is this progress?

October 15, 2006

The Times recently ran a story profiling a set of technologies under development at a Santa Monica startup called Image Metrics that purports to offer a lifelike means of creating virtual actors and performances for film, videogames, and more. Though motion capture, the process of recording a performance based on marker dots placed on an actor’s face, has long been available, the company claims that their software goes beyond this by replicating eye movements and other subtle facial details that, collectively, can make a virtual actor seem “real.” Chairman Andy Wood calls it “soul transferrence.”

They have certainly convinced Hollywood correspondent and article author Sharon Waxman, who writes, “Ultimately, though, Image Metrics could even go beyond the need for Tom Hanks — or any other actor — altogether.” Bold words, indeed. While the demonstration provided in the accompanying video (see the link above) and the potential applications mentioned by convert Taylor Hackford (director of Ray and other films)–allowing actors to “play” younger versions of themselves; bringing dead actors back to life to share scenes with modern ones–are undeniably intriguing, I have significant reservations about its implications.

According to its web site, an early version of Image Metrics’ technology powered the 2004 animated feature The Polar Express, a film that, more than any other, exemplifies the phenomenon known as the “uncanny valley.” Current animation techniques allow for creations that are almost, but not quite, identical to real actors. I say almost; the gap between the best artificial creations and actual reality can come off as disastrously eerie if it becomes small enough, as it did (sort of) in The Polar Express–many critics derided its animated characters as “disturbing” and “doll-like”–and as I fear we may see in the products of this new iteration of the technology that Image Metrics is promoting, no matter how much more “real” it is.

Simply put, until the dawn of animation that is practically perfect–read: absolutely indistinguishable from reality–I, and much of the moviegoing public I think, have little use for digital actors that are incrementally more evocative of their mores substantial counterparts. It is the same problem that, to a lesser extent, afflicted the Star Wars prequels, whose overenthusiastic author eschewed physical sets (and even actors) for the immaterial creations of Industrial Light & Magic, and that cheapens visually ambitious upcoming “next-generation” video games such as Crysis and Alan Wake. Mr. Hackford’s examples too, for all their promise, sound more like a silly hypothetical construct than something that consumers (and film buffs) would care too see in a multiplex of the year 2015. It smacks of technology being developed and used for its own sake, which effectively renders it meaningless.

Yes, what is most distressing here is that there is no apparent necessity for any of the avenues of possibility that the Image Metrics tech would offer. VFX has been, at least until now, a means of creating visually fantastic backdrops for human drama–that’s human, as in “consisting of non-artificial people.” Unlike, say, squadrons of TIE fighters or glowing laser-swords, ordinary human actors need no magical help in representing themselves as they are, and thus the search for a replacement for them is a puzzling choice of endeavors. Doubtless there is money to be made, but even if it succeeds, I am very much inclined to ask, “So what?”

If this is progress, count me out.

–D. S. W.


3 Responses to “is this progress?”

  1. […] Research more about this from here […]

  2. Думаю, не стоит обольщатся по этому поводу. 🙂

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