Every year at the Siggraph Electronic Theater animation festival—the computer graphics industry’s equivalent of the Academy Awards—there are a couple of short films or clips that steal the show. This year, one of the favorites, at least in terms of the most animated audience reaction, was a segment from the upcoming live-action movie Stuart Little.
In the sequence, Stuart-a cute little computer-generated mouse-is narrowly saved from drowning by his "mother" (Geena Davis) after he accidentally gets tossed into the family washing machine. I'm sure that within moments of Stuart's appearance on screen, the majority of viewers had willingly suspended disbelief that this digital mouse was a thinking, feeling being. And by the time the segment ended, the crowd was loudly cheering the character's realism, his charming performance, and the technological and artistic tour de force that brought him to the screen.
"What we were trying to do is create the most believable digital actor that has been done yet," says Henry Anderson, animation director for Stuart Little at Sony Pictures Imageworks, which will release the film on December 10. To that end, as West Coast senior editor Barbara Robertson notes in "Building a Better Mouse" (pg. 32), the studio developed new technologies to give Stuart realistic fur (using nearly a half million hairs on his head alone) and clothing (by actually "weaving" individual threads into the cloth). Moreover, the animators employed leading-edge tools to convey Stuart's complex and subtle emotions, building scores of digital models of Stuart's face with different expressions and using sliders to blend them in myriad combinations. In addition, they used advanced techniques to fit Stuart into the live-action scenes.
How important is such realism? Will audiences feel a stronger emotional bond to more "realistic" digital characters like Stuart than to his 3D predecessors? There's little doubt that viewers will have a greater affinity for Stuart, with his winning personality, than, say, for Mighty Joe Young, who also played the title role in a live-action film. But will we care more for him than we did for the enormously popular stars of all-CG films like Toy Story, A Bug's Life, and Antz or, for that matter, the beloved characters from 2D cartoon movies?
"It's all about the story and the acting," says Anderson. "Even hand-drawn characters can be touching if they are consistent and believable." But the advantage of characters like Stuart is that they can more believably interact in the real world with live actors that the audience can identify with, and that creates a whole different film experience, he contends. "The message in Stuart Little is 'don't judge a book by its cover.' With this approach, we can explore such themes, but in a slightly different way than by using only human actors."
Will Stuart be perceived as the most believable digital actor ever created for a full-length film? I wouldn't be surprised. If audiences accept Stuart, and the movie is a box-office hit, it will open the door wider for novel forms of storytelling using virtual characters and give filmmakers new ways to help us see and understand ourselves.
Phil LoPiccolo: Editor-in-Chief