LA Times Oscar-blogger Pete Hammond (presumably on his way to a well-earned vacation) has a plausible theory about why “Avatar”‘s best picture bid was doomed.
If actors are three times the size of any other peer group in the Academy, and if actors fear and loathe motion-capture — as they assuredly do — then no way in hell was “Avatar” going to win. Allegedly this is because motion-capture means it’s not an “actor’s movie,” but under that you can sense fear that spectacle movies will devalue the currency of actors as a whole. Per Hammond:
I remember sitting next to JoBeth Williams (“Poltergeist”) at a “Lovely Bones” lunch event in December, and she said she worried it had the potential to eventually put actors out of work. Heavily involved with the Screen Actors Guild Foundation, she said then that SAG was forming a committee to investigate the process.
I can think of at least one man whose career was actually substantially boosted by motion-capture: Andy Serkis, who went from well-kept secret (BBC stints, an ensemble role in Mike Leigh’s “Topsy Turvy”) to much bigger parts, both animated (King Kong!) and live-action (the lead in British Ian Dury biopic “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll”). Will Sam Worthington receive a similar career boost? Who’s to say? He was stuck with one of the most wooden, monotonous roles of any actor in any Cameron film ever. (Even Arnold had greater Terminator range.) Tell me that’d be different even if he wasn’t running around in Lon Chaney blue-face most of the time.
The complaint seems to be that having one’s performance mediated by a team of animators which makes it hard to tell where the actor ends and the technicians begin. Fine. Now let’s talk about “Aladdin.” In 1992, Robin Williams’ verbal diarrhea finally reached its apex, with visual representation finally able to keep up with his flow (not that this is necessarily a good thing). Was there any trouble knowing where he ends and the big blue genie begins?
It’s hard to imagine a future in which — even if the technology’s there — all films are completely devoid of actual flesh and blood people, voiced by sophisticated voice-boxes. And, with regard to spectacle making actors incidental, it depends on the spectacle. ’50s spectacles like “The Ten Commandments” still could make Charlton Heston a big deal; it just depends on how front and center the actors are to the special effects showcases.
If nothing else, motion capture may finally eliminate the tedium of watching actors whose characters age fumble through gray-haired wigs and latex glue-ons. It’s hard to see that big a problem with a system where actors don’t have to worry about staying in the camera’s frame and can simply get on with it (not to mention the waiting to make sure that the lights hit the eyes exactly, a common Hollywood device that takes time and blocking).
To me, this seems more about ego and maximizing screen time — but what else is new when it comes to actors? Motion capture is an aesthetic choice like anything else.
[Photos: “Avatar,” 20th Century Fox, 2009; “Aladdin,” Disney, 1992]