This morning's(10/15)New York Times has another in a type of article that seems to bobble to the front page of Arts sections like a piece of balsa wood, every few years for at least the last 15: "Cyberface-a new technology makes animated figures as expressive as SAG members. Is this the birth of filmmaking's new era? Or the death[dum dum dummmm!]of the flesh-and-blood actor?"
The illustration accompanying the article. The gulf between the live model and the digital version is self-evident. Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company
Start merely with the title, in its large pica print trumpeting breakthrough!: a "new technology"[really?] that "makes" animated figures[the reporter is really referring soley to expressions of the face, forget body language for now] "as expressive as SAG members"...oh, indeed? I guess that's settled, then.
Because the examples shown, heavily surfaced and rendered as they are next to mug[ging] shots of the models scanned and used for the final "animated" faces, are inarguably about 75% more pliable, expressive and interesting to look at than the offered, supposedly "more animated" digital versions.
In other words, here we go again.
And reading on, we get the old canard, trotted out for as long as these pieces has been published, that with this new technology all it'll take to resurrect Marilyn Monroe is, well, to use this copyrighted software on her. This is so patently silly that I hardly know where to start. I won't begin as an animator, just as a hardcore movie lover and admirer of such actors on film as Marilyn--a woman who in my opinion was much more talented than she's usually given credit for, even in these revisionist days.
She's also one of the most famous icons of pop culture--up there with Chaplin, Bogart, Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse: recognized worldwide by people who may have never seen one of their films. So, a software program will map "any character virtual or human, living or dead" and transpose a performance so that it looks like Marilyn herself is doing...what?
Here's a huge point hat I have yet to see addressed in all of these breathless articles that read like press releases:
who exactly is going to be the designated brain of Monroe? Who's the ultimate expert on what Marilyn would do in a new situation?
I suppose a top female impersonator like Jimmy James would be of some help, but he channels a pastiche of things MM did in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" and "Some Like it Hot", not so much "The Misfits" or "Don't Bother To Knock", never mind the Monroe of her private, introspective life.
Thus the caricature of an actress who actually sounded nothing like her comedic babydoll voice, who really did read Stanislavsky, and who was probably more inquisitive and cultured than many aspiring starlets today is reduced in theory to a computer catalogue of expressions. She'll never create anything new as she well might have past the age of 36 from a new, original script. But we're supposed to stand back, watch and admire her impersonators, to go along with the pretend Marilyn.
You might be able to build a version of her face, but who will supply her timing, her charm, her thought? Does any person on earth really have the nerve to say "oh, sure--I can"? I'd like to meet that person.
In any case, I'm sure the idea of who will actually give a performance tweaking the map of Marilyn's face will fall to a group, not to another actor.
You see my point: what made Bogart Bogart or Marilyn Marilyn was something that cannot be recreated in a new form that has any authority. They're both dead, and they took their quick and ever-changing minds with them when they went. They've given their last performances and to suggest so blithely that any actor is reduced to the look of their face is beyond insulting, a totally empty bit of trumpeting and salesmanship.
And what about an actor like Gregory Peck, in perhaps his greatest performance as Atticus Finch in "To Kill A Mockingbird"? Think about that one: Peck barely moves a discernable muscle in his face; he's a model of restraint, of inner thought, of passing shadows of concern, of love, of frustration. A farther cry from the ludicrously crude live action funny faces that illustrate the NY Times article could not be imagined...so, does that mean that this "revolutionary" software will be limited to the worst kind of bad acting? Is the camera's lingering examination of Garbo's face in the final shot of "Queen Christina" dull because she isn't squinting, gaping or grinning?
So much for making SAG members start sweating. Next post, I'll give a couple of thoughts on why it really ignored not just animators, but the whole concept of what animating is--as I believe it to be, anyway.