‘Button’ pushes Oscar’s digital debate

Voters consider motion-capture performance

Are Oscar’s acting kudos ready to embrace the digital age?

While the Acad’s tech branches have been pondering the blurring of categories as digital artists create more and more of what’s seen onscreen, the debate has been mostly irrelevant in the acting realm — until now.

Brad Pitt‘s eponymous turn in Par’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” may force the thesp branch to consider recognizing perfs with a significant digital component.

Previously, motion-capture performances were easy to dismiss, being either in animated movies or supporting roles in genre pics. But with Pitt as Benjamin Button, the techniques are being applied to part of a perf by a major movie star starring in a prestige drama.

So new is the process that even the studio was initially confused.

“The big question from Paramount all the way through the process was, ‘When does Brad come into the movie?’ ” says helmer David Fincher. “And I would always say, ‘He’s going to be there from the first frame.’ And they would laugh and say, ‘When does Brad come into the movie?’ And I would swear he’s going to be there from the first frame.

“And I’m happy to say that I think he is, he is there from the first frame of the film.”

No actor has ever been nominated for an Oscar for an animation voiceover or any kind of motion-capture perf. Thesps haven’t been inclined to recognize stints where they don’t see the actor on the screen.

But other kudos have been more receptive. The Golden Globes gave Robin Williams a special award for his perf as Genie in “Aladdin” and Andy Serkis‘ turn as Gollum was included in the ensemble acting kudos for “The Lord of the Rings.”

In “Benjamin Button,” Pitt stars as a man who ages backward, with key periods tracked from his elderly look to infancy.

The baby Benjamin is a puppet and the boys at the end are simply young actors who resemble Pitt. The majority of the movie clearly features Pitt onscreen, his age and appearance manipulated via makeup, wigs, costumes and computer effects.

But for a significant chunk of the picture, Pitt appears in a kind of hybrid perf unlike anything seen on film before: As the elderly toddler and tween in the early scenes, it’s clearly Pitt’s face, but greatly aged — more than could be accomplished with makeup. It’s also clearly not Pitt’s body.

The scenes were done with an actor on the set playing Benjamin; different actors were used according to his age. In the meantime a digital “puppet” of Pitt’s aged head was created. Pitt performed the face and dialogue separately. His performance was used to drive the digital puppet, which was digitally attached to the live-action body. The body performance was digitally adjusted where needed to accommodate Pitt’s choices and timing.

Most mo-cap perfs of the past required lots of manipulation by animators, so it wasn’t always clear who was creating the performance. But in this case, says Fincher, “The only acting being done is being done by Brad.”

“One of the things I was so adamant about from the beginning was this was, ‘Look, this is not about animation. … This is not about somebody making a behavioral choice for Brad. … We just need to figure out a way to Xerox the way that his face is moving.’ ”

Where animators got involved, says Fincher, was when they made sure Pitt’s perf really made it onto the screen. “All of the markerless performance-capture stuff, it’s good, but it sometimes smoothing or dulling or desensitizing. It tends to be a bit of a mask. I like to call it ‘the digital Botox.’ ”

“So part of what you need to do is you need to go back through and make sure that you’re retaining things the computer didn’t think were important.”

In other recent pics where characters had to play a wide age range, notably “Slumdog Millionaire,” “The Reader” and “Atonement,” multiple actors played the characters. Sometimes it works; other times it’s jarring for audiences.

The mo-cap-puppetry technique could begin to spell the end of that. It could also herald the arrival of a new kind of acting.

In 2001, helmer Robert Zemeckis predicted that eventually a single actor would be able to play any or all parts in a film — a concept he advanced with Tom Hanks in “The Polar Express” and is revisiting with Jim Carrey in Disney’s “A Christmas Carol.” In the meantime, says Zemeckis, “I think actors will have to learn to act in a digital style. You’ll have different training as an actor. Kind of the way that stage actors had to learn to act in film. There’ll be virtual workshops, where you’ll learn to act in a bluescreen void, react to nothing, pieces of tape. … You’ll have to have your virtual chops.”

Indeed, actors from “300” and “Sin City” have remarked on how working in front of bluescreens, with minimal sets, reminds them of their stage roots.

Whether thesps will consider such roles for kudos attention remains to be seen.

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