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'Avatar's' animated acting

Hollywood debates whether film work used by actors such as Zoe Saldana for computer-generated characters deserves equal recognition.

February 18, 2010|By Rachel Abramowitz

"There's a purity to it. You can't rely on anything else but your own skill as an actor; [it] enables the actor to shoot the scene in one take without worrying where the camera is," said Andy Serkis, a veteran British stage actor who pioneered motion-capture acting as Gollum in Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. Serkis followed that up with the title role in Jackson's remake of "King Kong" and is currently performing in Spielberg's "Tintin."

"If you don't have the performance, the rest is dressing," Serkis said. "You can't enhance a bad performance with animation. You can't dial it up, lift the lip or the eyebrow. It has to be right at the core moment. It's the same as conventional shooting." For actors to not recognize "performance capture as acting is bad and disrespectful. It's also Luddite."

In the case of "Avatar," some complain that Cameron's characters are too one-dimensional to merit their actors a nomination, but others believe that "Avatar" star Saldana in particular, whose every minute on screen is in performance capture, was robbed of recognition.

"Zoe played Neytiri with such strength, grace and force. If the audience realized just how much, they would have appreciated the performance more," said "Avatar" co-star Sigourney Weaver. "The technology is so innovative, and it will just continue to get more innovative -- we might as well recognize [the contributions of actors] now."

From a filmmakers' standpoint, filming in performance capture is unusually free and fast. On a typical day of a live-action production, a director might complete a dozen or so scenes in which the lights, cameras, scenery and actors are repositioned. Spielberg said that on "Tintin" he completed 75 set-ups a day on the motion-capture stage, and finished principal photography in 30 days. That's less than half the time it would have taken to shoot a live-action version of the film.

"It allows the director and cast to focus on the performance," said Spielberg. "The director sits right on the floor [amid the actors]. Because he's not wearing a motion-capture suit, he appears invisible."

"One hundred percent of my focus is on the actors," Cameron said. "I'm not thinking about the lighting, the dolly, or waiting around . . . to light the shot."

Though veterans speak enthusiastically about the performance-capture technique, questions remain. Many wonder whether Saldana will get the kind of career boost usually associated with co-starring in a box-office bonanza. The Screen Actors Guild recently appointed a committee to look into what SAG President Ken Howard described as "pay and recognition" issues associated with performance capture in both film and video games. In fact, studios haven't even formally recognized SAG's jurisdiction over the work, leaving it up to each employer to decide whether the performers receive standard union benefits such as minimum pay or meal breaks.

Moreover, the actors are not the only ones unsure about their primacy in the process. There's also a branch of animators who don't want their contributions overlooked. Cameron points out that it took a team of 20 or more animators at the Weta Workshop in New Zealand nine months to fully animate each "Avatar" character.

"The academy has to come to terms with where [performance capture] goes," said director Henry Selick, whose "Coraline" is nominated for best animated film. "Is it animation? Is it a new category? I'm like the academy. I don't know where it fits. I will tell you this, animators have to work very, very hard with the motion-capture data. After the performance is captured, it's not just plugged into the computer which spits out big blue people. It's a hybrid."


Times staff writers Richard Verrier, Amy Kaufman and Yvonne Villarreal contributed to this report.

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