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The Andy Circus

I managed to stir up a tempest in a teapot yesterday on Twitter over Andy Serkis and Tintin, and the role of a performer in the whole ‘performance capture’ thing.

Now, before continuing, a disclaimer.  I’ve worked with Andy Serkis before, when I helped run the virtual capture system on the Tintin prototype.  I both professionally respect and personally like Andy.

I bet a lot of you, given my advocacy of VFX workers and their place in the industry as a whole, are expecting me to say - “However, the push to get Andy Serkis an Oscar nomination is both misguided and ignores the contribution’s of the dozens of animators who helped translate his performance to the the screen”.

Well, you’d be wrong.

I know, I really should be protecting my claim to the role of VFX’s most bitter and jaded asshole, but I think, in the case of performance capture, the principal driver in the performance is the actor.  To deny that is to deny the process of acting itself, the skill and craft of building a character.

If we’re going to talk about acting, then lets talk about acting.  A lot of people think acting is what you see on screen.  Not so.  That is merely the external manifestation of the internal process that truly is acting.  Actors are always asking - either themselves or the director - “What’s my motivation?”.  They don’t just care about what they have to do or say, they want to understand why they are going to do whatever or say whatever they’re going to in a scene.  But they don’t just think about it in terms of a shot, or a scene.  They think about it in terms of the entire arc of their character through a film.  There are actors who inhabit their character at all times - 24/7 - to prepare for a role, such as Daniel Day Lewis.  Others stay in character the entire time they’re on set, or in costume.  And some just go, take their marks, say their lines, and go home.  But those in the last category generally don’t take home Oscars.

Actors who inhabit the role to any extent often have little flaws or character that only they know.  They grip their hands in a certain way because they decided their knuckles were hit by nuns as a kid.  Or they grew up poor and never had sunglasses so they have a permanent squint.  Or if you’re Brad Pitt, you’re always eating in a scene.

It’s these things which add nuance and life to a character.  That make them seem more than a collection of actions to deliver plot points to the viewer.

Counterpoint that to animation, where shots are doled out based on the animators skill to technically execute the shot.  This guy is good at lip-sync, that girl is great with dancing, the new guy gets to do background characters, etc.  Even if there is an animation director who is thinking about the characters journey, he needs to communicate it to others.  And he’s receiving direction from the director, who expects to get exactly what he needs, and not have a discussion about it with the team.  It’s character by committee, not by an individual performer.  I feel this is one of the reasons Frank Oz as Yoda works so much better than a bunch of very talented animators as Yoda.  And yes, I think Frank Oz should have been nominated for Empire Strikes Back.

This is not to say that a character’s performance is entirely the creation of the actor.  The most obvious example of this is the stunt double.  This is such an accepted part of making movies that it’s a big deal when an actor does his own stunts.  Also of note - there is no “Best Stunt” catagory.  There may also be a body double, often used by actresses for nude or sex scenes.  The first time we see the eponymous “Pretty Woman” reaching for her alarm clock after a slow tracking shot over one hell of a bare midriff, her head is covered.  But due to the cinematic language, we make the connection and assume it’s Julia Roberts, when in fact it’s just some faceless actress with a rockin’ midriff.  This is also accepted as part of what we do in making movies.  People double if an actor is uncomfortable with an action, it’s too dangerous, or if it’s a skill they don’t have.  And despite some people’s recent attempts to cash in on the job they were hired to do, part of the deal is you are also paid to shut up about it.

The most subtle way to viewers, but most dramatic way to filmmakers, to alter a performance is through editing.  Shots are pulled from multiple takes, shots are flopped, shots are speed-ramped.  Sometimes a closeup from an entirely different scene is thrown in.  All these things affect how a character is perceived by the audience, and decides what actions are seen and words are heard by the audience, and all by a third party.  This has been happening since Life of an American Fireman, yet we’ve never questioned that the performance of a character belongs to the actor.

Things change once we enter the digital world of motion capture, of course.  We can manipulate the data to create exactly the performance we want.  We can now do tight closeups on our character during stunts.  We can mix and match performances, even within a single shot.  Animators are cleaning up data, interpreting an actors facial performance onto a rig, sometimes creating performances out of whole cloth.  None of which changes the fact that the performance originated from the actor.

Cleaning up the data is just a necessary part of the failings of technology.  We don’t even blink when a paint/roto person is asked to remove flyaway hairs, or a fleck of lint on a character.  This is essentially the same thing- noise in the acquired performance.

Interpreting the actors performance to a rig gets a little wonky, especially if a director decides to change a performance - something I actually don’t think they should be allowed to do.  If an actor has enough juice - your Tom Cruises and Tom Hankses - they don’t really have to listen to the director if they don’t want to.  If Tom Hanks insisted on wearing a beer hat for the entirety of Castaway 2: Castawayier, I’m sure the studio would concede the point.  In the computer of course, we can just delete the hat.

We’re getting to the point of being able to manipulate 2D data in much the same way.  In Star Wars, George Lucas would often take performances of actors from different takes and digitally composite them into a single shot.  There’s even one shot - during the scene when Anakin is talking to the Emperor at the Opera of Glowing Water - where two separate takes of Hayden Christiansen are combined in a single shot through the use of a morph.  I’ve seen eyebrows raised, lips quivered, and smirks neutralized, all in post, and all without the consent or knowledge of an actor.  Yet we never question it’s still their performance.

So, if we really look at what a performance is - the physical manifestations of a character - the question becomes not what the medium that stores that performance is - film, digital video or computer bytes, it’s what the method used to create the performance.  Was it the internal decisions of an individual actor, enhanced through the use of stunt doubles, editors and other cinematic tricks?  Or was it the fabrication of multiple individuals creating separate moments?  If you look at it like that, then it’s clear that an actor doing motion capture obviously deserves recognition as much as any other.


Side note to VFX people - we WANT actors to feel we are on their side when it comes to performances - they are very protective of them.  And performance capture heavy movies create a LOT of jobs in our industry.  The more actors feel comfortable with the medium, the more work we’ll have.

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Reader Comments (6)

Right on, David. Right on.
December 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTico
You raise some very interesting (yet for some controversial) points, thanks for putting this into words!

Working at a mocap studio in Holland and also working with animators creating things from scratch I see very similar things at a smaller scale.

And I can only imagine similar discussions among photographers & painters back in the day, and in other fields with different yet related disciplines.
December 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBrekel
This is extremely valid point when it comes to acting for animation dealing with key frames to mo-cap. I tend to feel as an animator for mo-cap, we really fall under the support crew as opposed to really having anything major with the performances( except in rare cases).
Valid point bought up in your post.
January 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEric O
Your post is wonderful. Now I'd like to know how a very talented, creative, imaginative young man can apply for pix, nickelodeon, or any other studio that makes animated movies? My husband's son, presently working for Rockstar was born to do this. How can he get a foot in, any foot. We live in NYC. He was a major contributor to Grand Theft Audio & other popular games. Please - Thank you
January 15, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterjeanette
Your post is wonderful. Now I'd like to know how a very talented, creative, imaginative young man can apply for pix, nickelodeon, or any other studio that makes animated movies? My husband's son, presently working for Rockstar was born to do this. How can he get a foot in, any foot. We live in NYC. He was a major contributor to Grand Theft Audio & other popular games. Please - Thank you
January 15, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterjeanette
You make detailed, fair and balanced points.
February 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGabbo Realboy

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