The Los Angeles Times has been covering Avatar like no other outlet has — it is remarkable in terms of access. The blog Hero Complex has had stuff on Avatar all year, stuff no one else could get.¬† One thing to keep in mind is that the Los Angeles Times is still read by Academy members frequently. As far as I know, other than the Envelope, there has been no coverage of The Hurt Locker on the Times at all, and if there has been, it’s been much less than Cameron’s coverage. Not to start another fight, but one of the reasons the blogs have taken up championing The Hurt Locker has been because it didn’t have the kind of clout that Cameron’s film had heading into the race. Very few people can compete with Jim Cameron, who is not only King of the World, but King of the Universe. This is Oscars old school. So, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s Avatar up one side and down the other on March 7th, especially since this interview aims square at what people presume is Avatar’s biggest weakness heading into the race: the lack of support from the actors who feel their bread and butter is at stake.
Cameron is, of course, the¬†T-800 of all directors –¬†a fierce taskmaster, with almost superhuman drive and very little patience for human fallibility.¬†On the “T2” set, someone had T-shirts printed up with¬†the filmmaker’s¬†(supposedly) favorite saying:‚ÄùIf I wanted your opinion, I would have given it to you.‚Äù When he‚Äôs not working, however,¬†I’ve found that¬†Cameron can be erudite and charming, and an infectiously enthusiastic evangelist. That‚Äôs the Cameron who‚Äôs been working the Oscar campaign trail recently. Many of the nominees seem exhausted by the endless rounds of Q&A’s, screenings, awards ‚Äì some have a reason to look haggard after¬†plugging their films and performances for almost a year, since Sundance 2009. By contrast, Cameron just started his pilgrimage after ‚ÄúAvatar‚Äù came out at the end of December, and his cyborg stamina hasn‚Äôt flagged yet.
It was the “good” Cameron who got on the phone recently to talk about the role of actors in his revolutionary ‚Äúperformance capture‚Äù technology and why he feels that the ‚ÄúAvatar‚Äù stars haven‚Äôt gotten their due from the Hollywood community. He was disappointed that neither Zoe Saldana nor Sam Worthington were nominated for Oscars or any other significant acting award. Yet he was not totally surprised, because the performance capture technology is so new, and many people in the film industry still are unfamiliar with how the process is done. Many ‚Äì particularly actors — are apprehensive about the process, and their role in it.
“Actors have to be taught more about it, that it empowers them and doesn‚Äôt replace them, ‚Äú says Cameron. ‚ÄúWhat we‚Äôre replacing is the complicated application of prosthetic makeup.‚Äù
I can see how he would see it that way, as “replacing the complicated application of prosthetic makeup.” But it is so much more than that. They have the technology to make an actor much better than they already are, or to mute what it is they have. One only need look at the side by side comparison of Sigourney Weaver herself to see that there is a big, big difference here.
Even Saldana and Worthington¬†needed reassurances at one point.¬†‚ÄúI had to look into their eyes and be able to say to them, ‚ÄòWhat we do today is what you‚Äôll see when you go to the premiere,’ ‚Äú Cameron says he told them, as they embarked on the production of the film. ‚ÄúOtherwise, why would they commit to doing a great performance if you think the performance is going to be mediated and modulated down the line?‚Äù
The performance-capture filming takes place on a specialized stage called ‚Äúthe volume.‚Äù Actors wear special skintight suits with reflective markers so their every move can be tracked by¬†more than¬†100 cameras. To avoid the ‚Äúdead-eye‚Äù look of earlier motion capture films like ‚ÄúPolar Express,‚Äù Cameron also developed a special head-rigged camera to record the actors faces and capture the ‚Äúliquidity of the eyes.‚Äù The camera‚Äôs data are fed into computers that render a high-quality 3-D replica of the actors and, in a startling¬†change to the filmmaking process,¬†Cameron was able¬†to add all of his camera moves in post-production.
Early on, when they were doing preliminary tests of the technology, Cameron and his crew realized that the on-screen avatars needed to closely resemble the live-action actors. They had shot prototype footage with Yunjin Kim from ‚ÄúLost‚Äù as Neytiri.¬†The results were not good.
‚ÄúHer eyes and her expressions, the way her mouth formed speech, just didn‚Äôt translate that well, ‚Äú Cameron said. ‚ÄúWe had no way of knowing whether it was an accurate performance, and it struck us as important for the character to physically resemble the actor as closely as possible, especially the mouth. I cast people I wanted the characters to look like, and then we did laser scans of them, cyber scans, physical busts, plaster molds of their faces.¬†Everything was done in the way you develop physical makeup, and then given to the CG guys to scan and bring to life. ‚Äú
I figured the computer-animation had to be the reason he chose Sam Worthington – Sam has a wide, almost plain face. And I bet that is the perfect canvas for performance capture. As for Zoe – she was the one who was very nearly obliterated by Neytiri. You can see bits of her here and there – and when you watch her speak, you think, there’s Neytiri. But for the most part, Neytiri is an idealized beauty – more Angelina Jolie than Zoe Saldana. This is where I think he runs into problems selling it to actors. She has been anglo-ized, with wider apart eyes and a nose that is much smaller at the bottom than Zoe’s is. Would the film have been as successful otherwise?
Zoe Saldana, being attached to the highest grossing film of all time, is not really going to get the same kind of career boost as Kate Winslet, for instance, because Neytiri is the star of Avatar, not Zoe Saldana, despite Cameron’s very worthy and admirable efforts to sell her as such.
What I don’t get, I guess, is his need to sell this idea to actors. There are whole populations of actors who would die to work with Cameron in performance capture – heck, who would die to work PERIOD. So the good thing about performance-capture is that it potentially builds out a whole new area of work, potentially, for acting. This is probably why the Academy is going to have to put in a category for either animated-voiced characters, or animated characters even, and performance capture acting.
We will never know what is the actor and what is the technique. I know for a fact that this threatens the futures of many in the profession whose face IS their career. Sigourney Weaver benefits from it because she was already established as a known face. Therefore, Cameron had to work harder to make her face match the Na’vi face. All of the other people who had to play both human and Na’vi mostly looked like themselves. But the Na’vi? They weren’t under the same restrictions and thus, they could make them look however they wanted to make them look.
So, in sum, I’ve never felt that selling it to actors was the way to win. It is a major artistic achievement, a visual realized, stunning work of art and one of the most exceptional experiences a person can have in a movie theater. That, my friends, is how you sell it.
Cameron also dispelled the popular image of ‚Äúperformance capture‚Äù filming as somehow being onerous for the actors. The experience is actually close to performing theater. It‚Äôs filmmaking with all the boring parts cut out ‚Äì no waiting for camera moves, no coverage, no endless waiting around in trailers for lighting, makeup‚Ä¶.
‚ÄúThe beauty of it is that it‚Äôs uninterrupted. When they do get a performance that‚Äôs great, all the coverage comes from that performance. I don‚Äôt have to say ‚ÄòDo that again for your close-up.’ That‚Äôs a much more artificial thing to ask an actor to do.‚Äù
Meanwhile, here are the headlines associated with Avatar and the LA Times: