Can This Photo Help Avatar Enter the Best Actress Oscar Race?

The Daily Beast's Kim Masters dropped by James Cameron's office a couple of weeks ago for a techy 30-minute show-and-tell, from which a few things were quickly apparent. First, "Cameron's genius is this: He makes movies for women disguised as movies for men." And if you don't believe that, here's the latest photograph to emerge from behind the scenes -- cannily timed to early chatter that Zoe Saldana's entirely performance-capture turn is not only real acting, but might also be Oscar-worthy.

Saldana is indeed pretty strong as Neytiri, the Na'vi warrior vixen whom Jake Sully's own alien avatar falls for in his Pandoran exploits. All things considered -- imagined green-screen sets, hard-driving director, horrible dialogue -- Saldana convincingly explores Neytiri's emotional range despite never actually appearing in the flesh onscreen. But this frame from footage soon to air on HBO (and passed along today by Masters) is one of the first glimpses at the more physical encumbrance faced by Saldana and her co-stars: the performance- capture helmet that caught and transformed every facial tic and movement inside Cameron's camera.

It's something for the fanboys, sure, but it's important that Masters is the outlet here and not, say, Harry Knowles. To wit, Masters writes of her conversation with Avatar producer Jon Landau:

[A]ctors make up the biggest voting bloc in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Naturally, they would be less inclined to support an animated movie for Best Picture as opposed to one that is performance driven. [...] This footage [...] is meant to show that the actor's performance drives the technology on a "frame by frame, almost pore-by-pore level," as Landau puts it. He wants actors to know that Saldana trained for the role, working with a movement coach, for example, and learning to ride a horse.

Avatar might be a lock for Best Picture and Director nods, and Saldana is still on the bubble of the bubble when it comes to awards season. They're small bubbles, though -- and getting smaller as audiences have their first looks at the film and such previously thought locks as Bright Star's Abbie Cornish and the women of Nine slide off (unfairly or not). The old-schoolers will never go for it, but if there's anything we all know about Cameron's women, it's that they always manage a way to get what they want.

· The Genius of Avatar [The Daily Beast]


  • The idea of actors being easily replaced by nobodies with lots of green dots is probably bad for business, too.

  • Lorin says:

    If Cameron couldn't secure Linda Hamilton a nod, Zaldana doesn't have a chance in hell.

  • Old No.7 says:

    And in this frame, Zoe shows her reaction to the news that Cameron has plans for an Avatar sequel.
    Related: You guys really need to bring back the photo caption of the day contest.

  • John says:

    Why does it not surprise me to see negative comments from cynical nerds that think they know better than one of the greatest directors in history?

  • king says:

    You need an ACTOR to control the green dot's, they're not sentient ...

  • maus says:

    "Why does it not surprise me to see negative comments from cynical nerds that think they know better than one of the greatest directors in history?"
    Sorry dude, some of us find things entertaining other than the Transformers series and bland sci-fi drek.

  • Graham says:

    Don't forget that animators have to clean up motion capture data after it's taken.

  • Jorge says:

    Zaldana is a hell of a better actress then Linda Hamilton

  • SunnydaZe says:

    Because you are an evil naked robot from the future?

  • SunnydaZe says:

    If it didn't happen for Andy Serkis as Gollum then it ain't gonna be happening for a long, long time....
    If ever.

  • Michael Adams says:

    If Zoe can control her performance on a pore-by-pore level, she definitely deserves it. Tom Cruise did pour-by-pour work in Cocktail though and he didn't trouble the Academy's ballots.

  • alexx says:

    Don't forget that animators have to clean up motion capture data after it's taken...

  • OMG!!! They finally perfected mouth being opened technology! Now anyone's mouth can be opened....your next Clint Eastwood.

  • The Cantankerist says:

    "Why does it not surprise me to see negative comments from cynical nerds that think they know better than one of the greatest directors in history?"
    I dunno. Why does it not surprise me to see hyperbole and abuse from someone who thinks James Cameron qualifies as one of the greatest directors in history?

  • Neil says:

    I have to say, compared to the photo of the human, the CGI version has about 1/10th of the emotional range.
    It looks flat and in particular the corners of the eyes, the nostrils, and the corners of the mouth do not have nearly enough detail to communicate the ferociousness of her real facial expression.
    The CGI version also diminishes the slight furrowing of her brow and how it is crumpled with tension between her eyebrows.
    If cameron thinks this shot is going to make people realise how hard the actors worked, it will probably succeed. But at the same time it shows equally dramatically how inadequate the CGI version is.
    Perhaps it's a lot better in motion. But I just watched LOTR and Gollum had more expressiveness that this. Motion capture, even though they are making it much more complex, has some fundamental issues that haven't been improved in a decade.

  • giantslor says:

    Times have changed. James Cameron is more high profile and respected than when he did Terminator. And Avatar is a much bigger movie. And the Academy is more willing to award these types of movies than they were in the past.

  • bravo says:

    Zoe deserves it, one of the best performances this year if not the best period

  • Dan says:

    Well for one thing, Gollum's face was hand animated by animators. Only the movements of Andy Serkis were captured.

  • tahrey says:

    Exactly - just the same as you need someone who knows what they're doing with the rest of the motion capture gear, or someone with timing and a bit of panache with delivering dialogue for a "traditional" animated feature.
    Andy Serkis wasn't exactly someone roped in off the street when he did his turn as Gollum... and a lot of the perceived difference in quality between a well made animation (let's say... Pixar, or certain Dreamworks flicks) and a throwaway kids' TV fad show is how much they're willing to pay for vocal talent and a good director to coach and fit them in with the onscreen action - such a choice detectable even with an existing production being dubbed into a new language. When what you're doing is basically re-skinning an actor's face onto a CG body, just with altered gross dimensions and colouration (like with T2a and it's then-game-changing morphing, wayback), for the express reason of making it more real and believable, you're going to get someone who can carry the emotes properly - not ruin it all by bringing in a novice or some awful ham.
    Though a part of me still wonders if Sigourney's face can actually contort anywhere near so much as her Avatar's did when the doc was shocked or scared! There may have been a bit of dramatic and maybe even semi-automated overexaggeration thrown in during the render stages :D

  • tahrey says:

    Funny, Terminator (1) was on TV earlier this evening before I somewhat randomly found myself here (down the rabbit hole of links from imdb after looking up a writer/actress from a completely unrelated show). It's still an excellent and surprisingly short movie and one can imagine someone seeing it for the first time without knowing very much about it being both taken aback and surprised by some of the reveals.
    ... then being somewhat disappointed at how he didn't even seem to know about simple techniques for making the stop-motion and motion-control models seem more realistic, such as vibrating them to add fake motion blur or making sure the tracks they ran on had no kinks.
    He's an excellent director but all the way down from that and Aliens seems to have the occasional rough spot that can't be shaken. However, it at least seems to be a sign of always learning and always pushing instead of sitting back in a comfortable place and absolutely honing the craft.

  • terri says:

    Zoe should have been nominated, better actress even as cgi than Bullock

  • Alexandr Krulik says:

    ~This is a great post ~ That is all :)

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