ACTING for ANIMATORS
ED'S MONTHLY NEWSLETTER:
Avatar: An Actor's Perspective (WARNING: SPOILERS)
James Cameron is, in many ways, a certifiable cinematic genius, a modern-day visionary in the mold of D.W. Griffith or Cecil B. DeMille. However, the script for Avatar is the movie equivalent of what used to be called “bubble gum” music. It has a burst of flavor when you first bite into it, but that only lasts for a little while and, if you chew too long, the gum hardens and your jaw starts aching. As most reviewers have observed, Avatar rates a 10 for visuals and a 3 for script. Nonetheless, the formula works at the box office, bringing in over US$2 billion so far. Somebody out there likes bubble gum.
Industry special effects and performance capture artists are justifiably thrilled with this film because it breaks new ground at the edge of the digital frontier. It moves the photo-real crowd one step closer to the exit from the uncanny valley, and Mr. Cameron deserves all the curtain calls he gets. The acting community is not quite so clebratory about Avatar, mainly due to those script problems. I will take this opportunity to talk to animators about how stage and movie actors approach a role.
Place yourself for a moment into the shoes of Stephen Lang, the actor playing Colonel Miles Quaritch, commander of the Avatar mission. You have just finished reading the script for the first time since being hired. You read it all the way through in one sitting.
The first read is the most important one for an actor because it is the only time he “imagines” the film or play in his mind’s eye. He is mentally sitting in the audience as an observer of all the characters, including the one he will soon be playing. After this, he mentally shifts from audience to the stage, and the character stops being “he” (third person) and becomes “I " (first person). For better or worse, the actor now owns the character and it is his job to bring it to life.
You know the facts of the story and you have a general idea of Colonel Quaritch’s character. He is the most military-like individual in the story, battle-tested and mission-driven. He dies violently in the end while trying to commit genocide of the Na’vi. His ultimate objective is to get possession and control of the mineral called Unobtanium.
An actor searches for clues about the values and feelings of his character because he knows that emotions tend to lead to action. It is more important for an actor to understand how a character feels about things than what he thinks about things. What makes him laugh? What makes him cry? He studies not only what the character says and does in the script, but how other characters in the story interact with him. He will look for even the smallest personal clues, photos on desktops, etc. Anything at all that might evoke emotion is helpful.
Is Quaritch married, perhaps? Children? In the closet? The script doesn’t say. Does he ever feel lonely up here in space, 4.3 light years away from earth? Well, if he does, it is not in the script. He seems humorless. Surely he enjoys doing something! Does he play the guitar maybe? Doesn't say. What does he do on his days off back on earth? Ball games? Museums? The script doesn’t say. Suddenly, in a flash, you notice a consistent character trait that is a big problem for you, the actor: Colonel Quaritch appears not to empathize with anybody. He is like a human pile driver. No empathy! The only way to play a character that does not empathize is to make him a sociopath, and that is pretty much what Stephen Lang did.
Sigourney Weaver plays two versions of the same character, which is unusual. She is Grace Augustine, the lead scientist on the Avatar mission, and also her own Na’vi avatar. The first read of the script indicates that she behaves a bit differently when she is her avatar self than when she is her human self. When she is her avatar, she is friendlier, more sensitive than her ballsy human self. Maybe she can’t display her true feelings when she is on the spaceship? She smokes and drinks and acts a lot like a sailor when on the ship, but that may be just a protective cover for her real feelings which emerge when she is her avatar. If true, then she surely has feelings about having to live a counterfeit life most of the time? There are no scenes in the script that might answer that question.
When a good actor cannot find justification in the script for character behavior, he will just make it up. Even if the behavior is illogical, the audience must never know that the actor thinks that.
Jake Sully is the hero, being played by Australian actor Sam Worthington. Here is what you know after the first read of the script: Mid-30's, battlefield spinal cord injury landed him in a wheel chair. He joins the Avatar mission after his twin brother dies. His motivation to join is the prospect of being able to walk again. He seems to have no interest in the Colonel's genocidal tendencies, nor in the planet Pandora. He is totally focused on walking again.
An actor pursues an objective until he achieves it, or some other objective takes its place.
Jake achieves his objective of walking when he transitions from human to Na’vi avatar. His next objective is unclear. As his avatar, he becomes something of a goof ball. He wanders away from his comrades, gets lost, falls down a lot, almost get eaten by some prehistoric-looking monsters and then meets the Na’vi princess. He says he wants to learn the Na'vi ways and traditions, but he does not appear to be committed to Colonel Quaritch's military objectives. He is just along for the ride and having fun.
Action sequences like those involving Jake and the exotic creatures are self-contained and easy to act. The objective is to stay alive, the action is to fight, the conflict is that a creature is trying to eat you. It may be physically demanding and require concentration because of the green screen, but it is not complicated from an acting perspective.
What is his new objective, now that he can walk? It appears to be nothing more than staying alive. He is not trying to escape, and he doesn't care much about Colonel Quaritch's military goals. He says he is interested in learning the Na'vi ways and traditions, but his interest seems to be academic and personal, not mission-oriented. In fact, Jake seems to sort of go with the flow for the entire second act. Neytiri the Na'vi princess teaches him Na'vi ways, during which they fall in love. Then he turns against the humans and fights on the side of the Na'vi. You, the actor, can see that he does all of these things. The trick is to somehow find a logical progression from one to the other. The answer is not in the script.
An actor will look for the major transition points in a character and story. He realizes that he absolutely must justify those transitions. They must not appear coincidental. If a character is on the side of the humans at the beginning, and on the side of the Na'vi at the end, what is the moment that the transition happens?
Zoe Saldana is Neytiri, the Na’vi female lead. She has been raised in a kind of New Age Garden of Eden. The Na’vi spend a lot of time tuning into trees, plants and their spiritual vibes. But what are Neytiri's personal values? The script really doesn’t say. In her first scenes, she's helping chase off those pesky humans. But then, in the second act of the script, she befriends the fake Jake avatar and gets romantic. And, at the very end of the story, she slays the dragon, Col Quaritch. You look through the script again and again, searching for clues about Neytiri's values, childhood, former love life…anything at all that might help. Not much there. She’s a Na’vi princess, that’s all, and she does what Na’vi princesses do. She is reactive to the events that happen to her. It is difficult to find her objectives. The transitions in her character don’t really work.
The bottom line is that, for actors, Avatar is weak. The only thing that keeps the characters in the same story is that they are all on the same spaceship and planet. The effects are spectacular, but the dialogue is wooden. James Cameron seems not to understand how actors do what they do, and he is much better at developing plot than developing characters.
Watch on March 7th to see if Avatar wins Best Picture at the Academy Awards. If it does, take a good look at the people in the audience because they are also the voters. Notice that many of them are chewing bubble gum.
Until next month...
"Actors and Animators are Shamans!"
Copyright © 2012-2016 Ed Hooks