Big directors are in a thrall to "performance capture" for animated films. Nicholas Barber laments the way it turns characters into cretins ...
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
Not long before Hergé died in 1983, the great Belgian cartoonist anointed Steven Spielberg as the director who should make a Hollywood film of his Tintin books. And now, a mere 28 years later, that film has come to pass. But “The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn” uses technology that even the prescient Hergé couldn’t have imagined. Not only is it a digital cartoon, and a 3D one at that, but it relies on “performance capture”, also known as “motion capture” or “mocap”: the actors wear dot-covered lycra bodysuits which transfer their every movement to a computer, and from there to the animated characters we see in the film.
It’s a new toy for blockbuster directors to play with. Robert Zemeckis has directed a trio of mocap cartoons: “The Polar Express”, “Beowulf” and “A Christmas Carol”. Peter Jackson used performance capture to create Gollum in “Lord of the Rings” and Kong in “King Kong”, with Andy Serkis in the bodystocking both times. Ang Lee is so partial to performance capture that he squeezed into the lycra himself when he was making his “Hulk” film. And James Cameron was so proud of the mocap in “Avatar” that he grumbled when people mistook it for straightforward animation. Zoe Saldana would have been nominated for an Oscar, he complained, if only voters had understood how much of her performance was up there onscreen, even if she did look like an eight-foot blue alien.
Cameron’s grousings don’t make much sense. It would have been impossible for Oscar voters to determine how much of the alien princess’s body language was Saldana’s, and how much tweaking was done by animators afterwards—raising an eyebrow here, lowering a shoulder there. That’s one reason why performance-capture animation is so unsatisfying. The viewer doesn’t get the thrill of appreciating nuanced acting or painstaking animation because you can never be sure how much of either is on display. Mocap is literally neither one thing nor the other. Andy Serkis may have done some sterling ape impersonation for 2005’s “King Kong”, but his Kong is nowhere near as magical as the stop-motion model in the 1933 original, because viewers of that film know that it’s all the animators’ own work.
In general, performance capture tends to have a weird betwixt-and-between quality. The characters it conjures up are uncannily life-like, but they’re nightmarishly not-quite-right. This distinction is referred to as “the uncanny valley” by workers in the field. When a film is intended to be spooky, as in “Beowulf” and “A Christmas Carol”, this creepiness is appropriate. But in a children’s cartoon like “The Polar Express”, it can be disastrous: critics shuddered at the dead-eyed, walking mannequins in what was supposedly a twinkly festive yarn. In “The Adventures of Tintin”, too, the effect can be grotesque. Tintin, Captain Haddock and the others exist in settings that are almost photo-realistic, and nearly all of their features are those of flesh-and-blood people. And yet they still have the sausage fingers and distended noses of comic-strip characters. It’s not so much “The Secret of the Unicorn” as “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers”.
So why do directors insist on inflicting performance capture on us? One argument is that it produces more naturalistic movements than traditional animation, but this spurious claim is an insult to animators everywhere. How many people have ever watched a classic Disney cartoon and thought that the characters were moving awkwardly? Another rationale is that, if you can afford the technology, performance capture gets results more quickly and easily than conventional animation. Once the actors are in their lycra, the pictures of them in their alien/ape/superhero forms appear on a monitor instantaneously.
Naturally, it’s a relief to know that the film-makers haven’t gone to too much trouble on our account, but isn’t mocap a form of cheating? Some people obviously think so, hence Pixar’s “Ratatouille” had a logo in its end credits boasting of “100 Per Cent Pure Animation—No Motion Capture!” A third justification is that performance capture lets actors play characters who look nothing like them. “Beowulf”, for instance, grafted Ray Winstone’s voice and grimaces onto a frequently naked, fabulously muscular hero. Well, fair enough. But if Robert Zemeckis had made a live-action film, he could just have hired a more athletic leading man. And in traditional cartoons, no one expects Dumbo or Shrek to resemble the actor, anyway. It’s simply distracting to see Winstone-like facial expressions paired with a torso that would put the young Arnold Schwarzenegger to shame.
For all its thrills and spills, the mocap in “The Adventures of Tintin” is sufficiently off-putting for you to wish that the film was either live-action or straight animation. Spielberg and his colleagues should remember that there’s another performance-capturing device which is far more sophisticated than their latest boxes of digital tricks, and it doesn’t require lycra unitards. It’s called a camera.
"The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn" is in cinemas now in Britain. It opens in America in December
Nicholas Barber is a film critic who writes reviews for the Independent On Sunday and previews for Intelligent Life.