To Capture A Giant

In reading up on Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (David Yates, 2007), I was intrigued to note the coining of a new term for the creation of CG (computer-generated) performance in movies: soul capture. It’s the brainchild of Double Negative, a London-based visual effects company that was one of several involved in the most recent Harry Potter film. Double Negative worked on approximately 950 of Phoenix’s 1400 effects shots, categorized by “geographical area”:

Hogwarts, both inside and out; the Forbidden Forest, where Harry and his friends encounter Grawp, Hagrid’s teenage half brother; the Hall of Prophecy, a mysterious and cavernous storage space in the Ministry of Magic and the Veil Room, which lies at the very heart of the Wizarding world.

(Interesting in itself this mapping of labor, with its strong suggestion that a movie’s diegesis or storyworld is increasingly conceptualized in spatial terms, more akin to videogame environments and theme parks than to linear narrative – but on the other hand, the linearity of cinematic storytelling has always been only an ex post facto phenomenon, with films being shot out of order for economic reasons and only in editing arranged into apparent sequentiality.)

Anyway, soul capture refers to the particular breed of motion capture with which Double Negative took elements of the performance provided by Tony Maudsley and used them to “drive” the performance of the giant CG character Grawp, the 16-foot-tall half-brother of Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane).

Now I have to admit that the Grawp sequences were easily my least favorite parts of Phoenix in both its print and film incarnations. In the book, Grawp struck me as an unnecessary and overly cute bit of comic relief, an uninspired attempt to open up and explore Hagrid’s already perfectly realized world. In the movie, Grawp’s essential flimsiness was amplified by visual effects that simply didn’t work. In a movie filled with otherwise bold and imaginative FX, Grawp doesn’t look or move right: with his stretchy, misshapen features, he comes across as a regular-sized man who’s been massively inflated with air. Which, in a certain sense, he is: Maudsley’s “soul-captured” performance has been mapped onto the surface of a CG balloon, then integrated with surprising clumsiness into settings with other actors. Of course, this clumsiness could be explained as a function of Grawp’s half-wittedness; like Gollum (Andy Serkis) in The Lord of the Rings (Peter Jackson, 2001-2003), an FX-driven character’s eccentricity/monstrosity seems to justify a lack of grace and subtlety in its realization. (This is not to knock Gollum, whom I truly dug, but to highlight a particular faultline in state-of-the-art CG between the cartoonish and the mimetic, and the psychological mechanisms by which that faultline is ideologically negotiated and naturalized.)

Grawp’s failings aside, I’m struck by the rapid evolution of nomenclature in what we might call “acting effects.” In the late 1990s, around the time that Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (Hironobu Sakaguchi & Moto Sakakibara, 2001) was gearing up, the keyword was motion capture. In behind-the-scenes materials, we were treated to the sight of actors pantomiming on blank soundstages, wearing leotards crisscrossed with grids of tiny spheres – markers providing reference points for the computer, and later animators, to use in reconstructing the performance digitally. In the early 2000s, John Gaeta and the effects crew at ESC were using universal capture to scan Keanu Reeves and Hugo Weaving in ultra-high-resolution for The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions (The Wachowski Brothers, 2003). By the time of The Polar Express (Robert Zemeckis, 2004), the keyword was performance capture, and markers studded Tom Hanks’s face and eyelids. Now we have soul capture, presumably expressing some further evolution of capture modalities, with a concomitantly finer degree of resolution.

The point, I think, is not whether any of these tools is “better” than any other, or even especially revolutionary as a shift in filmmaking methods. As Andre Bazin so valuably observed, the camera itself is a primary “capture technology,” one that marks an irrevocable break with previous methods of representing reality. If anything, the swooning (and market-driven) discourse around new forms of capture signals a movement sideways into painting and illustration, for what’s really being taken from Maudsley or Serkis is components for future blending, ingredients in a recipe of illusion.

Hence David S. Cohen gets it wrong when he writes that “Actors give films their humanity and heart. Visual effects let the audience see things that no camera could capture. So the battle lines [are] drawn: soul vs. spectacle.” Movie performances have always been based on the “spectacle” of the actor’s preserved essence, whether in a rubber Godzilla suit, in Jack Pierce’s makeup for Boris Karloff in Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931), or for that matter in the screen personae of Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart. “Humanity and heart” are reduced to a two-dimensional skin of photons in the final instance, an insurmountable layer of dead screen severing us from living performance – even as it brings that performance magically to life for us.

5 thoughts on “To Capture A Giant

  1. Bob, I’m not sure these two statements are compatible with each other:

    (1) This is not to knock Gollum, whom I truly dug, but to highlight a particular faultline in state-of-the-art CG between the cartoonish and the mimetic, and the psychological mechanisms by which that faultline is ideologically negotiated and naturalized.

    (2) “Humanity and heart” are reduced to a two-dimensional skin of photons in the final instance, an insurmountable layer of dead screen severing us from living performance – even as it brings that performance magically to life for us.

    It seems to me that if you accept the existence of the psychological mechanisms and ideological negotiation and naturalization that you mention in (1), you must reject the reductionism of (2).

    Congrats on the new blog!

  2. Mike, I’ve often been accused of contradicting myself — to which I can only respond: I’ve never been accused of contradicting myself.

    *ahem* On a more sober note, you raise a good point, and I appreciate your close reading, which forced me to go back to the two statements in question and ask myself what I really meant to say with them. My sense is that they don’t neccessarily contradict each other, as the first applies to limits on the recreation of “liveliness,” a kind of mimetic horizon, imposed by whatever FX technology is used in pursuit of that recreation (in this case CG). What I’m pointing to is simply the strategy by which a character we know to be artificial (e.g. Grawp, Gollum) is presented as flawed/partial/wounded so that we forgive that character its limited expressive range: monsters, in short, don’t have to be particularly subtle. Perhaps I should have said aesthetic mechanisms rather than psychological mechanisms, since “psychology” here has an ambiguous referent: am I speaking of the spectator’s mind, the filmmaker’s, or the inferred mind of the fictional character? If I relocate the agency on the side of the filmmakers, the observation becomes one about how FX technologies are strategically deployed to blur the lines between a rhyming set of binaries: natural/artificial, born/made, organic/mechanical. These binaries, I suggest, come emphatically to the fore when dealing with the use of FX to create “living” characters.

    With the second statement, by contrast, I’m peddling an old-school notion of film spectatorship derived from psychoanalytic theorist Christian Metz and the apparatus theorists of the 1970s who built on his work. Metz argues in The Imaginary Signifier that cinema differs from the other arts both in its sensory plentitude (the amount of information it offers to eyes and ears) and the way in which it substitutes for the object(s) it purports to give us. He writes,

    The unique position of the cinema lies in this dual character of its signifier: unaccustomed perceptual wealth, but at the same time stamped with unreality to an unusual degree, and from the very outset. More than the other arts, or in a more unique way, the cinema involves us in the imaginary: it drums up all perception, but to switch it immediately over into its own absence, which is nonetheless the only signifier present.

    The labor of cinema (and of the spectator) thus becomes a kind of ongoing do-si-do of presence and absence, as images we know to be essentially “dead” are brought to “life,” and the absent things those images capture are made provisionally “present.” Again, it seems to me these issues are strongly in play when it comes to the quest to create lifelike entities onscreen: seems like it would be easier to accept a spaceSHIP than a spacePERSON, yet the cinema has trained us to see and believe in “people” whom we know to be not really there — even dead in their graves. The bottom line for me is that it’s all special effects — Marlon Brando is as much a product of screen technologies as Bugs Bunny, Kermit the Frog, or Jar-Jar Binks. When we divide the screen into “real” characters versus “fake” ones, we’re playing along (pleasurably to be sure, but also gullibly) with a nested series of illusions that extend from the light reflecting off surfaces to our phantasmic belief in onscreen reality, identification with the characters thereon, and ultimately with cinema itself as a benign entertainment, rather than the capital-driven culture industry it (also) is.

    I don’t know if this clarifies things any, or untangles the knot you’ve identified — would love to hear your thoughts!

  3. Bob, I wonder to what extent you would include videogames as a screen technology doubling this fort/da game through the identification of the ‘character’ of the videogame avatar. Though the entire spectacle of the videogame is undoubtedly some kind of ongoing, algorithmic system of interrelated special effects, I am wondering what kinds of problems the avatar itself poses as a kind of privileged object in the game-world – that is, in the third-person, the avatar is itself a part-subject to lines of sight and forces that act upon its ‘body’ in the gameworld, and vice-versa, yet its ‘body’ is also the privileged vision of its suspended eye, the camera, which is the screen and ultimately bleeds back to the spectator-operator of this prosthetic apparatus through both eye and hand?

    If we are dealing with the implosion of the terms ‘born/made’, prosthetics might be the archetypical origin of this neurosis (that which requires it be ideologically negotiated/neutralized). For the prosthetic limb is at first horrific, not simply because it is fake, but because it is so seamlessly grafted onto the flesh where it takes root. Is this seam not the invisible cinema screen? And thence the horror is numbed by the spectacle of ‘soul’ – the lib twitches, the girl with titanium leopard-legs sprints nimbly along, the golem stirs.

    “The explosion … looked like a special effect – it was unreal.” Identification problematizes the unreal.

    The avatar is the only real star of the videogame, and we are its amputees. More than a character, it is a conduit of affect between the player and game. As amputee to the prosthesis, as composite prosthetic avatar, the player is ‘hypermediated’ and comes to inhabit the seam/screen.

    If my thinking is not completely deluded on this, my question is this: if freed from the closed circuit of perpetual identification with the ‘onscreen’ (fort, da, fort, da,…) by way of prosthetically entering this very region, then can the avatar effectively be made to problematize the real? To reverse direction of this paranoia and to say to the player, with its back turned, not, ‘where did reality go?’ but ‘what was/is real? What did/does it mean to you anyway?’

    Therapy for amputees is (en)activity; it’s a whole new body to get used to and that’s a lot of work!

    Love the new blog, and sorry to blog-bog you already with videogames… 😀

  4. Eben: a fine, probing set of insights. I’m in agreement with you that videogames overall epitomize a certain kind of “special effect,” taking the idea of the graphically created reality (one that is also and always an unreality) to its extreme. At the same time, the metaphysics of gaming, centered on the player-avatar relationship, complicates cinema-based models of spectator/screen, belief/disbelief, identification/objectification and so on. Your use of the amputation-prosthesis trope is particularly effective in moving us past any easy commutability of the two types of screen.

    Regarding your question, though, I pause at your suggestion (if I’m reading you right) that videogames “free” us from the “closed circuit of perpetual identification” that cinema presumably locks us into. I think both movies and videogames keep us in constant oscillation between reality and unreality, measured both by the degree of investment in the “world” (settings, dangers, opportunities, obstacles) and the “body” (identity, psychology, agency, desire). In fact, I don’t see how either medium could *work*, at its most basic level, if either state was truly perpetual; in a mode of totalized ongoing identification, the movie/game would merge indistinguishably with the real, the map becoming the territory, immersing us in the heaven/hell hyperbole of The Matrix — a state of psychosis, an ongoing delusion of reference. In a mode of absolute disidentification, by contrast, we’d never even provisionally believe in what we’re seeing; it would be to our eyes a random play of light, without meaning.

    This is my longwinded way of suggesting that, yes, the avatar does problematize the real — that’s part of the fun, maybe the most important part, the “lure” — but so does the movie actor onscreen. Both are uncanny zombies, playing on an I-not-I undecidability. Movies make us ask “Where did reality go?” but also “Where did this new, replacement reality come from?” Videogames do something very similar, though perhaps with more emphasis on the latter question (they’re less beholden to the referent, though with high-end photorealism, which I’ve always held we should call cinema-realism, the gap is swiftly closing). Both mediums, ultimately, are ways of asking “what was/is real?” and letting us play with the idea that we ourselves, and the world we inhabit, aren’t.

  5. I’m not up to speed on the latest theories of your discipline, so I’m seeing this thru the prism of the old mind-body problem with a thin coating of semiotics on the glass. I construed (1) as suggesting that the physical image onscreen is only part of the story. The resulting experience has much more to do with *meaning* than matter, and I took your references to ideology and psychology to be acknowledging that the meanings that bring the cinematic story to life may be *unlocked* by sights and sounds onscreen but cannot simply be *reduced* to those sights and sounds. I would agree with this. (And this is of course not limited to cinema or games. All experience is mediated by representations that we interpret.) But then (2) seems to say that in the end it *is* all just sights and sounds. I thought I smelled reductionistic materialism in (2), but perhaps I misconstrued you and imposed my own preoccupations on what you were saying.

    I would also agree that (the onscreen persona of) Marlon Brando is as much a product of screen technologies as Bugs Bunny, Kermit the Frog, or Jar-Jar Binks, provided we read “as much” as meaning that all of these characters are only partly what they are because of onscreen technology–Brando is “as much” a product of onscreen technology as Bugs is, and Bugs is “as little” a product of onscreen technology as Brando is.

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