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Virtual Actors

Final Fantasy proves replacing actors still far off By Stephen Schleicher
I was able to slip away for a few hours this weekend to check out the highly anticipated and hyped Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. One of the most hyped aspects of this movie was the implication that virtual actors would put real actors out on the street. While Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was a huge leap for 3D movies, I don't think SAG and AFTRA have too much to worry about right now.

Don't get me wrong, the characters and sets were fantastic. The Square artists who worked on this project did a fantastic job of creating highly detailed textures and believable hair. The world in which the movie took place was highly believable and realistic, but put the two together, and something fell apart. Maybe it was that the mouth expressions weren't expressive enough, or that certain motion capture sequences looked "funny". It could be that this movie was a giant work in progress, and certain scenes were completed earlier than others, and that may be why certain scenes came across as more believable than others.


Aki 1997ish
Dr. Aki Ross circa 1997-ish
Aki Ross Today
Dr. Aki Ross today.
The same thing can be said about other 3D projects. When Roughnecks: Starship Troopers Chronicles first aired, the mo-cap and animation looked week, and had definite flaws, but by the last half of the series, the artists had refined their techniques and the show was beginning to look fantastic. Too bad, the studio failed to see the growing audience and potential merchandising of this show and gave it the axe, only to give the go ahead to a show that is much more weak.

I remember seeing early test shots of the characters from Final Fantasy many years ago, and then I thought that it was the most realistic 3D characters I have ever seen. When I watched the movie, I thought the same thing. But they are 3D characters and look the part.

One thing everyone has to realize is that 3D animation and modeling falls into several distinct categories:

Mechanical: This is the category that we have mastered. It is so easy to replicate any mechanical object out there today in perfect detail.

Caricature: Not trying to replicate a person and make it believable, but more in the sense of creating a caricature of real life. Movies like Toy Story and the aforementioned Roughnecks are good examples of this.

Alien: Since the early days of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Babylon 5, computer animation has been used to recreate gigantic space battles and renderings of alien life from other planets. Since we have no expectations of what an alien looks like, then creating a animated character that believable interacts with real actors and objects is also very possible. Look for some fantastic 3D characters to come forth in this Christmas' Fellowship of the Rings.

Nature: Outer space aside, recreating the nuances of our natural world has also been sometimes hit and miss. In many instances creating a landscape that is photorealistic is simple, especially when the shot is a wide shot. Other times, obtaining the intricate detail in the natural pattern of a living, growing plant seems to be out of reach. For the most part though, I believe that animators have discovered the key to believability in this area and you would be surprised at how many scenes we see in movies and television are created in 3D space.

Virtual Actors: This is the final frontier in 3D animation, and really what everyone is trying to achieve. While we are still a ways off from creating a lead actor that looks entirely real, virtual extras have been around for quite some time. In Titanic, 3D characters played a major part in the camera fly-overs of the ship, in which all of the people walking on deck were entirely animated.

Seven odd years ago, I was walking through my local Sav-a-lot and happened to pass by the magazine section. One of the then popular computer magazines had a cover image of actor Alan Alda created entirely in 3D. The article talked about how in five years actors would begin being replaced by 3D animated characters. Seven years later, I still think we have another five years before we can truly replace a real actor with a virtual one.

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Stephen Schleicher is a well known writer, visual effects artist and media guru! You can see more of Stephen at
www.majorspoilers.com and www.stephenschleicher.com
Related Keywords:animation, process, details, virtual actors, Final Fantasy, Spirits Within

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