Master contract doesn't cover performers

The technical wizardry that brings characters in blockbusters like “Avatar” and the new “Alice in Wonderland” to life has brought a new source of labor dispute to Hollywood: Are these genuine acting performances, or something else altogether?

At issue is what is called “performance capture,” aka “motion capture” or simply “mocap” in common lingo, in which non-star actors wear bodysuits that track their every movement digitally so that fantastical, otherworldly character features can be overlaid onscreen.

The technology has been deployed in an array of movies, ranging from “Titanic” back in 1997 to, more recently, “The Polar Express,” “300,” “Beowulf” and “A Christmas Carol,” and its proliferation has raised enough concern from the Screen Actors Guild that it formed a national Performance Capture Committee to address the “unique concerns and experiences of members who render performances that are recorded using ‘performance capture’ technology across all media, and to advise the guild on all matters pertaining to work in this rapidly growing area.”

Woody Schultz, who did such work in “Avatar,” “Beowulf,” “The Adventures of Tintin” and “The Polar Express,” was appointed chairman of the panel on Feb. 22.

Schultz, who played a technician, an avatar and several Na’vi roles in “Avatar,” is a strong advocate of getting the word out that even though the work’s done differently, it’s still acting.

“One of the goals for the committee will be to eradicate some myths surrounding performance capture; the idea that this technology will somehow replace actors couldn’t be further from the truth,” says Schultz. “In fact, it not only preserves every nuance of the rich and complex character an actor creates, it is completely reliant on that performance to drive the process”

But the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers doesn’t recognize such work as being covered by the guild’s master contract, meaning that employers get to call the shots regarding the terms and conditions for thesps who do performance capture work.

When SAG has raised the performance-capture issue in past contract negotiations — the first time a dozen years ago around the time when James Cameron was touting the small bits of digital thesping in “Titanic” — companies have responded during negotiations by asserting that mocap is a “non-mandatory” subject of bargaining and not open to negotiation.

SAG has jurisdiction over actors in most major films, but thesps have expressed concerns in recent years over the dearth of specific language in the master contract over how motion-capture performances are covered, such as whether the stunt, background or dance provisions apply.

And hammering out specifics in the SAG master contract, so that there’s consistency in how actors are employed, would probably go a long way toward making it clear to both sides — actors and employers — that the performance-capture work is definitively acting and not just a computer creation.

Though the number of thesps working in mocap is still relatively small, the AMPTP is loath to make a concession on any area of jurisdiction, because it sets a precedent that is generally irreversible. That scenario played out during the WGA strike of 2007-08 when writers kept demands for jurisdiction over animation and reality on the table for nearly three months before relenting a few weeks before the strike ended.

SAG is scheduled to launch seven weeks of negotiations on its feature-primetime contract with the AMPTP on Oct. 1. That means the guild’s mandated “wages and working conditions” process will likely begin in the late spring or early summer.

SAG and the AMPTP didn’t respond to questions about whether performance capture will be part of the upcoming negotiations. For now, SAG execs are insisting that the new committee has been established as a response to the burgeoning amount of work along with the need to remind Hollywood that SAG actors are acting.

“The performance capture committee gives us a great opportunity to hear from members about this important and growing area of work and to educate and inform them as well,” says Ray Rodriguez, SAG’s deputy national exec director for contracts. “It’s also a chance to reinforce the fact that actors bring an intrinsic and recognizable value to all productions.”

SAG began working on the performance capture area a dozen years ago, when it first told the Alliance of Motion Pictures & Television Producers the work should be covered by SAG’s master contract. The AMPTP disagreed.

That led to SAG’s new technologies committee issuing an almost prescient report in 1999, which, according to an issue of the SAG Actor magazine from that year, asserted that “performance capture can be a continuing source of potential employment for guild members, and SAG should fully establish itself in this area as the field grows and develops.”

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