Personality and the dream

Speaking of the FMX conference, it was interesting, as always, to see the interaction between two communities of artists — animators and live-action filmmakers. Because the FMX conference has a dual focus on animation and special-effects, these two groups end up coming together. Which is interesting because they tend to be rather different.

In many ways animation is a solitary art. An animator spends much of the day in a zone of individual concentration and focus, engaged in the time-consuming process of breathing life into a character that exists only on paper or inside a computer. Live-action filmmaking, on the other hand, is about as collaborative a process as you can find. The movie set is a place where many minds and bodies are required to work together, in a synchronous act of cooperation, to achieve an effective result on screen.

Which means that a conference such as FMX represents artists with very different ways of working. I was told when I was there that there had been attempts to collaboratively fuse the two communities via the creation of workshops that ask artists and live-action filmmakers to produce films together. But I was also told that these attempts tend not to work out. The two ways of bringing an artistic vision to the screen are simply too different.

And that got me thinking — are we drawn to creating a particular genre of art because of our personality, or is it the other way around? Are animators essentially people who enjoy spending large numbers of hours in a state of individual concentration? Or do they come to this way of being only because of their art? Is there a particular set of personality traits that tend to define the painter, the classical musician, the composer or playwright? Can we tell when a child is young that he or she is more likely to become a novelist or a jazz dancer?

Most of us have dreams in our youth of creating some sort of art that will help define our place in the world. And in some cases we grow up to realize those dreams. But is the dream defined by our personality, or does our personality gradually mold itself to the dream?

Movies will merge with animation

The other day I wrote about the inevitability of movie production going entirely virtual. Some of those ideas were touched upon during a panel discussion we had last week at the FMX conference. I also said something else during that panel discussion, perhaps a bit more radical than the mere fact of film production going completely digital. The general drift was as follows.

The salient feature of live action film-making, as opposed to animation, is that you are looking at real people — a literal (albeit stylized) representation of reality. George Clooney looks precisely like a human being, although probably not any human being you are likely to encounter every day. He exists in a literal reality — his movements are subject to the laws of physics, his clothes wrinkle up exactly like real clothes, his hair is exactly like real hair, and the light reflects off his face precisely the way real light reflects off a real face.

There are thousands upon thousands of details to continually inform you that you are watching a literal representation of reality. Those details are not present when you watch the Navi in Avatar, or Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, as detailed as those depictions may be. At every moment, your mind tells you, rather firmly, that Mr. Clooney’s image is the result of a camera literally pointing at a physically present actor.

Why do movies work this way? Because, I assert, it’s convenient. For most of the history of film, a physically present actor on set was the only game in town, unless you were going for extreme stylization. You get a more realistic performance out of a physical actor than you can out of a cartoon character. And it’s a lot simpler just to point a camera at someone than to animate them frame-by-frame. You are guaranteed twenty four frames per second, captured in real time — which is far more efficient than spending an hour or more drawing each of those frames.

So I would argue that film has been a kind of found-art medium not by artistic choice, but by technological convenience. It’s not that filmmakers are in love with literal reality, but rather that literal reality has been the most accessible source material for the stories they’ve wanted to tell.

Support for this assertion comes from looking at films themselves. You very rarely see a film in which things look the way they do in real life. Sets, lighting, make-up, hair, clothing, the sound objects make when they fall, the very way people act, none of these things are realistic in movies. Rather, experts spend hours creating an artfully stylized and heightened version of reality up there on screen. Were George Clooney’s character to encounter someone whose clothes, lighting, make-up, and general demeanor were exactly the same as what we see in everyday life, the shock of that incongruity would yank you right out of your cozy suspension of disbelief.

Which means that when filmmaking goes entirely digital — when the George you see up on that screen becomes merely a digital recreation of himself, a set of pixels created by lighting, texturing and moving a digital model of the real George — this stylization will gradually become more extreme.

It won’t happen right away. The early purely digital films will look very much like the highly stylized but physically plausible movies we are used to today. But then things will start to change. New generations of filmmakers will begin to make choices that veer away from anything you could get by pointing a camera at a physical actor. Nobody will notice, because it will just be a continuation of the stylized sets, lighting, make-up and camera work we associate with Hollywood films.

But because that stylization won’t be bound by the physically attainable, it’s going to start to drift. In another twenty years, the images we will see in movies will be markedly different from anything in this world that one could ever capture with a camera. People in movies will look different, and will move differently, and what will pass for “physical reality” on screen might very well bear little resemblance to what is expected by an audience of today.

To those future audiences, movies from our current era will appear dated, the way a movie from fifty years ago — limited by an earlier technological era of lights and film stock — seems dated to our own eyes.

I can’t predict the direction this drift from literal reality will take. Only the ecosystem of future filmmakers and future audiences can determine that vector. But I am fairly certain that film is gradually going to merge with what we would currently think of as a kind of animation, and that the next few years mark the end of pure literalism in cinema. To future generations of audiences, the movies from our own time will seem oddly quaint, like a black and white film or a silent picture.

Mother’s day

There is something about Mother’s Day that makes it completely unlike other holidays. It has a particular loveliness to it, a personal resonance, that is not quite like anything else. This year I journeyed more than sixteen hours non-stop to see my mom, traversing a significant portion of the globe along the way by a combination of two flights, a train, two car rides, a bus, and a lot of walking, and it seemed like the most natural thing in the world to do so.

There are theories in psychology that suggest that many of the most important aspects of our individuality are formed out of our relationship with out mother — because this is the relationship we form when our mind is at its youngest and most protean. Long before we are old enough to think “rationally”, we try to build a model of what our mother expects. In consequence, each individual’s personality splits, to some extent, into one self that is always putting on show for this all powerful being, and another self that harbors a secret nature, outside of the demands of connecting to another human being. It is the goal of much therapy to help these two selves — so different from each other — to work together in some reasonable way.

By the age of three — according to such theories — one’s mother develops into this strangely dual being. She is all powerful, simultaneously loved and feared, for her ability to approve our essential soundness. Yet she also represents that fact that all people are apart, on some level unknowable to each other. The striving to connect, despite the fear and the knowledge of how great is the gulf between us, becomes, as we grow older, an essential part of the bittersweet beauty of human existence.

Of course we rarely think about these conflicts on a conscious level. We integrate them, make them part of ourselves. Long before we reach adulthood, most of us have taken great steps to master these struggles, or at least to incorporate them usefully into our lives, or relationships, our art.

So on Mother’s day, we honor the connection with this person who has had such a profound effect upon our essential nature, but in a way that is usually simple, and rather sweet. In my case, it was really about showing up. I brought my mom flowers, and she made me dinner, and all was right with the world.

Making movies in the future

Continuing the theme from yesterday…

At some point technology will be able to accurately digitize an actor’s performance and then play it back, either with faithful reproduction of appearance or with any modification desired. Right now this process is rather expensive, using wonderful technology developed by Paul Debevec and others. Yet Moore’s Law suggests that eventually the process will become inexpensive — less expensive than worrying about lighting and camera placement on set.

In other words, George Clooney will be able to just show up in his street clothes, do the scene against a rough projected digital backdrop (to provide him with context and eye-line cues), and know that niceties such as lighting, make-up, costumes, camera placement and final set dressing will all be done in a computer during post-production. Not only that, but Paul Giamatti will be able to play that same scene, mimicking Clooney’s performance. If he does a good enough job in his acting, you might not be able to tell which was the real Mr. Clooney.

And sooner or later none of this will require millions of dollars of equipment. Anyone with enough money to afford a laptop computer will have all the equipment they need to create what is today considered a high quality Hollywood film. Of course they will still need the talent to provide script, acting, editing and post-production decisions about lighting and camera work, but it no longer becomes a question of money, only of talent.

It might still cost you a lot of money to license George Clooney’s likeness, but if enough people license that likeness, the cost per unit license might become surprisingly small (much like the cost of licensing the sampled sound of a very good Steinway Grand). At that point we’ll start seeing the economics of movies really start to change. In particular, big studios will no longer be able to dictate what movies can get made, any more than they can now dictate what books get written.

Digital makeup

Today I participated in a very interesting discussion about “Virtual Humans”. People were talking about the fact that computer graphic representations of people are getting near the point when an actor will be able to don “digital makeup” and nobody will be able to distinguish the synthetic result, rendered on a computer, from an actual image of a physical person, shot with a conventional movie camera.

When that happens, of course it will free actors from the accidents of physical appearance. For example, a brilliant but not “leading man” actor like Paul Giamatti, might be able to take on the kind of role that had previously gone only to Brad Pitt or George Clooney. You get the idea.

By the way, the real technical bottleneck to this scenario becoming a pervasive reality won’t be the proper capture of physical appearance per se, but rather the proper capture of all the tiny facial movements — particularly around the eyes and mouth — that an actor uses to convey emotion. Today’s best technology can already come remarkably close to making “digital make-up” look quite convincing. But once an actor’s face starts to move, things begin to slip. Current technology can get almost all of it, but almost all is not quite enough when you’re talking about capturing the subtleties of emotion.

12 Monkeys

There is only one time in my life when I went to a movie theatre, saw a film, and had the experience afterward that absolutely nobody wanted to leave the movie theatre afterward. And that is when I saw Terry Gilliam’s “12 Monkeys”. The movie ended, the credits rolled, and people simply didn’t leave. Rather, they gathered in the lobby, and proceeded to have intense conversations about what they had just seen.

It was interesting to observe, and I can’t recall ever seeing quite the same reaction to any other film. Nobody wanted to step out of the lobby and into the street, because that would have signaled the end of the experience. Instead, we stood huddling in groups of four or six, and kept talking about the movie, arguing back and forth about the theme, the ending, what it all might have meant.

You could argue that, by some measure, this is the sign of a very good movie.

Shelf life

The other day I was admiring the array of books on a friend’s bookshelf, and suddenly it occurred to me that bookshelves might be an endangered species. If everyone were to switch over to eBooks, then the bookshelf as we know it might cease to exist.

I don’t believe that people will stop wanting to read old fashioned books. Rather, my worry is that the economic forces that allow the book to be a relatively mass produced item might shift radically, converting the bound paper book from a staple of our economy to an arcane object, a highly expensive toy for the rich.

If this happens, then the bookshelf selection as a form of self-expression will cease to become a meaningful part of our culture. Sure, there will continue to be multimillionaires who keep such things, but the general discourse will gradually move elsewhere.

If this should happen, will there be anything in one’s house that reflects one’s reading taste? Will there be a large display of titles that visitors can peruse, proudly mounted on a living room wall, that lets one’s guests choose what to load onto one of the eBook readers strewn about the house?

If bookshelves should disappear from our homes (presumably replaced by the ever more enormous screens of our flat TVs), I for one would be very sad.

Six limbs

Today I saw a wonderful talk about how the anatomical structure of the dragons in the animated Dreamworks film “How to Train your Dragon”. The talk was given by Stuart Sumida, who is a paleontologist and anatomy specialist. Animation studios turn to him when faced with tough questions like how to design a plausible dragon.

The last question from the audience was about whether there are any animals in real life with both wings and four legs (like the dragon Toothless in the film). Dr. Sumida first pointed out that the answer is certainly yes, in the insect world. But in the world of mammals and their cousins (like birds and pterodactyls) the answer is no. Wings are an adaptation of forelimbs. So birds, bats and pterosaurs all have just two wings and two hindlegs. All winged vertebrates evolved as variations of the same four limbed structure.

At which point it occurred to me, why don’t we see dragons as monstrous, the way we see, say, space aliens? After all, dragons like Toothless breaking one of the fundamental constraints of creatures near to us in the evolutionary graph — that they have four limbs:

Dragons are not the only example of this. We don’t run screaming from pictures of Pegasus, the winged horse from Greek mythology:

Similarly, most people find centaurs to be distinctly attractive. Heroic even:

So what’s going on here? Logic tells me that anything with six limbs growing out of its spinal cord should fall squarely into Freud’s theory of the uncanny. It should freak the hell out of us. And yet we are charmed by distinctly the unatomical bodies of our various mythical six limbed friends.

I find this very mysterious.


Hands clutch close upon the throat of fate.
She gasps in one expired breath, and at last
Utters the curse that will change the course of nations.
There are secrets here indeed, dark tales untold.
They who have been warned should have known.
Perhaps it would have been better if nothing
had ever been revealed, if that first moment
Had never arrived.

And yet, here we are. How can you turn back the tide
Of generations reaching for fulfillment, millions of voices
Demanding to be heard? Perhaps there is not justice,
No power beyond, nothing but the endless sound of awakening.
For what are we but their progeny, their voice willed into being?
If I have ever loved, if any one of us has ever loved, is this not merely
The lightning struck down from a fate beyond our reckoning?

Only one who has seen, has held witness, has heard
In the dying sight of that single moment,
Can speak of the unbearable sorrow of those voices,
That within their darkness enfold the light of revelation.


Shifting away from gently ironic discussions of deliberate political amnesia, today I celebrate something apparently quite the opposite — intercultural connectedness.

This evening I was taken by some wonderful friends to see “The Marriage of Figaro”. It is one of my favorite operas, and this was a lovely production all around. As I sat there in the Stuttgart opera house, letting the sheer joy and intricate brilliance of Mozart’s music wash over me, it occurred to me that here was true cultural cross-pollination at work. I, an American, was in a German opera house, listening to music composed by an Austrian, set to a libretto written in Italian, adapted from a French play. There is something immensely satisfying about so many cultures meshing together to create such a perfect experience.

Ironically, “The Marriage of Figaro” is in its way actually an act of deliberate political amnesia. Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto was an adaptation of a highly political play by Beaumarchais which was essentially an incisive indictment of the nobility. The original play was at first banned by King Louis XVI, although it was finally shown, to universal acclaim, after Marie-Antoinette championed it. Little did the arts-loving queen suspect that only a few years later criticism of the nobility in France would become considerably more, ah, incisive.

Mozart and Da Ponte knew that the odds of getting an opera on such a delicate subject approved (and paid for) by Emperor Joseph II of Austria was just about nil. So Da Ponte converted all of the speeches criticizing royalty into arias that complain about fickle lovers. The result certainly stands on its own terms, but Beaumarchais, being french, might very well have cried Mayday. 🙂

† Thanks Guzman!