Looking Through CG Eyes

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Over at The House Next Door, Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard have posted a fascinating debate on David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. After seeing the film myself, I have to agree with much of what they said, including their suggestion that the film represents little more than an age reversal gimmick. I’d like to avoid covering the same ground as Bellamy and Howard, since they’ve done an admirable job distilling some of the finer grained aspects of the film, but I would like to take a moment to discuss an area of Benjamin Button that has yet to receive much critical attention in the press (including the blogosphere).

That is, I would like to consider how the visual effects technology of the film undermines the structural and emotional arc of the narrative. My comments are still fairly fresh since I have just seen the film and am responding rather quickly to something that will no doubt require a little more thought. For those who have yet to see the film, there are serious spoilers ahead.

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The dramatic structure of Benjamin Button is familiar enough to mainstream audiences: it involves a framing device firmly rooted in the recent past (2005) during an infamous crisis (Hurricane Katrina). We then travel back in time via Benjamin’s own words (his last will and testament) and memories of Daisy, the love of his life, who lies dying in a New Orleans hospital bed. Throughout, Benjamin narrates his life story with voice-overs used to link time and place. The central story thread concerns Benjamin’s love for Daisy; a love that turns into an obsession as he grows younger. While he pines for her, there is little to suggest that Daisy is even deserving of such praise. She is cold towards him at various times and exhibits no real personality, except a single-minded vision to dance and mingle with an intercontinental set. At the same time, Benjamin’s single-minded journey to reunite with Daisy becomes tiresome when we realize that Benjamin is capable of so much more in life, yet he lives and acts as an observer to history, not a participant in history.

This film has been compared to Forrest Gump, not only because both share the same screenwriter (Eric Roth), but also because of the character-moving-through-history motif that characterizes both films. Some critics have suggested that Fincher’s work removes the sentimental gauze, which plagued Robert Zemeckis’ vision of a man caught up in major historical moments of the mid 20th century. However, I have read very little criticism of Button that highlights the striking similarities to Gump at the level of its narrative arc.

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The enduring appeal of Forrest Gump as a character is his ability to cut through a complex situation and insist on a simple solution. In his mind, he loves Jenny and there is no good reason why the two of them should remain apart. Critics and intellectuals have scoffed at this attitude, claiming that it reduces a generation of social unrest and activism to a sentimental fable. That Forrest is unwilling to participate but simply observe seems to be the chief concern of activist scholars and critics. Alternatively, Fincher bests Gump by removing the sense of social urgency by offering a grand fable that barely references our cultural history. What we glimpse is on television or the radio, not experienced first-hand by Benjamin.

Yet, like Forrest, Benjamin also prefers to observe and say very little. When called upon to explain himself or recount his past he is brief and has a penchant for what I can only call Gumpisms. When asked if he could explain what it feels like to grow young he replies, “I’m always looking out my own eyes.” Or when he reflects on the importance of strangers in his life, he says “It’s funny how sometimes the people we remember the least make the greatest impression on us.” Or this gem: “It’s a funny thing about coming home. Looks the same. Smells the same. Feels the same. You’ll realize what’s changed is you.” When Benjamin speaks at any length it is in his voice-over, which is actually being read aloud by Daisy’s daughter, Caroline.

More fundamentally, however, Benjamin’s obsession with Daisy, to bring her home and start a family, mirrors that of Forrest and Jenny to the point that when Daisy rejects his offer to sweep her off her feet I thought he might reply,”I may not be a smart man, but I know what love is.” There are other plot point similarities, including the sea captain mirroring Lieutenant Dan, Queenie mirroring Mamma Gump, and everyone else being vaguely suspicious or sorry for Forrest and Benjamin because of their deviation from the norm.

My real question is why Benjamin is limited to his observational status, why he responds with few words and even fewer thoughts, and why he accomplishes so little in a life that is filled with potentialities? In a broader sense, the film — much like its characters — felt stiff, awkward, and unsure of itself. These peculiarities point to the visual effects as the potential problem.

The computer generated imagery (CGI) of Benjamin Button attempts to situate the audience in a parallel world where a baby ages backwards. To accomplish this, Fincher and the visual effects crew (namely the craftspeople at Digital Domain) utilized a number of techniques to give the illusion that Benjamin (as played by Brad Pitt) grew young in a photo-real way. As you know, most Hollywood CG visual effects aim to be photo-real; that is, they seek to blend computer graphics with the photographic properties of film. So, customarily grain is added to otherwise pristine digital images, and blending tools attempt to match the photographic reality of what was captured on set (or what would pass as believable or realistic from a photographic standpoint).

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For certain sequences, the look of old Benjamin was achieved by using stand-in actors whose faces were digitally replaced with portions of Pitt’s. (The New York Times recently ran an article with a revealing slideshow that explains much of the artistry that went into this process.) I found this visual effect to be disjointed and unconvincing, mostly because Pitt’s eye-line matches were off. There were also instances where Pitt’s eyes appeared to float separate from the physiology of his face. (The effect is far more convincing in still frame, as evidenced by the screen shots that I have included here.) In any event, it is clear that the achievement of this effect was predicated on having very few lengthy close-ups of Benjamin’s face. Which might explain Benjamin’s penchant for short answers and stunted movement.

Even as the character grows younger and Pitt takes over the role (body and all), Benjamin moves very little and continues to say very little. Similarly, the reverse aging on Cate Blanchett results in a series of shots that show her smoothed skin. However, when she speaks we are treated to more reverse shots than close-ups or medium close-ups. This is plainly obvious when Benjamin reaches his teenage years and returns to see Daisy in her dance studio. The lights are out, except for an orange glow emanating from her office and the street lamps. Benjamin is bathed in deep shadow, but we can barely make out his smoothed, youthful look. Pitt’s performance in this scene is awkwardly static, as he hesitates to move out of the shadow, which only reinforces the artificiality of the whole aging process. We’re not allowed to see him in full light otherwise the seams of the effect might become visible. The same goes for old Benjamin, who we do see in full light, but only for very short glimpses. It’s also rather convenient that Benjamin never speaks too much, for that might require shots that linger on his blended face.

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In a sense, the film becomes a slave to technology when stylistic concerns are motivated by technical standards. Strangely, A.O. Scott in the Times praises the CG work in this film as building on previous models of cinematic illusion:

Building on the advances of pioneers like Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson and Robert Zemeckis — and on his own previous work adapting newfangled means to traditional cinematic ends — Mr. Fincher (“Fight Club,” “Zodiac”) has added a dimension of delicacy and grace to digital filmmaking. While it stands on the shoulders of breakthroughs like “Minority Report,” “The Lord of the Rings” and “Forrest Gump” (for which Mr. Roth wrote the screenplay), “Benjamin Button” may be the most dazzling such hybrid yet, precisely because it is the subtlest.

While the aging effects may indeed be subtle, they are also far too delicate to live and breathe on their own. The shots are too precious to be handled with a rougher style; they require the kind of rigid template that Spielberg aimed to overcome with his dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. Initially, it was deemed to risky to move the camera in an effects shot, for it might reveal the seams of the nascent technology. But, I would argue, that it was Spielberg’s decision to move his camera through the space of the galloping Gallimimus that made that shot.

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Just as Benjamin is an observer, so too is Fincher, who does not penetrate the visual space of the film but captures the space from a safe, static distance. Everything is too clean, too composed, if only because the CG age elements required Fincher to lock down his camera or limit his stylistic palette. We cannot know for certain why he chose certain angles or options, but we can consider Fincher’s other work, and what we find is a director that moves through space with his camera and allows his actors to move in space. In Panic Room, the camera is a roving macro eye; in Se7en the canted framing and hand-held shots in several sequences sets a tone; and in The Game the long shot is used frequently to isolate Nicholas in empty spaces.

In light of my comparison to Forrest Gump, it’s worth mentioning that I believe Zemeckis’ CG approach is the subtler one. Advocates of Fincher’s choices might suggest that back in 1994 audiences were less sophisticated when it came to pointing out CG shots. But even today I am impressed with the execution of Lieutenant Dan’s struggle with the loss of his legs. Watching the film for the first time I wasn’t really concerned with how the effects were achieved since I believed the situation. There were few showy set pieces for the CG leg effect in bold lights. Dan simply moves through space with no legs, while Zemeckis shoots the scene as if that did not matter.

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And while some might prefer Fincher’s detached, almost humorless view of things, there is the sense that Gump’s awe-shucks attitude and goofiness assisted in turning some awkward, showy CG shots into comic gems. So, in that sense, Zemeckis successfully pulled the wool over our eyes with Dan’s handicap, the blue-screen feather, and the multiplied crowds in Washington D.C., but tried with a bit of comedy to sell some awkward effects, particularly those involving Forrest’s celebrity meetings.

As I’ve already suggested, these are some very preliminary ideas that I hope to flesh out at a later date. In the coming weeks I will be returning to Button on a more positive note with some ideas on sound design and the importance of environmental ambiences. If you’ve seen the film and have an opinion, I’m interested in your comments.

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