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Tears and Loathing

Digital tweaks bring aid, angst to actors

The effects guys made Jennifer Connelly cry.

During the Visual Effects Society’s Jan. 13 Show and Tell confab, visual effects supervisor Jeff Okun showed before-and-after versions of one of the climactic shots of “Blood Diamond.”

The “before” showed Connelly talking on a cell phone. The “after” showed her talking on a cell phone with a tear running down her cheek.

Such alterations of actors’ takes and choices are becoming more doable, and as a result, more common. And many vfx pros — not to mention the Screen Actors Guild — are uneasy about it.

“We are now treading the dangerous waters of ending up with a full ‘synthespian,’ ” says Okun. “We can create somebody from nothing or have them do something they never did before.”

All of this provokes an unhappy “Oh boy” from Tom La Grua, SAG’s interim deputy national executive for contracts.

A proposal to give actors approval of digital alterations was first put forward in negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers in 1998, La Grua says.

“The proposal said no part of a performer’s performance may be altered digitally or otherwise without the performer’s consent.”

SAG’s proposal was rejected and has been in committee ever since.

In the interim, no performers have complained to the union, and it’s been up to performers to protect themselves in their own contracts.

Karen Borrell, SAG’s national director of entertainment contracts, says flatly, “We assume that when a performer’s engaged on a role, the producer will inform them if the performance is altered in any way.”

George Lucas led the way on the “Star Wars” films, sometimes digitally cutting and pasting an actor’s perf from one take with another actor’s perf from another take.

So while the actors onscreen might be “in the moment,” they weren’t in the same moment.

More recently there are examples of an actor’s face from one take being combined with his body from another, creating a take that never happened. But at least it’s still the actor’s face and body.

On “Superman Returns,” Sony Imageworks created a digital double for Brandon Routh for the flying sequences. On the chance it might be used onscreen with Routh’s recorded dialogue, they built it with enough detail and controls to let it simulate speech.

It never did have to “talk,” but those controls were used in one of the film’s final shots to create a facial expression Routh didn’t provide.

“The shot’s probably 90% digital anyway,” says Sony’s Richard R. Hoover, a vfx supervisor on the film.

“The question came up whether we can alter the shot to make him look less stoic. The feeling of accomplishment wasn’t coming across the way they wanted.

“It was a quick moment, a couple of seconds. Whether Brandon had a problem with that, I don’t know.”

Okun and his peers foresee trouble.

“I expect that there’s going to be some public brouhaha about this in the next couple of years, where we change the performance and they sue,” Okun says.

He’s not the only one who sees a problem looming. Douglas Smith of Rhythm & Hues, working on “Evan Almighty,” says, “It’s an issue that everybody has to come to terms with.

“There will be some segment of the creative process that will take it so far that the ethical bounds will be crossed at some point and it will be right in people’s faces.”

For Smith, that ethical boundary means having the onscreen actor do something he would never have agreed to do or being in a scene he wouldn’t have agreed to be in.

But Smith notes that actors’ intentions have long been subject to radical changes in editing, where scenes are routinely rearranged, shots from one take can be used in others, outtakes can be cut into the film, and all manner of tricks are common.

“Once it goes into the editorial process,” says Smith, “all bets are off as to what the original concept was.”

But, as SAG’s La Grua points out about traditional editing, “They’re not changing anything the performer did. They can cut it, edit it, any way they want.

“But it doesn’t say they can add tears where there were no tears, or turn a smirky smile which was the character’s intent to a big broad grin.”

Okun says actors would be wise to keep control of their “digital assets,” such as face and body scans, noting that Tom Cruise permitted a full-body scan for “The Last Samurai” but only with ironclad agreements that those assets be returned to him or destroyed.

Visual effects supervisors say these changes are never their own idea. They always come from filmmakers, putting them on the horns of a dilemma.

“We want to please the director so we get hired again,” says Okun, “But we don’t want to make the actor angry so we don’t get hired again.”

So far, the helmers are winning.

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