Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Chasing The Gold: I’d Like To Thank The Animators

Thirteen years ago, around this time, the first Avatar film was garnering buzz for its awards run. There were whispers from journalists and a question entered into the public consciousness. Could an actor in a fully motion capture performance break into an acting category at a major awards show?

Acting is typically defined as the performer’s physical manifestation of character. It includes facial expression, the physicality of the body, and an emotional reaction to the story and plot. With modern technology, these elements can be captured and rendered. An actor on a set with various rigs, dots, and skin tight suits still performs the role, but how they look is completed later. It was a marvel thirteen years ago to watch the raw footage of Zoe Saldaña’s performance alongside the finished CGI composite. Credible alien life on screen suddenly seemed more plausible and palatable. We connected with Saldaña and the Na’vi because of the care taken to animate the actor. Of course, there wouldn’t have been a believable Neytiri without the simply incredible Gollum. 

The closest an actor has gotten to the big shows with a motion capture performance is Andy Serkis for playing Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. You can make arguments that the three performances nominated for The Irishman because of digital deaging or Christopher Plummer’s digital insertion into All the Money in the World came closest, but those aren’t truly motion capture, just ways around certain unpleasant images. And by closest, of course, I really mean major publications were doing profiles and reviews that touted the performance as “Oscar worthy.” Yet, it didn’t seem far off the mark because the role is so important, especially to The Two Towers, and utterly indelible in the minds of all who see those films. If Serkis showed up in heavy makeup and costume we would have laughed at him and not with the deviousness of Gollum.

That performance opened up an avenue that the physical act of the performer on set, moving with the other performers is pivotal to the believability of those performances. A few years after Lord of the Rings, Serkis was whispered about again when he made King Kong larger than life. He followed that up with acclaimed performances in the prequel series to the Planet of the Apes. He showed us that these types of characters could have a soul. There’s a direct link between Serkis’ work with motion capture and the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Thanos, Groot, and Rocket Racoon. Though, Rocket and Groot bring up another point of contention.

On set Rocket’s movements and lines were performed by director James Gunn’s brother Sean, while his wonderful voice was provided by Bradley Cooper, likely in a plush sound studio on the Disney lot. Then the animators took the footage, matched the expressions, added flourishes, made the character move in a way no human possibly could, and covered it in a sheen to match the lighting of the scene. The same happened with on set Groot Terry Notary and “more emphasis on the Groot” voice Vin Diesel. Does the animation team also get credit for the performance?

This has plagued those that have tried to garner support for vocal performance being included on an award shortlist in the past. While that actor is experiencing and emoting like they would on a set with the camera turned to them, they aren’t creating the motion of the character. The voice actor has little to do with how the character is presented to the audience visually. They record their portion before the animation is completed so they can’t know fully how their vocal influence affects that process. Yet, without their contribution and effort the story would fall flat.

The last vocal performance to gain any sort of traction amongst award voters was Scarlett Johansson as Samantha in Her. Unlike any performance mentioned, Samantha was a completely vocal character. There was no animation or movement to represent her on screen. All we knew is Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore had an earpiece in to represent Samantha. In this performance there is life, passion, and energy. It was something pure and sensual in a way that film doesn’t broach all that often with character. More often than not in film, the disembodied voice is exposition, but this voice had an intangible emotional weight.

Because of the complicated nature of awards bodies, it’s unlikely we will see a major award nomination go to a motion capture or vocal performance. Even with the lone shouts from the back of a crowded theater for Terry Notary’s notable work as Gordy in Nope, it’s likely that it will take something revolutionary for voters to move beyond the tangible. Actors are very protective of their craft and the only thing they want enhancing each other’s performance is the original special effect of the editor compiling the best takes of each scene. 

The only real whispers this year have been for Jenny Slate and Isabella Rossellini’s affecting work in Marcel the Shell with Shoes On. No one has mentioned Zoe Saldaña’s name in the same breath as the technical achievements of Avatar: The Way of Water. Though, with more money and more eyes on the superhero and tentpole spectacles, the awards bodies could shift. There is momentum behind Angela Bassett’s performance in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever after all, and it would put her in a very small club of actors lauded for their performances in superhero features, and the only one not playing a villainous clown.

Maybe all it will ever be is whispers among those that watch more than a few movies a year. It may be that too many filmmakers see how the sausage is made. Every time they think of the motion capture performer they think of the uncanny valley broached in Ruben Östlund’s The Square in which Terry Notary’s performance artist, Oleg, takes his performance much too far. They see the silliness inherent in putting one’s self out there in a new way. It’s different and it is still niche in spite of decades of use, but it is acting in the way we’ve always known it. It’s just a different way of looking at the craft.

The easy solution is right in front of us. There should be a separate category for this type of performance at award shows. It would be so easy to create the category, Best Vocal/Motion Capture Performance. It’s also not without precedence. In 2002, the Critic’s Choice Awards featured the category of Best Digital Acting Performance in which Gollum, Dobby, and Yoda were the nominees. Award shows, and especially the Oscars, are always desperately looking for validation for their television presentations and a new category could bring more eyes. This category would invite more tentpoles and blockbusters to the prestige table and give the actors who sweat their dots off some much needed recognition. This has been the argument to add stunt ensembles to the award shows as well as those performers are much more prevalent in large scale filmmaking. Though, until the day when studios find it more financially viable to digitally manipulate the facial features of the stars of their biopics rather than slather them in pounds of makeup, this new style of acting won’t be recognized for the art form it is. It will take some titanic shifts in the landscape of filmmaking. That, or Marvel could surprise us and Judi Dench is the voice behind M.O.D.O.K. in the upcoming Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, thus assuring her Best Supporting Actress nomination next year and immediately switching up people’s thinking about acting. Did someone say Maggie Smith for Galactus?

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