Spotlight : June 1996

Why Morph?
by Owen Hammer

Believe it or not, there was once a time when morphing didn't exist. In fact, the era of cinema before the morph was actually longer then the post-morph era. Representative of the former is the transformation sequence from THE WOLFMAN with Lon Chaney Jr. Obviously the technology to morph Chaney into his lupine counterpart didn't exist in 1941, but the effects artists of the day had their own medieval solution. They applied gradually more and more of the wolfman fur to Chaney's face and created a sequence of dissolves between these 'keyframes.' I'm sure the 1941 audience was cringing under their seats, but the effect is laughable by today's standards. It's easy to figure out how the effect is done for one reason, you can identify the individual 'keyframes' -- it's, obvious where the real-life 'stopping points' are. If they shot Chaney with 5/8 of the fur and 3/4 of the fur, there's no frame of him with 11/16 of the fur on his face; this moment would be a blurry superimposition of two other images. From the beginning, this was the problem with any transformation sequence.

The popularity of transformation sequences alone says something about the human psyche. Our various mythologies are full humans transforming into animals, humanoid demi-gods disguising themselves as humans, and human/animal composites. The conscious and unconscious mind looks at two similar objects and has to question 'what's the difference?' -- and eventually 'what lay in-between?' As a matter of fact, the first special effect was a transformation. George Melies' prototype camera locked up for a few frames while filming a street scene and the result was a jump cut, beginning as a bus drove by, and ending as a funeral procession drove by, creating the unprecedented illusion of transformation.

As far as I can tell, the first 'morphing' (computer-created, seamless, full-motion, transformation sequence between two or more elements) was in the 1984 music video "Are You Experienced," a cover of the Hendrix classic by the perpetual pioneers DEVO. It took seven years for the technology take off, in 1991, with a three pronged attack: T2, Michael Jackson's Black or White video, and STAR TREK VI. Since then, it's been a mad dash to out morph the other guy. Which brings me to my point.

There have been literally thousands of bad morphs in the last five years. Bad technically, and bad thematically. Not only was it a bad idea, but it wasn't even executed well. A slew of bad commercials, syndicated TV shows and feature films have generated hours of morph garbage. I imagine the executives at D.D.B. Needham or Ruthless records were watching too much 20/20. "Hey get me some of that morphing." Add to that the fact that morphing software packages are being produced by the gallon, creating an environment where the belief that technology compensates for poor concept can swell, and it's morphin' time! We've reached a point where producers are getting antsy for even a mere mention of morphing.

Take Coolio's Fantastic Voyage video where a bicycle morphs into a car. It demonstrates the four characteristics of the bad morph.

1. The effect is driving the idea. I don't think, in the context of this video, that a bicycle transforming into a car is a good idea (not that the video has a great concept in the first place). Surely the producers were desperate just to get morphing into the video when this idea came out of them.

	"How about a bicycle morphs into a car?"
	"Why would a bicycle morph into a car?"
	"Because, uh, Coolio's too poor to afford a
  car so he can't get to the beach.  He can
  only afford a bicycle which cannot get to the beach."
	"Why does Coolio need to get to the beach?"
	"Because we already shot the beach footage.
  Now the producers say we gotta get some morphing into it.
  Listen, in Coolio's fantasy world he has a car, so . . ."
	". . . the bicycle morphs into the car!  Brilliant!"
	"And we can even have two morphs in the video."
	"But we can't afford two morphs."
	"We don't need to.  When the fantasy's over, the car has
  to turn back into the bike, so we just run the morph in reverse."
2. The bicycle is laying on its side, but the car is on its tires. Morphing requires some similarity between A and B. The more different they are, the harder the morph. Two dissimilar people could smoothly morph into each other, because any two faces are structurally the same. What part of the car do the handle bars become? How do two tires split into four? What happens to the 'holes' in the bicycle (the space within frame) when the bicycle morphs into an object that's topologically whole (unless the windows are open, an outline of a car can't have any holes in it)? The discrepant shapes lead the effects artist to create, not a two-way transformation, but a less intriguing three-way transformation. Which brings me to . . .

3. A bad morph will appear as if A morphs into an indescribable blob, and then into B. This is the case with the Bike/Car morph. It kind of 'floats' in mid-air and settles down on four tires (watch for an equally unconvincing shadow to appear under the car). It also displays the fourth characteristic of a bad morph.

4. No motion. It's far more difficult to morph two moving objects than two still objects. Look closely, most morphs you see are actually stills morphed into stills, with a small degree of motion created by the shifting of shape. A moving bicycle transforming into a moving car would be an incredible effect. Why does the villain stop dead in his tracks before transforming into the beast? Why does the rock star stop dancing before turning into a pit bull? Conceptually there's no answer to these questions, so the use of the effect has grinded the 'narrative' to a halt.

Morphing is hard. If you can't pull it off, write a new script. This high-tech effect becomes nothing more than a means by which the producers can once again demonstrate their incompetency. But don't get me wrong, there have been some excellent morphs in the past five years:

INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE: In a shot I like to think has a nod to Lon Chaney, Kirsten Dunst's crumpled, matted hair morphs back beautiful, bright, curly long-hair. On top of that, the camera is moving while it grows. The hair even grows out in a curly motion, as curly red hair probably should. Most importantly, the story actually provides a motivation for this effect.

THE CITY OF LOST CHILDREN (1995): An overall great special effects film wherein one of the main characters morphs into the villain at the end (don't worry, I haven't just spoiled the movie). This occurs during what I assume was a dolly around the actor's/actress's face. Most incredible of all, the 'character', the fictional being who is transforming, never stops emoting. The pained look on its face starts at the beginning of the morph, and ends at the end of the morph, with no bargain basement stone-face to reckon with. By the way, did I mention that every one should go out and see this film?

When people of different races morph into each other in the Black or White video, there's a statement being made. Okay, not a profound statement, but to a lot of people races are clear, distinct categories, and this effect, by showing that subtle gradations exist between the so called 'races' declares the concept of race to be completely meaningless. This is because Black and White never carries the pretense of being non-fiction; the morph is essentially a metaphor, not a statement of fact. It doesn't bring morphing into the arena of reality.

But I do look forward to whatever effects the talented people out there are producing, and pray I don't have to see another bad morph. I liked SENSE AND SENSIBLITY plenty, and there was not a morph to be found. I'm waiting for the day Hollywood morphs an object into itself, just to insure that they waste more money. Or better yet, someone develops the system to morph a bad movie into a good movie. Only then will the technology reach its peak.

Owen Hammer

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