Friday, December 25, 2009

Actors in their new avatar

While watching Avatar, I was time and again reminded of the 1952 musical comedy Singin’ in the Rain starring Gene Kelly. No, no, no. There is absolutely no similarity between the plotlines. But in a way, Kelly’s musical portended what Avatar could mean for actors in the coming decades.

Singin’ in the Rain was a goofy portrayal of how the transition from silent films to talkies befuddled movie actors. Never having been trained in voice-modulation, the shift to talkies required them to adopt a whole new mind-set and attitude towards acting. Some sank, some stayed afloat. And a whole new breed of actors came into being.

What will the success of Avatar -- where most of the action takes place in a bioluminescent coral-reef-like world entirely created out fantastic 3D animation -- mean for actors used to performing their craft in the what-you-see-is-what-you-get world we inhabit?

The New Yorker gave a riveting account of how the actors in the Na'vi world (the alien world in this case) acted out their parts. Talking about Zoe Saldana in particular, the actress who played the Na'vi heroine in the film, it explained that she essentially acted her part in an empty industrial-like space surrounded by other actors wearing black unitards covered with reflective white dots. Their movements were captured by several surveillance cameras on the ceiling which positioned their performance inside the Na'vi world digital set. Saldana wore a head set with a tiny camera floating inches from her face, capturing the minute details of her facial expressions: "the movements of her facial muscles, the contractions of her pupils, the interaction of her teeth, lips, and tongue." The data uploaded by all these cameras were fed into computers which translated the actors movements onto their digital characters, and positioned these images onto the digital set design - and it is this image that Cameron saw on his screen in real time.

So Saldana was not merely providing the voice for her animated character. She acted it out. It was her facial expressions and body movements that we watched, albeit after conversion via digital technology into her animated avatar (excuse the pun). However, her acting skills required her to anticipate not just the non-existent set around her, but also what we would eventually see of her in her 9-ft tall, inky blue, luminescent-dotted alien character. Can all our current actors cope with it?

I should say no. It is obvious from the fact that Sigourney Weaver looked awkward and slightly stupid in her Na’vi character, particularly when compared to her real-life version.

If Avatar changes the audience expectations of films as everyone is predicting, and makes CGI (computer graphic image that is essentially a translation of the actor’s body movements) a norm – we are looking at a major sink-or-swim moment for Hollywood actors.

Incidentally, none of the reviews of the film I came across commented on the acting in Avatar.


pronoti said...

I found that the awkwardness of Sigourney Weaver's avatar has more to do with the animation than Weaver's acting abilities. Her avatar is youthful and doesn't reflect the character's age. This discrepancy bothered me. Weaver's avatar talks like a seasoned scientist but has a body of an 18-year-old. But this isn't a film that calls for great acting, no? It's great animation with a silly plot.

Wizard of Oz said...

Yes, Avatar didn't need any great acting. But if these kind of movies become the norm - eventually movies will expect the animated characters to act. And some will be better than others.

Besides, how do we know that Weaver's body was that of an 18-year-old Na'vi - it was for her to reflect her age through her animated body movements in CGI. And she probably didn't get it.

Girish Shahane said...

I was wondering why I thought of Singin' in the Rain while writing my own Avatar post. Just re-read yours and found the connection.