Performance Capture & the Oscars: Can Actors' Work Be Fairly Assessed?

by Alt Film Guide
performance capture Avatar
Avatar performance capture: Zoe Saldana as a Na'vi.

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)

Iraq War Drama Tops Art Directors Guid

Avatar, The Hurt Locker, and Sherlock Holmes were the motion picture winners at the Art Directors Guild Awards announced Saturday (Feb. 13) night at the International Ballroom of the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills. The awards took place before an audience of more than 700 guests, including guild members, industry executives, studio heads and the media. ADG Chairman Thomas A. Walsh presided over the awards ceremony with Paula Poundstone serving as host.

The individual winners in the motion picture categories were Karl Juliusson for The Hurt Locker (contemporary film), Rick Carter and Robert Stromberg for Avatar (fantasy film) and Sarah Greenwood for Sherlock Holmes (period film). Television winners included Dan Bishop for the “Souvenir” from Mad Men; Kalina Ivanov for the TV movie Grey Gardens; and Joseph P. Lucky for the episode “Ducks and Tigers” from Weeds.

Additionally, honorary awards were presented to Production Designer Terence Marsh for Lifetime Achievement and to Warren Beatty for Outstanding Contribution to Cinematic Imagery. Production Designer Michael Baugh was given a Creative Leadership Award.

According to Steve Pond in The Wrap, Warren Beatty's “rambling eight-minute acceptance speech – about the same length as the speech he gave when receiving an honorary Oscar in 2000, which was the longest Oscar speech in decades – used vomiting as its central metaphor, to the clear discomfort of some in the audience.” The actor-director-producer-etc. reminisced about the time when his mother cradled his head whenever he vomited as a kid, which was supposed to be an analogy to what art directors do for him in his movies. Oh.

According to the ADG's press release, presenters for this year's awards included Kevin Alejandro (Southland); Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker); Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences Governor Jim Bissell; Production DesignerAlbert Brenner; Production Designer Rick Carter; Richard Chamberlain (Shogun and Doctor Kildare); Jessalyn Gilsig (Glee); Angela Kinsey (The Office); CCH Pounder (Avatar); Kerr Smith (Life Unexpected); Rich Sommer (Mad Men); Oscar-winning Production Designer Paul Sylbert; and Gene Wilder (Young Frankenstein).

At the ceremony, the ADG inducted three additional legendary Production Designers into its Hall of Fame, bringing the roster to 30. The new inductees were Malcolm F. Brown, Bob Keene and Ferdinando Scarfiotti. The release adds that at the beginning of the awards ceremony, “the ADG debuted a short film, by filmmaker Cindy Peters, titled The Case of the Bad Production Designer, the theme of which was Production Design: The Good, the Bad, and the Ideal.”

Feb. 15: Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker was voted the best edited feature film (drama) by the American Cinema Editors on Sunday night. Previously, The Hurt Locker won awards from the 2010 Producers Guild, the Directors Guild, and the Art Directors Guild. James Cameron's super blockbuster Avatar has thus far won only one guild award, for art direction in the “fantasy” category.

Bob Murawski and Chris Innis were The Hurt Locker's Eddie Award recipients for their tension-building work. Other motion picture Eddie Award winners were The Hangover (Debra Neil-Fisher) in the comedy or musical category, Up (Kevin Nolting) for animated feature, and The Cove (Geoffrey Richman) for best-edited documentary.

Among the television winners were the made-for-TV movie Grey Gardens (Alan Heim and Lee Percy), the “ABQ” episode from Breaking Bad (Lynne Willingham), the “Apollo Apollo” episode from 30 Rock (Ken Eluto), and the “Living the Dream” episode from Dexter (Stewart Schill).

Additionally, Paul LaMastra and Neil Travis were given Career Achievement Awards, and Rob Reiner was the recipient of the Golden Eddie Award.

Photo: The Hurt Locker (Jonathan Olley / Summit Entertainment)

Exam by Stuart Hazeldine
Stuart Hazeldine's Exam.

Santa Barbara Film Festival Awards: 'Exam'

The Santa Barbara International Film Festival came to a close today. Held about in the coastal town 90 miles north of Los Angeles, the festival attracted a number of Hollywood personalities, including honorees Colin Firth and Julianne Moore. The information below about the Santa Barbara festival's award winners is from the SBIFF press release.

The Panavision Spirit Award for Independent Cinema, given to a unique independent feature that has been made outside mainstream Hollywood, went to Exam (US Premiere), directed by Stuart Hazeldine, and starring Luke Mably, Nathalie Cox. Eight talented candidates have reached the final stage of selection to join the ranks of a mysterious and powerful corporation. Entering a windowless room, an Invigilator gives them eighty minutes to answer one simple question. He outlines three rules they must obey or be disqualified. Tensions rise as the clock steadily descends towards zero, and each candidate must decide how far they are willing to go to secure the ultimate job. Winner received a camera package worth $60,000.

UK Director Stuart Hazeldine, who was present to accept the award, commented “We are absolutely thrilled that the first film festival in America that we've come to has embraced our film.”

The Best International Film Award goes to Letters to Father Jaakob (Postia pappi Jaakobille) from Finland and directed by Klaus Härö. Leila Sten has spent a large part of her life in a Finnish prison. When her life sentence is pardoned, Leila is left homeless. She goes to live with an old priest, who promises to provide for her in return for her help. Father Jaakob finds solace in the letters he receives daily from burdened souls requesting his prayers, and since he is blind, Leila's task is to read these letters to him. When the letters stop, Jaakob questions the role that God has chosen for him, and Leila finds herself facing a dilemma.

Helena Arstila from the Consulate General of Finland in Los Angeles was on hand to accept the award: “On behalf of director Klaus Härö, I have the honor and pleasure to accept this award. Klaus is a wonderful storyteller who has been inspired by tales of the less fortunate throughout his life. He has a unique capacity to portray human frailty and the good and the bad that all of us have in ourselves in all cultures, in all walks of life. To receive the award here in Santa Barbara is a wonderful honor and I would like to thank you in his name for this distinction.”

The Nueva Vision Award for the best Spanish/Latin American film was awarded to The Wind Journeys (US Premiere), directed by Ciro Guerra and starring Marciano Martínez, Yull Núñez. The film is a deceptively simple story: two men on a journey, each with common quests but finding unexpected truths.

Best East Meets West Cinema Award went to South Korea's Mother (Madeo), directed by Joon-ho Bong, about a mother who desperately searches for the killer that framed her son for a horrific murder.

Best Eastern Bloc Award went to Katalin Varga (US Premiere), directed by Peter Strickland. In the beautiful, otherworldly Carpathian Mountains a woman is traveling with a small boy in a horse and cart, looking to punish those who once abused her. For years, Katalin (Hilda Péter) has been keeping a terrible secret. Hitchhiking with two men, she was brutally raped in the woods. Although she has kept silent about what happened, she has not forgotten, and her son Órban serves as a living reminder. When her village discovers her secret, Katalin's husband rejects her. With nothing to lose, she is free to seek revenge on the perpetrators.

Best Documentary Film Award went to Enemies of the People, from UK/Cambodia and directed by Rob Lemkin. The Khmer Rouge slaughtered nearly two million people in the late 1970s, yet the killing fields of Cambodia remain unexplained. Until now. Winner received a Blu-Ray interactive authoring of the film by Mozaik Multimedia and Home Planet Productions, valued at $15,000.

Bruce Corwin Award for Best Live Action Short Film Under 30 Minutes went to Ana's Playground, directed by Eric D. Howell. Film depicts just another day for children surrounded by armed conflict.

Bruce Corwin Award for Best Animation Short Film went to Urs, directed by Moritz Mayerhofer. Urs takes his aging mother on a dangerous journey, carrying her up a mountain to find a better place for both of them.

The Fund for Santa Barbara Social Justice Award Sponsored by The Fund for Santa Barbara for a documentary film that addresses social justice issues also went to Enemies of the People, directed by Rob Lemkin (description of film above).Winner received $2,500.

The festival closed tonight with the World Premiere of Middle Men, directed by George Gallo. Starring Giovanni Ribisi, Luke Wilson, James Caan, Kelsey Grammer and Kevin Pollack, the film chronicles Jack Harris, one of the pioneers of internet commerce, as he wrestles with his morals and struggles not to drown in a sea of conmen, mobsters, drug addicts, and pornstars.

The Jury for the 2010 SBIFF included: actor/director Joel David Moore (Avatar and director, SBIFF Award winning film, Spiral); SBIFF originator Phyllis de Picciotto; actor Haaz Sleiman (The Visitor); USA Today Film Critic Claudia Puig; Andy Abrahams Wilson (director, Under Our Skin); actor Clifton Collins, Jr. (Capote), actor Anthony Zerbe (The Matrix); actor Dennis Franz (NYPD Blue); actor Jay Thomas; and actor/director/writer Perry Lang.

Photos: Letters to Father Jaakob (Olive Films); Exam (Bedlam); Katalin Varga (Libra Film)

Elizabeth Banks to Host Scientific and Technical Awards

Elizabeth Banks will host the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Scientific and Technical Awards on Saturday, Feb. 20, at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills. Banks will present 15 awards to 45 individual recipients during the evening.

Banks' upcoming roles will be in The Next Three Days, directed by Paul Haggis, and co-starring Russell Crowe, and in The Details, with Tobey Maguire and Laura Linney. Banks' credits include Definitely, Maybe, W., The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Seabiscuit, Catch Me If You Can and Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy.

The 2010 Academy Awards ceremony will take place on Sunday, March 7 at the Kodak Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center. In the United States, it'll be televised live by ABC.

WGA 'Beyond Words' panel

The Writers Guild of America's “Beyond Words” panel will be held at the Writers Guild Theater at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 8, two days before the announcement of the 2010 WGA Awards. Confirmed panelists include: Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker), James Cameron (Avatar), Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart), Geoffrey Fletcher (Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire), Alex Kurtzman (Star Trek, co-written by Roberto Orci), Jon Lucas & Scott Moore (The Hangover), Scott Neustadter ((500) Days of Summer, co-written by Michael H. Weber), and Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner (Up in the Air).

WGAW Secretary-Treasurer David N. Weiss and Variety Group Editor Timothy M. Gray are set to introduce the evening. The panel discussion will be moderated by Judd Apatow (Funny People, Knocked Up). Proceeds will go to the Writers Guild Foundation. Note: The event is sold-out.

Many of the aforementioned screenwriters are also in the running for the 2010 Academy Awards. The writers of Avatar, (500) Days of Summer, and The Hangover were replaced by those of Inglourious Basterds, The Messenger, and Up in the original screenplay category; while Crazy Heart, Julie & Julia, and Star Trek were replaced by An Education, In the Loop, and District 9 in the adapted screenplay category.

The Writers Guild Theater is located at 135 South Doheny Drive in Beverly Hills.

Photo: Up in the Air (Dale Robinette / Paramount)

Writers Guild panel

The Writers Guild of America's “Beyond Words” panel will be held at the Writers Guild Theater at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 8, two days before the announcement of the 2010 WGA Awards. Confirmed panelists include: Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker), James Cameron (Avatar), Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart), Geoffrey Fletcher (Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire), Alex Kurtzman (Star Trek, co-written by Roberto Orci), Jon Lucas & Scott Moore (The Hangover), Scott Neustadter ((500) Days of Summer, co-written by Michael H. Weber), and Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner (Up in the Air).

WGAW Secretary-Treasurer David N. Weiss and Variety Group Editor Timothy M. Gray are set to introduce the evening. The panel discussion will be moderated by Judd Apatow (Funny People, Knocked Up). Proceeds will go to the Writers Guild Foundation. Note: The event is sold-out.

Many of the aforementioned screenwriters are also in the running for the 2010 Academy Awards. The writers of Avatar, (500) Days of Summer, and The Hangover were replaced by those of Inglourious Basterds, The Messenger, and Up in the original screenplay category; while Crazy Heart, Julie & Julia, and Star Trek were replaced by An Education, In the Loop, and District 9 in the adapted screenplay category.

The Writers Guild Theater is located at 135 South Doheny Drive in Beverly Hills.

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9 comments

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?

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Erik -

Actor without a voice wins Oscar:

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0559144/

Marlee Matlin “Children of a lesser God.”

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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.

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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!!!

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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?

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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.

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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.

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Andre -

Kevin, Michael,
Thanks for the response.
But whenever I look at the Na'vi's eyes (see top photo), they certainly don't look real. They look painted over or something. I understand that performance capture would “capture” eye movement, but if the eyes are enlarged, colored, etc. how much of the eye expressiveness is real, how much is the computer artist's work? I know a painter can capture his subject's look — anger, sadness, happiness, all of that put together — but when we look at the canvas we see the painter's work, not the real thing. I know that's not quite the same as “performance capture,” but I can't quite draw the line in terms of where the performance ends and the drawing begins.

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