Wednesday, December 23, 2009

An Essay on the Amazing

I've been reading a book called Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. It's a story set in Georgian England (think Jane Austen) about a couple of magicians trying to bring magic back to England. Not prestidigitation magic like Houdini or David Blaine, but real magic like Merlin or Harry Potter. Early on in the book one of the magicians is asked to perform a feat of magic. When he does, the witnesses are amazed at what they see. I, on the other hand, was less than amazed.

The reason I bring this up is that I've been thinking about how common amazing things seem to us now days. With the constant advancement of visual effects, we routinely see things that previously could have only been imagined. The result is that, to be impressed, we need to see something even more amazing than before. We become accustomed to Hollywood explosions, spaceships, and magic. I've tried to imagine how I would feel if I witnessed, in real life, the amazing feat of magic from the book. I think I would be initially impressed, but then would quickly bore of it. I have begun to wonder if I will ever be truly amazed again. I am, we are, desensitized to the “amazing”. Now, desensitization is usually a bad thing, and “amazement” desensitization has some negative aspects too; You can't help but to be disappointed when you see the Space Shuttle's replacement, the Ares & Orion Constellation space craft.

Reality just doesn't meet our higher expectations. But I believe our desensitization actually pushes us to constantly raise the bar of “amazing”. That means we end up advancing our technology and probing deeper into our imaginations to bring it to life.

I obviously have a special interest in, and love for, movies and their visual effects, but I think that if you think about it, even you, can think of something from a movie, or a movie itself that amazed you enough to put a little tick mark in your life, marking that as a standard by which to compare all things “amazing”.

Think about it. Go ahead. Think of any movie that you remember having ground breaking effects. For me, I think of the water tentacle in The Abyss. That was the first time I had seen something like that that didn't look like a puppet or some had drawn animation.

Next I think of the liquid-metal guy from Terminator 2. Both movies were visual effects benchmarks.

Then came Jurassic Park. That movie raised the bar to the stratosphere. Here we had realistic dinosaurs. They had realistic flesh, movement and weight. No longer were dinosaurs to be portrayed by jerky stop-motion puppets. If it could be done with dinosaurs, why not everything else. We were convinced that computers could do anything in movies. We all began to wonder how long it would be until live actors were replaced by computer generated characters.

Since then, visual effects have continued to get more and more realistic, more and more amazing. There continues to be films that mark the memory as having amazing effects; The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Pirates of the Caribbean, etc. But we haven't seen anything raise the bar to the extent Jurassic Park did – until now.

Before I go into that, I want to take a couple of quick tangents. First, a bit of history of our amazement, followed by a bit of science of what amazes us.

Film has been around for over a hundred years. Animation was there almost from the beginning. One early benchmark of “amazing” was Winsor McCay's Gertie the Dinosaur.

Watch the film here if you want. It's about 6 minutes long.

This was hand drawn animation in black and white. It was the first combination of live action and animation. It was so amazing that the audiences thought it was real! Can you believe it!? They were convinced Gertie was a real life dinosaur. I often wonder how the people could be so stupid as to think that Gertie were real. That was 1914, skip ahead to 1993 and compare Jurassic Park, and now I begin to understand.

The people of 1914 were reacting based on the experiences they had had in their lives. They had seen other silent films staring real humans, but even then, they were in black an white and didn't really move the way we do in real life. They knew those were actors and bought into the illusion film presented, filing silent films in the “Acceptably real” category of their mind. Now they see Gertie, also black and white, not quite moving right, and staring with a real actor, and it fits neatly into the same “Acceptably real” category.

In 1993, our experiences had already added color and sound to film. Practical special effects (latex monsters and miniatures) were standard. They didn't always move right, or the lighting was a little off, but despite all that, we filed them in our “Acceptably real” category. Now comes Jurassic Park with digital visual effects. The dinosaurs seemed to move as realistically as the human actors. The lighting was correct enough that they seemed to actually exist in the world of the movie. Suddenly our “Acceptably real” category emptied itself to make room for the new reality. The category began to fill up again as movies continued to reach or surpass the standard set by Jurassic Park.

Now a change in direction. A bit of science. The Uncanny Valley. From Wikipedia:
The uncanny valley hypothesis holds that when robots [and computer generated humans] look and act almost like actual humans, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers.

So basically, humans can be represented in film very crudely, and we accept them as appealing. The closer they get to looking and acting like humans, the more appealing and acceptable they become. Eventually they get to a point where they are very close to real humans, but rather than finding them appealing and believable, they are ugly, lifeless and revolting. What happens is that initially, with the less than perfect human representations, they are far enough from reality that our subconscious minds overlook the shortcomings, chalking them up to the fact that they are really not real. Some good examples are the characters in The Incredibles. Their proportions are characterized enough that they couldn't be real, but we never question that they are supposed to be humans, and we feel comfortable sympathizing and empathizing with them. We accept them as people.

As you get closer to reality, like the characters in The Polar Express, or Beowulf, where the characters look very much like humans, and seem to move like humans, you reach the deep uncanny valley. Suddenly your subconscious mind can't see and obvious signs that these aren't supposed to be real, so it no longer overlooks any shortcomings. On the contrary, it goes into defensive mode, constantly alerting you that something isn't right – someone is trying to deceive you – warning, these humans are not to be trusted! They are not what they appear! It's extremely difficult to name what it is exactly that sets off the alarms, and that much more difficult for the artists to overcome. The audience can only identify that the characters creeped them out, or seemed to be zombies. As visual effects go, we have reached the edge of the uncanny valley, and some are falling in.

On the other side of the uncanny valley, you have humans characters so real that we fully accept them as real. It's never been crossed.

Ok. Now back to my original line of thought, visual effects benchmarks. The bar has been significantly raised, a new historical benchmark set. And I was completely caught off guard. The movie is Avatar.

Going into the film, my expectations were low. There was so much hype for this film that I knew it could never live up to it. I had heard that they used motion capture for the animation. That is the process where they put the actor into a full bodysuit covered with dots or ping-pong balls. They record the motion of each dot then plug it into the computer generated character, thereby recreating the actual movements of the real actor.

It's the technology used on the Polar Express, Beowulf, and the new Christmas Carol. So basically it's the technology that pushes you into the uncanny valley. I expected to be offended by $500 million zombies. I had seen the trailers, and thought the characters were ridiculous. They were supposed to be “real”, but they looked like cartoons. It looked to me like this was an animated film, not a live action film with visual effects. The characters were lanky blue cat people with giant eyes.

I was so wrong.

I kept trying to pick out the negative things in the execution of the animation. I kept looking for the zombies. After 30 minutes, I gave up. I was completely awed by the detail and depth of Pandora. The Na'vi people were odd at first, but within minutes, I completely bought in. They moved so completely realistically, that I found myself fighting with the notion that these are really actors in make-up, not computer generated characters. Their skin had pores, and you could feel the slight translucency, the depth of the tissue, the life in the cells. The facial expressions were completely convincing.

It's difficult to point out how beautiful it all was. One thing I can say is that by the end of the film, anytime the humans were on screen next to the Na'vi, It was the humans that I found disappointing. I almost didn't believe in their reality.

Did it cross the uncanny valley? I don't know. Probably not. It's definitely not in the uncanny valley. I mean the characters really are lanky blue cat people, so our subconscious mind surely is overlooking things. All I know is that when the film was over, I felt a little depressed when my practical mind broke the news that, as cool as it looked, the Na'vi were not real. I was actually disappointed by that fact, as irrational as it is. So it may not have crossed the uncanny valley, but it sure felt like it.

Since I'm talking about the movie, I may as well address a criticism I have heard about it. That is that the story is weak, simple, familiar. That it is just “Dances With Wolves” in space. Well, yes it is just Dances With Wolves, but last I checked, that was a good movie. A good story. Sure it's simple, but it's not weak. And it is familiar, even Pixar's “Cars”, is just Dances With Wolves on four wheels. By choosing a story that is already established as a good one, James Cameron could focus on all the visual effects while being comfortable that the story was sound. Most big effects films focus on the effects try to force some story elements in between.

Avatar is without a doubt, the most visually amazing film I have ever seen. I mean, It forced me to write all this down. And even more, it convinced me that I can still be amazed.


Andy Porter said...

well said. I am way excited to watch this show now.

dan said...

Looks like you weren't alone in your depression. Great post by the way.