‘John Carter’ star Willem Dafoe talks performance capture and Oscar

Posted by · 4:19 pm · March 10th, 2012

Disney”s “John Carter” opened this weekend and, thus far, seems to be maintaining a slightly stronger presence at the box office than was originally anticipated. Andrew Stanton’s film won Friday night with $9.8 million, though Universal”s “The Lorax” is predicted to overtake it by today”s end.

Adapted from Edgar Rice Burroughs’s “A Princess of Mars” (initially published in 1917), the first in the author’s sci-fi/fantasy series about the planet “Barsoom” (Mars), the film follows an embittered Civil War veteran on his unlikely journey to the planet, where he is, once again, drafted into a conflict not of his making.

Established character actor Willem Dafoe signed on to don a performance capture suit and stilts in order to portray Tars Tarkas (the 9-foot-tall leader of the alien warrior race the Tharks) in the film after having worked with helmer Stanton on “Finding Nemo” and was intrigued by the idea of doing something he had never done, or seen, previously.

Dafoe is no stranger to the awards circuit with two Best Supporting Actor nods (one for “Platoon” in 1986 and a second for “Shadow of the Vampire” in 2000). In the contemporary climate, however, there has been a back-and-forth between those who believe that performance capture specialists (Andy Serkis in particular) ought to receive recognition for their performances alongside actors who have appeared in 100% live action films and those who feel that a separate category is required.

20th Century Fox, you’ll recall, took a stand in favor of the latter by strongly campaigning Serkis’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” performance in the Best Supporting Actor category last year. The actor was also recognized a couple of times along the circuit for his work alongside flesh-and-blood portrayals.

Dafoe spoke about his experience with the technology at a recent Tempe, Arizona press event for the film and reflected a bit on its place in the larger context of awards recognition.

“I think clearly people appreciate what Andy Serkis does, so that”s where the dialog came in,” Dafoe said of the ongoing debate. “I think unless you are a performer you don”t know how a performer contributes to motion capture. It is important, but film is such a collaboration and it”s even harder with motion capture to know what the actor’s contribution is and what the animator’s contribution is and the lighting and the photographers. It”s hard enough to judge what an actor”s contribution is and when it”s removed by so many filters it becomes even more of a challenge.”

The distance that the animation creates between the performer and the final on-screen presentation still creates confusion for the viewer at times. Though there are many who understand the finer points of performance capture and have a respect for the nuance that the actor provides, still others confuse the medium with the limitations associated with traditional voice-over cartoon animation.

“I talked to one journalist that saw the movie (‘John Carter’) and thought I just voiced Tars Tarkus,” Dafoe recalled. “I was like, ‘Man voice schmoiced! I did those scenes! I just had to be stretched to be this green guy because I don”t look like that.” So I think it”s awhile before people have an appreciation of what actors do in this kind of work. I think, popularly, motion capture is going to be seen as a special category.”

Though there are those who feel that a separate category represents an inequity for the performer, a consolation prize of sorts, I wonder if it is perhaps time to consider it as a solution. The question then would become: Should there be one category which the performer and animators would share, or two categories, one for performance and one for animation?

As these technologies advance it is always interesting to note how embedded structures evolve with them, or, in fact, not. Meanwhile, you can see a glimpse of Defoe in aforementioned stilts in the making of “John Carter” video below.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lAzEYw0emNw&w=640&h=360]

For year-round entertainment news and commentary follow @JRothC on Twitter.

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