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Sunday, May 31, 2009

A MoCap Christmas Carol - Bah Humbug!

A week ago today I spent several hours in line to see the Christmas Carol Train Tour exhibit at L.A. Union Station. It marked the beginning of a national tour promoting the new film by Robert Zemekis made for Disney called A Christmas Carol, of course based on Dickens' famous book.
A Christmas Carol
The train exhibit seemed extremely well done. Reference costumes, clips, models and a cute photo opportunity. Best of all, there were original Dickens documents on display.
A Christmas Carol
Very popular but less impressive was the "morph yourself into the characters" setup. This last bit did have problems, though: it spoke of "morph yourself into one of four characters," but there were only three, as the female lead was not available. Also, the images have as yet not turned up in my email, I wonder if they ever will...[They did, Monday night, eight days after the event!] After the train exhibit, we got into a new line, this time for the inflatable theater. Oh boy...

Ok, my main bone of contention: it is a Motion Capture production. They call it Performance Capture, but if this is the state of the art, I will still call it Motion Capture. Scrooge was captured from Jim Carrey, an actor who is not my personal favorite, but then I also do not enjoy much of Jerry Lewis.
A Christmas Carol
I found this clip on the web, and I must say it underlines my feelings about this method of film making...[Clip no longer available!]

The exhibit in the train showed clearly how this film was produced - pretty much like Polar Express. Now they do claim that "the eye problem is fixed." This only means that the characters seem to look at each other now - but their gaze is just as dead as before.

WHY do the characters need to be so ugly and unappealing? I doubt if we can ever feel anything for them. My favorite Christmas Carol adaptation is the 1971 musical film Scrooge with Albert Finney in the title role. Actually, the stage version with Tommy Steele I liked even better! Animated, I enjoyed Richard Williams' grand opus. Anyway, in Scrooge, you are really set up to like everyone, Scrooge, Marley, Fred, Ghosts - except maybe the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, but that is a small point.

Let me give an example: in Scrooge, we find in Bob Cratchit a vulnerable man who does his best to support his family - he is likable - we WANT him to have a better life. In Zemekis' film, Bob Cratchit seems quite unlikable - Tiny Tim might even be ashamed to have such a wimp as a father! And Tiny Tim? To me he reeks of some young designer saying "hey guys, look how strange I can make this guy?" instead of finding the heart in the story. The models as displayed in the train show a lot of good intentions, but they seem to have a hard time pulling these things off on film!
A Christmas Carol
At the exhibit, in the balloon theater, a small film was shown in 3-d stereoscopic, with most of the scenes being inspirational art turned into View-Master® images. Mind you, the backgrounds of Old London are often breathtakingly realistic. Too much so for my taste.
A Christmas Carol
Only a few scenes were shown in a sort-of final stage, so we may need to give Zemekis the benefit of the doubt. On the other hand, the scenes shown were appallingly unappealing. When the nephew Fred visits Scrooge at the beginning of the story, he was captured from well-known, dependable actor Colin Firth, but who directed him to be irritating and ugly? Underneath his emotionless stare, he seems to be angry, not in a Christmas mood at all! As member of the audience, I felt just as Scrooge: get this guy out of here!
Good day to you, Sir!
If that is what I feel about the LIKEABLE characters, what will I think of the scary ones, or the ones I need to dislike?

The bit with Marley in the clip above shows that I will feel very little. There is hardly any expression. Scrooge seems to have one expression in this sequence, as well. None of the characters is actually THINKING! Why is Marley nodding mechanically as he says "you will be haunted by three spirits?" Now mind you, the music was REALLY LOUD in the theater. Maybe they think that that will make it all more scary?

Here is what *I* think they should have done, if they wanted to keep the MoCap: first get a performance that is based on really acting the part as needed to tell the story well, instead of just action, the moving of dots under the MoCap cameras. Then do as Milt Kahl did: use the live action input as a guide, not as a crutch. Look at it, look at what makes things special, throw stuff out that is superfluous (this part is standard MoCap practice, "cleaning" the data) and then CARICATURE the actions. Change them until they work. Do not just use what you have left after cleaning, because then you have what looks like rotoscoped live-action. Just a copy of a live performance is still and always will be just a copy. It can not, given the current conditions, give you all the nuances of a real live performance - for this you need to add the life back into it. Of course, you can only do this if you have animators doing this work, not data-moving technicians. I have seen Audio-Animatronic figures with more "soul" than the clips I have seen from "A Christmas Carol: An IMAX 3D Experience," and that is saying something. I am quite certain that The Illusion of Life is still in print!

The film will show the building of Big Ben, the landmark London campanile that celebrates its 150th birthday right now.
A program about Big Ben might turn out to be more interesting...
A Christmas Carol
I thought the Christmas Carol Train Tour was a great exhibit. I, and everybody I was with at the time, loved the train. And we were all thoroughly disappointed by the clips shown in the theater. Will we see the film when it is released November 6th.? Heck yeah! We need to know if a great big Hollywood movie really can be THIS bad...

Go see UP! You will see a heartwarming, exciting story with stunning yet simplified backgrounds and above all great characters, well animated, appealing and full of heart! Without MoCap!

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Anonymous Bill White says...

I agree with you about SCROOGE, the musical. My favorite version of the story, although the Mr. Magoo one is pretty good too.

Why Hollywood has to remake this story yet again (and in this creepy mo-cap version, AND with Jim Carrey-why him, of all actors?- as Scrooge!) is beyond me.

Monday, June 1, 2009 at 10:29:00 AM PDT  
Anonymous Hans Perk says...

I need to revisit the Mr. Magoo version soon: it's been much too long!

Monday, June 1, 2009 at 10:31:00 AM PDT  
Anonymous Christopher James Doyle says...

It is a slap in the face to animation what Hollywood thinks they are accomplishing with these types of mocap movies. Have they learnt nothing from years and years of great animated entertainment?
You just cannot graphically reproduce a human actor 'exactly' and expect it to work. That has already been proven. The graphic image doesn't have the 'charisma' of an actor but instead has it's own advantages that animators need and must pull out to make it viewable. Even more so with computer generated characters.
This is just another example of the Hollywood propaganda machine force feeding the public with what Hollywood wants them to consume and not what is good for the public.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009 at 12:01:00 AM PDT  
Anonymous Floyd Norman says...

I am certainly not anti-technology, but I find this stuff crass and emotionally dead. A total waste of time, talent and technology.

Live-action, animation, stop motion, whatever. Choose the medium that works best for you.

This mo-cap stuff is simply another Hollywood scam.

Sunday, June 7, 2009 at 2:16:00 PM PDT  
Anonymous Don Peri says...

I just visited the train yesterday in Sacramento and I agree with your assessment of this event. I loved the train but was disappointed with the film. I will see it because I love the Christmas Carol story, but I will not bother to see it in 3D. That format will not save the story if it is not better than what we saw. But the film might be worth seeing for the backgrounds alone.

Sunday, June 21, 2009 at 9:01:00 AM PDT  

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