'Avatar' Performance Capture and the Oscars

Actors with faces but without voices can't be nominated for Oscars. Actors with voices but without faces can, but don't get nominated for Oscars.

Ingrid Thulin couldn't have been nominated for The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse because she was dubbed by Angela Lansbury. The same goes for the widely praised Philippe Noiret, dubbed into Italian in Cinema Paradiso, or Mel Gibson, dubbed into American English in Mad Max. Robin Williams could have been nominated for his Genie in Disney's animated 1992 Aladdin, but wasn't. Nor was Meryl Streep or George Clooney nominated for their work in Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox.

The rationale seems to be that if you have a voice but no face or a face but no voice, you're giving only half a performance. (Dubbing singing voices, however, is acceptable. Even so, Audrey Hepburn didn't get a best actress nomination for My Fair Lady in 1964 chiefly because it's Marni Nixon's voice you hear coming out of Hepburn's mouth.)

Now, what about performance capture? You have a voice, a face, and computer drawing. How much of that is acting? How much of that is animation?

Avatar director James Cameron has stated more than once that performance capture, especially as done in his 3D sci-fi blockbuster, is real acting. Actors emote on an empty soundstage; visual effects people draw on top of them while preserving “every nuance of the performance,” as explained in an Associated Press piece about this issue.

“It is a performance. It hasn't been animated on top of that. That to me was a big thing, that they don't enhance my performance in any way,” remarked Sam Worthington, who goes from human to Na'vi during the course of Avatar. “Whatever we did does translate exactly 100 percent. Maybe my nose is animated and my tail. That's because I don't have a tail. And the ears are a bit different, but those are about the only things they've changed.”

The most notable case of performance capture is that of Andy Serkis' Gollum (right) in Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy. There was Oscar talk at the time, but that went nowhere. Serkis wasn't nominated. This year, none of Avatar's nine Academy Award nominations were for acting.

The general perception seems to be that the acting we see in performance-capture movies is part human, part computer. Personally, I tend to see it that way as well. As much as I loved Andy Serkis' Gollum – I was rooting for him to steal that goddamned ring from the boring Hobbits – I'd never have placed Serkis in competition with actors whose work wasn't “captured” by computer animators.

It's not just that the bodies and heads are different. As far as I'm concerned, solid screen acting uses the eyes more than anything. The eyes of the Gollum were computer-animated – and so were those of the Na'vi in Avatar. How can you tell how much of the actors' “eye performance” is acting and how much is drawing?

John Hurt's John Merrick in The Elephant Man comes to mind. Hurt's performance came through chiefly because it was his eyes I saw underneath all that make-up. When I see Zoe Saldana's eye expressiveness in Avatar, I don't know how much of that is a result of Saldana's performance and how much is a result of the computer animators.

Perhaps the Academy should come up with a “performance capture” category.

Photo: Avatar (WETA / 20th Century Fox); The Lord of the Rings (New Line)

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9 Comments to 'Avatar' Performance Capture and the Oscars

  1. Oaklander

    Crediting solely the actor for a captured performance is a film such as avatar, does a great disservice to the numerous laborers who worked on bringing those characters to life. Performance capture, even the systems used on Avatar, only goes so far to capture the subtleties of bio mechanics. So much manual adjustment has to happen for these things to fit in a digital production pipeline, I don't care what hype Big Jim is touting. Muscular flex, pupil dilation, color shifting, and light response are all determined by a an army of researchers, software developers, animators, digital lighters and production technicians. Sure the actors work hard. Sure they bring cache to a film. But did you go see Avatar for Sam Worthington? Really?

  2. Erik

    Actor without a voice wins Oscar:


    Marlee Matlin “Children of a lesser God.”

  3. siberian
  4. Luke

    Snubbing Zoe Saldana as Neytiri is a bit like snubbing Laughton when he played the hunchback in The Hunchback of Notre Same IMO. All it is is CGI makeup. The CGI enhanced Zoe's performance just as much as the practical makeup enhanced Laughton's performance. So, this is kind of ridiculous. I've never seen CGI that has ever felt more real and more alive than Zoe's Neytiri.

  5. Dennis

    I agree with Mar. In fact I will go a step further and say that I think it's harder to act when there is nothing there but blue space. Make believe is more complex than real live action since we know in reality nothing is in the scene with the actor. It's time the Oscars step into the 21st Century and quit snubbing Sci-fi and the actors!!!

  6. Mar

    Performance Capture or E-Motion (emotion, geddit?) Capture deserves a nod for acting nominations at the oscars. Every little eye twitch, turns, twists is captured onto their 'CG body', or as gamers readily call these days, Avatar.

    Really, how does one quantify how much 'act' goes into a scene where a beast chases you from behind, or a scene where you're riding on a giant flying bird (banshee) and compare it to a live action scene where the act is about running away from an explosion. Which one goes back to acting 101? Answer: BOTH. So why the snub of one over the other?

  7. Kevin Atkinson

    The eyes of the Na'vi were also performance-captured, and with very high fidelity. Eye direction, eye-blinks, brow-movement, eyelid-movement, the works.

  8. Michael

    “The eyes of the Gollum were computer-animated — and so were those of the Na'vi in Avatar.”

    No, the Na'vi's eyes in Avatar aren't animated. The same system they used was also able to capture the eye movements of the actors as well. Only the tail, ears, and nose are tweaked to the animator's- and Cameron's, content.