Crossing Over - 9/03
Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 9 (September 2003)

Crossing Over - 9/03

On March 16, in a stark, all-white gallery at the San Francisco Museum of Art, Annlee died, her final resting place a white coffin embellished with a vase of white carnations. Pinned to the wall behind was a document titled, How to Kill Yourself. In a separate part of the "No Ghost Just a Shell" exhibition, groups of museum visitors gathered in front of a television set to watch videos of Annlee starring in seven short animations.

Annlee was created as a shell, a stock Japanese manga character offered for sale by Kworks, a production company in Tokyo. As a generic animated character, she could be licensed for video games, animated films, advertising campaigns, and other commercial purposes. In 1999, artists Phillipe Parreno and Pierre Huyghe bought her copyright and invited other artists to help envision a life for her, to fill her shell. Among the results were the seven animations in the exhibition. In each, Annlee pondered her identity and the conditions of her existence. She pined in one, "I would like to spend the day lying on the couch, but I can't." In another, she stared at the ocean, ribbons of her hair blowing in the wind, and vowed, "Tomorrow, I am starting a real job." But, instead, she was laid to rest. Push-pinned to the wall across from her coffin the legal document titled Agreement on the Assignment of Author's Rights to Annlee served as her death certificate. Now that Annlee's copyright belonged solely to her, no more new pieces featuring Annlee could be made.

"Lay off Yoda, no one does," commanded the Jedi Master when his acceptance speech for Best Fight Sequence was interrupted by music during the MTV Awards ceremony.
© Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: Industrial Light & Mag

Writes San Francisco Chronicle pop culture critic James Sullivan, "In an age of stem-cell research, digital imaging, advanced robotics, and fabrications that are often more dear to our hearts than real people, at what point do the products of human creativity declare independence from their creators?"

It's a point worth considering this year because digital actors in live-action films have received such a flurry of media attention. Although CG characters first acted in live-action films in 1986 (Young Sherlock Holmes' stained glass man) and starred in live-action films since Casper in 1995, this year they crossed over. Take, for example, the MTV Movie Awards in May.

All the nominees but one for MTV's Movie Award for Best Fight were actors in live-action films. And that one, Star Wars: Episode II—Attack of the Clones, won for the fight between Christopher Lee and Yoda. This award answered any lingering questions about whether a digital character could achieve the same status as a live-action star. Then, as if to hammer home the notion that digital actors are now considered pretty darn real, picking up the award was... Yoda, plucked from a galaxy far, far away to appear at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, where he told the audience, "To win, I did not expect."

"He came out," says Industrial Light & Magic lead animator Jamy Wheless, who helped Yoda perform in Episode II and the MTV ceremony. Wheless noted that George Lucas made the decision to let Yoda step out of his Star Wars world. "It was his call."

Yoda wasn't the only digital character to win an MTV award and take a virtual step onto the Shrine Auditorium stage that night. Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers' star Gollum won MTV's first Best Virtual Performance Award, which, given the list of nominees, implied best animated performance in a live-action film, an award similar to one offered earlier by the Visual Effects Society—also won by Gollum.

It's not the first time an animated character has appeared at an awards ceremony—characters from animated features have shown up at the Oscars, after all. But it is, arguably, the first time characters that acted alongside live actors have appeared "in person" at an awards show.

"I think this is the natural extension of animated characters that goes back to Mickey Mouse," says Ray Kurzweil, who once transformed himself into a virtual rock star named Ramona. "The technology now allows the creation of three-dimensional characters, with personality and even some history, that are almost as realistic as real characters. If you think about it, even a real human performer is a creation that has creative inputs from multiple people."

But why were Yoda and Gollum—and Dobby, for that matter—able to cross over when previous digital film stars hadn't? Was it simply that the beautiful Aki Ross's pre-movie publicity couldn't overcome the failure of Final Fantasy at the box office? And what about the CG Jar Jar, who looked weird but tried to act human?

"It's mine. I won it," said Gollum as he tried to wrestle the MTV trophy for Best Virtual Performance from his muse Andy Serkis during an appearance by satellite link at the awards ceremony. At top are Gollum and Serkis. Below them are scenes from Lor

"One reason, of course, is that the characters were marketed," says Carl Goodman, curator of digital media for the American Museum of the Moving Image (Astoria, NY). "But also, these characters are on a human scale, and they appear in real locations with real people, yet they're part creature, part human. They're like and also unlike the other characters in the movie, which makes them memorable and exciting.

"If you had Andy Serkis playing Gollum with only a lot of makeup," Goodman continues, "he would be similar in form to the other characters. And, if WETA had just used motion capture instead of a witch's brew of techniques, he would not have been as interesting. But because Gollum is digital, the character can behave with different rules. Also, the closer you get to the characteristics of humans, the harder it is to do, so the end effect is upsetting and strange."

This dichotomy didn't work for Jar Jar, who was supposed to provide comic relief. "Jar Jar just didn't mesh," says Goodman. "He wasn't funny." But it did work for Gollum and Dobby, who are both like and unlike humans and supposed to be a little upsetting and strange. And it worked for Yoda, who is strangely charming.

"Even when Yoda was trying to be hip, he stayed in character," says Wheless, who created Yoda's 3500-frame performance in eight days to match the script provided by MTV and the voice track provided by Frank Oz. "It was so cute to see him acknowledging George Lucas, shaking his head and saying, 'Love you, still I do.' That was a fun one to act through."

Thus, Wheless reminds us that however real these characters might seem, they require a huge collaboration between director, voice actor, and animator. Yet, at the same time he affirms that a character like Yoda has his own personality.

Does all this matter? I think so...for two reasons. It proves that visual effects studios have become adept at using a "witch's brew," as Goodman puts it, of software tools and technology to create both the motion and the appearance of these characters and to blend them into live-action films, and it shows how wise directors have become in knowing when and how to use digital characters.

Also, it points to the future. "The sequences of Yoda and Gollum on MTV had to be pre-recorded, but as computing power increases, you'll begin to see virtual characters in live settings acting and reacting in real time," Goodman says. "I think the collision will happen on television. Imagine watching a scenario in which real people play themselves in a video game run by puppeteers with other people running the simulation. This will happen because now, in Fear Factor, there are limits."

Well, OK, but don't expect Annlee to show up...or Yoda, Gollum, or Dobby. Um, maybe Gollum.

Barbara Robertson is a contributing editor of Computer Graphics World and a freelance journalist specializing in computer graphics, visual effects, and animation. She can be reached at
Digital film stars take their place alongside real people in the real world