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Archive for September 7th, 2010

Model Behaviour and Fake Realism

Posted by Dirck on 7 September, 2010

Yesterday being a day off (Labour Day coming at the end of summer rather than the beginning in North America– I suppose to confuse communists), I got to watch some semi-educational programming with my son.  One of the less nutritious things we allow him is Thomas the Tank Engine.  He delights to the antics of the brightly coloured locomotives, and my wife and I are able to enjoy cynical speculation on the theme of how much less exciting life on Sodor Island might be if Sir Topham Hatt would spend a few bucks on rail-line maintenance.

Yesterdays episode left us all rather cold.  My son actually took some of his toys and left the room, preferring to make up his own adventures to watching what was on the screen.  He’s not quite 2½, and he’s not usually so discerning.  The adults were not complaining lightly about the habits of T.Hatt, but bitterly about Gullane Entertainment and its current master HiT.  Why did all this happen?  Because the wretched full CGI which has appeared in a couple of rather unappealling Thomas movies has taken over from the models that have provided the action hitherto.  Here’s the problem:

It doesn’t look so terrible just sitting there, but blinking and flapping its lips while racing past generated backgrounds, it’s a source of ire for all ages.  Compared to the old way of doing it…

…it lacks charm.  I’m not inherently opposed to CGI, but when it’s clearly used as a cost-cutting measure, it comes across as exactly that– the cheap way to do it.  The models involve craftsmen who have a depth of experience in both the mechanics of making the objects and the effort to make them look something like a full size object.  It’s a skilled performance, and even if it’s not utterly convincing, the necessary cues are there to let the human eye/brain know that this is a real thing, something which exists.  I doubt my son considers this in his estimation of the show, but I am very pleased at the occasional bridge collapse and burst dam, because it shows exactly how much attention to detail and how much willing effort was spent.

Well-done CGI can manage this.  I will offer not a recent blockbuster as an example, but a quiet little film called Moon which spends the requiste effort (and one assumes cash) on doing the job properly and is thus rewarded with non-existent things which convince the watcher– this is not simply a matter of processing power, but one of craftsmanship as much as the old Thomas episodes or anything Tsuburaya Eiji put his thumbs on.  Too many low-budget efforts try to replace craft with computer, rather than understand that craft is still needed, regardless of the tool.  Burst dams and collapsing bridges are meaningless, because CGI in a base way is all about spectacle– they can show us anything, because they make it up out of nothing.  Landslide?  Who cares?  No one has to clean up the set afterwards.

The upshot of it is that in an effort to, I assume, keep cranking out episodes without spending as much as was previously done, the intended market is alienated.  Keep in mind that this is not us parents, as many objections to the new stuff as we have (others include a growing predomination of rhyming couplets and “updated” non-British School Choir-style songs), but the kids.  If a boy under three years old spurns the CGI product, you’re clearly doing something wrong.  The kids can tell that the things in the show don’t exist, and thus are if I remember my own childhood correctly less pleased with the toys the show now appears to exist mainly to flog.  A Bugs Bunny plush toy was not so appealing, because Bugs was a cartoon.  A model of the Seaview was neat because it connected to something that really existed– a bigger model of the Seaview.

I’m not a marketing genius, of course, nor do I hold an MBA or similar passport to having my pronouncements on cost/benefit analysis attended to.  I can say that Gullane Entertainment is busily shooting its own feet while at the same time strangling its golden-egg-laying goose in perfect freedom because I say it without any expectation of it being noticed.  Even after I’ve sent a letter to them outlining in a somewhat less circumloquacious way my own and my son’s objections to their current efforts.


Today’s sad pen:  Reform 1745
Today’s ink, nearly but not quite outraged: Herbin’s Vert Empire

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