This will be brief.
ImageMovers, the company behind Beowulf, The Polar Express, and the latest Christmas Carol, shut its doors last year. (I mean, they said they did, though their Wikipedia page says they’re “relaunching” to do a remake of Yellow Submarine, so whatever.) The company was the brainchild of Robert Zemeckis, which managed to get a lot of money behind it and made several high-profile films. And though the films weren’t absolute blockbusters, they weren’t entirely bombs, either. And they have their last film, Mars Needs Moms, coming this weekend. So, how does a company with Robert Zemeckis in charge, the support of at least Disney and Paramount, and several slightly profitable movies in the tank close up shop?
I blame the humans.
No matter how the technology has advanced, no matter how much more precise the rendering of hair and clothing gets, computer animation’s biggest stumbling block – in the past and to this day – is the creation of believable humans. CG has been used in fantastic ways in the past 15 years; look simply at Pixar’s progression for proof. But they’ve concentrated on fantastical and anthropomorphized subjects during that time: toys, cars, bugs, monsters. Actual humans have been kept from the spotlight for most of that time, and when they are the focus, they still have elements of exaggeration.
And it works. But getting “realistic” humans made with CG has always been difficult. And ImageMovers’ work, sadly, has only highlighted this. The Polar Express was their first foray into their style of motion-captured animation, and the humans they made in that film are something of a joke nowadays. They just look creepy, and that’s death for a kid’s film. As their movies progressed, the work has become incrementally better, but the Uncanny Valley has been tough to overcome.
I’m not writing all this to say “I’m glad ImageMovers closed”; not at all. But I think the idea of completely convincing CG humans isn’t feasible yet. And maybe that’s never been IM’s goal. But I feel like this middle ground their work fell into is too bizarre-looking. You need to pick a side in this situation: either become more stylized with your CG work, or simply dispense with the CG and film the thing with real people. Special effects are good enough nowadays that a movie like Mars Needs Moms could be filmed with real people and sets with CG augmentation. Going to all the trouble of filming motion-capture footage with live actors just to put creepy CG human skin over their movements seems a bit counter-productive. I think you’d have a much better result going in either direction on the realism scale: stylization or real-life.
But what do I know?