Why does a male dog…?

So there I was earlier this evening, at the Daily Planet (the restaurant, not the newspaper), decompressing after a particularly grueling day at Warp Central. This eatery is one of those “theme” places, featuring decor from the 1960s through 1980s or so; there are LP album covers and posters and iconic images all over the walls. There are also a bunch of period television sets mounted up in the corners so just about everyone can watch whatever retro fare is playing.

Tonight’s video entertainment was vintage breakfast cereal commercials. I blush to admit I remembered seeing most of them when they were first run; never mind Quisp and Quake, here comes Marky Maypo! Most of the commercials featured animation of some sort; very few were strictly live action (although it was a hoot watching as Clark Kent – the George Reeves version – sat down to a hearty breakfast of chocolate coated sugar bombs with Jimmy Olson and Perry White).

For reasons unknown, I found myself fascinated with the animation. Much of it was very simplistic, line drawings with limited movement. Some was surprisingly fluid. (In the biz, one says that it was “on 24s” meaning a new drawing for each of the 24 frames that it takes to show one second of action.) I got to thinking about the history of animation, from its beginnings at the turn of the twentieth century, through the many experiments and refinements, successes and flops, all the way up to the present day’s computer generated imagery (CGI). I wondered what it must have been like to be in the audience at the 1933 premiere of “King Kong” – or 1937’s “Snow White.” Or for that matter, “Gertie the Dinosaur” in 1914.

Questions, questions… What is animation for? It’s a very special effect. Is it used to show something that can’t be filmed in real life? Well, sometimes – dinosaurs don’t exist in today’s world, or the world of a century ago. Yet both Windsor McKay and Steven Spielberg (and many others) brought them to life. So animation can take us, visually, places that otherwise exist only in the imagination. Then what about something like “A Waking Life”? Animation, to be sure, yet anchored totally in the here-and-now of reality as we think we know it. Here’s a film that could easily have been filmed with living, breathing actors (well, actually it was, but that’s beside the point) without the overlay of animation. Perhaps the filmmakers wanted to convey impressions rather than images, so that the viewer could add his or her own imprint to the narrative?

We accept, most of the time, and mostly without effort, the “reality” of an animated film, whether the characters are seven dwarves or a big green ogre or a talking fish searching for his son. I think we do this because we freely suspend our disbelief for the sake of the entertainment; a good animated film is the audio-visual equivalent of a favorite fairytale. And as a species, I believe we love our fairytales.

So, round about dessert time, the question started rattling around in my brain, what is it with the ongoing attempt to make CGI as… normal-seeming as possible? “Final Fantasy – the Spirits Within” was, I suppose, a noble effort – a totally digitally constructed film. And yet, there’s something primally creepy about watching figures waltzing about that you know are supposed to be humans, and yet aren’t quite. (There’s a term for this creepniess – it’s called the “uncanny valley”. Put that phrase into your search engine and see what comes up.) We’re comfortable watching human actors, and we’re comfortable watching unreal T-Rexes and orcses and aliens of all stripes and colors – but slightly-off fake people weird us out.

What’s the goal? To get CGI to the point where we actually can’t tell the difference between a flesh-and-blood actor and the digital counterpart (a la “Simone,” a truly wretched film)? I guess that would be a technical coup – but what’s the point? So I can watch Steve McQueen, brought back from the dead, do commercials for Ford? So a studio can put Marilyn Monroe into a new film without having to deal with messy details like salary or sick days or artistic temperament? (And who the hell would program MM Mark 2 to behave like the original, anyway? Who on earth could sufficiently get inside the head of any actor or actress to accomplish that?)

What exactly is the point? I sure can’t see one.

The answer to the truncated riddle that is the title of this blog is, “Because he can.” Is this progress? It’s likely that someday, maybe soon, someone will figure out how to animate, in silico, a human being indistinguishable from the real thing. Why? Because he can. Will this be a good thing? You tell me. We live in a time where the veracity of the news, of what our leaders say, of what’s going on in the world, are already difficult enough to establish. Next time your favorite (or least favorite) civic leader or sports icon or musical idol shows up on your HDTV to tell you the way it is, how are you going to know it’s real? Where’s Neo when you need him?

Perhaps there already is no spoon…