Sound and Fury - Column for 7/18

Art and Artifice

After watching "Final Fantasy" last Friday, I decided to curtail my ranting and focus on some artistic bullshit. By the way, I am a hypocrite for watching a lame CGI movie, one that I KNEW would be bad. Well, it wasn't bad, it was OK. You should see it.

Since the plot of Final Fantasy was pretty meaningless (stereotypical anime stuff; tentacled demons that aren't really evil, there is a balance to maintain, big weapons of mass destruction are bad, etc.), I focused on the animation, which is what we were all there for. Is it going to put live actors out of business? How realistic is it? Is ultra-realism the best goal for animation, of computer or any sort?

As I was thinking (I do it, sometimes) afterwards, I thought of Scott McCloud's brilliant book, "Understanding Comics". There's a section in there where McCloud talks about the level of "realism" in pictorial art, and the effect on the viewer. He contends that very realistic, or detailed, work, and very sketchy, vague stuff, don't have the same resonance with the reader as a mid-level drawing. If you look at the figure McCloud draws of himself, you notice he has glasses, but no pupils, and a mouth. Watching Final Fantasy, I see that I agree with him, and I know why: it's the same idea as the persistence of vision.

I'm sure you've heard of the POV theory; it's how our mind makes closure to things: how we perceive motion when movies are really just a series of still pictures flashed briefly before our eyes for brief intervals (24 pictures per second, actually), how we will look at a curved line that almost, but not quite, revolves around to nearly touch it's origin (an incomplete circle, really), becomes a complete circle if we look at it long enough. Humans enjoy closure. And if our mind can close the "gap" that the picture (or movie) leaves for us, we'll be investing something of ourselves into that work, and hence, it is more "real", "personal", or whatever term you prefer. We empathize with the characters because part of US is really in them; we are subliminally "completing" their existence, whether it's motion or realism. This is art that asks for something out of the audience. This is art that works.

In post-cinematic discussions of the film with my wife, we both agreed that what "sells" the realism and beauty of animation for us is the movement, the MOTION, more than the pictorial elements. Especially with the people. Humans are so used to body language, to subtle changes in the eyes, the mouth, the face, the posture, etc., that we have a lifetime of growing attuned to it. If something is off, we are unsure of how the character is feeling or acting. It is very hard to pull that off through drawing, especially when you are striving for ultra-realism. Much of Final Fantasy was rotoscoped, but not all, and some points it works, and others it doesn't. Unfortunately, though, at no time was I so involved with the characters that I forgot I was watching an animated film. Something that, not ironically, happened when I watched "Princess Mononoke", which is less stylistically realistic, I argue, than Final Fantasy. The characters in FF move almost, but not quite real enough, so it just looks odd. Other animated films, however, don’t; try for characters moving realistically, they move symbolically, just enough to suggest an emotion or feeling. The audience will "complete the circle" by ascribing an emotion to the character based on the limited information given.

As wonderful as FF is, and how groundbreaking it is, I think this branch of animation is ultimately doomed to fail. Now, I am not positive, because maybe with a better story, better dialogue, and better "acting" (I noticed that he characters were also moving like bad actors…so they were animating poor acting, which only emphasized the mistakes more), the illusion and power could be greater. This film is only the first step, and maybe the next one will be better (I suggest a story that involves more action; the slow dramatic scenes, admirable in intent, fall the furthest in the film). Still, even if CG animators learn how to capture the texture and motion of hair, the irregularities of skin, and the shine behind eyes(the eyes were the most artificial looking element in Final Fantasy), I think all the stress and processing power and hard drive space will be extraneous, for the animators are forgetting the best instrument for making realistic characters: the viewer's mind. Exaggerate and obfuscate some of the more "realistic" details of a character, and the audience will use their mind's own pen and ink (or pixels and levels) to breathe life into the film.