing and chuntering to himself too much, and he didn’t seem to have any other characters to talk to. Among the dwarves, Ken Stott, James Nesbitt and Aidan Turner managed to get some human interaction going with Martin Freeman’s Bilbo (some reality but too much schtick), the rest were basically flatulent garden gnomes. Richard Armitage doesn’t manage to make anything convincing or interesting out of Thorin Oakenshield’s bluster and grouch.

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

I’m told that McKellen had to act his scene at the dinner table with a bunch of paper cut-out heads on sticks, with light bulbs that flashed on to signal when each character was speaking so he could look in the right direction. I would, on the whole, far rather see that version of the scene. Those character designs are not very appealing! Why does only one dwarf bear any resemblance to John Rhys-Davies in LOTR, who had a very detailed and specific and non-Disney look? Why does one dwarf have a bald head with what looks like a bar code on it? One looks like a waxwork of Finlay Currie, one Sean Penn, and several of them have shoelaces for hair. Not a good look.

But the reason I went, and was excited to go, was the 48 frames thing. I’d heard so much about how horrible it was, I couldn’t wait. I couldn’t picture a big expensive epic that moved like a cheap TV show, and I was fascinated to see what that would be like — it was sure to be interesting! I got a lot of intellectual pleasure trying to describe that awful Zemeckis mo-cap BEOWULF, so I just couldn’t wait.

It was indeed a very interesting thing to see. It may have had invisible benefits to action and movement which we’d only be aware of if comparing directly with a 24fps version, but it did some spectacular uglifying. Some people have compared it to cheap soap operas, to demo reels, but what I was reminded of was a making-of documentary. There you see the actors, fully costumed and made up, on set, delivering dialogue — and it’s not the same as the movie, because it’s filmed with the wrong camera, and you don’t feel part of the action the way you do in a film, you feel like an observer on the set. It’s very REAL, for sure, because the sense of cinema is stripped away, but this exposes every bit of artifice in the design and presentation and performance. Even Howard Shore’s music seemed weirdly wrong, as if it was being piped into the hobbit hole.

This applied mainly to the Bag End scene and other conversations. The only acting scene that really worked was the “Riddles in the Dark” confrontation with Gollum, which was great and I think one would have to be pretty curmudgeonly or else just averse to any kind of halfling-based performance piece to dislike. Oh, and Sylvester McCoy was good when he was on his own, acting with CGI hedgehogs.

The long shots looked mostly OK, I thought, and still scenes were fine. The action had a verité feel that made me think something like CLOVERFIELD might be good at 48fps. I wondered if the dragon attack would gain any of the feeling of real disaster footage, like 9:11 or the tsunami, but the swooping filming style didn’t allow for that. There was a very weird clash of feelings when Jackson intercut the big subterranean goblin chase with Bilbo’s one-one-one struggles with Gollum — Gollum’s last sequence had a particularly televisual quality, like a 70s Outside Broadcast Unit section from Dr Who — those plastic-looking caves. And then Gollum would crawl into shot and there’d be the thrill of the impossible — a modern CGI character who couldn’t be played by a man in a suit and who looks very convincing, appearing in the background of a fake cave that looks like part of actuality footage shot forty years ago with a tube camera. Not an effect that I think was intentional, or desirable, except that it was so damned odd it gave me a lot of pleasure.

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

What I’m saying is that although I did get somewhat used to the process over the nearly three hour running time, I was still blown out of the movie by it repeatedly, right up until the end. If the movie had seemed like a masterpiece, that would have been hugely frustrating, but as it was only a middling Middle Earth epic, I was actually entertained by my own on-again-off-again disengagement. I mildly enjoyed the big fight at the end, but not as much as I enjoyed the High Weirdness of megabudget + cheapness. I was a bit frustrated by the lack of wagon wheels, though: apparently at a higher frame rate they not longer seem to turn backwards, as they do at 24fps. Jackson cruelly robbed me of the chance to finally see correct spin.

Remembering the troubles people had with early sound and widescreen, we shouldn’t be too hard on any problems Jackson’s encountering — maybe our eyes will simply retrain our brains and the associations with crappy video will fall away and the merits of the new technology will become obvious. But for now, I say enjoy the weirdness — you won’t have had an experience like this before.

Tintin ambulation

Posted in Comics, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 23, 2011 by dcairns

My cinematographer friend Scott Ward (hire him — he’s excellent!) likes to stress the importance of getting The Look right. Once you have decided on The Look of your film, your job gets easier, or at least possible, because you have a Plan to guide you through the multiverse of creative decisions awaiting you. One of the reasons Sidney Lumet’s book Making Movies is so useful is he clarifies and expands on this with examples from his own career, and he shows that The Look is not a static thing imposed flatly over the script, but a dynamic, evolving process. A simple example would be his film THE HILL, which starts on a wide-angle lens, progresses to a very wide-angle lens, and finishes on a very very wide-angle lens. The distortion and confrontational quality created by the actors thrusting their faces out of the screen is progressively amped up. Likewise/contrariwise, TWELVE ANGRY MEN starts wide-ish and moves slowly to longer and longer lenses, flattening perspective so the walls press with the claustrophobia of a Fu Manchu death-trap as the film goes on.

So big, global decisions about The Look are helpful — Lumet would never have to worry about what lens to use after making that call — but they’re also important. It’s  very hard, possibly impossible, for a film to recover after going with the wrong Look. Which brings us to THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN: THE SECRET OF THE UNICORN (or TAOTTSOTU).

It was obvious to me from the first screen-grabs posted, and progressively more obvious with each trailer released, that the Look of this film was rotten. This is to some extent a subjective opinion, but I’ve noted that those defending the visuals tend to say things like “What’s wrong with making it look like the comic strip?” So I win, because the film doesn’t look anything like the comic strip, as Spielberg is good enough to make clear by opening with a beautifully graphic title sequence which DOES look like the comic strip. It’s so stylised and simple that everyone involved probably thought “There’s no way we could make the whole film look like this.” And yet, as Scott says, “You get rewarded for bravery, always.” If Spielberg and Peter Jackson and WETA had gone with an actual Hergé visual surface, 2D in 3D, it would have been gorgeous, just as the titles are (for another suave Spielberg credits sequence, see CATCH ME IF YOU CAN).

Instead we get these grotesque, over-textured walking waxworks, blinding us with microscopic detail just because they can, brought to us by the horror of mo-cap. Now, the mo-cap characters in LORD OF THE RINGS or RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES need to have pores and individual hairs and so on, because they’re interacting with flesh-and-blood actors and have to match. But if you’re creating your own world entirely in the computer, the most boring, cowardly choice is to make it look exactly like the world outside your window. Plus these porous, shambling, dead-eyed fleshwads are disgusting to the eye, as any cartoon character would be if he sprang from the page and shrugged on a suit of protoplasm.

Mo-cap at its worst (ie Zemeckis) combines all the limitations of live-action (the bodies are constrained by anatomy & physics) with the limitations of animation (the micro-body language and facial language can never be as subtle and expressive as a real person) — whereas in the right hands, it could combine the best of both. But this would require the involvement of talented animators to manipulate the mo-cap info, bringing in cartoon exaggeration as required. Up until the big action set-pieces, TINTIN suffers from horrible animation: when characters fall over, they abruptly transform from weighty, clodhopping corpuses to inertia-less balloon animals, floating to the ground at a constant speed, obeying the laws of neither actual gravity nor its Loony Toon equivalent.

Happily, in the big action set-pieces, actual animation of reasonable quality dominates, and the film starts to work. As always with Spielberg, the visual gags are ingenious and clearly presented, and the form allows him to get away with all sorts of business that would be too silly in an INDIANA JONES (and which indeed were too silly in the last INDIANA JONES). The wild chase through a fictional North African city actually suggests a valid use for mo-cap, and calls to mind the motorbike-and-sidecar antics of Wallace and Gromit and THE ARISTOCATS, as well as 1941 and Spielberg’s admiration for the hairy chases in Miyazaki’s CASTLE OF CAGLIOSTRO.

Of course, Miyazaki’s master criminal is a much more colourful character than Hergé’s, and TINTIN suffers from a bland lead, leaving Andy Serkis as Captain Haddock (with a non-canonical Scots accent) to bring on the fun. The screenwriters (including the Scottish Steven Moffat) seems far more interested in Haddock than in the film’s nominal hero, which is understandable but problematic: Tintin is relegated to the position of bystander in the action climax, which is really an anti-climax coming so soon after the bigger and wilder bike chase. And this is followed by a ten-minute set-up for the next film, surely something the writers should have fought against given Spielberg’s post-SCHINDLER’S tendency to allow his films to drivel on and on through multiple endings.

TOP MO-CAP FACTS

1) Andy Serkis gets a lot of work in motion capture because his body is covered with evenly-spaced moles, making the technicians’ job easier. These moles are removed by CGI on those few occasions when Serkis acts in a non mo-cap role.

2) Robert Zemeckis’s fascination with the mo-cap process is explained by the fact that he experienced his first sexual awakening while gazing upon the animatronic Lincoln at Disneyland. Since then he has contrived to fill his films with marble-eyed, plastic-faced mannequins, and when Michael Douglas and Tom Hanks couldn’t give him what he wanted, he turned to CG.

3) A special feature on Peter Jackson’s KING KONG allows you to “turn off” the mo-cap and see Andy Serkis in a leotard for the whole movie. It also turns Jack Black into a sock puppet. Some scenes actually play better that way.

4) Cheapjack exploiteer Charles Band pioneered an extreme-low budget version of motion capture by smashing some old computer monitors and gluing the spilled pixels onto Brad Dourif. It still looked better than THE POLAR EXPRESS.

“Uh-oh, the reviews are out!” 

BACK TO TINTIN

So the news isn’t all bad. Some of the writing is deft and funny (although I was surprised Tintin had to be told that Marlinspike Hall belonged to the Haddock family, then discovered this fact in the library, then went there and noticed a coat of arms and realized in amazement that (gasp!) Marlinspike Hall belonged to the Haddock family. Exactly the kind of thing that can but shouldn’t happen when you have three writers.

Asides from the ever-mo-cap-ready Mr. Serkis, none of the actors really make an impression through their layers of digital wadding, and the intriguing Daniel Craig is particularly dull as the sinister Sakharine, with a sub-Dick Dastardly reading that’s a stock villain devoid of any individuality. I did realize how well thought-out the character is in graphic terms, though. Consider:

Older-than-adult as contrasted to Tintin’s younger-than.

Where Tintin has a pure white dog, Sakharine has a shit-brown hawk.

There Tintin has a peak of hair on the crown of his head, Sakharine has one on his chin. He’s nitniT, the inverse Tintin.

The film’s Look is very slightly redeemed by nice colour co-ordination, with a frequent recourse to cerulean blue which recalls the strip. The lightness of tone gets John Williams working in a less bombastic mode than usual, which is nice just as a change, and Spielberg creates some beautiful scene changes exploiting the particular nature of the animated image, it fluidity and flexibility, in a way I haven’t seen much of since the terrific overture of Disney’s THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME.

Maybe best of all is the 3D, which isn’t vulgar or needlessly intrusive, allowing itself to barely register at times, but popping out at moments of drama or for little dramatic flourishes — one shot, where a torch beam sweeps into the audience and illuminates a cloud of silvery dust motes, drew appreciative gasps from Fiona and I. Maybe this is just like the Victorian audiences who stared in autistic fascination at the blowing foliage in the background of Lumiere home movies, a novelty which will pass and which has comparatively little to do with cinema’s real power or charm. But it seemed powerful and charming to us.

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