Does the recent success of movies like Avatar herald the beginning of the end of traditional acting?

Today’s Los Angeles Times has this article:

‘Avatar’s’ animated acting
By Rachel Abramowitz, February 18, 2010

Actor Jeff Bridges is quoted as saying “I’m sure they could do it now if they wanted. Actors wil be kind of a thing of the past.”

The points raised in the article:
The film community is still ambivalent about “performance capture acting” - Avatar, despite having nine Oscar nominations, had no acting nominations. Nor have the actors received any major critic’s award or guild prize.

Avatar directory Cameron says that the actors were crucial to the success of his movie - of course you don’t want to snub those people (actors) who make up the largest Oscar voting bloc. He uses the word “actor-driven process” to describe how he worked on his film. “[The animators’] job is to use the actor’s performance as an absolute template without variance for what comes out the other end.”

Steven Spielberg (using this process for the upcoming “Adventures of Tintin” movie) compares performance-capture to “digital makeup”. In the case of Avatar, “the digital makeup is so thin you actually see everything that Zoe [Saldana] is doing.” Spielberg and Cameron compare this form of acting to performing a play. You don’t have to worry about the location of the camera; the director can be in the middle of the scene with the actors (since the director is not wearing a “capture suite” he is “invisible”). Andy Serkis (Gollum in “Lord of the Rings”) says that failing to recognize “performance capture as acting is bad and disrespectful. It’s also Luddite.” Sigourney Weaver says that Zoe Saldana (in Avatar) did a tremendous acting job, and doesn’t get enough credit since she is only seen in the movie in performance capture.

Spielberg says that performance capture filming makes the whole process go much faster. On “Tintin”, Spielberg says that he completed principal photography in half the time than it would have taken to shoot a live-action version of the film.

Some issues:
Will a notable performance capture role boost your career as much as a traditional acting role? Should the Screen Actors Guild rules (“pay and recognition”, union benefits such as minimum pay or meal breaks) apply to performance capture roles? Suppose an actor is acclaimed for a performance capture role - how much of the credit should go to the animators?

My opinion:
I was always of the opinion that digital animation would soon be advanced enough that actors would be replaced altogether. But performance capture will probably be with us for a long time. I think that it is inevitable that performance capture actors will soon be fully accepted as “actors” with as much craft and skills required as traditional actors. The animators will be largely ignored by the public or the Academy (who in the general public can name an animator from any of the Pixar films?) On the other hand, I’m not sure that you can get as much of a career boost from performance acting. Suppose I am Zoe Saldana playing a 3.5-meter tall blue alien in one movie and a comic book character in the next, or even a traditional acting role in another movie - how many people will realize that this is the same actress from Avatar?

I don’t understand. Every performance is still driven by actors, what makes it any different?

It’s not like computers are spontaneously generating the performances out of digital nothings.

Color film didn’t doom black&white photography. Photoshop didn’t doom natural photography. Blue-screen and special effects didn’t make acting obsolete.

New technologies are just another tool in the toolbox. All the old tools still have their value.

I think I remember people asking this question back when the first Toy Story came out.

Short answer - no. Other than “effects” movies, humans are still gonna prefer to watch real humans. Or enjoy the aesthetics of good animation.

I mean, would Bugs Bunny be so great if it was an actor doing motion-cap? No! Bugs is fun to look at because somebody drew him.

And FWIW, though technically impressive, I hate the look of Avatar. It’s ugly.

And economically speaking: as expensive as stars are, it’s still more expensive to hire a 30-person team to render their movements from scratch, and the results even nowadays are still not as believable as a human. Avatar may have been a beautiful and involving piece of animation, but I was still aware that I was watching a computer-generated film - and that’s *with *humans behind the puppets.

That’s partially due to the fact that they’re clearly not human characters. That disconnect is impossible to ignore.

That will change, as the technology improves and as we get more used to it as it becomes a standard filmmaking practice.

We’ll have Looker soon enough.

I can’t recall the name of it, but I remember there was some company a few years back that had come up with a ridiculously simple and cheap way to track a person’s movements and then use them to animate various CGIs. If I remember correctly, they first used it on trade show/convention floors, just to work out the kinks, and it was being used to develop commercials and cartoons when the article was written. I’ll see if I can’t find it after I sleep a bit.

And mark my words, someday soon we will have the world of Looker. Once an actor is in the can, people will able to use the 45 year old Mark Wahlberg or the 50 year old Mark Wahlberg or the 22 year old Dakota Fanning to portray any role they want, without having to actually get the actor for the job. Just access the file, and use it to animate any image or figure you want.

But, at least in mainstream cinema, talkies killed silent films, and color killed black and white. So I think it’s a legitimate question.

Of course, I still think the answer is no, just from an economic standpoint. The only way I could see it approaching the cost of just filming normally, would be if you had very expensive casts, and very minimal touch-up; that would let you save money on filming time, and hopefully not spend all those savings on animators. In general, though, animators cost money, so I can’t really see it becoming the norm. I could see it becoming a larger part of sci-fi or fantasy movies, in the same way that CG monsters have become de rigeur, but outside of specific genres? I doubt it.

And again when Star Wars Episode I came out.

Who knew who Andy Serkis was before Gollum?

Nah, not a chance. I bet when talkie-pictures came out in the 20s everyone thought “Well, there’s no need for theatre anymore.”
Almost a century later and we still have theatre.

Theres a lot less theatre though.
But count me in as one who thinks that not only is it acting, its even more difficult acting than any other form. On a set you can see and respond to the actual environment. What those people did in Avatar was even more difficult… They had to pretend they were being attacked by creatures that don’t exist in front of a green screen, aware that their faces wouldn’t even be on stage.

The real word has sound and is in color. The changes you mention were ones that were bound to kill their predecessors – that’s not the case here.

Avatar also hasn’t received any writing nominations or awards. This is because the acting and writing in the movie weren’t very good. The characters were mostly cardboard. As an actor, even if you do a good job playing a predictable, stereotypical character who lacks depth, you’re not likely to win awards for it.

Motion capture has been around for a while and I’m sure it’s going to be used increasingly as a compliment to traditional acting. It’ll become cheaper and the technology will improve. Is it going to completely replace acting by humans? I doubt it. In a lot of movies you don’t really need this kind of thing in the first place.

Motion capture will only be useful in big budget films where the look of the characters require special effects to get right.

It would work poorly for any contemporary drama; there’s no point in doing it for a film like Brokeback Mountain or Precious or Up In the Air.

It wouldn’t have any real advantage is most comedies, either, and even a lot of action films would be hurt by it (seeing someone actually do a stunt is far more impressive than CGI).

It will be used for science fiction and fantasy based films, as well as some comic book movies. It may also be used if, say, an actor dies before filming is complete. But the type of films where it will produce a better movie is only a small portion of all films.

It’s actually much more noticeable with human characters. Especially if they are well known and widely recognized human characters. You start to delve into “uncanny valley” territory where the CGI actors somehow look slightly “off”.
Quite frankly, there is no need to do motion capture unless the scene requires something that isn’t human, a human actor to do something extraordinarily dangerous, or a particular actor to appear in the scene as multiple copies of the same character Agent Smith style.