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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

no rats were harmed — or motion-captured — in the making of ‘Ratatouille’

It seems sorta odd and mysteriously retro, in an animation era that’s all about technology and using artificial means to create photorealistic imagery without photography, but here it is. Sit through the credits of the new Pixar CGI toon Ratatouille, and near the end you’ll see this:

Our Quality Assurance Guarantee:
100% Genuine Animation!
No motion capture or any other
performance shortcuts were used in
the production of this film.

I found that kinda charming at first glance, and then I started wondering: What the hell is going on here? Is there some sort of behind-the-scenes war going on between the various schools of animation? Old-school animation has all but disappeared from the big screen — every animated movie released so far this year has been digitally animated, and it looks like the rest of them will be too. (The Simpsons Movie is the only one I’m not sure about, although clearly some of it is CGI.) Disney closed its last studio for hand-drawn animation two years ago

But wait! Just this past February, Disney announced it was reversing course and would be getting back into the business of traditional animation. And everyone and their grandmother is totally psyched for James Cameron’s Avatar, which is being touted as a new revolution in animation in that not only will it be entirely motion-captured but 3-D as well. (Ain’t It Cool has the most recent rumors on the film’s technology.)

Which leaves the fully digital but fully “animated” Pixar folks smack in the middle.

Is this announcement in the Ratatouille credits some sort of hedge against the next step in the evolution of animation — or a backslide — that will put even more animators out of work? Or is it just a little joke, to get us thinking about the possibility of a poor little rat dressed up in spandex and covered with electronic sensors?

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  • Shadowen

    In the special features of the extended edition for The Two Towers, one of the little tidbits is that the keyframe animators (those who do CG animation frame by frame) and the motion capture people were actually a little jealous of each other, as they each thought they could do a better job.

    In the end, for expediency’s sake, they used motion capture and Andy Serkis for the big movements–walking and so on–and used keyframe animators for the tiny little details, and of course animating the face.

  • JSW

    Motion capture is hardly a new technique; it’s been in use since pretty much the beginning of 3D animation and it really just an updated version of rotoscoping, which has been a well-used technique since animation began. It seems pretty stupid and arbitrary to get into some sort of ideological battle over it.

  • I’m voting jab + joke. *grin*

  • If I may, Yes there is a war. It’s fought between technology and artistry, craft and commercialism.

    Every new technology in animation allows increased productivity, a higher baseline for “Quality animation” at similar production levels, a great deal of training to learn how to use these technologies to their best advantages, and new ways of making old mistakes.

    So, on the plus side, motion capture allows an animator to have a stock set of realistic human actions as the basis for their animation: no need to reference material, recreate poses, or engage in the complex action analysis and acting that every good animator needs to know.

    On the down side, bad actor in a motion capture suit is bad acting on the screen. You are limited to using human characters, and to the limits of human flexibility, posing, and proportion. It’s also difficult to fix the animation created by the motion capture, as opposed to using the Keys and inbetweens of the native software.

    So while there are good examples of motion capture out there (Gollum from Lord of the Rings was a very effective use of Motion capture), the financial temptation to rely on “Good enough” can create awfully ugly and lackluster animation (Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within; The Polar Express) especially when compared to the work that can be done with cartoon caricature (Anything by Pixar).

    It has it’s uses, but It’s a mark of fine snobbery to pee on it at any opportunity.

    TV animation is going through the same thing with the Macromedia Flash tool: A program that not only allows a single animator to create upwards of 35 seconds of quality finished/colored animation per week, or a great deal of strangely animated paper-cutout looking crap.

  • MaryAnn

    Yes there is a war. It’s fought between technology and artistry, craft and commercialism.

    Yeah, except in this instance, there’s no clear-cut way to say which is which. As you note, both “pure” CGI animation and motion-capture-assisted animation can be beautifully realized, and both can be crap.

    As with any tool, these tools can be poorly used. I’m not seeing a real distinction — yet — between the tools themselves.

  • As with any tool, these tools can be poorly used. I’m not seeing a real distinction — yet — between the tools themselves.

    Ah, I wasn’t terribly clear then. =/ It’s the difference between a toaster oven and an electric range.

    Motion Capture has some very clear limitations as to what it can do, as opposed to “pure” CG. Motion capture can only capture the performances of human beings (and if lucky, an animal willing to have ping-pong balls taped to it and perform very specific actions). You could never get the actions of the rat to look right in motion capture; our anatomy is the wrong proportion, we’re to big to do the quick little scurrying motions of smaller animals with shorter muscles. The artist specifically trained to watch behavior and recreate it in both 3d space and time is now restrained by the performance for the actor.

    Again, it’s not to say MoCap doesn’t have it’s uses. Gaming especially, where you want to recreate real people as closely as possible, as opposed to caricaturing and exaggerating those motions to overcome the inherent unreality of the cartoon characters.

    The problem comes from companies that try to use motion capture to act in areas beyond it’s capabilities, or to reduce the cost of artists. Whether motion capture will help create the quality James Cameron is looking for in Avatar is anyone’s guess.

  • BTW, they asked that question specifically of
    Brad Lewis, Ratatouille’s producer, and this was his answer:

    In the credits, it says, “No motion capture was used in the making of this film.” Why was that there?

    Lewis: “Biii-iiird! He wanted that. The “no motion capture” line was poking fun a little bit. We love animation, and we’re awfully proud of our animators, and we believe that what we do is artistry. … We have a different way of communicating through animation and don’t choose to put balls on people’s faces and draw over it. People think that’s how it’s all done nowadays. … What we did is all hand-drawn animation. A lot of the new animators came from computer 3-D training. … One of the gals came walking down the hall and said, ‘Paper cut, I got a paper cut again!’ She got her hands on the drawings.”

    From http://www.scifi.com/sfw/interviews/sfw16093.html

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