I think this is a great approach for bridging the gap between pure animation and performance capture. Artistically, you get the best of both worlds: the director gets to direct actors, block scenes, experiment with camera setups, and in general create the film quickly in a language they understand. On the post-production side, animators have the freedom to interpret and push performances, and character designs are free from humanoid constraints (The fanciest software in the world can’t re-target Bill Nighy’s performance onto a snake). You don’t have the live-action overhead of locations and expensive lighting and camera setups, or the motion-capture overhead of that equipment and the necessary support staff. Even though the technology of visual effects is getting better every year, I can’t help but think that the cutting edge can sometimes get in the way of filmmaking. This Rango clip looks fast, loose, and low-tech, in contrast with the growing performance-capture trend.
The goal of motion capture is to translate the performance of an actor, via technology, seamlessly onto a digital character. The process ideally strives to be perfectly automated, but in reality there’s a huge effort and many people between the capture and the final product. The data isn’t always accurate, set pieces don’t line up, and current technology–though impressive–is limited in its ability to record the many small but important details of faces and hands. Additionally, actors often play characters with different proportions and masses, which requires re-targeting and can result in unnatural motion. The technology is improving all the time, but currently all these problems still need to be addressed by teams of motion editors and animators after the fact. And despite all this work, audiences still comment on zombie eyes and the uncanny valley, critiques that you never see in reference to keyframed movies.
The comparison may be unfair: stylistically, motion captured movies tend toward more realistic design because they necessarily have realistic motion, and the closer you get to realism, the narrower the margin between empathy and aversion. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with realistic design, it works great for the tone of some stories, and I’m not arguing against it. But I think we can agree that along the path to realism, more than a few movies have fallen flat, and I think part of the problem is too much reliance on a technical process to produce what would otherwise be an organic result. Rango looks like it may have found a simple and clever middle ground by relying on artists, rather than computers, to capture the performance.
For live action directors who want to make animated movies, I’d like to see this sort of approach as an alternative to motion-capture, since I think it lends itself to a wide and interesting variety of films. Plus, doesn’t it look like everyone’s having fun?
Thanks to Jess Morris, I found this clip on her blog.