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Was that fake baby in 'American Sniper' really that bad?

And, in the absence of a real baby, could better special effects have made it better?

The fake baby from American Sniper

While some complain about the use of a fake baby in the film “American Sniper” may have cost the blockbuster the Best Picture Oscar, others say it could have been worse.

“There are some creepy looking CG babies out there in film,” says Michael Keith, a faculty member and visual effects specialist at The Dave (Digital Animation & Visual Effects) School in Orlando, Florida who spoke in an interview. “It definitely could have been worse. I think Clint Eastwood made the right call.”

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Keith explains that effects in film are either termed special (computer/animated) or practical (such as robotics). While he personally made the leap of faith across that Uncanny Valley, where directors and effects people hope a practical effect like a prop doll, or robot, will pass muster as a person, there were measures that could have been taken in post- production to lessen the negative effects. Props and robotics can be further enhanced to achieve a more realistic effect using special effects like CGI (Computer Generated Images).

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Those measures, however, can go also badly wrong in the eyes of audiences.

Case in the Twilight film franchise’s “Breaking Dawn Part Two” wherein Bella (Kristen Stewart) sees her unintentionally creepy CGI/robotic hybrid offspring Renesmee.

In “American Sniper,” the original plan was for Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller to coo over a real baby. But the baby took ill and was replaced by a plastic doll, according Mr. Keith, who did not work on the film, but is familiar with the film’s very public history.

“It’s time consuming and because we know that the original production plan called for the use of real twin babies – one got sick and the other was a no-show –there might not have been time in the schedule to pull something like this off in production,” Keith postulates.

According to The New York Times the film’s screenwriter, Jason Hall, in a tweet (now removed), "Hate to ruin the fun but real baby #1 showed up with a fever. Real baby #2 was no show. (Clint voice) Gimme the doll, kid.”

Keith says, “I had heard of the fake baby debacle, so I was on the lookout for it when I finally went to see the film. Frankly, the supposition that that’s what would cost the film an Oscar is ludicrous. Could they have done it better? Yes. Was it as bad as everyone said? Absolutely not.”

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But, Keith adds that in retrospect Mr. Eastwood could have used CGI to boost the credibility of the scene, but that is a decision that would have been based on how much time the director had to punt.

“There’s a lot of heavy special effects work that they could have done to make that doll appear more human,” Keith says. “They could have used a CG replacement to show movement by masking out the doll and using a real baby animated a bit.”

But that kind of CGI replacement would also entail the partial animation of Mr. Cooper’s body wherever it intersects with the doll.

“People think that film makers can just do this kind of intricate work so easily but in reality we’re talking about weeks to alter just two minutes of that doll on screen” Keith says.

Could a robot baby have saved the scene?

“CGI as a solution would have been time consuming, but I don’t think there’s a scenario in which a director can just say “Call so-and-so and get me a robot baby,” Keith says. “Also, with robotics it could be even harder to get the necessary realism CGI can accomplish.”


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