It's the next evolutionary step. We had Fred Astaire trying to sell us vacuums and John Wayne trying to sell us beer after they were dead. Will we soon have computer-generated actors who were never real people in the first place? An article in the L.A. Times shines a light on a recent debate surrounding the performance captured acting used in James Cameron's Avatar. The filmmaker received nine Oscar nominations for his part animation and part live-action film, but none of them include a nod to his cast. There have been no major critic's awards, no guild prize and according to interviews with several of the other Oscar nominees, what appears to be no respect for Cameron's revolutionary technology which combines real actors with computer-generated animation.
Jeff Bridges, who received an Oscar nom for best actor in Crazy Heart, put a bit of a dystopian spin on the subject. "I'm sure they could do it now if they wanted. Actors will kind of be a thing of the past," Bridges told The Times. "We'll be turned into combinations. A director will be able to say, 'I want 60% Clooney; give me 10% Bridges; and throw some Charles Bronson in there.' They'll come up with a new guy who will look like nobody who has ever lived and that person or thing will be huge," he said.
All this seems plausible and several members of the film community are admitting that they are pretty confused and ambivalent about how performance captured acting fits into their world. Cameron blames himself for not raising more awareness with the Screen Actors Guild and insists that the performance capture process is "an actor-driven process." So, how exactly do human actors become transformed into the 10-foot-tall Navi? Actors don skin-tight bodysuits with reflective markers, and along with over 100 fixed cameras, have their every move tracked on a spare motion-capture stage called "the volume." A head-rig camera records their face and eyes. There are no repeated shots, no light set-ups, no makeup or costumes and when it's all said and done, the data is fed into a computer that creates a 3-D replica which is then edited for camera perspective by the director. The filming process itself is incredibly fast because there are no production issues to contend with, which leaves more time for the director to lead and connect with his cast.
But is this acting or animation? Steven Spielberg, another advocate for performance capture (he used the same technology in The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn) describes the technique as "digital makeup" and like Cameron, stresses the importance of the actor's performance to the success of the technology. Spielberg even goes so far as to say that, "Motion capture brings the director back to a kind of intimacy that actors and directors only know when they're working in live theater."
Hurt Locker Oscar nom Jeremy Renner doesn't agree with the blockbuster directors: "Some movies are actors' kind of movies and some movies are more directors' movies. 'Avatar' is a spectacle. It's a beautiful experience, but it's not really an actors' kind of movie. It doesn't really allow for an actor to truly tell a story. The director's telling the story in that one." Or is it the animators?
There were 20 + animators at the Weta Workshop in New Zealand who spent nine months to fully animate each Avatar character. While the actors were a necessary part of the animation process, how much of the performance is actually being manipulated in post production? Is there a risk of actors becoming obsolete and are those unwilling to embrace the new technology taking a Luddite stance on the matter? Are actors like Zoe Saldana getting robbed of the recognition they deserve for a performance in one of Hollywood's biggest technological achievements?