Feeling much better now. Biggest accomplishment of the day: consuming a bowl of noodles in broth, which took most of this morning and afternoon. (I am newly thankful for the ability to eat and sit upright.) Other accomplishments include reading my 8th grade cousin's books and watching my 5-year-old cousin's movies (so stuff like Walk Two Moons and Surf's Up!) and taking yet more acetaminophen on the basis that sleep was a good thing and pride was a dumb reason not to get it.
Anyway, continuing on the subject of Surf's Up! - I continue to be amazed by the strides CGI (computer-generated animation) movies have taken in the... whoa. The last 14 years? Must be, if Toy Story was released in '95; I would have been nine. I remember walking into the theatre halfway through (in that theatre, back then, they showed the same movie on endless loop and a ticket would get you admission into that theatre at whatever time, for however long). It was the shot when Woody is standing in Andy's room, which is shifting from cowboy to space ranger mode, and the camera pulls up! and Woody realizes that he's standing on a Buzz Lightyear quilt, and I went "WHOA! The camera... it... moved! And the lighting!"
I sat through the movie. And then I sat through the movie again. (And then I sat through it again.) And then I wheedled my parents into buying the video, which I watched over and over. Okay, my love for that movie probably had something to do with it being about toys and me being nine. But the CGI; I was most definitely captivated by the CGI. How did they get the light to refract through Buzz Lightyear's helmet so that it looked like plastic? What was this magic, magic math that made art and stories?
Later - in middle school, I think, when I had chased that train of thought down and found out about raytracing and a bit of optics and as much of the geometry as I could understand without having been told of the existence of trigonometry and calculus - I found out that I'd fallen in love with CGI much earlier, when I was 5. It was the first movie I'd ever seen in a theatre, the now-closed cinema at Randhurst Mall. My aunt June took me and my friend Randy to see Beauty and the Beast. (Randy, by the way, developed a lifelong love of all things Disney, and can pretty much tell you about all the park histories, employee culture, etc. you ever wanted to know.) I think I had to close my eyes for the ending fight scene, but there was - again - one shot, just one shot, that captivated me.
It was the ballroom dance scene shot (in this clip from 4:25-4:32) when the camera starts by gently panning around the dancers and then sweeps up towards the ceiling and the chandelier - which is more complex than any hand-animated object has a right to be and still be rendered properly at that rate of change of angle and direction... years later, in middle school, I still couldn't figure it out. The camera is twisting in multiple planes, so maybe if they rotoscoped? But... no, that seemed... no. Something wasn't right.
And then I found out (through a Disney Channel special, or something) the background had been CGI. And then I went "OF COURSE!" and watched the film again, and sure enough - camera, sweeping up... and other gentle cues from other scenes, just nudging magic in the edges of the story.
And that's the point. The story. It always comes first, always. I didn't start out as a 5-year-old who wondered about complex geometric problems. I started as a 5-year-old who was caught up in the magic of the moment, and remembered that grand sweeping feeling as the camera went up. And then I grew a little, and I went "well, wait, okay, somebody made that. How did they make that magic happen?" Because that little (okay, littler) kid that used to be me still wondered. (She still does. I still feel a thrill now, 17 years later, as I watch those 7 seconds of film in grainy YouTube.)
You make the story, and then if you really, really need the tech, you make the tech to make the story happen. You can geek out - I do! - about the particle dynamics that enable realistic sludge drops to dribble down the back of ogres, or the gorgeous specular rendering of human skin in recent movies (a far cry from early CGI humans, which looked like they were coated in shiny plastic makeup; real human skin reflects different amounts of light at different angles; there's a term for it that I've forgotten). But it's all about the story, in the end. And the beginning. And the middle. And heck, all the way through.
The thing about really great technology is that you forget it's there - you become immersed in it, or it becomes a part of you, and you enfold and use it without thinking, eventually. But you can think about it; great technology also lets you peel back the onion skin of layers and go "and this is the motion capture system we put on Andy Serkis to make Gollum," or "watch the different layers of light and ocean spray we had to render to make these penguins surf," or "how do fur and cloth interact when pandas do kung-fu?"
For many CGI movies, the "behind the scenes" sections are still fairly shallow, MTV-style snips that barely scratch the surface. I understand those limitations; you've got to hold the interest of an audience that might not care so much, it takes a lot of time to shoot and edit and produce those extras, and so on. As a kid, I wished (and still wish) that I could go around the animation studio and just ask questions. Lots of questions.
Edit: My cousin Melanie - the 8th-grader - came in as I was writing this post, and it turns out that she's a big Behind The Scenes fan as well. I may have accomplices in geeking out on this. Hurrah!
I'm not sure what the point of this post is; it wasn't intended to have one. To try to express the magic that these movies have given me, I think. The magic of stories so strong that I can still remember single shots from them, quite vividly, from 17 years ago, when I was still in kindergarten. I do not remember the names of all my classmates, or... oh, possibly the vast majority of what I was supposed to have learned that year in school. But I remember my teacher (Mrs. Liss), and I remember that gorgeous moment of soaring up to meet the chandelier.
Those are the kinds of magic moments that I want to make, no matter what I do.