Monday, 30 July 2012
Computer-generated characters in films
The film Ted, which will appeal to all arctophiles, is about to be released in the UK. The star, a talking and beer-swilling teddy bear, is a piece of computer-generated animation. The human actors had to act as if he were there, then he was inserted after the human actors had been filmed.
Now suppose that human actors will be replaced in the same way, and that we will watch films with wholly realistic animated characters, such that human perceptual apparatus cannot tell the difference between them and human actors. That would take a lot of computing power, and some sophisticated programming, but it is perfectly possible that we shall see this development within the next 50 years, and perhaps sooner.
Philosophers of perception might find this an interesting new source of problems. It seems that there ought to be some difference in how we should describe the perception of the viewer, but it is not obvious how to characterize the difference. Disjunctivists, for example, could not capture the difference merely in terms of seeing human actors versus having an impression that was qualitatively indistinguishable from seeing them, because the stage of generating a mere impression that would be at issue would take place outside the perceiver's head. The fork that reflected the disjunction would have to be placed outside any specific perceiver, at the point of creation of the film, with one prong running back to real actors and the other to a computer that generated images. One might prevent this from being a problem for the philosophy of perception by regarding viewing a film as a species of seeing the objects filmed, but that would be a challenging course to take. However, it does not seem that this sort of problem would be specific to the portrayal of human beings, as distinct from the portrayal of other entities, such as mountains, by computer-generated images.
Another question would arise in connection with the paradox of fiction. We get emotionally involved in films, even though we know that the characters are not real. If we knew that the characters were not even portrayed by real actors, would that affect our degree of emotional involvement? If the theory that we suspend our disbelief is straightforwardly correct, our degree of emotional involvement should be unaffected. If we suspend disbelief, we do not see the characters as portrayed by actors: we see them as real. Then the fact that actors had been replaced by animations should not matter. We might learn something from the extent of our capacity to get emotionally involved in cartoons that are obviously cartoons. The greater that capacity, the more likely it is that we would get fully involved in films where the characters seemed to be played by real actors, but were in fact computer-generated.
Finally, what would such developments do to the film industry? There would be many more films. They would be cheaper to make, and cheaper to amend after release in order to make small improvements, or to correct continuity errors. Films might be more finely honed to the preferences of audiences, because it would be cheaper to make extracts that could be tried on sample audiences before the final content of the film was determined. Such developments would be disruptive, but I think that on balance, they would be welcome, just as the word processor and electronic publishing have been disruptive, but have also brought great benefits.