20 Aug 2017

Is our notion of acting archaic?


With Star Wars: Rogue One casting deceased actors and films like Antman reversing age brilliantly, it is safe to say that whatever we once considered an acting performance is no longer clear-cut. “That was great acting” is praise that we can no longer take for granted in the digital age, and I wonder how often we are falsely crediting a single person for their character’s presentation either on screen or in video games.

My question is genuine: is our idea of acting archaic? Have the technical elements of media-driven narrative evolved so far as to warrant character performance to be a group effort? Can we really give out “best actor” awards to singular, glamorous celebrities or should we be giving out “best character” awards to entire teams of editors, directors, casters, cinematographers and choreographers as well as said glamorous celebrities?

The stage would be crowded, but I can’t confidently find the line where an actor gets sole credit instead of the team. Allow me to explore my thoughts with three examples.

1.) Being directed

Christopher Lee was astounded at how many takes he had to provide Peter Jackson on the set of Lord of the Rings. Here he clearly states that despite providing many minor variations on the same lines and gestures, Jackson was always hunting for just the right one to put into the final edit. This provided the director with a bank to pull from; various takes with various inflections and various tones so that once the entire film was in post production, it can be tuned in editing. This gave ultimate control to the director and in the end, the performance that the audience receives from the actor was the one hashed out from the cutting room.

Have you seen Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan? When Nicolas Meyer, the director, had Ricardo Montalban read his lines as Khan for the first time, it was a mild disaster. Montalban clearly required hands-on directing (Montalban was delighted that Meyer recognized this) and the two men worked together to produce Star Trek’s greatest villain.

Ian Holm is known for doing each take slightly different, allowing the director to select whichever delivery suits them best during post. And let’s not even mention how Kubrick or Hitchcock coxed performances from their stars.

In short, I know the assertion is thin, but we can’t divorce the ‘acting’ from the ‘directing’ when it comes to a performance experienced through media. Especially when post production is concerned.


2.) Digital puppeteer

The brilliant MovieBob pointed this one out  on his YouTube channel. Prior, I had no idea Andy Serkis had become a lightning rod for the argument, but it makes perfect sense: can you give a best actor award to a person portraying a motion-captured, fully CGI character?

With Golem, Serkis elevated mo-capture into an acting platform that we now see in multiple films across the board. But as Bob points out, Serkis is hardly alone in the performance. Twitches in facial expression and body language are added, and sometimes required given the nature of the creature on screen, and this all occurs in post production often without an actor even knowing. Andy Serkis was the head puppeteer of Caesar, but other artisans worked with the extremities much like in Bunraku.

Another, more mild example of digital puppeteering would be the infamous tear in Blood Diamond. In post, they wanted a very specific take for the final edit of the film, and a tear was desired. So it was added with CG. Does that mean Jennifer Connolly is a poor actress, or unworthy of praise in the role? Not at all! But it does illustrate that the performance you received as an audience was either altered or enhanced by multiple creative minds.

Acting is not done in a vacuum.


3.) Technical scaffolding

Before you read the next sentence, watch 90 seconds of this presentation of the recently released Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrafice.

And LA Noire was doing the same thing back in 2010. As you can clearly see, media-based gaming has evolved into its own medium of performed art. Through improved processing power and streamlined digital input, character performances can be produced not only through different makeup and lighting but also entirely different settings. An actor can deliver a great performance, but the background events can be changed and shifted, altering the context of their performance well beyond what the actor had originally envisioned.

Given that the actor is performing as a puppeteer for a digital denizen, their character can be altered and localized for different audiences. If a gaming company wants to break into the Chinese market, they can simply upload a new character model and alter their protagonist’s ethnicity.  If an African gaming studio wants to break out into European markets, they could literally make specific characters Caucasian while still using the motion captured performance of their original actors. While this example might seem extreme, after a moment’s thought you know someone will be doing this.

What’s more, an actor’s face can easily be grafted onto the motion captured body of a completely different performer. While films have stunt-doubles and stand-ins, the evolution of this would be merely having one motion-capture performer doing the face while another does the sword play and a third does pantomimed hand gestures. Each performer could be contracted for less work than usual and in the end, the credit for the character’s final result would be so diluted we may not confidently attribute it to anyone but the team as a whole.


And that is my main question

Acting, or any art, doesn’t occur in a pure vacuum. So when we rave about what a fan we are of so-and-so or toss an award at a specific person, a lot more genuinely needs to be considered. Who handles their diet? Who coaches their speech? How handles their lighting? And as MovieBob and others have aptly pointed out, our methods of recognizing the art and act of performing are changing at the speed of life.

As an audience member, how must we now think of acting? Must we distinguish it more precisely prior to praising or awarding it?

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