Monday, November 19, 2007

3D: The Eyes Have It

National Blog Posting Month Day 19

I don’t do a lot of movie reviews here on Foma because not only am I not very good at it, there are a lot of people that do it very well. I saw Beowulf this weekend up in Pennsylvania and the Stephen Hunter review in the Washington Post is very good. There is no way I could match a line like "Ma is Angelina Jolie as interpreted by someone who apprenticed by doing airbrush portraits on custom Harley gas tanks." For a ordinary viewer’s opinion, Ivansmom at the Achenboodle sums up my opinions pretty well.

What I will discuss is the technical features of the movie. I had seen The Polar Express in 3D Imax a few years ago and was a little creeped out by the woodenness of technology. Part of my desire to see Beowulf had improved the state of the art. My other purely prurient reason was to see if it was possible to make Angelina Jolie look hotter than she does in real life.


I was tipped off to the movie over a year ago when Neil Gaiman discussed it while at Balticon. He mentioned that the motion capture software had been improved by at least two generations. In particular he mentioned the eyes. The eyes in Polar Express were cold and soulless and made all the characters look like zombies. In Beowulf, not only are the eyes much, much better, they actually do some extreme close-ups just to show off the verisimilitude.

Hair and skin

Hair and skin are the bane of CG movies. That is why Pixar tends to stick to things like toys and cars that are supposed to be shiny and smooth. In Beowulf, the male characters tend to be suitably craggy and hirsute. The female characters and the queen in particular still suffer from a botoxed Princess Fiona sheen.


The real irony of motion capture animation is that it tries to be realistic, but the point of animation is to do things that can’t be filmed in real life. In Spiderman 2, anytime Spidey had his hood on, I feared I was watching a cartoon instead of an actor. And it looked it. In Beowulf, the level of detail keeps shifting back and forth.

Motion Capture

The alleged advantage of motion capture and rotoscoping is too add a level of realism pure animation can’t attain. Even with the finest actors lit up like a Christmas tree and Tron, they can’t capture everything. Every now and then a “character” will jerk around like an extra in a Thunderbirds puppet movie.


Three-D is and always will be a gimmick. The scriptwriters of anything 3D always think of as many was as possible of having things point or fly at the viewer. This always breaks the forth wall and disrupts the suspension of disbelief.

Depth of Field

A problem related to 3D imaging is that the “camera” seems to have an infinite depth of field. This ends up making the screen have a layered look that reminds me of prismatic books I used to read as a kid. When the background is as sharp as the spear pointing out over the audience, the emphasis becomes fuzzy instead of the scenery.

Peripheral Vision

The Imax screen has its own issues. The screen is so huge, it’s hard to see everything going on at once. In particular, things in the foreground at the edge of the screen catch the eye. At times the glasses (especially, if like me, you have to wear them over regular glasses) don’t cover enough of the field of vision to avoid fuzzy artifacts at the edge of you field of vision.

I really liked Beowulf, especially the meta-epic subtext that questions the entire mythmaking process. The motion capture technology is really maturing fast. Animation lets directors tidy up even Angelina Jolie’s few flaws. Her fluid gold skin is really no more revealing than Mystique in the X-Men movies, which is to say she is easy on the eyes. And the eyes are the windows to the soul.

BlatantCommentWhoring™: Will CGI ever get so good it will replace real actors?


Anonymous said...

CGI is never going to fully replace real actors. At least not in our lifetimes. Consider that the most successful CGI characters who are supposed to be realistic are all motion-captured. And of course, there is the voice work. Voice synthesizing is still really, really primitive, and nobody is working on it.

You're right about the gimmickry of 3D, but it doesn't always break the fourth wall. Have you ever seen one of those "4D" movies that they show at theme parks. Combining the 3D with highly directional speakers, gusts of air, and drops and sprays of water can really suck you in. (Or really suck. Depends on the story.) Or maybe the problem is, as you mention, the fact that you wear glasses. Gives you an extra layer of separation or something.

Jeff and Charli Lee said...

I've never been interested in 3-D movies for all the same reasons you've described. But I'm willing to give this one a shot based on your recommendation here. So... if I hate it, it'll be on your head! ;-)

yellojkt said...

Just don't make me reimburse your twenty dollars. You'll have to take that up with Zemeckis.

2fs said...

The problem with CGI approaching "reality" is an "uncanny valley" problem (that's why Polar Express is so creepy). I think it's unlikely ever to be solved, because (as suggested above) CGI is generally used to make things appear to happen that cannot actually its ultrarealism causes an uncanny valley reaction. I'd also argue that, compared to film, CGI is actually capable of higher resolution...too high. Just as anyone who's Photoshopped images knows that a sharp edge around an imported object makes it stand out rather than blend in (you need to feather the edges), similarly, film captures two qualities of light: one, the way it reflects and refracts as it curves around and passes through the thinnest edge of objects; two, the way a filmed object carries particular traits of the film itself, traits which are generally very subtle but account for the visible difference between something on film, on video, on digital film, etc., similar to the frequency profile that some people claim to hear on vinyl as opposed to digital sound. CGI folks, in the wake of Polar Express, actually backed off on being over-realistic, realizing that, paradoxically, too much real removed viewers from the scene and put them right back in their heads.

yellojkt said...

I think part of your point was what I was getting at when I talked about the infinite focus. The background was always too real and too sharp and got distracting.