Friday, March 18, 2011

Hollywood Needs Real People

The Polar Express
By Lars Trodson

One of my favorite headlines (that I wrote back when I was a newspaper editor) was for a review of the movie version of “The Polar Express.” We had a local reviewer who didn’t like the film. “Last Train To Creepyville” is what I called it, and it was a reaction to the widely derided, yet early, process known as “performance capture” that was being developed by Robert Zemeckis. Everyone was talking about the “dead eye” syndrome. Performance capture couldn’t give any life to the eyes of the characters. Everybody in that supposedly charming family film looked like a ghoul.

The latest project to bear the imprimatur of this process is “Mars Needs Moms”, which I gather was received with universal ennui when it was released to theaters last week. “A Christmas Carol” with Jim Carrey is also a Zemeckis piece of machinery, and that didn’t fare too well, either.

Now comes word, on the heels of the “Mars Needs Moms” debacle, that the company run by Zemeckis to create more performance capture films has been shuttered by Disney, and a planned 3-D remake of the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” has been shitcanned.

Mars Needs Moms
I have never been a fan of this technology. I actually never understood it -- given the whole eye problem and everything. I’m a huge fan of computer animation -- it was a corrective to the hideous photocopied crap that had taken over television and the movies. That stuff wasn’t charming or quaint; it was just cheap. Computer graphics brought lushly conceived backgrounds and characters that moved with fluidity and grace and, with continued advances in that field, still works quite beautifully. Just look at Pixar, naturally.

But "performance capture" seemed redundant and vapid. I suppose Zemeckis -- who put CGI effects to good use in that monstrosity called “Forrest Gump” (can Oscars be rescinded?) -- was trying to be on the cutting edge of something, and that was why he was moving ahead with performance capture.

As cynical as we may be about audiences today, they don’t fall for just anything. And audiences have been telling Zemeckis and his crew that they really aren’t clamoring for the next performance capture endeavor. Now with "Mars Needs Moms" on the verge of being a box office calamity, he has been told definitively.

Motion-capture technology was
used to create Gollum in
The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
The other thing I never understood was why actors would welcome this technology. Jim Carrey famously “starred” in last year’s “A Christmas Carol.” Technicians captured his body movements and then used his voice, of course.

But what if the next development was to use someone else’s body movements and only use the voice of the actor? What would be the point? And where would that lead?

I for one am glad to see that this adventure in performance capture has at least been put on hold. Movies today are soulless enough. They don’t need to be dead-eyed, too.