John Gaeta won an Academy Award in 2000 for his visual effects work on the Matrix movies. I’d expected a talk focused on the most whizbang moments of the films, and his explanations of how digital effects can make Keanu Reeves look almost lifelike. And perhaps that happened in the first minutes of the talk – I came in late, and caught an interesting discussion of what happens to the world of cinema now that visual effects are so good that we can do, well, almost anything.
Gaeta’s question in creating the Matrix was finding ways to “acquire” an actor in a way that allows filmmakers to build a full visual model in three dimensions. This requires a combination of “photography and measurement”, which means that the filming of a scene is the building of extremely complex visual models which can then be digitally manipulated and rendered. He credits Douglas Trumbull for building a “studio of zero inhibition to make the solutions” – a group that didn’t look for solutions off the shelf, but encouraged their team to build what they needed, including new film formats that make “hyper-reality” like “bullet time” possible.
The same methods of photography and measurement made “What Dreams May Come”, which Gaeta worked on at the same time as the Matrix films, possible, presenting a vision of heaven made out of paint. In this case, the data capture was of the glacial mountains of Montana, assigning paint drops where there were leaves and pieces of rock – through substitution, Gaeta is able to create a universe that’s completely new and unique.
But the advances in digital filmmaking worry the visual effects man. “There’s lots of glitter in film these days. People understand that anything can be created.” Which means, there’s a “lack of astonishment – effects are no longer enough to propel a film to public adoration.” There’s an upside of this – it puts the focus of filmmaking back on storytelling.
Gaeta is deeply interested in the game industry, which he describes as being in a stage like TV in the 1950s, or film in its first twenty years. “There’s been no ‘Citizen Kane’ in the game industry yet,” which means there’s a long way to go yet.
He observes that Peter Jackson has recently announced that he’ll be producing the Halo movie… an indicator of the idea that films from games may be about to get much more serious. He announced that he plans to “turn his attention to a new medium” – a medium somewhere between game and film that hasn’t emerged yet. Gaeta believes that he’s digging in the right place, that new media will draw in creatives from both film and games.
Asked to speculate more on the future of games and flim, he speculates that the tension between narrative and interactivity will lead towards new art forms emerging. Films are passive narrative – a sculture of sorts – with no rhythym or repetition. Interactive media are all about immersiveness, which often involves reliving the same situations over and over again. Both film and games lay out universes, but games give you a narrative experience without detracting from play. This may lead to a future medium which still has dramatic parts, created by directors and actors, but also spaces – worlds – that can be explored at your leisure… or which can change and reform behind the dramatic scene.
Gaeta doesn’e believe that his work will put actors out of work any time soon. “It’s misguided to think you can create an evocative performance from a digital character unless you’re paying attention to how difficult it is to provoke emotion in film.” He believes that 100% of the emotion evoked is the job of the actor, and that there’s a very limited number of people “who can do this in some sort of life-changing way.” This in turn leads him to think that the rise of virtuality and 3D modeling may lead us back to an appreciation for the really real – storytelling and evocation of emotion through acting.
I missed the whizbang at the start of the talk, but was blown away by a quick demo at the end – an extremely lifelike actor making truly impossible faces. The faces were, in fact, impossible – the actor had been filmed and measured with five hidef cameras, which allowed creation of an incredible model of the actor. The resulting faces are less an animation and more the performance of a digital model. Truly amazing stuff, though unclear whether impossible faces evoke possible emotions…