Are CG characters now the main attraction in blockbusters?

Mark wonders whether we're now at the point where CG characters matter more than human ones to Hollywood...

This article contains spoilers for Godzilla and Transformers: Age Of Extinction. Also, there are some mild spoilers for Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, but nothing you haven’t seen in the trailers.

In the last decade or so, computer generated characters have taken a quantum leap forward in blockbuster cinema. You can probably mark the transition around the time that Yoda went from being a Jim Henson creation to a digitally rendered sprite in Star Wars: Episode II, but bigger technological leaps have followed, particularly in performance capture.

Andy Serkis has been a big ambassador for this, earning a reputation as a Boris Karloff figure for the digital age in the process and a loyal core of fans who still insist that he deserved an Oscar for his turn as Gollum in The Lord Of The Rings. New fans are now saying much the same about Caesar the ape.

While it’s unfair to neglect the work of the animators and software designers who facilitate Serkis’ digital transformations, he’s undoubtedly the public face of the movement, as well as a respected authority on performance capture in the industry. For instance, he’s nabbed a role in Avengers: Age Of Ultron after initially being recruited to consult on the film’s performance capture work.

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But this summer, he’s been involved to a certain extent in two of the biggest CG character pieces- Godzilla and Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes. Aside from Serkis’ involvement and generally being sort of excellent, these films have one big thing in common. They’re both films in which the computer generated characters are arguably better characterised than the live action human characters.

When we ask whether or not this means that computer generated characters have surpassed their human counterparts, we’re not suggesting that live-action actors will become obsolete. It would be needlessly complicated, even if performance capture had yet given us a photo-real human in the same way as it has given us photo-real aliens or animals.

Films that have attempted this in the last decade, such as TRON: Legacy, with its digitally de-aged Jeff Bridges, and the uncanny valley epitomised in Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf and A Christmas Carol, attest to the difficulty of realising human characters in animation. But that’s why we have human actors.

What’s interesting is the way in which filmmakers are chomping at the bit to tell stories through non-human characters that would not previously have been possible to realise in a live-action film, sometimes at the expense of the actors with whom they share the screen.Few people came out of watching Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla claiming that the big lug overshadowed the human characters – in fact, it was quite the opposite. Many viewers have said that either the title character or Bryan Cranston’s Joe Brody should have stuck around longer. There’s a better argument for one than the other (the movie’s not called Cranston) but in either of those cases, it feels like it’s because there was something lacking in the characters that got more screen-time.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Ford traipses from disaster area to disaster area on a mission to get back to his family, constantly telling his wife (poor Elizabeth Olsen) to wait for him back home rather than move to safety and meet him elsewhere. Elsewhere, Ken Watanabe gets some awesome lines about the ancient, primal purpose of Godzilla, even though we have no way of knowing how his character knows any of this.But the film still garners a ton of goodwill as an off-kilter, somewhat misanthropic blockbuster of the kind that we seldom see. The futility of the humans’ actions throughout the film is in service of a larger point of mankind’s arrogance in trying to control nature. Edwards’ triumphant conclusion to the movie, from the human point of view, is the utterly ineffectual detonation of a nuclear bomb near a populated area, after the threat has already been neutralised by Godzilla.

It’s an interesting and frankly ballsy way to lead off a new franchise, but it’s not one that would work as well if Edwards wasn’t able to so deftly characterise the 30-storey-tall beastie of the title. He may not be on screen much, but whenever he does rock up in the movie, his motivation is apparent, (though admittedly with an expository assist from Watanabe.)

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On a similar level to the thematic anti-human aspect of Godzilla, the gulf between humans and apes is a crucial part of Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes. However, it’s another film where the human characters suffer by comparison, not least because the script sets most of them up as binary opposites to the apes.

The movie is pretty much excellent, but the humans are far more vaguely coloured in than their better rendered primate counterparts, both visually and emotionally. Jason Clarke’s Malcolm may only have just shown up in the franchise, but the only reason we have to root for him is that he finds common ground with Caesar, who we already know and like.

Gary Oldman’s Dreyfus gets a little more to chew on, but he’s sidelined by Toby Kebbell’s towering performance as the treacherous ape Koba. Both of these characters are introduced for the first time in the same film, but aside from one stirring scene in the middle, Dreyfus’ arc mostly takes place off-screen, to the point where his actions in the final act of the film almost seem jarring. By contrast, Koba makes his mark as one of the most effective franchise antagonists in recent memory.

In all fairness, if there’s one blockbuster franchise that has consistently zigged away from the zag of putting computer generated characters before the live ones, it’s Transformers. Whether it’s Shia LaBeouf or Mark Wahlberg stealing the limelight, few could argue that the Autobots and Decepticons are the main characters in those movies.

Even Age Of Extinction, a soft reboot which introduces two new factions of Transformers and establishes a creation mythology for the CG characters, still juggles as many conflicting human characters as the original trilogy, (i.e. umpteen-squillion of them) and saves the CG characters for the fight-y bits.

After the film cliffhangered with Optimus Prime blasting off into space to confront his creators (the film’s bookends are uncomfortably reminiscent of Prometheus) it’s tough to imagine how Transformers 5 will manage to be set on Earth and based around a whole bunch of perma-tanned ingénues and alumni of the Coen brothers’ movies. But four films in, it behoves us not to underestimate Michael Bay’s adherence to formula.

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Outside of this summer’s new films, it will be interesting to see how performance capture continues to dominate in blockbuster cinema. There’s another Apes movie on the horizon in 2016, just ahead of the first of three Avatar sequels. Given where the previous instalments of those series left us, all of those movies seem likely to roll back the human element even further than before.

In the nearer future, Jon Favreau’s live-action remount of Disney’s The Jungle Book hits cinemas next autumn. The most recent announcement was that Neel Sethi’s Mowgli will be the sole human character in the whole movie. Other than him, we’ll only see computer-generated animals, voiced by the likes of Idris Elba, Ben Kingsley, Lupita N’yongo and Scarlett Johansson.

Not to be outdone, Andy Serkis has his own performance capture-centric version of The Jungle Book in the works at his studio, The Imaginarium, as well as a previously announced film adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

Performance capture has opened up whole new avenues of character and representation in cinema and it all points to exciting new showcases for the technology in blockbuster cinema. We couldn’t blame anyone for being anxious about human characters falling by the wayside, even in movies with a big live-action presence, but mostly these characters have only given filmmakers more tools with which to tell new stories, in franchises that could otherwise have used a little more awe and wonder.

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