Oh yes, let's do Final Fantasy. Bad movie. The pacing was all wrong. Some of the voice acting was... suspect. Storyline? Corny Japanese mysticism mixed with your standard apocalyptic future vision. Characters were often poorly developed. It's also a MUST SEE.
Granted, the modeling, texturing, lighting, animation, lip-syncing wasn't perfect. Let's get that out of the way right now: we aren't quite there yet.
Now, what Final Fantasy is is the first full-length fully computer animated picture starring 'real people'--as opposed to antz, bugs, or a child's toys. It's also the most ambitious (some would say audacious) animation project I can think of.
Believable space aliens we can do. Believable spaceships we can do. We can do tanks, explosions, buildings, planets, furniture, plants, etc. Getting a human being to believe he's seeing a human being is much, much harder. We humans have much more sensitive feelers when it comes to human motion, complexion, facial structures, eyes, and phenomes. It's hard to fool whatever subconscious filter tells us whether we're seeing genuine humanity or not. We may want to believe it, but there's something almost instinctual preventing that 'suspension of disbelief'.
Final Fantasy, at certain frequent points, did it for me. Utterly fooled the internal software of my mind into believing it was seeing living, breathing human beings.
I said it wasn't perfect. In fact, the two lead characters had tiny flaws about 40% of the time. Gray was too stiff and affectless, Aki did odd things with her lips and had too-smooth skin. Even so, it was easy at many points to be lulled into that almost imperceptible difference in the way the movie is viewed when real people are acting. But some of the supporting cast was even better than the two leads...
The older doctor was a gem. At times my brain felt it was watching a real person interacting with computer sims. Shocking. That guy is real!! I could not, in my first viewing of the movie, detect a single flaw in his phenomes (lip-syncing), animation, voicing, texturing, modeling, clothing, whatever, that might clue the poor befuddled mind in to the fact that that 'guy' is just a
In fact, it became rather distracting trying to look for the flaws, whether consciously or unconsciously. By the end it was like watching a so-far perfect gymnastics or ice-skating routine where you just KNOW some tiny crack in the facade is going to appear any second. We're teetering on the edge. The characters look SO real, and yet when a flaw shows up, it's glaring and gleaming. In some ways I almost think Toy Story was far far superior--in not trying to perfectly emulate 'real life', but instead present a pseudo-cartoon world of toys, it succeeded in being 100% perfect. The doctor shows what can really be done; Aki, Gray, and the 'evil' warmonger guy show how far we still have to go.
The thing is, it's 2001. Watch Final Fantasy (and don't skimp on the theater--more on that later). Look where the state of the art was circa 1986. Now project 15 years into the future. My God.
And Tom Hanks is livid. In ways he's being visionary. He knows FF isn't perfect, that if that was the status quo beyond which the technology never advanced, there'd be little cause for concern. But things WILL get better, and quickly.
Here's what you find yourself thinking after the doctor's first appearance: 'how long before we don't need actors?' I'm sure the thought had occured to ole Thomas as well.
Of course, actors were used. Storyboarding/choreography, voice-acting, and motion-capturing (ugh the motion capture and gross motor movements were unbelievably good). Actors (of varying caliber) were required for these 'roles'.
And Final Fantasy, as a movie, is sort of a lousy vehicle for delivery of the promise of this technology (and I'm not sure this means anything and I don't know the dollar figures, but we were alone in the theater--the third time this has happened to me, the other movies having been The Littles and The Secret Garden). It's not a good movie. But imagine if it had been. Imagine if this movie drew the crowds and touched hearts. Imagine if it was up for best picture. That could probably never happen given the 'Academy'.
But what I'm saying is, wait until realistic character animation gets its 'killer app'. Its movie that you 'must see' not because it's an absolute graphical tour de force but because it's a great movie. THEN Tom can start sweating.
I hope a 'Steel Magnolias/Fried Green Tomatoes/Dead Poets Society' type movie will be made. Final Fantasy had some wild camera effects only possible in a highly realistic but still completely imaginary world. It had cool-lookin' space aliens and future technology and a wild dune buggy ride and explosions and some very impressive eye candy. But how about a movie where the fact that the characters are animated is incidental? How about a movie that very well could have been done with real actors for a relatively small budget, but was instead done with animation? A 'romantic comedy about life', perhaps, or a 'coming of age picture'.
Of course, you can't very well do De Niro or Hopkins or Oldman or Ryder or Paltrow without their consent (or voices). And as great an actor as De Niro is, when you go to see a De Niro movie, you go to see De Niro and not specifically whatever character he's playing at the time. What I'm trying to say is that I don't think the big names are going away any time soon. Computer animation can come up with some damn sexy images, but it can't replicate the screen presence of Hopkins or the gently wavering stare of Ryder or the brashness of Pitt. The good actors will still have jobs, very good ones, in fact. Perhaps one day there will be trademarked digital "actors" who play in a variety of pictures.
What could happen is that extras and small roles could go the way of animated digital characters. I suppose at that point market forces more than anything will determine what happens. Is it cheaper to hire a company to provide seamless digital extras? Then do it.
I should for a moment mention the 'other' bits in FF. There were great looking space aliens. Really cool looking bastards, especially the ones who managed to leak in after that moron opened the gates. The lighting was damn good. The world itself was a little barren but what was there was simply eye-popping. The city at the beginning. The dune buggy ride. The mid 21st century computers. The awesome Gaia thing. Aki's dream. And those surprising camera tricks that make you momentarily think 'how did they do that?' and then remember, sheepishly, 'oh... yah... it's not real'. Again, this was not a bad movie because of shabby special effects or cinematography. But, and here's the point, I wouldn't recommend anyone see the movie if it were just for the neato aliens and bombs and environments (a bad movie cannot be saved simply by having some great eye candy); it's the PEOPLE you have got to see, it's the PEOPLE who are revolutionary.
I, for one, believe Otherland would be the 'killer app' for seamless digital actors. Sure it would take 50+ hours to do the story justice (well, as much justice as can be done without granting the viewer the benefit of each character's thoughts or extensive background information), but my what a fitting union. :o)
Of course, that brings up a possibly more sinister side of this: very soon, you won't be able to believe anything you see on TV. Or on a netfeed or in the theater or whatever. The potential for misuse and abuse is enormous. It would be interesting to see, for example, how closely a famous person could be emulated. Argh it makes my head hurt to consider the possibilities.
Just see the movie. And try to see things advanced by another decade and a half. It's a pretty sure bet other movies of this type will come along in the next few years, and it's also pretty sure each will improve upon its predecessors. It has the potential to be a fabulous canvas for storytelling.
One final note. I am THROUGH with budget theaters. We saw FF at Loews in SW Ft. Worth. Crappy seats, too much ambient light, screen bulb too dim, sound emanating only from the front despite the collection of speakers hanging around the theater (come on, I KNOW the movie was at least recorded in stereo!), shaky screen, unimpressive sound, small screen, etc. I go to movies infrequently, so when I do it's usually because I've been dragged off by someone or it's something I really want to see. In the latter case, I just don't get the experience I'm looking for at these lame theaters that cost almost as much as the good ones (Grand, for instance). I probably wouldn't care if I was watching a 'romantic comedy about life', but Crouching Tiger and FF were both worthwhile visual feasts that suffered by way of the unacceptable theater performance. Do yourself a favor and see this movie at a place that does it justice.