23 February 2009

CGI Hollywood Actors: A Threat or A Blessing?

With the ever-changing technological revolution upon us, I wanted to take a look this week at a related topic that has been seen as a concerning shadow looming over actors since early 2002. With the expansion and evolution of the electronics available today, film and the movie industry has jumped on the bandwagon by taking advantage of the evolution of various components of production available to them. One such innovation is that of computer generated images, or CGI. While it began as a way to “simulate large crowd scenes in Gladiator and passengers being tossed around the deck of a sinking ocean liner in Titanic,” as the technology became more sophisticated the question began to become more prevalent in people’s minds: Will CGI replace actors in the movies? Until recently, the answer has been an astounding no from all sides, specifically due to what animators like to call the “Uncanny Valley,” which is said to be the “no man’s land where artificial humans look both realistic and unrealistic at the same time, giving them a creepy vibe.” In discussing the 2007 film Beowulf directed by Robert Zemeckis, the New York Times Bits blog suggests that “the last few yards of the journey toward convincing realism are going to be the really hard part... [because] perhaps we have spent so much time looking at out fellow human beings that we can detect a problem with something as subtle as the physics of a muscle contracting.” However, the most convincing reason for CGI actors not taking over Hollywood is money. As L. Vincent Poupard points out, “in most cases, it would be cheaper to hire a cast for a movie…to hire a well-known star, then to pay hundreds of programmers” for a CGI film. However, as I explored the blogosphere, I found that the question still exists today in various forms. Both VeeJay Burns of MindBlizzard blog and Chloe Veltman of lies like the truth discuss not only the availability of the technology, but also how it may affect our way of entertainment life.

"Virtual Actors replace Humans in Hollywood?"

Questioning the preparedness of the public while providing information on the breakthrough in technology is such an interesting way to look at computer generated images and characters in films. Though it could be the next step for the film industry, I feel like the argument for Hollywood to tackle such a challenge still is weak. Yes, as Robert Scoble pointed out in his blog and various videos, the technology is available (see left). But that doesn’t necessarily means it will be used, particularly in the creation of an entire cast worth of actors. Putting monetary amounts for a project such as a complete CGI cast movie aside, I think that one of the biggest upsets Hollywood studios would face by taking this next step into a world of computer generated actors through motion capture technology is the Screen Actors Guild. As an article from Associated Content on the topic of replacing actors with CGI points out, “the Screen Actors Guild is a union… formed to make sure that pressure could be applied to Hollywood if the people working on a movie were to be treated unfairly.” Even if CGI characters in films do begin to replace actors, there is always a body behind the motion capture, which you fail to mention when citing Lord of the Rings as an example of these special effects.

Another upset that I think may become an issue, which you touched on in your afterthought, is the whether or not people will take films seriously as they begin to delve deeper into CGI characters. Though it was simply used as a promotional gimmick within the world of SecondLife, neither the CSI:NY crossover nor the Zwatboek auditions were taken seriously. With the “uncanny valley” theory looming overhead, do you honestly think that Hollywood and movie buffs are ready for the complete digital transformation of the actor and celebrity as we know them?

"Theatre Killed The Video Star"

I was really excited to find someone writing about The Curious Case of Benjamin Button without mentioning its thirteen Oscar nominations. Instead the focus is on the technical aspects of the movie laid out in the NPR article, specifically the motion capture computer generated Brad Pitt as the title character. I had not heard or read the article until coming across your post, however I had seen the movie and I distinctly remembered wondering how exactly the young-old Ben Button (see right) was created. Though I did not let it distract me from the rest of the movie, upon finding your blog, with a link to the NPR article, I was thrilled to finally know how those first 52 minutes of the film were done.

While most people writing about computer generated characters, including the NPR article which inspired your post, look at the effect they may have on the Hollywood acting community, your article takes a different look. Instead of focusing on those directly impacted by a switch to CGI actors, I enjoyed reading your take on what might happen to live performance and theatre if celebrities moved to the stage. Though you’ve already mentioned that currently they have not helped the box office recently, the idea of the live venue being the only performance arena to see one’s favorite actors does inspire awe. Even after disregarding the fame of an actor, you question the aspirations of the up-and-coming artist. Though it would be nice to see theatre as the desired final destination, do you think that perhaps the goal will evolve into being a model for these CGI creations instead? Regardless of how things turn out, it would be intriguing to see the theatre become as popular as films are if Hollywood were to find a way to permanently pass through the “uncanny valley” with their CGI acting creations.

16 February 2009

One Giant Leap for the Arts: Congress Includes Financing for the NEA in the Recovery Bill

As President Obama signs into effect the $787 billion economic stimulus package today at the Museum of Nature & Science in Denver, Colorado, many American artists are ecstatic with the resulting effects of the bill on the creative community. Since the start of negotiations on the recovery package began in mid-January, many performance advocacy groups, such as Americans for the Arts, have been lobbying Congress to keep the arts in mind as they attempt to help boost the failing economy. Though the national stimulus bill saw much opposition and change as it made its way through the negotiations process, it was passed on Friday including the $50 million package for the National Endowment for the Arts (see image left). With 246 to 183 votes in the House and 60 to 38 votes in the Senate, the bill was finally adopted after a historically peculiar five-hour and 17-minute voting process, due to a Senator’s mother’s funeral. Regardless of the hostility toward the arts inclusion in the bill, much of the American workforce has ties to the creative community.

According to a government study from spring 2008, cited in Scott Lilly's article “Arts Bashing,” around five million Americans jobs are related to the arts in one way or another. However, only two million are actual artists, and only 37 percent of those work full time. This makes almost 700,000 people employed by the arts. These performers make up about half a percent of the American workforce, with the average salary for an actor falling at about $24 thousand a year. Like the rest of the country, the already suffering arts have been affected by the poor economy. Not only have many groups lost support from outside sources such as corporations and foundations, but they have also made cuts of their own. Right here in Los Angeles the Opera had to lay off 17 of their 100 full time employees, while the remainder had to endure a six percent salary decrease. In an article by the International Herald Tribune from January, Robert Lynch, current president of Americans for the Arts, said that the arts community “contribute[s] $167 billion to the economy annually.” According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, this is comparable to the Gross Domestic Product of the Agriculture industry in 2007, which was around $167.9 billion dollars. Regardless, the arts have to make their cuts as well. As president and chief executive of Opera America Marc Scorca points out in the International Herald Tribune article, “these [artists] are taxpayers and rent payers and mortgage payers, just like every other employee.”

Despite pleas for help and recognition, the artists' community is often overlooked as a group that would require financial help at such a high political level. As the stimulus package worked its way through legislative branch, many people questioned the $50 million included for the National Endowment for the Arts. The organization, which has seen a drastic decrease in funding from $176 million in 1992 to $145 million today, is an independent public agency dedicated to supporting excellence in the field while offering access to all Americans, and providing leadership in art education. In spite of all of this, many Representatives, such as Mike Pence (R-IN), were quoted in Lilly's article calling the money “wasteful government spending that has nothing to do with creating jobs,” ignoring the fact that the package is also intended to help preserve existing jobs. Others who opposed the money, such as Representative Jack Kingston (R-GA) boldly stated that America has “real people out of work right now and putting $50 million in the NEA and pretending that's going to save jobs... is disingenuous.” Kingston seems to believe that artists out of work, however, do not affect the economy in the same manner in which a “real person” would have once they lost their job. As the bill was on the floor of Congress Friday (see image right), Representative David R. Obey (D- WI) was quoted by the New York Times' ArtsBeat blog negatively emphasizing the fantasy of being able to ignore the “five million people who work in the arts industry.” He continued his statement by saying the industry has “12.5 percent unemployment” and accusing “that somehow if you work in that field, it isn’t real when you lose your job, your mortgage or your health insurance?” Finally he drives home the point of the inclusion of the money for the NEA by explaining “We’re trying to treat people who work in the arts the same way as anybody else.” The arts stimulus package was not the only one under scrutiny, as Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) pointed out during negotiations. A majority of all of the packages under objection before the passing of the bill were those which included small programs, making up less than one percent of the entire $767 billion.

While the bill passed in the House of Representatives on Wednesday, January 28th, the original Senate version did not include money for the arts, according to ArtsBeat. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives had to cut their monetary estimates by almost $100 billion. According to an article in the New York Times, the final stimulus bill will include about $507 billion for spending programs. This includes about $150 billion for public works, $87 billion toward Medicaid, $6.5 billion toward medical research and $50 million package for the National Endowment for the Arts. The remainder of the $787 billion will go towards tax related expenses, with about 74 percent of the budget being spent in the next 18 months. Even as much as the amount has been cut from the beginning negotiations, this recovery bill will be the largest financial recovery measure by the U.S. Government during a recession since World War II.

In conclusion, this stimulus package and the approval of the $50 million supporting the National Endowment for the Arts emphasizes the hopes that much of the theatrical community had in the new administration. By recognizing that the arts industry is a critical part of American culture, it is finally time for it to be financially supported by the U.S. Government. Having at last found a president who is willing to partner with the creative community, who knows what may happen next. Perhaps Quincy Jones' plea for a Secretary of Arts, similar to that of many European countries, will finally be answered.

09 February 2009

What and Where Is Theatre?: A Search for the Theatrical Aspects of Life

For the mass majority of the population, theatre is seen as a form of entertainment meant for a small, elite population who can afford the higher-than-movie priced tickets. This elite group not only spends between $200-$300 a person for the premium tickets to the hottest shows on Broadway, according to Playbill ticket price searches, but they also dress in some of their fanciest attire. However, this is not the reality that surrounds the theatre. Many die hard thespians find their way to the theatre, regardless of the budget limit they set themselves. Though the view from the mezzanine is not the best, one can experience the same show as the elite is experiencing for under $75. With the more recent cross over of hit Broadway musicals, such as Chicago (see left), into film, the world of the theatrical is becoming more open and accessible to the public. On the other hand, I believe that the theatrical can be found outside of the confines of buildings and is within our lives; even in places we would not expect it. As a new writer in the blogosphere, I truly hope that my blog will become a relevant and knowledgeable source regarding various, and perhaps unexpected, theatrical connections. Because of my desire to share the best information possible with my readers, I have been spending much of my time searching for other blogs and webs sites that are not only relevant the theatrical arts, but also provide some kind of connection to the topic and direction of the blog. Using both the Webby Awards and IMSA Criteria, my linkroll (see right) focuses on various theatrical sources. Whether these sources cover news of what goes on in “Theatre Land”, such as the World News Network, or are blogs discussing new ways to change American theatre, such as Theatre Ideas, or groups that use theatre to make a difference in the lives of people who need it most, such as The Unusual Suspects, I believe that these sources are a great place to start for someone hoping to find connections between the theatrical and the “normal” in one’s life. So as you explore the various sources available to you through my linkroll, I hope that you begin to become curious and explore the theatrical connections in life and the world around you.
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