Even better than the real thing?

Today we accept that computer games like Enter the Matrix interleave segments of video footage into the regular 3D game-engine action assisted by body actors whose role is only to provide movement information so that virtual characters appear life-like. Popular movies like Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within and The Animatrix use computer rendering, with movement also partly mimed by body actors. And William Gibson's book Pattern Recognition has a believable character who composes movies of extraordinary beauty by editing existing movie fragments.

But now we are beginning to see another leap as second-generation games like The Sims 2 and Half Life 2 offer an even more intriguing possibility - to create movies using entirely virtual actors and sets on everyday desktop PCs.

Anyone who has seen footage of the characters in Half Life 2 is impressed by the range of emotion that is possible by moving up to 40 distinct segments of the face; compared to say Roger Moore's upwardly mobile eyebrow or the woozy contemplations of Brad Pitt (or indeed the repeated images of adaptable but often type-cast actors) this is a comparative revelation in acting.

So what next? I think tomorrow's actors and actresses won't need to work for a living, or at least not for long; they will simply license a virtual image of their face or movements to "studios" (the good ones will be able to license their image not just as an eternal 25 year old but at different ages, which may (but probably won't) reduce their use of cosmetic surgery). And of course, studios won't have a huge cast of cameramen and technicians and boom operators, and they certainly won't use film; they will probably consist of one all-powerful director who will license libraries of images, sounds, 3D maps of places (real or imaginary) and actors (also real or imaginary); they will use physics engines and image processors and "emote-engines" to create entirely virtual movies. All on a desktop PC.

This is clearly going to result in a lot of new movies, most of which will be terrible but some will be incredible and would never reach the (virtual) light of day with today's movie budgets.

So aside from an abundance of choice, what's in it for the consumer? Again, a lot. You won't just watch movies, you will be able to switch to any perspective; change hair-styles or clothes; choose a different music soundtrack; co-script them; in effect, you will be able to participate in the creation of a completely personal and unique entertainment.

Will actors make more money or less? Probably a lot less; it will be too easy to digitally modify digital faces and virtual bone structure so that they cease to be recognisable. But I think there will be a greater interest in the unusual faces; a Humphrey Bogart or a William H. Macy may be more successful than the generically beautiful.

But we may also look back at 20th century cinema as a golden age when actors and sets were real, and the capsule experience of a live play performance will also compete well against the virtual. Using an image from The Matrix - will you choose the red pill or the blue pill? Looks like you will have both.

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