The Avatar hype continues. There was a front-page piece in the L.A. Times today, whining – for lack of a better word – about how “unlike the great majority of best picture nominees, the ‘Avatar’ actors have not nabbed a single major critic’s award, or guild prize. The snubs reflect the apparent ambivalence of the film community — especially actors — to ‘Avatar’ and its revolutionary use of ‘performance capture,’ a new technology that combines human actors with computer-generated animation to create the blue, 10-foot-tall creatures who are the heart of the movie.”
Or is it possible the performance capture actors of Avatar received no acting nominations, because the “film community” simply didn’t consider their acting to be all that award-worthy? Sure, Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana were fine in their roles. However, Saldana was even better in Star Trek, and she didn’t get any major nominations for that one, either.
When it comes to performance capture acting, the actor who set the bar was Andy Serkis with his performances as Gollum in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, and as Everybody’s-Favorite-Giant-Ape in Jackson’s King Kong. In Kong, Serkis was immensely helped by acting opposite the enormously talented Naomi Watts. Performance capture allowed for a genuine give-and-take between Watts and Serkis that would not have been possible if Watts had performed her role first and an animated Kong had been added later.
The best performance capture acting of 2009 is not in Avatar. It was Billy Crudup’s performance as Dr. Manhattan, another big blue guy (above), in Zack Snyder’s Watchmen. Crudup was outstanding as a virtual “god” who still retains the emotional traces of his former human existence. And unlike the performance capture actors in Avatar, Crudup’s performance didn’t seem muffled by its computer-animated shell. In fact, given the overall quality of the Watchmen acting ensemble — not only Crudup, but Carla Gugino as Silk Spectre, Jackie Earle Hayley as Rorschach, Jeffrey Dean Morgan as The Comedian, and a host of talented other players — I consider Watchmen to be the single most egregious shut-out of this year’s acting honors.
The Times describes Avatar‘s performance capture technique as “revolutionary.” Again, one has to raise one’s eyebrows. The computer technology behind performance capture may be innovative, but the basic idea — using a live actor’s performance as the basis for subsequent animation — has been around since the Silent Era. In those days, it was called “rotoscoping.” Walt Disney and Max “Betty Boop” Fleischer both relied extensively on the rotoscoping technique when they wanted to mix human-looking characters with their more cartoonish ones. (Fleischer patented the technique in 1917.) So how come Lucille LaVerne didn’t get a nomination for her performance as the Wicked Queen in 1937’s Snow White?
ADDENDUM 2/19: Max & Dave Fleischer’s version of Snow White (1933), a Surrealist masterpiece featuring “Saint James Infirmary Blues” sung and danced by a rotoscoped Cab Calloway.
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