The last great frontier of CGI: The eye
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CG-eyes still don't seem to 'have it'...
Here's the latest trailer for the August 5th release of Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, the second attempt to reboot the beloved simian franchise. What do you think of the CGI ape...?
The movie looks like an interesting take on the franchise, drawing more on the 'present-day' atmosphere of Escape From The Planet Of The Apes and Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes than the more familiar rustic apery of the much-derided Tim Burton 2001 reboot. But the first thing that stands out about the digital ape in the trailer is that the eyes do not convince. I got that Terminator Salvation feeling again.
Here's the great irony: in the original Apes movies, it was the eyes of the interned human actors which brought the often (inevitably) unanimated prosthetic make-up of John Chambers to life; but on the basis of what is on show in the trailer for Rise, what we have is a 100% convincing ape - except for the eyes.
Anyone who has ever been trained as an artist will know that it's the depiction of the human hand which is among the biggest stumbling block for the fledgeling artist, and one that tends to be conquered a lot later than the very basic but essential skill of making the eyes 'look' at the viewer (or wherever they are supposed to be looking) without going on 'separate missions'. But that's something that has been pretty much conquered in CGI by organic modelling software. Naturally there are routines just as effective for the presumably far simpler task of creating eyes.
And yet, something dies on the day, pretty much every time. And that admittedly sweeping statement, for my money, even includes Gollum in the Lord Of The Rings movies, who I only 100% 'bought' in one particular and amazing shot. Which is not to detract from Weta Digital's astonishing work and the very successful creation of a character with a ton of personality. After all, it was only five or so years earlier that this was about the best we were getting in CGI 'photoreal' anthropomorphic characters...
When having a think last week about what it is that sometimes bothers me about CGI, the notion came up in discussion afterwards that motion was the laggard factor in the evolution of CGI; a genuine problem when trying to convince people of the motion of creatures or superheroes, beings that have capacities for 'impossible' movement that has no analogue in our visual experience.
And motion is one possible reason why so many of the eyes of CGI characters, with the exception of the rather limited personality of the eyes of a shark or a T-Rex, often fail to convince. The only movie I have seen with human-style eyes that completely fooled me was David Fincher's The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button (2008), wherein the re-imagined CGI visage of Brad Pitt was grafted onto the bodies of short-statured actors who were standing in for 'young' Benjamin.
To be honest, I was so convinced by the work of Ed Ulbrich and his team at Digital Domain, that it wasn't until I chanced to have the opportunity to interview him that my research made clear just how much of Benjamin's face was an utter CGI fiction. Ulbrich revealed how much effort went into the creation of Benjamin's eyes, with a render test that nailed the rapid movement of the eye so well that it was surely a contributing factor to the brilliance and transparency of the work in general:
(Any stuttering you see there is due to my poor facility to capture video)
It's unusual for the work that follows a breakthrough like this to lag so far behind it. It's not unheard of, since a great deal of the CGI creatures which followed in the wake of 1993's Jurassic Park were nowhere near the standard of that breakthrough movie; but, even taking into account the lag between greenlighting of movies and the inevitably delayed uptake of 'the latest thing', I haven't seen CG-eyes that convincing since Button. If you want to know more about the pioneering work on that movie, check out the video below...
Ed Ulbrich discusses VFX on 'The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button' - Feb 2009
One other possibility that may explain the difficulty of rendering the human (or anthropomorphic) eye convincingly is the sheer unwillingness to hide a huge amount of work under a bushel. It was George Lucas's 'throwaway' attitude to expensive sets and effects that made the original Star Wars trilogy so interesting and convincing - Jabba the Hut's sail barge took months to build in the Arizona desert, yet occupied mere minutes of screen time. That's the kind of cavalier attitude that can help sell CGI even under unpromising circumstances; but it's when the VFX begin 'showboating' that the weak links in the chain show up; and representing the first meaningful object human beings ever identify, the 'window of the soul', continues to be a staggeringly audacious challenge for computer generated imagery.
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