Mark Harris on Zoe Saldana and performance capture

Posted by · 9:24 am · January 27th, 2010

Zoe Saldana in AvatarPerhaps I missed it, but I’m surprised there hasn’t been more online conversation about EW writer Mark Harris’s recent critical essay on “Avatar” and performance capture technology.As one would expect from the author of “Pictures at a Revolution,” it’s a thoughtful piece, but one that should stir up considerable dissent.

He begins by slamming James Cameron for suggesting that performance capture can be used to preserve an actor’s physical features: “Will Smith could still make an action movie when he’s 75 years old, looking like he looks now,” Cameron stated, a thought that makes me as uneasy as it does Harris.

But the beef of Harris’s argument comes when he turns his attention to “Avatar,” and the widely praised performance of Zoe Saldana, who some (including my esteemed editor) think merits Oscar consideration.

No way, says Harris:

Cameron really loses me when he claims that these techniques capture “100 percent of what the actor does. Not 98, not 95—but 100 percent…Every nuance, every moment of their creation on set is preserved.”

Zoe Saldana may be a fine actress, but I don’t feel that her work in Avatar can fairly be labeled an onscreen performance. What I saw was a CG character created in very large part by an army of technicians; to me (and I know many disagree), Neytiri is a superb visual effect enhanced by an actor, not a performance enhanced by F/X. When Saldana was “playing” the role, she may have widened her eyes in fear or narrowed them in disgust; she may have recoiled in horror or crumpled in sorrow. Did she sigh, swallow hard, or express conflicting emotions? Beats me, since Cameron could easily have added, eliminated, or altered anything she did.

This is clearly set to be an an ongoing debate as the technology continues to be used — though it’s not a brand new issue, similar discussion having surrounded Andy Serkis’s performance in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy several years ago. Just as there will always be those who don’t consider animated voiceover work bona fide acting, and those that do — including, this year, the New York Film Critics, who awarded George Clooney jointly for “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “Up in the Air” — it’s difficult to see the doubters ever being persuaded.

I personally wouldn’t consider Saldana for Best Actress either — but that’s because I found the performance, digitally enhanced or otherwise, rather rigid. That’s another conversation entirely. Then again, I’m perfectly willing to consider the wonderful James Gandolfini in “Where the Wild Things Are,” or even work where an actor’s face is buried under mounds of prosthetic makeup. When a performance-captured turn affects me as much as Saldana’s does some critics, I’m happy to go there.

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34 responses so far

  • 1 1-27-2010 at 9:31 am

    Theoriginal.andrew said...

    I agree with you. Saldana’s performance was good but not worthy of a nomination. Plus, actors -or at least this how I see it- won’t vote for a CG character because it’s not the real thing.

  • 2 1-27-2010 at 9:39 am

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    Perhaps she’s being a bit overrated but she was damn fine in quite a meaty female-party in terms of emotions.

  • 3 1-27-2010 at 9:50 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Harris is showing his crust with this silliness, I’m afraid.

  • 4 1-27-2010 at 9:51 am

    stylewriter said...

    In all honesty I don’t get the love for Saldana’s performance. It was alright, but at no point did it make me forget I was watching what amounted to a high end cartoon character. Her vocals were fine, but not to the same level as a Robin Williams in Aladdin or Jeremy Irons in The Lion King to make me think it warrants award consideration.

  • 5 1-27-2010 at 9:54 am

    cca said...

    Totally overrated.. even if she’d appear in her real “flesh and bones” self, she doesn’t deserve a nomination.. Stop the nonsense!!!

  • 6 1-27-2010 at 9:59 am

    Ben M. said...

    Well, didn’t Brad Pitt’s performance in Benjamin Button contain a lot of motion capture? While I wasn’t the biggest fan of that performance I was hoping it would lead the way for the academy to recognize deserving motion capture performances, even if they don’t contain any clear live-action footage or belong to a major star.

  • 7 1-27-2010 at 10:11 am

    Nono said...

    Why doesn’t Saldana deserve a nomination. She put in a much better performance than many other actresses who have been nominated this year.

  • 8 1-27-2010 at 10:41 am

    JDH said...

    Maybe Saldana doesn’t deserve an Oscar nomination, but in my mind she was the best thing about Avatar. The rest of the cast was stiff (and the characters flat) but Saldana’s Neytiri had energy, emotion, and charisma. There was a real actress under all that blue trickery, not just a CGI character with a phoned-in vocal performance.

  • 9 1-27-2010 at 10:43 am

    Fei said...

    Mark Harris said, “Beats me, since Cameron could easily have added, eliminated, or altered anything she did.”

    Well, directors have always done that to performances — in the editing room. The performance that you see on screen is very rarely the performance that an actor gave all at once. Performances are shaped by editing, typically pieced together from multiple takes. A “great” performance could be made “mediocre” by bad editing, and a “mediocre” performance could be made “great” by good editing. I remember that once in my editing class, my professor said that savvy actors know to make friends with the editors of their movies.

    I get what Harris is trying to say, but the idea that the quality of a performance would be undermined by post-production manipulation is naive at best.

  • 10 1-27-2010 at 10:56 am

    tintin said...

    She deserve a nomination more than Sandra or …Mirren?

  • 11 1-27-2010 at 11:00 am

    Bryan said...

    I think if you like it then who cares how it got to the screen.

    Plus, I think Zoe was worthy, but I can’t even fill out a ballot of 5 best actresses. There’s a few I haven’t seen yet but most have been disappointing. (Precious, Bright Star)

    Right now all I have is Meryl, Carey and Zoe

  • 12 1-27-2010 at 11:16 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Really? Have you looked beyond the buzzed Oscar films? Plenty of great work out there.

    Tilda Swinton, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Yolande Moreau, Charlize Theron, Catalina Saavedra, Michelle Pfeiffer, Jessica Haines, Gwyneth Paltrow, Penelope Cruz, Kim Hye-ja … not one of those?

  • 13 1-27-2010 at 11:20 am

    BJT said...

    I’ll agree with Harris when we question whether we know the performance is Saldana’s or not. When the skin and facial features of the character are complete CG creations how can we tell whether the actions and reactions of the characters are the actor or the computer.

    Oddly as technology gets better this will become even harder to distinguish and therefore harder to award the performance. I think the call to nominate Andy Serkis, or even Ellen DeGeneris’ voice work in Finding Nemo was greater and more persuasive becuase you could easier identify what was the actual performance.

  • 14 1-27-2010 at 11:31 am

    Bryan said...

    I have Julia and AntiChrist tops of my To do list and think they will fill out my top 5, but yeah nothing else stuck out.

    I’m not saying it was a weak year for Actresses, just nothing as great as Meryl. Nothing that I will remember in 10 years the same way we talk about Watts in Mulholland or Swank in Boys Don’t Cry.

  • 15 1-27-2010 at 12:04 pm

    red_wine said...

    I think the calls to have Saldana nominated are preposterous. The performances wasn’t anything special at all but god her smile nearly go me everytime.

    But this performances capture thing is a serious gray area. The motion captured into the computer is very closely followed by the animators to shape the character’s movements. But I cannot call it a real performance at all because the claim that what might they not add or subtract is valid. I saw a doc on TV some years ago which said that today many performances are modified in post. They showed a clip of Blood Diamond where Jennifer Connelly is supposed to cry. But the tear dropping down her cheek was digitally added in post. This is very dodgy o say the least.

    If this can be done for real actors, there’s no knowing what can be added when the performance is rendered by animators in a computer. I am completely against nominating motion capture performances.

    Voice acting is atleast pretty obvious as to what we are trying to reward, the personality and thought that am actor’s voice can inject in a character. And Guy gives a very good example of a voice performance that is worthy. However I would single out Catherine O’Hara from the movie, a character which truly had personality and presence only because of the voice. Though I didn’t much like Where The Wild Things Are at all.

  • 16 1-27-2010 at 12:41 pm

    SHAAAARK said...

    People are only pulling for Saldana because there haven’t been many strong mainstream actress performances, and most of the knockout stuff has come this year from the indies and the arthouse fare, anathema to the vast majority of Avatar fans.

  • 17 1-27-2010 at 1:28 pm

    david said...

    This bias against performance capture acting is really beginning to bother me. I will say for the record, that if I was voting, I would put Saldana in the field of five for Best Actress.

  • 18 1-27-2010 at 2:46 pm

    Anna said...

    Her performance has only been praised by fanboy types. Have any major critics really singled her out? No. It’s not a critically acclaimed performance. It’s just the one that is riding the wave of people’s obsession with all aspects of this movie.

  • 19 1-27-2010 at 3:22 pm

    Artorious said...

    I don’t understand why people think voice acting is enough to get a nomination, or at least more worthy than motion capture. Isn’t the actor/actress still voicing the CG character? So if one is worthy, why not the other?

  • 20 1-27-2010 at 3:47 pm

    Johnny Doubles said...

    I liked the article quite a bit, actually. I agree with you, Kris on the performance itself. VERY rigid.
    Yes, Brad Pitt’s nomination for ‘CCOBB’ opened the doors for some future FX enhanced performance to be nominated, but it definitely SHOULD NOT be this one. Whatever processes were used to capture Andy Serkis in ‘LOTR’ and ‘King Kong’, the performance is stronger in both than Saldana’s here.
    In fact, there is nothing about the acting in ‘Avatar’ that should be praised. Saldana might have been one of the stronger turns in the film, but that’s not saying much. In fairness, Cameron didn’t give his actor much in line of characters to play.

  • 21 1-27-2010 at 8:49 pm

    A.J said...

    Let’s be honest- it’s not just a CGI bias. When was the last time a heavily make-uped actor was nominated? I can’t think of one off the top of my head. If Doug Jones had given an amazing (and larger) performance as the Faun in Pan’s Labyrinth would he have been nominated? No.

  • 22 1-28-2010 at 1:41 am

    Fei said...

    If you want to see a real performance, attend some live theatre.

    In the movies, directors have all kinds of tricks to get actors to achieve certain effects for only moments at a time, which can be assembled in post-production to create something coherent, moving, and meaningful, just like all of the other pieces in a movie. These tricks are most often used with child actors and non-professional actors, who wouldn’t be able to a give a real performance without them.

    So then we have to ask: What exactly about a screen performance deserves awards? Is it what the actor really did, or is it the effect that the performance had on the audience? I contend that it’s the latter, which people mistake to be the former. In a movie, the effect that a screen performance has on the audience is shaped by a number of post-production factors. How is that different from motion capture?

    If the enhancement of a performance by good editing and clever directing tricks does not disqualify the performance from awards, then why should CGI enhancement (i.e. “performance capture”) be disqualified? After all, even with CGI enhancement, the performance wasn’t made from scratch on computers. The animators needed to have something from which to “add or subtract,” just like editors do with multiple takes.

  • 23 1-28-2010 at 4:10 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    AJ: Off the top of my head: John Hurt in “The Elephant Man.” Al Pacino in “Dick Tracy” and Jon Voight in “Ali” were also heavily made-up.

  • 24 1-28-2010 at 5:29 am

    Carson Dyle said...

    Not to mention Laurence Olivier in Othello. Although that is going a fair way back. Downey?

    Granted, those weren’t prosthetics.

    I don’t think citing Pitt for Benjamin Button really holds all that much water… the character is 100% Pitt for the majority of the film, as far as I can recall.

  • 25 1-28-2010 at 7:35 pm

    Cde. said...

    “I don’t think citing Pitt for Benjamin Button really holds all that much water… the character is 100% Pitt for the majority of the film, as far as I can recall.”

    For at least the first hour, the character is a CG face mo-capped from Brad Pitt superimposed onto the bodies of short actors. The ‘body’ actors actually had to wear blue hoods on-set.

  • 26 3-03-2010 at 7:18 am

    twillllls said...

    When will it be okay for black women to be beautiful and talented?????????????????

  • 27 3-03-2010 at 7:22 am

    twillllls said...

    White women can have both, but black women have to choose. Halle is beautiful but not talented so she gets recognition. Oprah is talented but unattractive to most so she gets recognition. But Zoe Saldana has talent and beauty, which is why she did not get nominated. Black women with the total package are threats to white women with the total package.

  • 28 3-03-2010 at 7:22 am

    twillllls said...

    True Story!!!!!!!!

  • 29 3-03-2010 at 7:25 am

    twillllls said...

    Why do you think it took so long to crown Beyonce as Queen of Pop? They put Beyonce through the ringer, but eventually they could not conceal her talent any longer, too many people witnessed her clobbering every other singer out there. And she still does not get the same recognition that Britney got in her Hay Day.

  • 30 3-03-2010 at 7:26 am

    twillllls said...

    True Story.

  • 31 3-03-2010 at 7:28 am

    twillllls said...

    Now you understand why whites love Precious and Whoopi Goldberg sooo much. Of course Barbara Walters and other white women can sit at home and look at these black women and give them recognition, but can Barbara sit down everyday and talk to a beautiful, charismatic and talented black woman everyday? You already know the answer.

  • 32 3-03-2010 at 1:22 pm

    twillllls said...

    Ugly black women make it further in hollywood because they are easier for white people to stomach. ie.Oprah, Whoopi Goldberg, Sherri Shepard, Gabriel Sidibe, Monique Your get the picture.

  • 33 8-05-2014 at 7:17 am

    Edge said...

    didn’t really care for the movie, liked the book. the movie just brzeeed through everything, if I hadn’t read the book i wouldn’t have known WHY anything happened or why i should care about any of the characters. rue/amandla was great though, she’s sooooo pretty

  • 34 2-18-2015 at 8:30 pm

    Santi said...

    Loved the movie, especially Rue’s story was so triagc and touching. Sad to see her die and that so many twitter people are problematic (those tweets were horrible).