You Call This an Actor?

How technology is changing the rules for performers

When the 82nd Annual Academy Awards ceremony airs on Sunday, no other film will be poised to come away a bigger winner than the 3-D epic “Avatar.” Aside from being one of the few bona fide cultural touchstones to come out of the cinema in recent years without the aid of a built-in franchise à la “Spider-Man,” James Cameron’s sci-fi monolith is up for nine Oscars, including best visual effects, best cinematography, best director and best picture.

And yet, as many Oscar pundits have pointed out, best actor and actress categories are strangely absent from the film’s list of accolades — a fact that separates “Avatar” from the vast majority of best picture nominees in years past. The difference, of course, is that “Avatar’s” lead cast, including Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver and Zoe Saldana, appeared throughout most of the film as ten-foot-tall, computer-generated aliens. If “Avatar” marks a new era of hybrid filmmaking, then its cast members are practitioners of a new form of hybrid acting. And considering that the cast has been snubbed not just by the Academy, but also the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild Awards, it’s a form of hybrid acting that many don’t consider acting at all.

The lack of recognition for “Avatar’s” cast has not gone unnoticed by supporters of the film, and especially by Cameron himself, who blames the snub on misconceptions about the performance-capture technology used to create the aliens. The process, which involves recording an actor’s movements and facial expressions to create computer-generated characters, depends upon flesh-and-blood performers. “People confuse what we have done with animation,” a defensive Cameron told The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s nothing like animation. The creator here is the actor, not the unseen hand of an animator.”

While Cameron’s comment might come as a surprise to the 900 visual effects technicians who worked on “Avatar,” his emphasis on the “performance” aspect of performance capture has not quelled resistance to the technology, particularly among actors. Jeff Bridges, who is up for best actor for his performance in “Crazy Heart,” told The Los Angeles Times the new technique could make traditional actors a thing of the past. “We’ll all be turned into combinations,” Bridges said. “Directors will be able to say, ‘I want 60 percent Clooney; give me 10 percent Bridges; and throw some Charles Bronson in there.’”

As long as performances are necessary to create the template for CGI artists to work with, actors are in no danger of going extinct. However, deciding how to classify the finished product is becoming an increasingly dicey issue. For instance, in recognizing the onscreen achievement of a performance-captured character such as Princess Neytiri, “Avatar’s” romantic lead, whom should Academy voters acknowledge? Does nominating Zoe Saldana, the actress who portrayed Neytiri, discount the team of animation artists involved in her creation? Would a technical award be equally insulting to Saldana?

If all this points to the inevitable creation of a new “Best Captured Performance” category, not everyone believes such a distinction is a good idea. Andy Serkis, who was famously snubbed for his performance-captured turn as Gollum in Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, told the BBC that forcing performance-capture actors to compete in a separate weight class denies them equal footing with tradition performers. “I don’t really think there should a special acting-in-a-digital-realm award or anything,” Serkis said. “From an acting standpoint, it’s the same.”

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Originally published in Show Business Weekly, March 2010

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