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Robert Zemeckis Just Sees What He Wants to See

by on September 11, 2009

Robert Zemeckis is going to remake the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine using his “performance capture” CGI animation techniques, and the news is being received with a number of catcalls and jeers from animation fans and traditional animators. Most of the complaints from animation circles center on the motion-capture technique itself, which converts a filmed actor into a CGI model through the use of a special suit and a giant pile of technology.

I don’t have a problem with motion-captured CGI animation. While I think that Zemeckis has used it to do some astonishingly ugly work, motion capture (and its hand-drawn animation analogue rotoscoping) are just techniques, and can be used well or used badly, just as hand-held camera work or color can be used badly in live-action film-making. I quite liked the look of Appleseed (2004) and Appleseed Ex Machina, even though these are probably the only two animated movies that have used mocap CGI well so far.

Mocap animation can produce far more realistic movement than traditional animation techniques, which is probably why the most effective mocap CGI has been in live-action movies rather purely animated ones, such as creating Gollum in The Lord of the Rings or Davy Jones in the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels. This heightened sense of realism is mocap’s greatest strength, and is apparently why Zemeckis wants to use it. Just after to Beowulf‘s release, The New York Times spoke with Ken Ralston and Jerome Chen about their new motion capture animation system, where Chen said the following:

JEROME CHEN: Bob wanted to make animation appealing to adults, and as we learned from our own experience working on “Beowulf,” adults like to see detail, beyond what’s in the simplified world of cartoons or even of “The Polar Express.” Adults want to see real movements and real textures.

I think this line of thinking is fundamentally wrong (adults did not make The Simpsons, South Park, and the programming on Adult Swim popular because they showed “real movements and real textures”), but if that is Zemeckis’ underlying philosophy for using mocap CGI, then it’s also the reason why it’s exactly the wrong technique to use for a remake of Yellow Submarine. Other than the music, perhaps the most distinctive thing about Yellow Submarine is the outlandish and patently unrealistic visual style (art directed by the late Heinz Edelman). The world of Yellow Submarine is not real, nor was it ever intended to be. It was meant to bring the highly non-representational art of the time to life on screen, with its highly unnatural curvilinear shapes and bright, clashing color palette.

Since everything in animation is artificial, nothing ever has to look fake. One quickly accepts the patently unrealistic look of Yellow Submarine because that’s the way that world is supposed to look. Taking a world like Pepperland and putting in “realistic” animation and textures seems to miss the point of the exercise entirely. The creatures of Pepperland aren’t going to be improved by realistic animation; one wonders if they can be animated “realistically” at all since they are so terrifically unreal to begin with. It’s akin to suggesting that Picasso’s cubist works would be improved on by making them look more like the representational works of the Renaissance masters. It’s possible to do it, but the end result just isn’t going to be a Picasso any more.

Zemeckis seems like the proverbial handyman with no tools except a hammer, for whom every problem looks like a nail. In his seemingly tireless efforts to make performance-capture animation a medium that will be taken seriously in the world of film (and claw his way out of the Uncanny Valley on a gigantic pile of technology and money), he has selected a project for which realistic animation is absolutely wrong. By the time he’s done adapting the elements of the movie to fit his tool of choice, the movie will have lost much of the visual sensibilities that made the movie distinctive and memorable in the first place, at which point one has to ask what value will be gained by calling it a Yellow Submarine remake at all.

If there is a silver lining to be found in the clouds of this announcement, it is in the hope that either the pre-release publicity push or the home video release will include a re-release of Yellow Submarine on DVD and/or Blu-ray disc, especially since the original, non-anamorphic widescreen DVD is now out of print. Since the rights to the original movie seem to be held between MGM and Fox, perhaps the best thing they’d be able to do is ensure the new DVD gets re-released to take advantage of the pre-release buzz Disney will attempt to build for the remake, both to exploit the free publicity and to thoroughly undermine a competitor’s product. I don’t think anything could kill interest in the remake faster than easy access to the original movie.

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