"It can sometimes appear that CG animation regards the production of a plausible and photo-realistic human figure as its holy grail. Such a quest, however, misunderstands the real strengths of animation and of its technology." Evaluate this statement in the context of a single example from animated film or a digital game. You must make close reference to both primary and secondary sources.
The quest for realism in Computer graphics has been the ultimate accolade for artists and programmers. These creative people have been striving for over 20 years to produce realistic virtual characters and worlds. The art of Computer animation has been a quest for realism.
I have decided to focus on a look at the film "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" and its effects on itself and the industry. The ramifications of which are still felt today.
Final Fantasy: The Spirits within was the first CGI (computer generated image) film featuring simulated human beings. The star of the movie is a character created called Dr. Aki Ross, a female Doctor/heroine who has dreams about aliens and the end of the world. She is a scientist who is trying to work out how to humanly remove ghost-like aliens called "phantoms" that have been terrorising the planet since an asteroid crashed into the Earth.
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The realistic take on this character was that of a sexy young female doctor - presumably to entice the usual male videogame demographics of 18-35. An example of this was her body was placed on provocative display for readers of the men's magazine, Maxim, two months before Final Fantasy's American premiere in the summer of 2001. Looking oddly innocent in her string bikini, Aki addresses the viewer with the same quiet gaze she maintains throughout the film. (Wikipedia, 2006)
The film and the character try to play off the often popular Asian themes in Western America such as Manga yet try to entice both Manga fans and western society by downplaying their deviations from the dominant Hollywood style in order to appeal to the widest, most "global" audience possible. Yet overall low box office and DVD sales clearly demonstrate the
inability of combining these styles while producing a 'live-action' CG animated feature. (BoxOfficeMojo, 2006)
The most interesting thing to audiences and critics was the main selling point of Final
Fantasy. It was the first CGI film to contain near-to-photorealistic or "Hyper Realistic" actors and actresses (McCarthy, Variety Online, par. 6).
"One of the things that helped Sid with his realism is the amount of detail they were able to add to his skin" Says Animation Director Andy Jones. "Adding more detail, more age spots, more stuff like that makes characters look even more real. That's one of the reasons that Aki was one of the most difficult characters to make look real. We couldn't put a lot of age spots and things on her because we needed to keep her skin clean and attractive" (The Making of final fantasy, The Spirits Within 2001, pg 147)
Using a computer program called Maya, the scenes were created, blocked-out and shot with
virtual cameras, which could be moved around and used like real cameras.
"On top of everything else, we're also required to simulate a real-life camera and make the whole show look like it was actually shot through a real lens" - Compositing Supervisor James Rogers
"Some times we have to sort of dirty things up a little to make them look real. It's kind of Ironic." (The Making of final fantasy, The Spirits Within 2001, pg 208)
Once the storyboards and animatic had been produced, the motion capture team took over and shot many actors performing stunts and normal human movement. According to the animation director Andy Jones, animators debated on what made a character more 'human like' - the way it moved, or the way it looked visually. They finally decided to focus on the look, particularly the facial area and extremities.
"We gave her freckles, but it was difficult. We fought to get those in there. It was a battle between trying to make her look real and keeping her beauty. In a live action film they cover up a lot of blemished. So where do we draw the line as far as reality is concerned? We were just trying to add detail to make the characters more real" (The Making of final fantasy, The Spirits Within 2001, pg 147)
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Also, due to Director Sakaguchi's fondness for elaborate and detailed storyboarding, the staff seemed to pay more attention to the detail of the characters through look and appearance rather than through their dialogue and story.
"The best analogy that I can think of is when Walk Disney did Snow White. Snow White was the first all-colour, full length cartoon, and everybody thought he was crazy. He could have gone out and hired a real actress and got some little people to play the dwarfs; but he felt very strongly that there was a better was to tell that particular story." (The Making of final fantasy, The Spirits Within 2001, Chris Lee pg8)
One concern with the visuals, was the extended use of motion capture, which accounted for over 90% of the main character's body movements used in the movie. For Final Fantasy each performer wore around 35 markers on skin-tight suits. Motion capture can be so sensitive, that it can capture the bodily nuances of performers even when they were still. Nuances that were difficult to animate by hand, but easy to record through the motion capture process. Once the performances were captured, animators could work on perfecting the appearance and movement of the characters' bodies and faces and later, of their skin and hair.
Last but certainly not least, the creative team constructed visual environments; sets, props,
'phantom' aliens, lighting and special effects for their new man-made stars.
The result is a movie that looks and feels somewhere between animation and live
film. Sakaguchi, Square Co. vice-president and chief architect of Final Fantasy, sums it
up in the following way:
"We've created characters that no longer feel blatantly computer generated. If we press on, we can achieve the reality level of a live-action film, but I kind of like where we are now. It's not anime; it's not live action. It's something people have never seen before" (Time 31 July 2000 par. 7).
However, one of the leading people in CG animation, John Lasseter from the hugely successful Pixar Animation Studios, argues against the use of 'live action' CG realism in animated films.
"It's very important for us to have a film that people look at on a screen and know, from the moment it starts, is not live action. This is a man-made film. This does not exist.
It's ludicrous to try to do 'live action' with this medium, Computer animation is so complex and time consuming. Why cause yourself and crew to suffer over something you could just shoot with live-action film? Just take a camera out and film it. At the same time, I like to take a world that people know full well doesn't exist, and then make it as believable and realistic as we possibly can." (Jeff Krutti 1998, pg15)
Sakaguchi was mostly right in that CGI had not been applied to the creation of lead human-like actors previously. However, people had seen various elements of CGI Realism before, in Western animated features such as Pixar's Toy Story (1995) and Sony's Stuart Little (1999). Even earlier works in the visual effects arena such as Jurassic Park (1993), Forrest Gump (1994), Titanic (1997) and the latest Star Wars Trilogy Parts 1-3(1999-2005). These are all technical achievements that were difficult to produce.
"The development of hyper real CG characters has been technically more challenging than initially anticipated, and has lead us through a series of hurdles to overcome"- Hironobu Sakaguchi (The Making of final fantasy, The Spirits Within 2001, pg4)
Final Fantasy's failure at the Box Office (BoxOfficeMojo.com 2006) proves a case for the 'Uncanny Valley'. What the film's makers initially saw as the perfect blending of two different cultures (Western and Eastern) and media (Films and Games) amounted in the end to a huge loss of money for Square Pictures. This may have been due not only to the videogame origins of the film and the fact that it was computer animated (all other game-based films have been live action), but the controversial way that the film used digital animation to attempt mimetic representations of human beings.
"When people come up to me and say, 'Final Fantasy looks so real. Why didn't you do it with real people?', I tell them, 'Because this is a better way of doing it.' The future belongs to those who dare, and I think that's what happened here." (The Making of final fantasy, The Spirits Within 2001, Chris Lee, pg8)
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Traditional animation is all about suspending disbelief and creating a world that the view understands is real within the given context. What Final Fantasy was trying to do was create reality - something that artists have been trying for decades using other mediums. Reality is defined by our lack of ability to reproduce it.
"If Aki is not as real as a human actress, she is about as real as a Playmate who has been retouched to a glossy perfection." (Ebert, Roger 2001)
Criticism of the film was high, in the fact that the lip-sync movements and emotions of the characters were bland at best. They almost looked 'dead' which is ironic considering there is a hidden feature located on the Final Fantasy DVD of the characters 'playing dead' dancing to their version of Michael Jackson's Thriller, (Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, 2001 DVD). I have found that it was easier to suspend disbelief for animated movies such as Toy Story 2 than for the computer-created human figures in Final Fantasy.
There has not yet been another fully rendered CGI movie trying to achieve realism in humans. I doubt however Final Fantasy is the final attempt.
A Bugs Life: the art and making of an epic of miniature proportion. Jeff Krutti. Hyerpion New York. 1998
Steven L. Kent & Tim Cox. 2001. The Making of Final fantasy, The Spirits Within. 1st Edition. Brady Publishing