Saturday, July 29, 2006

Automobile and Animation Technology

I kind of wanted to see M. Knight Shyamalan's Lady in the Water last week, but I had just seen A Scanner Darkly the week before and I didn't want to be disappointed two weeks in a row.

People make a lot of noise about M. Knight Shyamalan, but let's face it, with the exception of The Sixth Sense, every movie he's ever made has been a big disappointment. His movies don't get very good reviews, but they still rake in hundreds of millions of dollars, and some people cite that as evidence that despite what the critics say, his movies are a big success with movie-goers.

Well, they're certainly a financial success, but that's only because you have to pay in advance to see them. If you could pay afterward, based on what you thought they were worth, his movies wouldn't make half of what they make now. And I think the reason so many people see his movies in the first place is that they're a lot like me -- they go to the theater thinking "Maybe this one will be as good as The Sixth Sense," or "This one couldn't possibly be as stupid as Signs or as predictable as The Village," but they leave the theater thinking, "I guess he's just a one-trick pony after all."

So I didn't see Lady in the Water -- I ended up seeing the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? instead. I was never a big fan of electric cars, but apparently the people who drove them really loved them. They were fast, economical, not as harmful to the environment, and a lot of fun to drive. Maybe if I drove one, I'd fall in love with it too.

The thing I never understood is why they had to make them so dorky-looing. Just because a car runs on an electric motor instead of an internal combustion engine, that doesn't mean it has to look so dorky. But there's apparently some unwritten law among auto manufacturers that the more revolutionary a car's insides are, the goofier it has to look on the outside.

The Toyota Prius is a good case in point. It's a hybrid, so it doesn't look as goofy as an electric car, but it looks a lot goofier than a conventional one. And most internal combustion cars aren't that great-looking to begin with, so it's not like there's a lot of room to play with.

Anyway, when I mentioned A Scanner Darkly last week, I said something about how lifeless the animation was compared to Waking Life. That's still true, but compared to most other animated features today, A Scanner Darkly is a visual masterpiece. In all fairness, I should mention that I haven't actually seen many other animated features, but that turns out to be irrelevant because I've probably seen hours worth of previews for them. My problem with them is that they all look pretty much the same, as if they'd all been cranked out by the same CGI factory.

When 3D animation first came to movies, people were amazed. It was a revolutionary technique and it made all other animation look so flat and old. But now, about a decade later, 3D animation doesn't seem so special. It doesn't look new anymore, and since we're no longer distracted by its novelty, it becomes obvious to us that there's nothing very interesting about it. Sure, it's more realistic than any other animation technique, but so what? If it's realism you want, go see a live-action movie with real actors. I think the black-and-white cartoons of the 1920s and '30s were a lot more visually interesting than any recent animation (with the exception of Waking Life, of course). The old cartoons didn't look real -- they looked cartoonish, but that's why they're called cartoons.

I'm not against 3D animation, by the way. I don't think all cartoons should look like they came out of the Max Fleischer Studios eighty years ago. I just think that at this point, 3D animation is more of a technological marvel than an artistic one. That will probably change over the next few years -- the potential is certainly there -- but at this point, I'd rather watch a non-animated movie, even if it's supposed to be really bad, like Lady in the Water.