Do you remember Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within? You know, that movie with the computer animated people and glowy spirits? I remember thinking when I saw Spirits Within that there was something missing as far as the emotion of the characters and the makeup of their world, though I enjoyed the movie on its own. It was all very shiny and glowy, yes, but there was just the slightest lack of true emotion thanks to the boundaries of technology at the time. They hadn’t quite crossed the uncanny valley. Hair was still clumpy and unnaturally flowing, facial muscles had the expression capabilities of plasticine puppets.
And then James Cameron’s Avatar (not to be confused with Avatar: The Last Airbender) came along. Rather than parroting other reviews, I will say this. I enjoyed it much and did not go in expecting an overly impressive plot. I went for sweeping bio-luminescent vistas and the fascinating blue tribal cat people. It is not a triumph of storytelling, but rather of animation. When the main character is walking in his Avatar body feeling the soil between his toes for the first time without the aid of a wheelchair, I could feel that sense of euphoria. I could see the smile lines on Jake Sully’s face, the intake of breath, the natural gorgeous flowing hair that didn’t look stuck on like a texture mesh hat.
For as complicated as human emotions are, subtlety is key in making an animated character, and yes even works of art, feel real to us. Emotions are not merely the smoldering of someone’s eyes with lust/love/greed/anger, but a combination of subtle movements, body language, posture, breaths, and the numerous tiny muscles in the face that combine to form a smile, a catlike hiss, or the smothering tension of someone overwhelmed by hatred and grief.
I came out of the movie wondering if some day I might be able to see my own stories and characters alive in animation. I’ve certainly thought this before, but never had any faith that animation could make them look tangible and human so much so that I could reach out and touch them instead of merely think of them as moving caricatures on a 3D animated canvas. (2D animation is a whole other other discussion on its own).
This movie also represents a leap in respect for the computer animated method of film making, in my opinion. Where once it may have been considered a fantastical fancy for children’s entertainment, or merely the canvas for Frodo and Sam to journey through, now it is something viable, monetarily and for serious storytelling. Computer animation can be main stage and main actors for a movie rather than merely pretty background elements or distant cg doubles engaged in minor background activities or stunts too dangerous for the real actors or stuntmen.
I, for one, am looking forward to where this style of storytelling and animation takes us next!
Image from avatarmovie.com