Archive for Lord of the Rings

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.

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“Go towards the Ladd Company!”

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 7, 2011 by dcairns

Image from Peter Jackson’s THE LOVELY BONES. Joke from this previous post.

Interesting that two antipodean fantasy filmmakers serve up such strikingly similar images. I think part of the reason may be that artificial landscapes have a tendency to creep towards symmetry in a way that real ones rarely do.

I confess to mixed feelings about this one. Conventional wisdom labelled it a misfire, and much of it certainly is. In Jackson’s oeuvre, it’s closest to HEAVENLY CREATURES, my favourite of his films, but the fantastical imagery doesn’t have the sinister, psychotic undercurrents of that picture, which means that, beautiful as it is, it leans a little towards kitsch. I define kitsch here as  “a child’s idea of the sublime”. Which, it could be argued, is what Jackson is presenting: the teenage girl’s personal afterlife, painted as she might imagine it. But it feels like too much loveliness, not enough bone.

Glenn Kenny’s review here hits some of the criticisms I’d have made had he not done so first, and so well. But he does defend the film from comparisons with Vincent Ward’s WHAT DREAMS MAY COME. I can see the similarity, not just because it’s another Kiwi fantasist, but because I get a slightly icky feeling from both, but at least Jackson’s afterlife isn’t made of oil paint, and doesn’t contain an 80s pop video version of Hell. And the more surreal elements, like giant ships in bottles shattering against the shoreline, at least justify the use of CGI as something other than an attempt to improve on nature.

Both films do, however, feature gloriously lovely autumnal suburban scenes, shared also with Alex Proyas’s KNOWING. Now, I love ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS as much as the next Sirkian, but it seems to me that if you’re going to actually feature Heaven in your movie, or a sort of antechamber of Heaven (Jackson) or a Heaven Planet (Proyas), you might want to give the real world scenes a tad more grit, just to make an effective contrast. I’m saying this, and I hate grit, normally.

Jackson has always been devoted to creating his own worlds, something I kind of identify with. There’s no essential reason why BRAIN DEAD is set in the fifties, and there’s no reason why THE LOVELY BONES is set in the seventies — it’s an excuse to take a step away from reality and give everything a distinctive look, but here it seems to remove us a step too far from the everyday, especially since Jackson’s dealing with an era he’s barely old enough to remember, in a  country he’s never lived in, reconstructed on the other side of the world.

There are a couple of great scenes — a suspense sequence where the heroine’s little sister searches the killer’s house is genuinely nerve-twisting… the discovery of a series of murder victims manages to combine the eerily beautiful with the creepy and tragic, in the only scene that really manages to hit more than one Big Emotion at a time. Here we see something that’s actually new to Jackson’s filmmaking: his early films gave full rein to his irreverent sense of humour, along with which no other mood can really coexist. HEAVENLY CREATURES deployed some of the same melodramatic flourishes the RINGS trilogy would exploit, allowing them to mix with the small-scale real-life story in a genuinely surprising way, but it’s still one emotion at a time.  Then the RINGS films pulled the humour in completely, since irreverence was judged fatal to Tolkein. Jackson knew he needed some kind of humour, and his attempts to get it were among the epics’ less effective moments. The most complex moments came from Gollum, whose schizoid nature makes him the most rounded character in the books, and someone who does carry a certain tonal variety around in his very essence. The adventure of KONG embraces two principle modes, the snappy thirties manly stuff and the Naomi Watts ape stuff, which intersect freely and never seem to clash.

But the story of THE LOVELY BONES combines so many feelings and tones that the movie really needs more scenes like the above, or it risks disintegrating into a bag of extracts from different films. The worst of these films is the one that stars Rachel Weisz and Susan Sarandon, a gaudy Odd Couple comedy routine that comes crashing into the bereavement like a pitch invasion from Jackson’s BRAIN DEAD. Remember the scene in BLAZING SADDLES when a top hat & tails musical number is brought to a standstill by a saloon brawl overflowing from the next sound stage? It’s kind of like that.

But I did like Stanley Tucci, whose makeup eerily resembles that of Nic Cage in KICK ASS, a strange crepe mustache being the centrepiece. I recall reading that Oliver Reed, that noted perfectionist, always grew his own facial hair because fake beards don’t move with your face. Tucci’s facial fungus DOES move with his face, with the sensitivity and synchronization of a great dance partner, but it’s somehow all the more unconvincing for it. Weird. But Tucci’s is the most Jacksonian perf, capturing the fervid melodrama that lifts HEAVENLY CREATURES out of the true crime genre and into something more peculiar.

I found myself wondering if maybe it’s the character who’s wearing a wig and a false ‘tache, and wondered what kind of man would DO that, when he knows he’s going to be interviewed by the police? He’s the Groucho Marx of serial killers. Never mind why he excavates an insane crime grotto under a cornfield, kills his victim, collapses the cavern, but removes the body to his home, something which makes no criminological sense whatever (but would be more reasonable in a contemporary setting where he might be worried about DNA evidence) — that’s from the novel, as are a lot of the narrative infelicities — such madness is thrown into sharp perspective by the little piece of fuzzy felt clinging to Tucci’s upper lip, seeming to shriek “You’ll never catch me! I’m far too clever for you! Why, you can’t even detect my bogus Mr Potato Head moustache!”

Now THAT’S depravity for you.

Hard Prawn

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 12, 2009 by dcairns

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Most of what you’ve heard about DISTRICT 9 is true. If you haven’t heard much, you perhaps shouldn’t read further because there’s no way to avoid a certain number of spoilers here, and I enjoyed the film knowing practically nothing about its story. You might want to do the same.

Saw the movie with Fiona and regular Shadowplayer “m” (Mary), whose South African origins proved invaluable in decoding the film’s imagery and plot. The movie is produced by Peter Jackson (with FX by WETA, his digital effects house) and directed by Neill Blomkamp, from a screenplay by Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell, and shot in Blomkamp’s native South Africa.

The plot’s premise, which is all I knew going in, is that 20 years before the story starts, a huge alien mothership descends to Johannesburg and… just hovers there. The malnourished aliens found therein are housed in a refugee camp which quickly becomes a slum, and by the time of the story have become a fully-fledged underclass and a political football.

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Enter Wikus Van Der Merwe, a bureaucrat assigned the job of obtaining signatures from the alien population authorizing their transportation into what is basically a concentration camp. Followed, initially, by documentary cameras, he enters District 9, and a world of pain.

Mary pointed out three major ways in which the film is indebted to its country of origin (I like the idea of other countries producing US-style blockbusters, as long as they don’t lose their local identities).

(1) Any time South Africans tell a story about a stupid white Afrikaaner, he’s always called Van Der Merwe. “So, Mr Van Der Merwe walks into the pub…”

(2) Obviously the idea of an alien underclass is a partial allegory on the whole history of Apartheid, and obviously its one fraught with difficulties. Mary pointed out that the forced mass relocation which this film centres on was a very South African phenomenon in the bad old days.

(3) The aliens are derisively known as “prawns.” (“You can’t say they don’t look like prawns,” says one interviewee, defensively.) This is a reference to the Parktown Prawn, an insect pest that began infesting Jo’burg in the ’60s. Mary thought they were possibly an Antipodean import, but this appears not to be the case. Still, it’s appropriate to a New Zealand-South African coproduction.

The movie is a lot of fun, and quite emotional at times. This must be what they mean by “character arc”: Wikus starts off as a comedy asshole, like David Brent in The Office (n analogy strengthened by the film’s mockumentary style) , then gradually becomes a hateful asshole as we see him strutting his stuff in the ghetto, a government hatchet man who’s really in the pocket of big business (the use of private sector mercenaries is a nod to the present situ in Iraq), then becomes a pitiful victim as things turn against him, and finally, at the very end, he’s a kind of hero worthy of our respect. That kind of movement is rare in a commercial movie, even though all the execs read their Robert McKee and are devoted to the idea of character change.

The first half of the movie is ideas-driven and political, the second is basically a video game. But a really good one. It’s the first movie I’ve seen to feature a gravity gun — a kind of cannon that lets you pick up heavy objects telekinetically and then fire them like rockets: Wikus creams one soldier with a pig carcass.

Of course, the allegorical approach to race via sci-fi is tendentious. Even as a kid I felt uncomfortable with CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES presenting itself as a satiric slant on black power. Blomkamp gets himself into some very deep water by presenting the aliens as drones in an insect race, their leaders somehow M.I.A. When a clever “prawn” with the slave name of Christopher Johnson turns up, it’s not clear if the aliens are smarter than previously assumed, or if he’s part of the missing leader class. The idea of an insect social structure is fair game for sci-fi, but perhaps unwise if you’re intending any kind of comment on human society. Also, considering the film’s aspirations to “say something” about race, its treatment of Nigerians could do with being a bit more nuanced.

Where the movie gets interesting is when Wikus is “infected” by an alien device which causes him to start mutating into a prawn himself. While the outward manifestations — loss of teeth and fingernails — are a direct nod to Cronenberg’s THE FLY, and his pursuit by the authorities as he tries to conceal his heavily malformed arm harks back to THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT (AKA THE CRAWLING TERROR), the plot idea has shades of THE WATERMELON MAN — and FREAKS. The idea of taking a bigot and turning him into the very thing he sees himself as superior to, and then subjecting him to the attendant persecutions, is also explored, in cruder terms, in John Landis’ ill-fated episode of the TWILIGHT ZONE movie.

Some of this is surprisingly moving. As his DNA crosses the human-alien “colour bar,” the authorities seek to “harvest” his organs to help unlock the secrets of alien technology, which so far has failed to function in human hands. Sharlto Copley’s performance, broadly comic at first, becomes chillingly desperate, and there’s also a heart-breaking performance from a CGI alien he’s forced to kill in a weapons test.

Of course Wikus escapes, now able to use alien weaponry, and becomes a one-prawn killing machine, suited up in an ALIENS-style exoskeleton, with self-targeting death rays (Blomkamp rather overuses the “blood-spatter on camera lens” effect) and grav gun. Joining forces with Christopher Johnson, he’s mutating not just into an alien but also into an outsider hero.

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Like I say, enjoyable, emotionally engaging, flawed, interesting. Blomkamp has some of the bad-taste gonzo gusto of early Peter Jackson, without the more crass elements (I recall with a shudder the AIDS jokes in MEET THE FEEBLES), and the epic ham-pomp of late Peter Jackson, without the hideous bloat of LORD OF THE KONG. Lots of giant plot questions unanswered, but they’re so foregrounded I have to welcome this invitation to enjoy a bit of “negative capability.” And there’s always the sequel to sort things out.