Tuesday, March 21, 2006


Has Digital Acting Come of Age?

Will digital actors eventually displace human ones? Well, to a limited extent, they already have. Director Bryan Singer's decision to have actor Marlon Brando reprise his role as Jor-El in the upcoming Superman Returns has brought a spotlight back to digital acting, especially given the fact that the two-time Oscar-winning actor died in 2004. More and more, digital technology is being used to refine, multiple, augment, and even resurrect real actors. We may have come a long way from the jerky computerized movements of Max Headroom, but making animation appear life-like on screen still takes a long long time. The movie Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within may have been the most realistic digital performances on screen to date, but it took four years to make. The lead character Dr. Aki Ross' hair is only half as dense as real human hair, but that still left 60,000 strands of hair to realistically put into motion. When designing the computer graphics for this film, it was reported that one fifth of the time was spent on those 60,000 strands of hair. Robert Zemeckis' Polar Express utilized the revolutionary process of "performance capture" to manage a completely "actor-less" film. (But this took 500 visual-effects specialists three years -- and actors "acting" off screen -- to accomplish.). On a less grand scale, in Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, rather than hire hundreds of actors to play the Oompa Loompas -- the short orange assistants to Willie Wonka -- they simply hired actor Deep Roy, and digitally multiplied him hundreds of times for his "performances" in the film. Ironically, one of Hollywood's greatest proponents of digital technology, George Lucas, spoke out against digital acting as long ago as 2002. He was quoted in a BBC report at the time saying, "You could do it, but you can't get a perfect actor. Acting is a human endeavor and the amount of talent and craft that goes into it is massive -- Can a composite reproduce that? People don't want to see an imitation of someone who was a strong presence in real life." (Lucas, of course, used digital technology to retro fit actor Hayden Christensen (who plays Anakin Skywalker in the new Star Wars movies) into the end of Return of the Jedi (which was released when Christensen was only two). Whether people are willing to see a digital enhancement of someone who, as Lucas said, "was a strong presence in real life," will be surely be tested when Brando is resurrected for Superman Returns. There are fewer on-screen personalities with as "strong a presence in real life" as Brando. Will his digital self live up to one of his flesh-and-blood performances? Obviously, until a complete script can be realistically voice simulated by a computer, actors will always be involved for lead performances (even if their on-screen presence is digitally manufactured). But, will the movies that used to boast "a cast of thousands" now only need a "cast of ten" to achieve the same result?

I liked Max Headroom.
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