Monday, October 24, 2011

Pulling back the curtain

Most makers of magic aren't exactly eager to show you how it's done.

Actual magicians are sworn by an industry oath not to reveal their secrets, for the very practical reason that they'd be unemployable without knowing something their audience doesn't. But metaphorical magicians -- like the ones who make movies -- are often bound by a similar code to preserve the mystery of their illusions. Knowing the methods to the madness can detract significantly from its magic spell. Just ask the erstwhile wizard of Oz -- the man behind the curtain you're not supposed to pay attention to while quaking in fear at the large green head enveloped in smoke.

Disney showed no such reservation with Mars Needs Moms.

I didn't enjoy the movie hugely -- more than a marginal thumbs up, but not a lot more. Its dark color palette (which goes with the movie's themes, granted) made it play as sort of muddy and indistinct, and the story didn't feel incredibly original. There were parts I really liked but no parts I loved.

Until the end credits, when I kind of loved their decision to pull back the curtain, and watch snippets of major scenes a second time -- this time performed by actors decked out in motion-capture gear.

Producer Robert Zemeckis' name in the credits should have made me realize this was a motion-capture situation, like previous efforts where he wore the director's hat, such as The Polar Express, Beowulf and Disney's A Christmas Carol. Actually, his name didn't show up until the end credits, and the fact that I didn't immediately identify this as that same phenomenon is probably a tribute to how they're starting to do it better.

So yeah, during the end credits you get all the actors dressed up in suits, their faces speckled with small motion capture diodes -- not sure what the actual term is, but they resemble the world's shortest acupuncture needles. It was surprising to see the filmmakers care so little about "shattering" the illusion they'd just created by giving the layman such a technical introduction to the techniques used. They really risked killing the buzz of everyone who had just liked or even loved the movie. (And maybe they did -- the movie was not a hit.)

But I for one enjoyed seeing this stuff. For me, it made the interactions between characters more authentic to know that the actors were actually doing these things, leaping around a sound stage, acting not only with their voices but their entire bodies.

It was also amazing to see just how far the filmmakers went -- how much they committed. (For the record, I love "commitment" in all its forms when it comes to performance). You'd assume they could have digitally concocted a crowd dance seen at the end of the movie, and we wouldn't have been scrutinizing their motions to see if they looked believable. Yet pulling back the curtain revealed that this scene took a sound stage filled with extras, all covered with motion-capture technology, all dancing the same dance.

The next technical secret I want revealed: How 37-year-old Seth Green can convincingly do the voice for the film's lead character, a 9-year-old boy.

Notice I didn't ask how he convincingly did the height of a 9-year-old boy.

In an interesting coincidence, I ended up re-watching Richard Linklater's Waking Life later that same day. While these movies, on the surface, have nothing in common with each other, they do share one thing -- they are both animated films based on the movements of real people, giving them a certain "realistic" expressiveness that would be absent if they were merely being concocted from an artist's imagination of what a person looks like.

Whereas Zemeckis' thing is motion capture, Linklater's thing is rotoscoping. He's now done it at least twice, in Waking Life and in A Scanner Darkly. In this technique, real footage of real human beings is shot in real locations, and then it is painted over in ways that may or may not be realistic. See, the rotoscoper has the real footage as a starting point, then it is up to him/her to choose how much of that real footage to trace over with his/her paint brush. The technique gives the artist the freedom to remain grounded in believable human movements, then add expressionistic flourishes when necessary -- as in a scene in Waking Life in which a man slowly turns into an alien as he's proceeding through a monologue.

What both motion capture and rotoscoping have that traditional animation does not is a claim to a certain realism -- if not necessarily in the surface-level presentation, at least in areas like the believably jerky body movements of a real human being. The human body is such a complex, intricate organism that we still need these crutches to effectively render it. The human mind is incapable of reproducing the eccentricities of the human body without assistance.

Really glad, then, that we have this technology that serves as our crutch -- and also glad movies like Mars Needs Moms have the guts to show it to us.

By "removing" the magic, they're actually reminding us of a different kind of magic.

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