Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Crossing the "Uncanny Valley"


[UPDATE: I added "behind the scenes" images from Digital Domain; scroll down.]

I haven't seen Avatar yet, so I can't comment, but I've noticed that everyone's giving James Cameron's team credit for "finally" solving the problem of creating expressive digital faces that look photorealistic and genuine, without being creepy...since nobody else has done this.

Really? As with all digital effects, the audience only thinks to comment on them when they're aware of them...which is when people start pointing out how "obvious" they "always" are. In reality, most of the time, viewers have absolutely no idea that they're being fooled, unless there's no other way to explain what they're seeing. My Dad turned to me during Gollum's first appearance in The Two Towers and whispered, "Is that a digital effect?" Point being that it couldn't possibly have been makeup or a puppet or anything else, so he deduced what it was; deprived of the opportunity for deductive logic, people totally miss what's in front of them. (Everybody knows there aren't any ten-foot-tall blue people with cat faces, so, ergo, "it's digital.") I'm not claiming to be any different, either: I know enough about digital images and animation to know that I can't trust my own eyes at all.

To illustrate my point, here are some frames from David Fincher's sublime The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, in which the actual Brad Pitt doesn't appear for forty minutes, and the audience isn't complaining about any "uncanny valley," because they're completely, blissfully unaware that they're seeing millions of pixels. Check out the (imaginary) old and young Pitt (and some "behind the scenes" pictures of the process Digital Domain used):







14 comments:

JPX said...

I loved The Curious Case of Benjamin Buttonand had no idea that Pitt had been digitally enhanced - I assumed that it was just amazing make-up. I think Buttons is underrated and didn't receive enough attention - It plays like a better version of Forrest Gump.

Catfreeek said...

Great point Jordan I had no idea either. Color me impressed.

Jordan said...

I added some "behind the scenes" images to show how it was done. You can see Pitt being scanned as he acts (elsewhere from the filming of the main action) and then the construction of his digital head.

Catfreeek said...

Awesome!

Jordan said...

JPX, it made $103 million, was nominated for 13 Oscars (including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director and Best Screenplay), and won three Oscars...so I think it got a reasonable amount of attention.

JPX said...

I guess it received a lot of attention in that respect but I never hear people talking about it. I'd wager that only a few on Horrorthon have seen it.

HandsomeStan said...

Haven't seen it, and can only have my comment go so far in terms of relevance. But Jordan's astute point is that Cameron didn't just come out of nowhere with his face-technology stuff. Much like LOTR building on ILM and every other example of the envelope being pushed (and/or broken wide open - how much do we owe to Jurassic Park? A great deal...), Button pushed the envelope, and from what I've seen, shredded that envelope and required a new envelope to be utilized.

The one problem I've always had with "old" make-up is that it never seems to take gravity into account. Faces fall, cheeks get sunken, jowls appear, and the overall effect of withering over time never quite gets done well, in my book. I've always just seen a good-looking young actor with piles of prosthetic makeup layered on to make it look like he's got wrinkles. Yet those high cheekbones always stay intact. (Dave Bowman, 2010 - huge favorite movie of mine, but that makeup job on Old Bowman...yeesh...)

I'll have to go watch Button to confirm this, but it seems from the stills that they conceptualized the aging process properly, and paved the way for Avatar and a whole lot else.

Like, for instance, a completely CGI, pixel-perfect trilogy of Episodes VII, VIII & IX. Which is coming. Don't think for a second it isn't.

All the principals are still alive, and their voices will be lent to digitally perfectly-aged versions of Han Solo, Princess Leia, and Luke Skywalker. Called it here first. Remember it.

(And even if they're dead, there's ways around that, too...)

Catfreeek said...

The best and only believable aging done with make up in my book has been done by Dick Smith (Father Merrin in the Exorcist & aged Salieri in Amadeus) The man is a God among special effects artists. Max von Sydow's career was actually damaged by it since people actually thought he was in his 60's.

Jordan said...

Catfreek, YES! Dick Smith.

Von Sydow, and of course Brando in The Godfather.

Jordan said...

I think Dick Smith also aged David Bowie for The Hunger.

HandsomeStan said...

All valid points, and convincing when first seen, but with Button, are they not rendered irrelevant?

Is Makeup itself witnessing its own demise, much like print newspapers, et al?

The only encouragement I can find out there is, oddly, The Princess and the Frog. 2D Disney animation was pronounced "dead" not two or three years ago, and yet here we have a solid, crowd-pleasing, apparently wonderful story told in the "archaic" 2D animation style.

The larger point being - can conventional makeup techniques keep up with CGI? I think not. Technology marches on. We'll continue to have excellent (increasingly infrequent) examples of how it's done "analog-style," but you can't argue with the pixels...

Jordan said...

I'll go you one further, Stan.

The invention of the movie camera created a 100-year period of "stardom," where individual actors could basically ransom the world, leveraging their personalities and faces into obscene personal fortunes, fame etc. How much longer will it last? How long before "Brad Pitt" and "Angelina Jolie" are no more actual people than Bugs Bunny or Kermit the Frog are? (And when the voice talent goes the way of Mel Blanc and Jim Henson, everybody just says things like, "Johnny Depp's sounding a little different these days?")

HandsomeStan said...

Mind-bending, Jordan. Spoken directly from my hidden mind.

A few years ago, it was a combo platter of Fred Astaire dancing with the vacuum cleaner as well as Final Fantasy VII (or whatever) that made me realize: we are headed for a future in which we navel-gaze at the past, and that new, innocent, honest ideas are at a priceless premium, and that we are destined to relive or re-imagine all that was good of the past. We will (and already do) have the technology to re-create, and create, completely computer-generated narratives, utterly convincing to the eye and ear, making live action and actors and sets COMPLETELY irrelevant.

Which is why things like District 9 and Avatar (and, Jordan, The Usual Suspects - I'm tellin' you, it's good...) are so goddamn wonderful. For a good half-decade there or so, I had given up on human beings having the ability to create anything completely new and unique (or at least, for such ideas to surface thru the Hollywood system). Even though those two projects mentioned rely HEAVILY on CGI, it doesn't diminish the fact that these are ORIGINAL ideas. Can't stress that enough. LOTR is brilliant, to be sure, but guess what? It's a goddamned book, that was written basically 60 years ago. Original stuff, people. WHERE ARE THE THINKERS?????

I couldn't agree more that we will, in the year 2097 (if the human race is still lucky enough to be around), be treated to a mind-blowing, holographic remake of The Wizard Of Oz, starring Judy Garland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Gregory Peck, Jim Carrey, the dog from The Mask, and four or five other actors not even fucking born yet. All digitally reborn on screen, both facially and vocally. It's all going that way. Lucas is going to lead the charge, guaranteed, at least with merchandising. (Or at least, his cyborg will...)

This of course is the scenario if we all DON'T, in fact, achieve a Hive Mind Singularity in the next, oh, 2 years and 354 days. Not that anybody's counting.

HandsomeStan said...

There is a longer post about Original Thinkers and Original Ideas that I could honk on mightily about, but I won't waste valuable vertical inches to do so.

I used to despair, but as recent posts (by Jordan and others) can attest, we may very well be living through another Renaissance of good movies and good ideas, and original stuff being thrown up on screen (I'm proud to have been a part of Michael Clayton, which seemed to give critics a collective hard-on because it was SO Original and SO Well Written...see also Duplicity, also worked on by me and directed by the same Tony Gilroy).

I suppose there's no way of predicting what comes next, but I have a hunch we will have to deal with a Best Virtual Performance Academy Award or some such crap coming soon...