The Oscars and Computer-Generated Characters

Interestingly enough the thing that I remember the most about this year’s Oscar is the dispute around Scarlett Johansson’s potential nomination for her performance as Samantha in Her, the talking operating system with an artificial intelligence. There is no physical presence of Scarlett Johansson on the screen. However, Johansson’s performance with her deep, sensual voice, brings the character to life, highlighting the believability and humanity of the film. Samantha is, albeit her status as just a series of programmed algorithm, a human, thanks to Johansson’s portrayal of Samantha as a complex, whimsy, funny, and very sexy being. Johansson has won tremendous praises from critics alike, with most agreed that she would deserve a nomination for Best Supporting Actress. We all know it did not happen, which was similar to the case of Zoe Saldana’s Neytiri in Avatar or Andy Serkis’s Gollum in The Lord of the Rings or chief chimp Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

Zoe Saldana as Neytiri

Andy Serkis as Caesar

The AMPAS is not ready to recognize this hybrid film making and performance technique. In a recent report from Intel, 69% of millennials say that they believe technology enhances their personal relationships. Technology, in the cases of digital effects, is also used bring to life the unthinkable imagination and to enhance human feelings and emotions, so should computer-generated performances be regarded just as highly as traditional ones? As Stephen Prince argues in his book Digital Visual Effects in Cinema: The Seduction of Reality:

Actors remain a centerpiece of cinema, whether in its analog or its digital forms. Digital offers new stages on which an actor might perform characters and new ways of visualizing performance. (144)

and that:

Rather than closing on the contributions that live actors make to cinema, digital effects provide arenas in which actors may continue to furnish the human presence so vital to the medium. (145)

Animation and motion capture have eventually become an integral part of movie making in Hollywood. CGI offer filmmakers and actors alike an opportunity to realize the wildest corners of human imagination that would never be achievable with traditional analog techniques. Advanced digital effects provide more access to their desired “perceptual realism” (Prince 136), as Prince points out in the case of Gollum: “Viewers would relate to Gollum as if he were one of the flesh and blood characters performed by actors without extensive digital mediation” (129). Visual cues, in the digital age, transcend beyond just set design, lightning and the actor’s facial expression and emotional portrayal of a characters. The use of digital effects to stylize a character requires extra performance as attention is diverted towards that digital advancement portrayed on scene. Not to mention actors and actresses have to invest extra efforts into portraying such characters: think head-mounted camera rig and motion-capture suit that add extra weight, heat, and pressure onto a performance. In traditional films an actor or actress could always review the recorded scenes directly after the shot, whereas in portraying digital characters, it will be much more difficult to imagine yourself in a blue, feline-like creature in the case of Avatar, or a dramatically deformed being like Gollum. So, should their performances be regarded just as equally and highly as others? Why aren’t the extra efforts counted? Will they ever be Oscar-worthy?

I personally think it is a matter of when, not if. There will come a time when computer-generated, human-powered characters receive recognition. In fact, that time has already begun. Smaller awards have realized the power and dedication of actors whose performances are backed by digital technologies: Andy Serkis was nominated for the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture for his portrayal of Gollum, or the Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actor for Rise of the Planets of the Apes. However, the Academy Awards, retaining its belief on traditional analog, has not acknowledged this new type of performance. Kevin Fallon from The Daily Beast argues the reason behind this:

Actors have won Oscars for not speaking (Jean Dujardin in The Artist). Actors have won actors for just singing (Anne Hathaway in Les Misérables). Actors have won Oscars for sassily stepping over a puddle in period clothing (Judi Dench in Shakespeare in Love). Aren’t those performances as much “half performances” as any voice-only effort? Shouldn’t the year’s best performances, its best art, be rewarded, regardless on what percentage of it appears on screen?

Perhaps the Academy Awards regard these performances as “invisible”, and not worthy of their recognition. Invisible because they cannot see a pair of desperate eyes, or a portrayal of utmost agony by in a conventionally “human” form on screen, which, we could see, and feel, in Serkis’ portrayal of Gollum. Or perhaps the Academy Awards still consider these performances as a collaborative team effort rather than a solo performance by an actor or actress. The performance by a person would be sent and then edited and translated into algorithm by digital artists, who also contribute significantly to the final result of building a character. In any case, the shift needs to happen. The realms of the future is beyond our imagination, and so is our technology. It will bring about creatures, scenes, stories that are considered preposterous, but that is indeed the meaning of the future. I strongly believe the Academy Awards should equally regard CGI actors as real actors on screen. A new sub award for this, for example, Virtual Performance (as named in the MTV Movie Awards) is rather silly as digital technology has become more subtle in every performance, and there will come a time when the boundary between the two is no longer clear to evaluate.

As Prince concludes his chapter three:

Digital look backward as well as forward; they embrace tradition while configuring new possibilities. They emphasize a medium characteristic that is easily overlooked – the performer as a recombinant element of cinema, transacting relationships with elements of style across scenic action and composited image layers. (144)

The utmost task of an actor, to me, is to make the audience feel, believe, and offer them the ability to immerse themselves in the perceptual realism of a film. So if an actor achieves that, regardless of his physical presence, or the amount of technology that is integrated into the performance, as long as the character comes to life, as long as the audience is taken to a realm of imagination and possibility with a sense of believability and humanity, that performance deserves the most distinguished recognition.

Work Cited:

Fallon, Kevin. “Scarlett Johansson’s ‘Her’ Performance Deserves Oscar Love.” The Daily Beast, 2013 18, 12. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/12/18/scarlett-johansson-s-her-performance-deserves-oscar-love.html (accessed March 18, 2014).

Prince, Stepen. Digital Visual Effects in Cinema: The Seduction of Reality. Rutgers University Press, 2011.

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