Issue: Volume: 24 Issue: 9 (September 2001)

But Can She Act?

When we were designing the cover for last month’s issue—which featured Aki Ross, the virtual star of the film Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within—we considered running a headline that asked, “But Can She Act?” The idea was that, sure, she looks amazingly realistic in still images, but would she be able to deliver a believable performance?

In the end, because the movie hadn't been released by the time we went to press, we decided to delay questioning Aki Ross's acting ability until we could at least see the film and offer an informed opinion. So in the meantime, we have been soliciting input, both from our staff (which took an afternoon off to attend the movie) and in surveys of readers of our electronic newsletter and Web site.

Here are questions we asked: "How realistic-looking were the virtual characters in Final Fantasy? How believable was their acting? How did you relate to them compared to the way you might have reacted to cartoon characters or real actors playing the same roles? No matter how life-like digital characters become, will we ever be able to relate to them as much as we do to human actors?"

The questions seemed to strike a chord with readers, who provided an impressive range of thoughtful insights about Aki Ross and digital actors in general. What follows are excerpts of some of their comments. (To see the full text, visit our Web site at, go to the Web Exclusives section, and look under Surveys.)

  • The group I went with couldn't figure out why real actors weren't used. We figured that with digital actors, you could do ANYTHING. We were stunned when they did NOTHING. -Travis Goertz
  • The animation was impressive-the way the hair flowed, the detail in the faces and in the eyes, which even looked moist when seen up close. But ultimately, the characters weren't real enough. The facial expressions came up short. This would not be a problem for cartoon characters. Because of the expectations placed on digital actors to be so real, it was disappointing when they were not. -Kelly Stone
  • They were wooden, inexpressive characters who mouthed rubbish from a stupid script, and as they died, I found that I couldn't care less. The characters in Shrek weren't as good looking, but they were 100 percent more convincing. That ogre... THAT was a REAL character. -Michael Brunet
  • With real actors, you are working with people trained to think about how the story relates solely to their character. Actors bring millions of little ticks, expressions, and postures to the set every day and a natural understanding of how to use those intricacies to communicate a de sired message. The result, it is hoped, is better than the vision the director had going into the project. When working with virtual characters, you must deliberately place every single expression. There are no happy accidents, and no natural rhythm. And that kind of deliberate execution is exactly what keeps a film from engaging the audience. While virtual actors might be fine for a summer action romp or light comedy, I would certainly not want to see a virtual cast approach a serious property like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest or Remains of the Day that would live or die solely on the quality of the acting in the film. -L.M. Lloyd
  • The characters were quite realistic looking, especially Dr. Sid. But everyone is an expert in how a real human looks and acts, and these characters just didn't convey the intense emotions they should have given the situations they were in. A great performance requires a great actor whether he or she performs live or through the medium of computer animation. A cartoon actor can elicit a strong reaction from the audience if the animator does a great job of conveying it. -Gary L. Gorby
  • I think real actors for a film like this might've been better, but it's hard to say since even actors come in varying grades of quality. I quote to you from a paper I keep around all the time with the words of MiltKhal, a Disney animator whose work includes the dwarves in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves: "[Animation] is a difficult medium.... You have to be an actor. You have to put on a performance, to be a showman, to be able to evaluate how good the entertainment is." -Dean Yuen
  • I felt neither happy nor sad for the characters. They did not emote at all. I would like to have seen at least one of them get torn limb from limb. -Adrian Dimond

  • I found that the main character, Aki, was the most unrealistic. Her creators smoothed out her skin so much that it gave her a plastic look. Not helping her Barbie-doll-like appearance was her body, which was extremely thin and somewhat out of proportion. Because her co-stars Captain Grey and Dr. Sid had features-such as wrinkles or five o'clock shadow-that made them "imperfect," they surpassed Aki when it came to realism by leaps and bounds. Despite Aki's unnatural looks, this movie was absolutely breathtaking. One might say at times, especially at the tragic ending, that the fantastic graphics, rather than the bland plot, made the audience more emotionally involved in the movie. -M.C. Varmazi
  • Animated actors won't be able to attend the Oscars and show off Armani clothes, have elaborate sex scandals, plastic surgery, etc. All that tabloid stuff makes us relate and like/dislike any given actor. However superficial all that stuff is compared to the acting itself, it's still important. That's one of the reasons why digital actors probably won't have the same effect on the audience as the real thing. -Line Jensen
  • Within three years our company will be selling a system that extracts subtle expressions and movements from any person and renders them into any synthetic actor in real time. This has great potential for entertainment but also risk for misuse, because we can present, for example, a seemingly real presidential press conference and broadcast it on the Internet. Therefore, we are developing techniques for detecting the use of our technology before we release it. -F. J. Prokoski
  • Digital actors allow a great many artists and technicians to shine from backstage. That is where the modelers, animators, texture artists, and programmers live and breathe this fascinating new medium. I am thrilled that they-not just beautiful, A-listed stars-now have some control of the performance. -Gunnar Nelson
  • These artificial characters will eventually replace live talent, mainly because of cost but also as a means of ensuring that what you want said gets said correctly and that these characters would be available 24 hours a day with no complaints about overtime. -Alex K. Ciber
  • My wife and I came away feeling that the actors, while impressive, were stiff and unnatural. It was difficult to sympathize with these animated mannequins. We ended up contrasting them with the role voiced by James Woods for Hades in Disney's Hercules. The Hades character, while clearly less realistic, was more believable, fluid, and interesting. -Gary Bringhurst

  • I think digital actors, just like real actors, can have just as much impact on a viewer. I believe we have already seen examples of this in scenes with the Toy Story characters Woody and Buzz. Who didn't feel bad for Buzz when he found out he was a toy? It all boils down to good storytelling through good acting. -Mark R. Bitleris
  • I remember how the pathos of the Disney films (e.g., the death of Bambi's mother, the imprisonment of Dumbo's mother) stirred some deep emotions, and this was traditional animation. We can be moved to tears by a haunting melody, be affected by a passage in a book. If the story is good, the medium will always be secondary, and shouldn't we then be able to enjoy the 3D character like any other, especially after the animation process reaches some sort of apex and is not distracting from a technical standpoint? -Gerald Natal

Clearly, Aki Ross and her co-stars fell short in delivering a convincing performance-and Final Fantasy's script did little to help their cause. While the film's cast represents a milestone in the evolution of virtual actors, much remains to be done before digital humans can pass as the real thing. Part of the work will require giving characters a more realistic outward appearance-in terms of skin, eyes, hair, and clothes-as well as more natural body motion, facial expression, and lip movement. But it may also involve giving them some kind of internal ability to understand a scene and determine their own behaviors.

In any case, the characters must acquire that elusive life force-something akin to that which Aki and Dr. Sid sought in the movie-and get beyond the point where an audience will focus only on their imperfections. If they can attain that level of realism, then the rewards will be great. As Final Fantasy's CG supervisor Gary Mundell, puts it, "We can put a human character into any situation and make it do anything. There is no story that cannot be told."