Another Robert Zemeckis performance-capture movie, and that can only mean one thing – another round of reviews complaining that the “actors”‘ eyes all look a bit funny. You know the angle by now (if not, see my earlier post about Beowulf): Zemeckis, director of Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, makes a film using digital avatars of popular movie stars (Tom Hanks in The Polar Express, Ray Winstone, Angelina Jolie and Anthony Hopkins in Beowulf), and critics scratch their heads over why they bothered spending all that money if the CG versions are going to look just like the actors themselves, and bemoan the lack of spark and vitality in the eyes and faces of the digital figures. It’s all part of the mainstream discussion of digital technology, with a widely held distaste for the unnatural, uncanny, inhuman or just plain cold sensations evoked by the experience of watching these souped-up game sprites
First of all, let me say that, though I was skeptical about 3D, I’m officially sold on the idea. I don’t really need 3D, and it doesn’t add much except giggly novelty to a film like A Christmas Carol, but if it’s there I’m going to enjoy the fad while it lasts. There’s an argument that Zemeckis’ new film shows Victorian London off splendidly with its 3D fly-by shots that spatialise the setting and give a vivid sense of period. The title sequence is a swooping, one-take marvel that shifts its attention from the macro of a snowy city’s rooftops and the micro of rosy-cheeked carol singers and mischievous children. It’s spectacular, but it’s such a technical showcase that it feels incredibly modern, canceling out the evocation of a past time or of any of London’s historical specificity. It’s a bit like an animatronic display in a museum – it might give you a fun summary of a time and place, but it won’t transport you, and it’s no substitute for reading a book on the subject. That said, the shots of 3D snow are a wonderfully simple effect, and it’s tempting to try and catch a snowflake on your tongue; that must be the ultimate validation of a special effect – it had me leaning forward with my mouth open like an imbecile (there’s a poster-quote in there somewhere, I’m sure…).
Zemeckis’s animators have finally solved the problems of unnervingly uncanny digital actors, at least as far as Jim Carrey’s Scrooge is concerned. Click on the image above to get a hit of the full detail of the graphics. You’ll also notice that on close inspection you can see the joins between separately programmed elements like the cloth hat and Scrooge’s forehead: digital animation makes hypercritical geeks of us all! But the face is extremely enabled in its facial movements. The CG Colin Firth is, by way of contrast, a waxy monstrosity that fails to mime the jauntiness of the actor’s voice – that may be one of the problems of hiring stars for this job: you picture the face that you know goes with the voice, and the digital version can only be found wanting. Other supporting parts, and a lot of the extras, seem to have received much less care and attention than the star, and they still have the dead-eyed roboticism of earlier mo-cap efforts. Things are getting better though – a close-up of Bob Cratchit’s wife fighting back the tears is pretty close to being affecting (high praise, eh!), and the CG turkey looked really delicious. Scrooge is caricatured just enough that he is recognisably human enough, but twisted and stretched enough to seem effectively cartoony. There are almost no jokes in this film, leaving Carrey to wring humour out of the physical exertions of embodying tight-wound stinginess and all-consuming self-interest, sucking everything into his tight frame as if conserving all of his energy for himself. His spine is so arched it’s like he’s slowly bending back on himself.
But performance capture was not really about making it easier to control facial expressions – that’s just a problem they need to iron out – instead, it’s part of Zemeckis’ totalising system of drag-and-drop world-building that allows him to craft completely malleable locations and performers. It means he can wring a series of value-added performances out of Carrey (in the process implying that the ghosts, all played by Carrey, are creations of his tormented psyche), making him into a poseable action figure with enough freedom that they can still trade on his name.
Perhaps the biggest surprise about A Christmas Carol is how reverent an adaptation of Dickens’ story it is. Sure, there’s a bit more flying through the sky in this version, but most of the dialogue is Dickens’ own, and the designs of the ghosts are drawn from John Leech’s illustrations from the 1843 edition:
A Christmas Carol is such a familiar story that I wish they had taken more liberties with the source material and reconfigured it like they did with Beowulf; because the animation comes to life in the big action set-pieces, it gets leaden during the dramatic scenes when the actors are asked to perform tasks devised for humans – it doesn’t play to the strengths of an all-powerful hunk of CGI. When Scrooge is dragged into the grave, it’s a fabulous bit of baroque bombast, but when he has his change of heart, there’s just not a lot of joy leaping off the screen. Maybe that’s the answer – mo-cap works fine for actors, as long as they stay grumpy.