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An Emmy Awards Debate: What Makes 'Donkey Kong' Run?

Television: The show is created using a technique called motion capture. Some say it is animation, but others contend that it's special effects.

June 01, 1999|CHARLES SOLOMON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

To the average viewer, the Sunday morning children's series "Donkey Kong Country" looks pretty much like any other cartoon. But when its producers submitted it for consideration in the Emmy Award category of best animation, the TV academy said it didn't qualify.

The rejection has added fuel to an ongoing debate over a computer-driven filmmaking technique called motion capture that is widely used in video game design. Only recently has it had much impact on television and feature animation, notably in "Donkey Kong Country" and a new version of "Superman" that is available on the Internet and will be coming to television.

At issue is what constitutes animation, a question that may seem unimportant to most viewers but is a big deal in the industry, as reflected in the controversy over "Donkey Kong Country's" Emmy eligibility.

"Animation is about creating an illusion of motion on the screen that otherwise doesn't exist. [The cartoon characters] Wallace and Gromit didn't ride a train around their kitchen while someone photographed them; their actions only exist when the film is projected," contends Bob Kurtz of Kurtz and Friends Animation, a member of the board of governors of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. "[Motion capture] doesn't involve the same artistic input and choreography."

"We're disappointed that the academy took the position it did, because a lot of rendering, design and animation has to be done in a series that uses motion capture," counters Toper Taylor, president of Nelvana Communications, the company that makes "Donkey Kong Country."

"If all we were doing was putting a guy in a suit in front of a computer," Taylor says, "then everybody and their grandmother could have a motion capture series on the air."

In motion capture, a live actor performs a character's movements wearing a special suit; electronic sensors record the angles and positions of his joints and the amount and speed of movement. This information is fed into a computer system and plotted onto a computer-generated character. If the actor reaches for a prop and turns to the right, the character will reach just as far and turn in the same direction at the same speed.

The process is clearly related to animation, but is it really a form of animation? The arguments center on both technical and aesthetic issues.

"It's difficult not to call it animation," says Kevin Bermeister, president of Brilliant Digital Entertainment, creator of the new "Superman" adventure, "The Menace of Metallo" (on the Web at http://www.bde3d.com and http://www.multipathmovies.com).

"To a large degree, the motion capture actors and actresses who are in the body suits are the artists, using their bodies to animate," he says. "When the performance of the body actors is combined with the different talents of the voice actors, the characters come to life on the screen."

Scott Johnston, who supervised the wildebeest stampede in Disney's "The Lion King" before starting Fleeting Image Animation, begs to differ.

"Animators create a performance; motion capture systems record a performance," he argues. "Whether he works with a pencil or a computer, an animator is someone who thinks, observes, interprets and presents a performance through his understanding of character, anatomy and design. Live-action reference footage allows an animator to study motion; it can provide important insights that will help him to create a performance. But when it's used too literally, the characters lack the exaggerated poses and timing that makes animation believable."

The motion capture practitioners say it is precisely their effort to avoid being too literal that makes the work animation.

"You're dealing with the performance of a person with real mass, but when you map it onto a different character, the mass isn't right and it just doesn't feel right," says Pacific Data Images Chairman Carl Rosendahl, whose studio did one of the first examples of motion capture: Waldo C. Graphic, the computer-animated Muppet on "The Jim Henson Hour" (1989).

"The technology is getting better," he says, "but by the time you get it ready to put on the screen, you've spent so much time manipulating and massaging the data to get it to look like what you really want, you've put the same amount of effort into as if you had animated it from scratch."

"You have to do animation on top of the captured motion, because it's difficult to match human movements and a [computer-generated] character," agrees Scott Dyer, vice president of information technology at Nelvana. "There are problems with the alignment of the joints and just keeping the feet on the floor. The motion capture data is useful, but extensive animation is needed on top of it if you're going to get beyond the sense of a person in a suit."

As the distinctions that separate live action, hand animation and computer-generated images continue to blur and as new techniques of image manipulation are developed, the television academy and similar bodies are going to have a harder and harder time determining what series qualify for their awards.

"I can see the academy's argument that it's not animation," Rosendahl says. "You've basically taken a live-action performance and re-rendered it. You've put the characters in different costumes, on a different set, but you've taken a performance by a character and digitally manipulated it. That's not animation, it's special effects.

"But," he continues, "you've brought this fantasy character to life, so it's animation."

* "Donkey Kong Country" airs Sundays at 10 a.m. on the Fox Family Channel.

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