Lacking Gravitas.

The latest Pixar adventure, The Incredibles, opens today, and is getting good reviews so far.  I expect it to be every bit as fun as the other Pixar masterpieces (Toy Story; Monsters, Inc.; Finding Nemo).  There have been tremendous advances in CGI technology and software since the first movie came out, and Dreamworks has pulled out some doozies too (the Shrek movies).

And yet, something major is still missing from CGI.  It’s gravity.

No matter how complex they manage to get the muscle movements, light, wind, textures and detail, the eye misses the micro-movements that gravity creates:  the slight downward movement of a body as it strains against gravity to jump; the small ripples through a mass as it lands.  No matter how incredibly detailed a body is, it still looks as though it doesn’t weigh anything, and the brain notices in spite of itself.

Pixar has fudged this in the past by animating characters for whom this wouldn’t matter—for example, toys, which you expect to be plastic and lightweight, and that’s how they look.  They moved on to monsters, which didn’t have to look real either.  And then, once they got the algorithms for water down, they went to fish, which float and swim.  Now that they’re bringing out an all-human feature, they buy themselves a little time by making them superheroes, for whom the laws of gravity and motion don’t necessarily apply. 

I always love the animating skill and richness of the Pixar movies.  But my eye always misses something, and the characters will always look especially cartoonish to me.  Ice Age, in my opinion, dealt with this really well by going with it and making the characters very exaggerated and cartoonish on purpose.  I think the animators will have to continue working around this problem until they solve it (which may take a lot more computing power than is possible today).  In the meantime, though, we can enjoy the animation for what it is:  not an imitation of reality, but a welcome surreality.

14 thoughts on “Lacking Gravitas.

  1. Thanks for giving me an explanation for what I’m seeing. I’ve always been the guy that looks at this stuff and can’t get away from that little itching feeling that something’s not right.

  2. This reviewer had a unique take on the film. I don’t necessarily agree but it was different from the typical “look at the pretty colors” reviews most everyone else is offering. I’ll be paying my $7.50 on Sunday, Pixar hasn’t disappointed me yet.

  3. It worked, but links are filtered through EE so anything that comes after a question mark gets killed. I believe it’s a rank denial mechanism to try and discourage comment spam.

  4. A little off topic, but has anyone seen the trailer for Star Wars episode III? I believe it’s showing with The Incredibles which is added incentive to drop the cash. There is a high quality version of the trailer available on This made my Friday; I can’t wait until May 19, 2005.

  5. I had this same problem with Terminator III.  The Terminatrix hits Arnold and he flies 40 feet back through a couple walls, but she is unmoved.  Since she weighs approximately the same as he does, you can’t help being moved away from the story by the lack of correspondence to the physics that we have come to expect in the real world.

    Ditto when he’s riding on the end of the crane smashing through buildings and poles – we know instinctively that in such a case the crane truck would simply jacknife and crash.

    We grew up in this world, seeing things move a certain way.  Even if we don’t know 32ft/sec^2 we know if it looks wrong.

  6. The Incredibles was fabulous. Even the dialogue was good.

    Good point about the gravity, but … personally, I get reality shoved in my face every day, all day long. I want my fantasies to be FANTASIES.

    After all, Pamela Anderson’s tits are not wonderful because they’re merely real.

  7. Brad Bird, who directed this movie as well as my all-time favorite “The Iron Giant”, mentioned in an interview with the LA Times that he’d been long prepared to do the movie in 2-D.  I haven’t seen the it yet, but I’m guessing the gravity problem would have been solved if it had been traditionally animated, and it might have been snappier, too.  CGI animation has an odd ‘floating’ quality, where characters never seem to connect with each other or the ground they’re walking on.  There’s a technical reason for that, but I’m not proficient in CGI so I sure as hell can’t explain it….  At any rate, the guy is a great storyteller, and I can’t wait to see this thing.

  8. I just got home from going to see it and it really is a very good movie.  Quite funny too.  smile  I highly recommend it.  It will quickly be added to my by on dvd list when I can get it.  smile

  9. GeekMom- Good observation about the missing gravitas (or excessive levitas)in CGI films.  I don’t know anything about the details, but I suspect the “technical reason” for it mentioned by maryh is complexity (lots more stuff to compute) and perhaps laziness (no one will notice anyway…).  Some motions in Shrek were done quite convincingly, though- for instance, the wobbling of the chain dragged behind the dragon in the castle chase scene.

    Re DOF’s comments about Governator, I mean Terminator III- it does look wrong, and we do know a lot of physics even if we don’t know the equations. I was also disturbed by the last scene in one of the previous Terminator films, where the enemy bot is liquified, and still manages to coalesce and reform.  One would think being melted would destroy the information necessary for reassembly.  Butr what do I know?  Maybe BotGod breathed AI into it.

  10. According to my animation teacher in college, Pixar does all of its computer animation frame by frame, as opposed to “tweening” the movements via the computer.  So I assume the “cartoonish” movements of the characters are due to the same factor that made classic animation cartoonish in the first place – all of it is calculated by the animators themselves, as opposed to having a computer calculate all of the real physical factors that a real set would be subject to.  Then again, it’s also why the Pixar movies are so damned awesomely animated.

  11. I read this while watching LOTR Fellowship, and I realize now what it is that bothers me so much about the movies.  Its the gravity of the hobbits when they use extras in scenes with the “big folk”.  We know how cloth moves with our body sizes, and the cloth of the hobbits wouldn’t look at all like it does.  It wouldn’t bend the same or sway in the breeze the same, etc.  Anywho, I saw The Incredibles today and it was really good.  Pixar has created yet another movie that I really enjoyed.  I haven’t been let down yet.

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