James Cameron On Naturalism

James Cameron appeared on Inside The Actors Studio the other night to talk Avatar with James Lipton. I can’t respond to the episode as a whole, since I didn’t watch the entire thing, but I did catch a particular segment where Cameron made a statement about Avatar‘s performance capturing process that struck me, at first, as being a little odd, and then later on as being somewhat blind to what the 3D tech he champions is capable of.

Respect to Cameron, first of all. The guy makes movies that are structurally simple with straight-forward narratives (and there’s nothing wrong with that), which he coats with eye-popping special effects sequences. He does simple well, and he does FX well. That’s his aesthetic, and while I am neither crazy about Avatar nor impressed with the avalanche of Oscar nominations it has received, I do understand and appreciate what Cameron’s after when he makes films. He’s an entertainer. He’s technology-centric. And again, there’s nothing wrong with that.

At the end of the day, Avatar is a game-changer whether I or the film’s other critics like it or not. Avatar‘s success provides an enormous amount of support for the viability of 3D as a filmmaking and ticket-selling gimmick, giving multiplex cinemas huge incentive to upgrade their theaters with the proper equipment for running 3D films and also proving to studios that big-budget 3D blockbusters can, in fact, make a lot of cake. In short: Strap on your funky glasses and prepare yourself for an endless parade of tentpole pictures projected in 3D. 3D films already populate the slate of 2010 releases, and they were on the docket long before Avatar reached the 2.5 billion mark; expect future big-name releases to also shoot in 3D. Take Guillermo Del Toro‘s adaptation of The Hobbit, which he initially swore would not shoot in 3D. Go back a couple of days and you’ll find an announcement from GDT himself that his treatment of the story might actually hit theaters in glorious 3D (though he stresses that this is still only a possibility and not a certainty). As long as 3D brings in the dollars, that will be the future of blockbusters. Cars 2 will play in 3D. The final two Harry Potter installments will also be shot in 3D. And so on. Like it or not, 3D, it seems, is here to stay for as long as people are willing to pay for it, and there’s no point in arguing otherwise.

Where I take issue with Cameron’s comments lands squarely in the midst of his discussion of the performance capture process used to translate the work of his cast from studio to film. Speaking about the techniques and technologies used to achieve this stated goal, Cameron compared performance capture against acting on an actual set with actual make-up and costumes and actual extras, and in his comparison determined that performance capture was the more natural method of the two.

I think I understand the essence of his suggestion, which grounds itself in the idea that devoid of distractions, actors in the midst of a performance capture shoot must find the “truth” (the emotion, the tension, the drama) of the scene and their characters on their own, which leads to a more real experience for the actor since they have to dredge up the elements required of their performance without the aid of props to pull them into character. To an extent, I can see his point even if I don’t agree that what he describes leads to a “natural” performance. In fact, that bare-bones scenario he describes recalls black box theater acting, which places emphasis on the human aspects of theater over the technical by placing the actors foremost in a stripped-down theater setting. (And again, I didn’t watch the entire segment, so it’s possible that Cameron drew this connection himself.) The difference, of course, remains the same as it always is between theater and cinema; even without sets or extras or costumes or make-up, actors engaging in performance capture are still in a studio surrounded by crew and technology. More than that, they’re actually encumbered in it. In that sense, the actors are never “naked” in the way that Cameron implies: Even with the diversions of a full set excised from each setup and take, there still exist plenty of challenges that interfere with the naturalism of an actor’s realization of their role.

The other point may be somewhat obvious: What’s natural about a performance that’s painted with layers of effects? Even when an actor acts underneath make-up, you’re still seeing the actor and not a rendition of the actor. That’s almost unnatural by definition because the actor’s performance ultimately is broken down into pixels. Even when Doug Jones or Ron Perlman, two of Something Useful‘s favorite actors, are themselves bathed in make-up, we still get Doug and Ron in the finished film as opposed to a computer-generated surrogate. While I personally thought Zoey Saldana’s performance in Avatar was fantastic, I certainly wouldn’t call it “natural” by virtue of the layers of technology used to transpose the work she did in the studio into the final product. Maybe what she did could be argued as being “more honest”, but it’s certainly not more real or natural. When you film two actual human beings performing action? That’s real. You can’t get more real than that with a camera. (Speaking strictly, of course, of fiction.)

What I can’t dispute are the objective pros of performance capture that Cameron rattles off. Without sets or extras or costumes to manage, all that a director must be concerned with when shooting performance capture is the performance of the two actors, which produces the effect of saving time. That’s fair enough; filming a setup can be incredibly time-consuming even when things go according to plan, much less when said plan goes awry. But, arguably, the trials of traditional 2D filming can coax very natural, real, and believable performances out of the star of the picture. In his excellent and informative book, Making Movies, Sidney Lumet describes, at length, the difficulties Al Pacino endured while acting out a critical scene in Dog Day Afternoon; today, that performance is regarded as one of his finest. This is not to say that 2D film achieves naturalism more easily than 3D film, but that difficulties of 2D filming can actually add to, rather than detract from, the reality of a scene.

In the end I won’t say that I’m necessarily surprised by Cameron’s comment. He’s the master of 3D– more specifically, RealD– technology and filmmaking. I expect him to champion the advances that made his vision in Avatar possible. But his advocacy of 3D’s virtues aside, the technology cannot yield a more natural work of art or performance. More sincere or forthright? I won’t disagree. But natural? I don’t think so. What Avatar presents to audiences resembles reality even less than 2D film, which despite displaying fictitious and staged images and sequences still at least shows us real actors interacting with (2D high-budget blockbusters notwithstanding). Cameron’s use of 3D tech very easily could have brought out more accurate and genuine emotion in his actors, but with a final product so comprised of images generated and manipulated by computers, his film is as far away from natural as a motion picture can get.

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