Animated discussions

Getting animation this close to photorealistic humanity is a brilliant achievement. But will animation ever replace human actors?

My money: no. There’s the economic argument, of course: as tools develop, it gets easier to do this, and in a decade synthetic mannequins may well be reading the news or introducing programmes, much as RSS feeds announce things by text today. But doing things the easy way is rarely a recipe for quality, for the same reason a MIDI symphony sounds phoney.

MIDI caused great excitement when it came out (I’m showing my age here); everyone thought digital recordings of real instruments, rather than synthetic beeps, would trounce paying live performers – a series of codes read by a computer simply got outputted as music. It didn’t work that way, because the music sounded flat; no heart or soul in it, a grab-bag of sound effects rather than an integrated swoooosh of sound. Tiny edge effects create the sense of a performed work, but that’s where the music lives.

Translated onto video, those edge effects are the little tics and flicks that make ‘Emily’ look real – random eye movements, head-tosses, that sort of thing. But even these were modelled from real actors. The virtual actor is entirely dependent on real people.

Furthermore, so much of acting has nothing to do with appearing on screen. Box office takings rely on celebrity; unless it’s animation to begin with, a successful film needs ‘the money’, a star name, someone who gives great red carpet and gets papped on the streets of Hollywood. Most cinemagoers don’t go for the film; they go to see a star. And the appeal of virtual stars, from Max Headroom to AnaNova, is just a novelty factor.

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