Digital sets and actors blur craft categories

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences doesn’t like to rush into things, and it doesn’t respond to fads.

But the arrival of digital cinema is forcing almost every branch of the Academy to take a hard look at its rules. One insider calls it the widest-ranging review of Academy policies since talkies came in nearly 80 years ago.

Charles Bernstein, chairman of the org’s rules committee, says the Academy Awards exist to recognize achievement, and the goal is to match that achievement with an existing category. But, he adds, “Each year, there seem to be certain pictures that challenge the nature of the award.”

This year’s big head-scratchers include “Sin City.” The high-contrast shadowy looks of the scenes were created digitally. Is that production design, cinematography, or visual effects? “Revenge of the Sith” fuzzes categories in the same way.

Andy Serkis’ motion-captured perf as King Kong may also hand the org an oversized puzzle. There’s been buzz for months about Serkis’ copious prepration and extreme attention to detail in playing the giant ape. Oscar has rarely shown much love for actors in genre films anyway and Serkis won’t actually be seen on screen, but if he shines as Kong, would the Acad seriously consider him for an acting nom?

There are bigger issues. Because Academy rules define a motion picture by how it’s shown, digital cinema has raised the basic question, What is a film? Because for many, celluloid is no longer the medium of choice.

Some technologies, notably editing, made the changeover to digital without a blip. But CGI and visual technology are threatening to rewrite the rules.

So far, only a few rule changes have come out of the Acad’s internal conversations. But as the industry gears up for Oscar season, films like “Sin City” and “Star Wars” are going to pose conundrums in sets, cinematography, costumes and makeup. And more such films are on the way.

The tech branches are being forced to consider where such specialties as cinematography and production design end and visual effects begins.

Last year, there were questions around “The Polar Express” — should it be considered for animation or visual effects? Many animators consider performance-capture an inferior form of animation, the digital equivalent of tracing instead of drawing. But the pic’s digital sets were quite elaborate. Both motion-capture and graphics artists were proud of their work, and the filmmakers wanted all to be recognized.

The movie wound up with no nomination in either category.

Frank Miller, who created the “Sin City” comic books, credits his co-director on the film, Robert Rodriguez, as the person most responsible for the film’s look. “The comic book was mine,” says Miller, “but he had the idea for how it could be achieved digitally. Robert showed we could use the movie screen as a drawing board.”

The effects branch likes to recognize groundbreaking effects. But it’s only a matter of time before digital sets or lighting demand recognition for artistic merit even if they don’t represent a step forward for the technology.

Will production designers or cinematographers be willing to honor all-digital environments?

For films that straddle the line between visual effects and art direction, for example, the decision could go one of two ways. “Both could claim it,” the Acad’s Bernstein says, “or reasonable people could determine where they think the true achievement lies.”

That means taking things on a case-by-case basis, not necessarily changing the rules, says Bernstein.

Discussions are already taking place in the executive committees of several branches — one Sci-Tech Council member estimates that 10-15 Academy bodies are pondering such questions — but they rarely get a wider airing unless a branch proposes a rule change.

Questions are also raised as to whether the Academy will nominate directors and actors in CGI-heavy films.

Under existing rules, the actors branch is free to honor motion-captured performances in the regular acting categories. But the Acad has never nominated a voice performance from an animated film in an acting category, and actors may be inclined to see motion capture the same way.

Thanks to motion capture, it’s not so simple to tell who delivered that gesture or facial expression — the actor or an animator tweaking the performance in post.

The issue was raised with Serkis in the last two “Lord of the Rings” films and Tom Hanks’ multiple roles in “Polar Express.” The debate continues with Nick Stahl’s digitally enhanced performance as Yellow Bastard in “Sin City.”

Miller salutes Stahl’s acting, but also credits Greg Nicotero and his prosthetics team. “It’s a little bit like referring to Charles Laughton as the Hunchback or Boris Karloff as the Monster. An awful lot of what made that character so memorable came from Nicotero.”

Acad governor Ed Begley Jr. says that while there have been no discussions within the actors branch regarding motion-capture, the technology should be embraced, not feared.

“I think the technology is going to be a big plus in the long run,” he says. “We just have to make sure, as there has been with other emerging formats, that there is some equity for actors and all creative personnel.”

Miller believes roles like Yellow Bastard and “Star Wars’ ” Yoda ultimately need a new category.

Such changes seem likely, but are not inevitable. Some parts of the Academy long ago made peace with the idea that they’d honor what’s on the screen, regardless of how it got there.

Gossip abounds, for example, of actors who took home Oscar gold for performances that editors could barely cobble together, or screenwriters who collected statuettes for scripts that were completely rewritten by others.

Still, nobody asks to see the dailies, the outtakes or the rejected drafts to decide who deserves a statuette.

The tech fields aren’t eager to follow that example. The day that a cinematographer, costume designer or production designer seems to be in line for an Oscar for work that was really done by a digital artist, look for a slew of rule changes in short order.

Otherwise, major category changes may take years, if not decades.

But digital cinema also raises the question of how to define a “film.” To be eligible for Oscar consideration, a movie must be shown in a qualifying theater, not be on TV for a certain period of time, etc. Features must be shown on 35mm prints or larger, while docus and shorts get by on 16mm.

Then digital projectors arrived. If a project is shot and edited digitally and shown on a digital projector, is it still a “motion picture?” With some directors, such as James Cameron, talking about making movies that can only be shown with digital projection, that’s a question the Acad must answer in the next few years.

The shorts and animation branches have wrestled with this issue. They decided they would not force producers to strike a print just for Oscar eligibility. They’ll accept digital films, provided they’re shown on a proper digital cinema projection system.

That should get a little simpler now that the Digital Cinema Initiative (DCI) has delivered its specifications.

“There are 300 individual installations that meet the spirit of the DCI spec. That’s what we consider digital screening,” says Andrew Maltz of the Academy’s Science & Technology Council.

That is likely to be the standard the entire Academy adopts in the future, but even that is not assured.

“We’re talking about all these sorts of things, and some things you’d never think of,” says Bernstein. “We try to be as forward-looking as we can.”

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