The next generation of filmmaking has arrived. We received a small taste of it in such films The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Star Wars prequel films, and Transformers. This new landscape of cinema is not being crafted by new cameras, superior editing techniques, or some breakthrough in audio remixing. This new avenue is digital characters, that is to say, actors completely masked by computer generated performances.
We have seen digitized characters many times before. The first major breakthrough in the form was the character of Jar Jar Binks in 1999’s The Phantom Menace. The characterization of the clumsy, simple-minded creature almost made you forget that he was, in fact, not real. Say what you will about the character and the film, the artistic representation of him onscreen was beautiful, if a bit unbelievable. Twelve years later, a landmark achievement has been made in the character of Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It is truly one of the first films to focus entirely on computer generated characters inhabiting a real time three dimensional world. The level of detail in the apes’ movement, appearance, and, most hauntingly of all, their expressions, thrust the audience into a new world of possibilities. After the initial shock of seeing Caesar, they become lost in the emotion and weight of the role, carried not in the least by the rousing performance of Andy Serkis.
Rise is not the first film to feature an actor’s performance broadcast over a digital canvas. Serkis’ earlier work as Gollum and King Kong both shined brilliantly as proof of concepts that the technology was there to make this all along, the world was merely waiting for the proper mixture of story and emotion. Many critics gawk and wave their hands at CGI as a bastardization of the acting form, replacing flesh and blood with invisible cinema wizardry, and with recent films like The Green Lantern, it’s not difficult to understand why. When digital characters cease to be genuine they act to distract the audience and make them remember ‘I’m watching a fake performance.’
The reason King Kong and Rise are so successful thematically is because the performance of the actor shines over the computer retouching. They can act without their face or body every being seen. Another prime example of the concept it Dr. Manhattan in 2007’s Watchmen, portrayed sublimely by Billy Crudup. The magnificent effect of the spectral blue man is outshined by the subtle gestures and movements of his face. Humans show much of our expression through our eyes, but Manhattan’s eye’s are milky white throughout the film. In spite of this, Crudup is able to convey his pain and sorrow to us, making the performance all the more heart wrenching. The same is true of Caesar, in that subtlety is the name of the game. One of the reasons Jar Jar Binks is unbelievable is his wholly cartoonish personality. Every motion is a sweeping gesture, every word is a half laugh, half screaming drone. One can be forgiven for thinking he was plucked out of a Saturday morning children’s broadcast and thrust into the high stakes Star Wars universe.
Digital characters represent a magnificent new frontier in filmmaking, where imagination, rather than limitation, is the true limit to the artist behind them. With the advances in facial scanning and motion capture, we are finally truly able to translate an actor’s performance through the process of recreating a character, without sacrificing their humanity. I believe that we can expect to see not only more CGI characters in the near future, but more importantly, more CGI characters that are portrayed with soul, with real emotions, pain, happiness, avarice, madness, etc.