Category: Fantasy Genre

Of Avatar, the Future of Animation, & Uncanny Valleys

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

Why I Wanted to be a Warrior Princess


A virile man with glistening muscles and an impeccable tan wields a gleaming sword over his head that rightly should weigh more than he does. But he can lift it because he’s the hero. At his feet, an equally athletic woman scantily clad in chainmail and still shrugging off the bindings of her rescue appears surprised with one hand lifted to her mouth in a gesture of delicate fear.

This is your classic fantasy. Conan the Barbarian, Heavy Metal, what we might call high fantasy, sword and sorcery, or fantastic realism…and it’s an image that’s become one eternally linked to what makes fantasy Fantasy.

I grew up watching Schwarzenegger’s “Conan the Barbarian” over and over till my parents were sick of it. And yes, I even watched “Red Sonja” and “Super Girl”, all the sparkly spinoffs of the boy fantasy stuff made for girls that was just plain 80’s horrible. But it wasn’t till shows like She-Ra and Xena: Warrior Princess came along that I decided in my pubescent wisdom that I wanted to be a warrior princess.

Why settle myself to pink ruffles (or a chainmail bikini) and waiting to be saved when I could be like Xena and fix my own dislocated shoulder with a quick shove into a nearby wall? Here was a fantasy figure I could latch onto. She was smart, independent, as good a fighter as any Conan, but sensual and caring when she needed to be without ever losing her edge.

There was just something missing from the chainmail bikini-clad women of popular fantasy. They were a plot device, an archetype designed to make the hero whole. But why be a device when you could be the hero? It appealed to that independent streak in me that admired the ability to take action for one’s self. Xena still saw her share of sexy outfits, but through it all, she defined herself as a well-rounded character who took command of a central plot for countless seasons of storytelling. She was never caught in a bellydancer outfit without the “bitch please, touch me and die” glare following close behind. You knew she could kill anyone with a quick jab to the pressure points if need be.

Nowadays, I wonder what we think of when we think of fantasy and the figures we wish we could be. What art comes to mind? Vallejo, Bell, and Frazetta are some of the big few who formed our classic foundations, but who will form the archetypes of our future? What images will strike us and inspire future generations to leap about the living room in raucous games of Pretend? Will we just keep building on these archetypes or will they ever be replaced entirely?

Will it be sparkling vampires? Half-demon antiheroes? Quick-witted thieves with hidden streaks of morality and guilds at their backs?

(While dragons, it seems, are impervious to the passage of time, as far as popularity goes).

Only time will tell, I suppose. Meanwhile, I will enjoy my Xena reruns and sharpen my knives. X-actos will have to do till the time comes that I fulfill my childhood aspirations of being a warrior princess.

How about yourselves? What figures comes to mind for you when people say ‘Fantasy’? What fantastical figure did you want to be like growing up? Those of you with children, who do your kids pretend to be like?

Image by Earl Norem

Vicarious Roguism


With all the temptation to join in the current MMORPG’s and my recent acquisition of Dragon Age: Origins, I’ve been pondering much about something I always find myself doing. For so many years now, I’ve loaded up that stereotypical fantasy game with its promises of epic diversions and crafted an identity from the depths of my imagination confined by pixels and stats. I’ve named the blank sheet of a character some elegant, yet completely impractical name, defined my identity through them with the idealistic traits I find myself drawn to artistically (long hair, fair eyes, athletic build).

When it came down to what job this fantasy personality might be, I’ve almost always settled on the class Rogue (or various incarnations, including but not limited to: Thief, Gambler, Assassin, and Corsair). Sure, I’ve played other classes just to see what they’re like, but this is the one that always felt closest to home.

Why is that? Do I secretly want to sneak into places I’m not allowed to be in? Do I suppress the urge to steal purses when citizens walk by? Better yet, do I somehow want to be an outlaw? Do those of you who play Warriors or Paladins find that this reflects your own personality as far as being honest and straightforward? Mage-players, do you find that this reflects something about your proclivity for intellectual thought and logic? Stereotypically speaking, of course.

While I don’t profess to be an outlaw, I’ve always been intrigued by forbidden places. There’s a house on 18th street in Midtown Atlanta that’s been abandoned for a few years and I can’t resist the urge to peek inside when the door is open. It was once a bonsai studio and I can make out the tall studio windows, broken glass, and husks of hanging plants still inside. I’ve never gone in, however, and I’m ceaselessly intrigued whenever I walk by it.

If anything, it’s the Rogue’s tendency for moral adaptability that encourages me to enjoy them most. I’ve never been one to settle for a black and white view of the world. There’s always a different slant to any debate, a possibility to see between the lines. This also links to my love of characters, particularly villains, who can gain our sympathy because they have strangely logical and sympathetic reasons for doing what they’re doing. By going Rogue, I like the ability to keep people guessing and to play the Trickster. Tack on a healthy dose of cleverness and you have traits I admire and would go so far as to say reflect my own personality (if you subtract two parts air-headedness and one part inability to be stealthy).

Funnily enough, I more often than not play the gentleman thief in most RPG games. What this says about me, I don’t quite know. The fact that I also play Elves/half-Elves almost exclusively is an entirely different debate altogether (elegant, aloof, nature-loving, snobbish? Hmmm…future blog topic, methinks).

Maybe it’s no surprise my favorite superhero is Batman, the most Roguish of superheroes and the definitive figure for that shadowy part of ourselves that does what it takes, even if it takes breaking the rules, to bring justice to the world.

But I’ve gone from D&D to Batman all in one post so I think I’ll end this for now.

What class do you play? What do you think this says about you? What fascinates you about any particular fantasy role? I’m dying to know!

Image from Thief 3: Deadly Shadows