SAG, studios clash over what constitutes thesping

Is it acting, or animation? The awards season brings this question into sharp relief again, with motion-capture films like “Tintin” planting themselves firmly in the animation camp, while Fox runs an awards campaign for Andy Serkis’ perf in “The Rise of the Planet of the Apes.”

The Screen Actors Guild faces a tough battle with studios over a fundamental question — are the characters in these films, or earlier pics such as “Polar Express,” “Beowulf” and “Avatar,” performing as genuine actors or something else?

The Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers doesn’t recognize such work as being covered by the guild’s master contract. That means employers get to call the shots regarding the terms and conditions for thesps who do performance-capture work, sometimes classifying it as lower-paying background work.

SAG is eager to get performance capture, a part of motion capture (or mo-cap), as a feature of standard contracts, since multimillions are at stake. Aside from salaries, a decision affects actors’ terms for ancillaries, as well as health and pension coverage.

A little more than a year ago, SAG brought in “Avatar” producer-director James Cameron and producing partner Jon Landau to explain the impact of motion capture technology during negotiations with AMPTP. The hourlong presentation included eight minutes of behind-the-scenes footage, with Cameron recalling that he and Landau took pains to not take sides.

“The presentation was very agnostic,” Cameron tells Variety. “There were 50 people on one side and 50 on the other side, so Jon and I were careful to make sure that we stayed right in the middle. I wanted to be very sympathetic to the artists, but I am also a producer, so we weren’t there with a political agenda — we were there so they could negotiate from a position of knowledge.”

Cameron notes that there were very few questions. The key point he wanted to make is that what performers do in motion capture is indeed acting, and not what he called “a red-headed stepchild.”

“I think it’s great for actors, because you have the undivided attention of the director,” he says. “And I wanted to shake the perception that it’s not really acting.”

Cameron notes that motion-capture acting often requires less filming than conventional shooting, in which each take needs to be shot from five different vantage points and then duplicated by the actor.

“With performance capture, an additional take can be exploratory because you don’t have to duplicate performances (to get an exact match),” he says. “You can have a brand new idea, so there’s more possibility of being creative. People think you only have one chance, but it’s quite the opposite.”

Neither SAG nor the AMPTP would comment about Cameron’s presentation, citing the confidentiality pledge they took covering the substance of negotiations in September 2010.

Insiders recall that reps of the AMPTP had asserted during the negotiations that motion-capture performers should not be covered specifically in the master contract because they were engaged in nothing more than a computer creation. And even the presence of Cameron, kept under wraps by SAG and the AMPTP for more than a year, wasn’t enough to persuade the AMPTP signatories that SAG deserved specific contract language covering mo-cap.

“Our position is that actors are acting, and that triggers coverage,” says SAG’s Ray Rodriguez, national exec director of contracts. “Ultimately, it would be in the companies’ interests to standardize the contract language.”

The key is that producers are free to set the terms of motion capture — meaning they’re not required to classify a performer as a “principal.” That holds down initial compensation, since many are paid the daily minimum, and precludes the performer from receiving residuals.

In performance capture, actors wear bodysuits that track every movement digitally so that fantastical character features can be overlaid onscreen. The technology has been deployed in an array of movies.

More recently, the art has advanced to the point where it’s possible to capture subtle facial movements, making it possible to add human emotion to the faces of characters ranging from Na’vi to apes. This has resulted in a change of terminology from motion-capture to performance-capture.

The proliferation of the technology has raised enough concern from SAG that it formed a national performance-capture committee two years ago.

Rodriguez says members want a standardized set of terms. “I would not describe the current situation as ideal.”

Woody Schultz, who did performance-capture work in “Avatar,” “Beowulf,” “The Adventures of Tintin” and “The Polar Express,” has been chairman of the SAG panel for nearly two years. Schultz notes that the acting that’s behind motion capture is the same as non mo-cap perfs.

“There’s a lot of misinformation in that the public sees this as being like ‘Shrek,’ when it really is a flesh-and-blood performance with nuance and emotion,” Schultz tells Variety.

Schultz believes “Apes” was a critical and box office success due to the emotion conveyed by the actors playing the simians — particularly Serkis, who’s the protagonist.

In addition, for the first time in a major performance-capture movie, the actors in “Apes” did much of their performing in outdoor locations rather than in the highly controled environment of motion-capture soundstages, which are commonly called “volumes.” This allowed for a much greater range of motion and interaction with real physical objects rather than imagined ones.

“It made what could have been a sci-fi movie into something much more,” Schultz says. “More and more filmmakers are realizing what you can do now.”Schultz was a part of the Morocco sequence in “Tintin,” the Asher character in “Beowulf” and played one of the scientists and about 100 different Navi in “Avatar.”

“I love getting the work,” Schultz says. “It’s really truly no different from regular acting except that you have to learn to move in the equipment — and you don’t (always) have the luxury of props.”

When SAG, which has jurisdiction over actors in nearly all major films, has raised the performance-capture issue in past contract negotiations — the first time a dozen years ago around the time when Cameron was touting the small bits of digital thesping in “Titanic” — companies have responded during negotiations by asserting that mo-cap is a “non-mandatory” subject of bargaining on which they’re not required to negotiate.

Though the number of thesps working in mo-cap is still relatively small, the AMPTP has been loath to make any concession on any area of jurisdiction, because it sets a precedent that is generally irreversible.

Before reaching a three-year deal in November 2010, SAG leaders agreed to drop the demand for motion-capture coverage.

SAG could bring up the issue again in two years, although it’s likely that the guild will have merged with the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists by then, which may complicate negotiations, since the key issue of that merger will probably be how to allocate employer pension and health contributions rather than anything to do with mo-cap.

The pro-merger forces have contended that SAG and AFTRA will have more clout as a combined union — a contention that been disputed on numerous occasions by Alan Rosenberg, who served two terms as SAG president from 2005 to 2009. He continues to insist that AFTRA’s leaders have been too accommodating to employers, and that a merger will put those leaders in a dominant position.

“We might get motion-capture language if the AMPTP is in a magnanimous mood, but I’m sure it would be at the cost of something else,” Rosenberg tells Variety. “It’s a lie to say that we’ll be stronger by merging with AFTRA.”

Still, Cameron’s willing to return to AMPTP headquarters if summoned. “I’ll involved to the extent that either side wants me to be involved,” he says.

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