Time flies like a penguin

Wednesday, 28 February 2007 — 9:44pm | Animation, Film, Hockey, Oscars, Video games

I have a number of posts on queue or in mind that are actually of substance, but this is not one of them. In their place, how about a spate of disjointed miscellany, loosely connected by waddling flightless birds:

First, with the addition of Georges Laraque and Gary Roberts to the lineup, the Pittsburgh Penguins are suddenly even more interesting than they were already. I mention them both in connection to something I want to say about Ryan Smyth, which is next. I appreciate seeing someone as entertaining as Laraque on a team I will actually root for of my own volition, and the idea of Roberts on the ice with Sidney Crosby blows my mind. Mind you, to see Laraque in a flaming C would have been downright awesome, but I’m almost inclined to think the citizenry here in Edmonton, which seems to live and die for the Oilers, has taken enough punishment for one day. Or one season.

As for the Oilers? Speaking as someone from Calgary, I like seeing a strong, healthy and respectable Oilers team worthy of a provincial rivalry. Without a heated Battle of Alberta (preferably one that we win), hockey can only be so interesting. I’ve been told from several corners that in terms of tangibles, Edmonton got plenty from the Islanders for Ryan Smyth, and basically came out on top. But in the context of Edmonton’s rotten year in the front office, and Smyth’s intangible value to his team and to the community at large in terms of morale, leadership and institutional memory, I wouldn’t blame a single Oilers fan for quitting on their team. I quit on the Flames, and hockey in general, for a span of about eight years. I can identify, within a reasonable margin of confidence, when the cracks started to show and the Flames started to quit on me: when they traded Al MacInnis to St. Louis.

It’s easy to console oneself with the mentality that such-and-such a superstar who has been with you for over a decade is 31 years old and won’t be improving anyway, but you start eating your words when said player stays on the other team for another decade without too considerable a decline, and they retire his jersey before you do and stick him in management. Meanwhile, back home you develop all these new faces for a couple of years, and the fan base goes, “Who are these guys?” before it makes like a tree and leafs. I don’t know if that will happen with Ryan Smyth, and it almost certainly won’t with the Islanders, but he doesn’t look like a guy on the decline to me. Then again, he’s never been a MacInnis-class player either, though I don’t want to start comparing apples and orangutans.

Not that I expect anybody in this city to really stop caring about their floundering team. Edmonton takes its hockey very, very seriously, even by Canadian standards. We’re talking about a Roch Carrier’s Le Chandail de Hockey magnitude of seriousness. They burn their owners in effigy around here. But in the oil-ridden backwaters of central to northern Alberta, there’s only so much to live for. (That’s what the Prongers found out.)

It’s incredible to me that we’re now over a decade removed from the time when Al MacInnis, Joe Nieuwendyk and Gary Roberts were, for all intents and purposes, established franchise players for the Flames. When play resumed after the lockout, all three were still on the ice. Remarkably, one of them still is, and it’s the one we practically lost to injury. An eight-year abandonment and a Stanley Cup run later, I got over it. Go Flames go.

Next: Scientists in China have leveraged the wonders of neuroscience to develop remote-controlled pigeons. My thoughts on carrier pigeons aside (I kind of love them), all I’ll say is this: forty years ago, this would have made for a killer episode of The Avengers.

Next: I’ve come to the conclusion that the Wii remote, turned sideways, is a phenomenal NES-style two-button controller. I’ve been using it as an NES and Genesis pad on the Virtual Console, and with emulated Game Boy titles on my Mac with the assistance of DarwiinRemote. At first, it’s a bit strange to hold a controller that wide when the left side is about half the width of the right, but the D-pad is superb and the 1/2 buttons (mapped to A/B, and horizontally arranged like the NES pad and unlike the Game Boy line) contour like a dream. I’ve been told that these are the same kind of buttons as the ones on the DS Lite. If so, I think I’m upgrading. It’s not just about the buttons, though. The form factor of the Wiimote, in all its lightweight, wireless glory, is such that you don’t grip the controller so much as you let it rest on your fingers and let it become a part of you.

As I was never a Sega man, for good reason – let’s face it, Nintendo won that era handily, even though the sales at the time made it look close – I did miss out on some genuinely terrific games for the Genesis. Well, one, anyway: Gunstar Heroes, the side-scrolling shoot-’em-up to end all side-scrolling shoot-’em-ups. It now resides on my Wii thanks to the Virtual Console service. This is all quite encouraging. In two generations, when Nintendo is still alive and kicking and Sony’s games division has gone under, I fully expect to be downloading and playing PS2 games on my Nintendo system. There are a handful I’ve always wanted to try, though I could never justify purchasing a console from that generation that wasn’t a GameCube.

Would it be impossible for Nintendo to somehow update the Wii firmware so a Nintendo DS could be used as an SNES controller? Given that any sort of DS-to-Wii connection would be over local Wi-Fi and not Bluetooth, I wonder if there are any problems in terms of responsiveness and reliability. Battery consumption really isn’t an issue.

Next: I’ve decided I’m not going to comment on the Oscars until I’ve seen The Departed again, primarily because the first time I saw it, my enthusiasm was deflated somewhat because in some very significant ways, Scorsese’s film fails to escape the shadow of Infernal Affairs. It’s a strong film, but not as good as Andy Lau’s, certainly nowhere near Scorsese’s best, and – upon initial impressions – not nearly as engaging as Babel, which was (in turn) a more intelligent film than last year’s winner, the structurally similar Crash. But I have a feeling that The Departed would improve on repeat viewings.

Okay, I’ll comment on one Oscar. Cars was robbed. Happy Feet was fun and ambitious, but Cars was playing in a different league altogether – Pixar’s league. It reminds me of the hysteria over Shrek when it was the first winner of the Animated Film statuette back in 2001, which only really manifested itself in the box-office performance of the sequel. Don’t get me wrong: Shrek is still the best we’ve seen from DreamWorks apart from their work with Aardman, and is undoubtedly the best of the spoof subgenre. But on repeat viewings, it’s become abundantly clear that its opponent that year, Monsters, Inc., is the finer film by almost every critical metric that should be applied to animation, even if it isn’t as immediately gratifying. Between Cars and Happy Feet, it’s not even that close. The care and attention to character and story design aren’t even comparable.

Moreover, I worry about the impact that the Happy Feet award will have on the decisions that are made at the level of the people with money, the ones who are in the position of treating animation like a business and not a craft. Again, Cartoon Brew is on the money: professional animators have something to fear. The success of a film driven by motion-capture techniques means that the kind of studio bosses who invested in Shrek clones to the point of market oversaturation are, at this very moment, gambling their “development” money on mo-cap.

And why not? From a business perspective, motion-capture provides an Oscar-tested avenue for the budget to be spent on post-production technology that already exists, as opposed to investing in animators, who are trained to sort out all the minutiae in the design and storyboarding process – a pre-production phase that spans several years. If you’re going to greenlight films based on economic forces in a high-stakes nine-figure market, you’re naturally going to be impatient. And in case anybody is still under the illusion that the Oscars don’t matter, consider why it is that the standard idiom in mainstream CG is built on pop-culture references and celebrity voices – material that appeals to the here-and-now, and not built to last. It all goes back to Shrek.

I’m not one to knock motion-capture as a legitimate technique: once animators play with the keyframing and refine the results, the wonders start coming, and there’s no better testament than Gollum in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and King Kong in Peter Jackson’s King Kong. Remember that the harbinger of the CG revolution that first reached silver-screen audiences was also a similar live-action proof-of-concept, Jurassic Park. The real danger is when mo-cap is treated as a replacement for animators, which is a problematic strategy born of ignorance. A reliance on mo-cap as a time-saver and cost-saver, as opposed to a highly efficient modelling tool for animators to play with.

Take Happy Feet, for instance. Most of the animation in the film happens at the level of full bodies and, well, feet. When Mumble is confident, he puffs out his chest and struts around on his pair of tappity-tappers. When he’s sad, he hunches over and pitter-patters away. Fair enough. Can you think of a single memorable moment that involved, say, the eyes? Or even the flippers? If you look at a movie like Cars, almost every memorable shot is fundamentally defined by the “eyebrow” lines over the windshield. (I read somewhere that this was precisely why the animators decided to put the eyes in the windshield instead of the established standard of the headlights. It worked.)

Eyes are usually a dead giveaway when it comes to the apparent fluidity or stiffness of an animated character, and in Happy Feet, they’re not even designed to have any expressive power. They’re just there because penguins have eyes. The puppet-like rigidity in that paragon of Uncanny Valley mo-cap films, The Polar Express? It’s in the eyes, which are ostensibly only there because humans have eyes. When motion-capture actually works, like it did with Gollum, you get both natural body movements from your model (in this case, Andy Serkis) and the subtleties of facial expression (in particular, eye movements) from animators using keyframing techniques.

You can still get by without eyes and rely on full-body motion – hopping lamps, anyone? – but not if you have a pair of eyes just sitting on your character’s face waiting to be used.

I would add, on a final note, that motion-capture isn’t nearly as effective for films that are wholly animated as it is for CG elements in live-action movies. The utility of motion-capture, apart from its savings, is to make animated body movements look realistic enough to blend in with live-action ones. In feature animation, it’s not incumbent on anything to look realistic: the first priority is to be expressive, and often, that’s the opposite. (Happy Feet is a strange case in that while it is primarily CG, it does attempt to blend with live-action elements in its enthralling third act.) At the same time, the claim that motion-capture was meant for live-action films is an ironic one: the first major all-CG motion-capture character in live-action features was none other than the infamous Jar Jar Binks. By my account, the primary reason he was so harshly received was his “cartoonish” dynamism and lack of subtlety, which made The Phantom Menace feel like (shock and horror!) an animated film. I get the sense that George Lucas asked Ahmed Best to act like an animated character, and got exactly what he wanted: “Faster, more intense.”

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