I must confess, with Robert Zemeckis's recent forays into the realms of (facial) performance capturing, one had to feel quite afraid BENJAMIN BUTTON was doomed for desaster: Whether it's the plastic Tom Hanks in THE POLAR EXPRESS or the utterly lifeless characters in BEOWULF. It's very much like James Cameron stated: "Actors don't do motion, they do emotion." And emotion is the very thing that was missing from these digital performances.
Now Robert Zemeckis is a very adept director, with a great eye for both camera and performance. It is hardly imaginable that simply by switching the medium from live-action film to performance capture driven animation, he should have lost all sense of that. The same holds true for David Fincher. He is a very accomplished director across the board, from commanding his actors to the very distinct performances he desires, his choice of stories, of themes and tonalities, to his very technical finesse, his work with cinematography, editing and pioneering visual effects. In my opinion the difference in the end-result, whether the characters will feel plastic and lifeless or believable and empathetic, will less depend on each director's unique talents, as it will depend on the very choice of technology!
I was researching into the technologies behind each of the projects in order to establish why I didn't enjoy the recent "Zemeckis" performances and came to an interesting conclusion: The software and technology setup Zemeckis employed for his films simply wasn't capable of delivering a higher quality in animation!
While I didn't get a hold of an article for either of the Zemeckis creations, his recent films are all based on the same "Imagemotion" technology, which allows a simultaneous capture of an actors movements and facial expressions. And there are some very insightful glimpses into this very technology in the making of the Zemeckis produced MONSTER HOUSE. Imagemotion requires the actors to wear markers, all over their body and all over their face -- a total of far over a hundred! Via infrared cameras this motion data can be recorded and transfered to the digital counterparts in realtime; at least for directing and preview purposes.
Since production on BEOWULF started a good two or three years ago it's no wonder, that since than technology has made another leap. It is now possible, through a software setup called Image Metrics to capture an actor's facial performance without any hardware markers glued to their faces. Image Metrics is able to extract visual reference points and their respective motions by merely analyzing a video of the performance. And while this software certainly is amazing, in my opinion you can still see the exact same flaws as with BEOWULF, POLAR EXPRESS and the likes: A plastic look and lifeless performance.
What now marks the difference between these films and the upcoming THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON? And how can David Fincher's next avoid the trappings of these recent productions?
While at this point merely the very people working on BENJAMIN BUTTON can estimate the final quality of the visual effects, you can establish one major difference that may elevate the quality of this film over all previous attempts to create photoreal digital counterparts of actors in full motion, and close-up quality: Once again, it's technology.
It has been reported some months ago that David Fincher decided to employ a new facial performance capturing system called "Contour". Explaining their technical setup is quite complicated (and thank goodness there's a very comprehensive video introduction to the technology!), but what it basically allows you to do is track an actors facial movement in three-dimensional space -- and in much greater detail!
And while I am not an expert for the cutting edge in visual effects but merely a devoted visualist, this very technology explains why THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON just might look breathtaking: Where BEOWULF could extract the motions for maybe 70 to 100 reference points of the actors face, "Contour" can gather as many as 100.000 motions and details. And in my opinion it's this very amount of detail and micro-movements that make a face look real and believable.
Since this is all very hard to comprehend by just talking about it, let me include the demos for two facial performance software tools, Image Metrics and Contour, and share my thoughts on them with you.
If you look at the demo for Image Metrics you can see they have a wonderful, lively actress as their "source" -- and while her virtual avatar mimics all of her motions, it looses one hundred percent of the spirit and life that this actress brings to her performance! The result? The actress has a facial mimicry and expressiveness that translates, that comes off the screen and feels very alive; the digital character seems plastic and hollow -- much like its colleagues from BEOWULF and THE POLAR EXPRESS.
In my opinion this stems from the very few reference points that are being extracted and employed in creating the digital facial motions. If you have a close look at the nose and forehead for example it will become very clear to you that the human actress of course has wrinkles and little crinkles that add very much to the expressiveness of her face. The digital model does not have these wrinkles at all!
The demo of the Contour system, on the other hand, shows its flaws as well. But to a much less degree! One has to see that the Contour demo is much shorter and doesn't go into so much agility and expressiveness as does the Image Metrics video. But to my personal perception this technology has the digital model and its motions look a lot more real, and with a better texturing of the skin and the proper lighting I am pretty sure this may pass as photoreal. The Contour system allows to track and mimic little crinkles and crow's-feet and all the plenty details of the human face that allow for the expression of emotion.
If you search this blog I know I may have repeated this about a million times already ... but I so cannot wait for a trailer to finally be able to witness the visual quality we will be able to expect. If you want, please share your opinion on the matter in the comments.
Here are a few links worth checking out. Enjoy:
... and as a bonus, a wonderful Business Week interview with legendary director James Cameron, talking about digital actors and his upcoming AVATAR: