Thursday, April 10, 2008

Moments of Wonder in Computer Animated Scenes

Computer animation has something of a bad rep, a stigma it must fight. Everyone remembers Jar Jar Binks. But ah, what a tool our new visual technologies can be in the hands of an artist or a great director - someone who understands how to evoke wonder not just for the sake of startling or amazing the viewer, but wonder at just the right moment to break the story open in some new way...especially if combined with powerful music, or powerful acting, or powerful dialogue. I want to write a quick post here with a few of my favorite moments, to celebrate some moments in the past few years when the computer animators and the storytellers came together to make us gasp...and feel.

First prize among those that come first to mind tonight is the opening of The Two Towers...the stirring music, the sweeping camera view over an ice-cold mountain ridge as the sounds of terrible battle slowly become audible, then the moment that makes it all: that long meteoric fall into a lake within the earth, while a daunting choir laments in our ears. That is wonder-work; that is film-making. (After all, what did we all set down our books a few moments and go to the movies for, if not in hope of such moments of wonder as that?)

Now for Number 2 - the critical scene in Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children - the return of the villain, Sephiroth, whom the heroes had thought put away forever. Three things I love in this scene, besides the music (did I mention the importance of a great choir?). One: the widening of Cloud's eye when he realizes his enemy is back. How did the animators capture so much emotion in a cartoon eye? In the words of our art editor, who grabbed my arm at that moment in the movie, "You see that look? That's consciousness!"

Two: Sephiroth's lines. This is the kind of villain that rouses all my boyish horror and admiration. "I want to sail the darkness of the cosmos with this planet as my vessel." That's quite a way to say hello after a long absence. There is dark ambition and a grim majesty to his first lines upon his return.

Three: The grace and menace with which the animators imbued Sephiroth's movements on the screen - especially that moment when he leaps into the ruined tower after Cloud and gets our adrenaline going, sword out, hair flying, at a dead run, moving like some wild god, relentless, self-sufficient, terrible. This is no mindless car chase action scene: there is a grace and dark poetry to the duel.

The Two Towers scene is an example of how to begin a movie right; Advent Children, how to end a movie right. Here's the scene:

And now for a middle from a movie. Not a flawless movie by any means, but a movie with many beautiful scenes. The moment in Big Fish when our hero first sees his beloved so well illustrates the wonder of first love and of love at first sight, which the French used to call le coup de foudre (i.e., being hit by lightning), that I can never forget it. And once more, the storytellers has given us some great lines: "They tell you that when you meet the love of your life, time stops. And that's true. ...What they don't tell you is that once time starts again, it moves extra fast to catch up."

I will end my celebration here, but please add some favorite scenes of your own in the comments. Frankly, the moviemakers are turning out so much special-effects-heavy shlock these days in the name of "fantasy" films that I feel no guilt at all in taking an evening just to throw up my hands and celebrate the real thing, the scenes that moved me, without necessarily offering anything really intelligent to say about any of them. And that's the beauty of a blog, as opposed to a conference or a class or a scholarly publication (although all three of those have their own place and their own beauty). A blogger is allowed a few free moments just to stand up and start cheering. Join me in that!

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