I haven’t seen Polar Express, but the trailer and
publicity materials did not impress me. Here’s a very interesting set of examples showing how subtle touchups by a skilled artist can go a long way toward making ineffectual CGI characters look much more natural. I could do without the swipe against the oh-so-cloddish general public at the end, but it’s a good read.
As character animators move
toward rendered photorealism they’re facing some of the same challenges
that their predecessors faced with CGI models of objects and
landscapes. Early CGI models were easy to spot. The lighting was somehow wrong, depth-of-field was
essentially infinite, highlights and shadows were razor-sharp. Some
of these problems were practical tradeoffs between technology and
redering time. Others were things that could have been fixed
but weren’t. Why?
I think part of the problem is psychological. The folks creating this sort of computer animation are being asked to render stuff with great care and in great detail, and then throw away much of that detail. Make it darker, or blurrier, or uglier. That’s not easy to do.
But it’s not always a matter of muddying perfection. As the article points out, the folks doing this type of animation aren’t classically trained animators. (Again, not the first time this has happened. The folks doing the earlier CGI work apparently had to re-implement the details of a century of photography and filmmaking techniques.) They know what they’re doing, but they don’t quite know what to do when it doesn’t work. They’re often not comfortable departing from the methods they’ve chosen, or acknowledging when it’s lacking.
But geeks of any era learn fast. Lessons from previous generations of experts are assimilated and expanded upon, often in ways that are hard to predict. The true goal of photorealistic rendered characters
isn’t to make better cartoons. It’s to re-create a traditional movie experience but without the actors. As we get closer to that goal I’m not sure how much traditional animators will be able to contribute. After all, hand-tinted photos were a useful stopgap until color photography became practical, but a photo-tinter’s knowledge of painting contributed little or nothing to the development of color film or optics. That didn’t mean that painters were obsolete, just that the true solution to that particular problem didn’t invoke an existing set of skills. Ultimately, rendered tromp l’ oeil will co-exist alongside traditional
cartoon characters, a third branch sprouting between art and photography.