Monday, November 26, 2007

Beowulf Killed The Movie Star

After seeing the Robert Zemeckis film Beowulf last night I was left with the sinking feeling that I witnessed a sad milestone for popular cinema. When purchasing tickets I failed to notice that the theater near me had 2D and 3D showings of the movie so I ended up seeing the movie in boring-old 2D. Incidentally, I did really appreciate the creative tweak that Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary put on the plot of this traditional heroic tale.

Seeing the movie presented in 2D did not (as so many reviewers have claimed) ruin the movie for me. In fact, I found the visual effects to be quite impressive without any added illusion of depth or "holy crap the dragon is flying right at me!" moments. The quality of computer rendered animation continues its inexorable crawl toward the holy grail of truly life-like. That said, I have not seen the movie "as it was intended" so I will leave a critique of the multi-dimensional visual spectacle for others to write. The problem that I have with this movie is not the visual effects but rather with a cognitive dissonance that this style of animation causes me to experience.

There is a palpable unease that I experience watching an eerily life-like representation of a well-known actor. Let me be clear, I do not just mean that the representation is life-like in the general sense, I mean that the representation is a dead reckoning of the actor in question (perhaps aged or in period-specific garb but unmistakable nonetheless). Anthony Hopkins as Hrothgar is the most obvious example as his character is rendered as a jovial and rotund Danish doppleganger of the actor. This decision to render the characters as near-exact likenesses of the actors makes sense on multiple levels: not only do realistic renderings naturally follow from the motion-capture technology used to record the actor's movements but the movie is, like all Hollywood vehicles, banking on the marketability of it's stars. I understand this decision but it significantly detracts from the movie.

For me, the worst example of this visual friction is the character of Unferth (voiced by John Malkovich). Every time Unferth's mouth opens and Malkovich's unmistakable voice comes out I am struck by just how wrong everything looks. To be sure, the animation is still a bit wooden at times but this is not the cause of my uneasiness. The problem is not that Unferth is too wooden in his mannerisms as Malkovich is talking; in fact the animators have done a very good job of making the character come to life (certainly much-improved from Zemeckis' past attempts such as The Polar Express).

The problem with Unferth in particular, and all of the characters with recognizable voice actors in general, is not that he is poorly animated, it is that his mannerisms don't match those of the actor. It is as if they have bottled John Malkovich's voice and are uncorking it from some other actor's mouth. As a big fan of anime I had never thought that it would be an issue for a character to be voiced by an actor that looked vastly different, or more importantly one that emotes in a vastly different way. Indeed some of my favorite Miyazaki films feature characters that are voiced by actors that look and perform much differently than their on-screen counterparts.

There is a fundamental difference between an animated character in a Miyazaki film and the characters in Beowulf. In Miyazaki films (and traditional animated films as a whole) the animators are not trying to make the character look like the actor. An obvious example would be the Witch of the Waste from Howl's Moving Castle (voiced by the great Lauren Bacall). The animators are not trying to evoke images of Lauren Bacall (either as ingenue opposite Humphrey Bogart or as the wise matronly persona that she inhabited in her later performances). Instead they rendered The Witch of the Waste as well, a witch. When the witch speaks I may recognize Bacall's unmistakably deep timbre but my mind is not locked into thinking of the character as Lauren Bacall because the character looks so different.

The same cannot be said for Unferth or many of the other main characters in Beowulf (Hrothgar, Wealthow and Grendel's Mother among them). When I see an actor's likeness (or close enough for my mind to chunk it as their likeness) and I hear their voice I am subconsciously going to expect their mannerisms, their gesticulations. All of the subtle visual symbols that come with an actor's years of training and experience. These visual queues are what makes an actor unique, what separates them from all of the other nameless faces trying to make it in Hollywood. Incidentally, these characteristics are also precisely why it is so hard to do a really good impression of someone - it's not just the voice you have to mimic, it's is the entire visual presentation. This visual expectation is happening for the viewer on an a subconscious level. It is not something that one can simply turn off, no more than one could chose to forget the countless times you've seen Anthony Hopkins or John Malkovich on screen.

This is one of the primary reasons that hand-drawn animation has eschewed rendering characters in the actor's likeness. In order to pull this off an animator would essentially have to be able to impersonate all of the voice actors that will be performing. In any case, since the animation is created before the voice acting is even recording this is literally impossible in traditional animation. I believe that this represents a constraint that has served animation well over the years because it frees the animator (and thus the viewer) to use their imagination and not get stuck on the instinctual need to match a face with a voice

Bold claims are being made about the 3D version of this film ushering in a new kind of cinema. In all cases I believe that there is a better alternative, whether it be the blue-screen approach used in movies like Sin City (where the actor's image is cut into digital sets), traditional animation like Howl's Moving Castle (where the actor is completely divorced from their character's representation, often to a comic degree) or in more recent techniques such as the rotoscoping used in A Scanner Darkly (where the actor's likeness is computer-rendered but their mannerisms are left essentially intact). Sadly, I believe the success of Beowulf will only convince others to follow Zemeckis' lead to the detriment of cinema as a medium. If the 3D computer-animated picture takes off, and they continue to render characters in the form of their voice actors, I will be content to take my place with the curmudgeons who refused to accept the talkie or the barbarism of Technicolor.

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