Toward a New Aesthetikon (continued)

Continued from previous page.

Mapping and digitizing; modeling and tweaking. One suspects these activities result in a coarsening of the actor’s expressive initiatives. The man, one might say, is transformed into manikin or, to be more accurate, into a participant in what Kehr describes as “a virtual puppet theater” where the visions of the human actors are suspended “in an ambiguous space between cartoonlike stylization and photo-realistic representation.”

In subjecting facial expressions and body movements to digitial reprocessing, mocap extends into the modern age a historic disempowerment. As early as 1889 Henry James recognized that a set-obsessed legitimate theater was turning into a “landscape without figures” and that actors would eventually turn into “dressed manikins.”

Why is this the case? The actor’s peculiar talent is the creation of living energy through the transformation of the human body’s restrictions into the subtleties of facial expression and body motion. The process is an expensive one in terms of aesthetic coin, and little wonder for the temptation by a director to supplant the actor’s power– as quirky and troublesome as it is fascinating– with the more efficient constructive materials of light and sound. For the legitimate theater the benefits go beyond the ability to easily hypnotize audiences only too willing to surrender their minds to a sparkling show. Productions have also become easily transportable through the ability to employ actors with less than the optimal levels of either talent or reputation. Hence efficiency and savings. The actor must die so the theater might live.

As for the cinema, its war with the performer is proverbial. While everyone recalls Hitchcock’s statement about actors being treated like cattle, other filmmakers were equally candid. Employing a metaphor that again anticipates our mocap puppets, director Josef Von Sternberg claimed to use actors “as marionettes are used,” and that working with actors was always “a matter of being in charge of the human being and never allowing that human being to be himself.” Years later cinematographer Jack Cardiff, in the midst of an attempt to create a work that was “like Vermeer” in its use of light, discovered with disapproval that “actors move around. They get in the lights; they get in the way.”

If filmmakers feel the need to reduce the power of the actor, mocap is a powerful way to replace the human body with constructive materials more congenial to the screen. Does an actor balk at representing an intended expression? The director may pull a digital string and get the flesh just so. Mocap, in a sense, moves the center of theatric power from out the body and into the technological tool box. “It really isn’t the back end,” says Beowulf’s special effects expert Ken Ralston, speaking of mocap’s machinations. “It’s really the main production.”

Actors—no surprise here – resent incursions on their turf. Consider Al Pacino’s reflection on the challenges of working with technology-minded directors: “As soon as the take is over everybody says to the sound guys and the camera guys, well, did you get it? But the actor is finished. He’s just sort of left standing there. You might have had something that you thought was very exciting happen. But to them, that’s beside the point these days.”

Yet audiences are apt to side with the director who provides them with flash and light that are easier to follow than the actor’s irritating subtleties. In Beowulf, to return to our case, viewer and filmmaker alike revel in formal freedom: Actors fly through the air and bounce off the walls like Dave Kehr’s cartoon characters as the epic poem’s story line pops to the surface. “Words are of little importance in this picture,” Internet DVDTalk reviewer Brian Orndorf says approvingly, “Since [ director ] Zemeckis is serving up an overflowing basket of big screen treats.” And what a story they tell! “This is the future of cinema. The limitations of storytelling [ are] inching one step further to being forever erased.”

Communicating emotion
Here the thoughtful aesthetician draws up short. The limitations of story telling are its very salvation. It is the resisting conduit of recalcitrant form through which creative force churns, heats and finally sparks life. Yet in every medium the artist faces the same paradox as the makers of Beowulf: The very restrictions that are the sole conduits of emotion frustrate the longing for a direct connection with the audience.

The productive implications of this irony are top of mind issues for the makers of Beowulf, who are quite explicit about the challenge of enhancing viewer involvement in the absence of the complete human form. Ralston, for example, describes Beowulf as “a movie for adults about deep, dark emotional journeys, and you can’t get any sense of that in a cartoon character.” As for the technological ins and outs of mocap, Ralston confirms it was a challenge to “get it on the screen in a way that still had emotional resonance.” That process required continual technological iterations, according to visual effects supervisor Jerome Chen, who recalls the need to “feel” the performance of the actors. “If you’re not feeling it, then there’s definitely an emotional thing that the animator has to put back in.”

Not everyone would agree that the filmmakers have “put back in” sufficient feeling. Commentator Dargis, for example, assesses mocap with these words: “True believers see it as the future of movies, though really the most interesting thing about it is that it’s not intrinsically interesting. [ . . . ] To be honest, I don’t yet see the point of performance capture, particularly given how ugly it renders realistic-looking human forms.” The faces and eyes, in particular, “have neither the spark of true life nor that of an artist’s unfettered imagination.” So “you see the cladding but not the soul.”

Aesthetic panic
Two armies rage on the field of art. The soldiers of reason promise freedom and the triumph of meaning; those of emotion promise hardship and the creation of life. As these armies vie for the loyalty of artists, freedom’s lure is often too tempting to resist. Ways are found to reduce formal restrictions to direct expression.

In Beowulf, the way is mocap. In the battle between performer and filmmaker the technology offers a compromise: Some of the actor’s power is removed along with the balky restrictions of the body. But some is retained as the human form might continue to create energy beyond the limited wattage of cartoon figures.

If mocap frees the filmmaker from the tyranny of the actor, a new danger arises: a loss of aesthetic moorings. Faced with restrictive hooks insufficient for the hanging of the formal components native to the constructive material on palette, the creative individual enters a state of aesthetic panic. Imagine an oil painter charged with the task of creating a work absent a canvas. The only solution to this aesthetic conundrum might be the firing of a spray gun in wild abandon, in the process creating a rainbow of colors in mid air.

If the metaphor seems farfetched, commentator Dargis sees something very similar when she views Beowulf. Movie makers who transform books into screen equivalents, she says, often are “throwing everything they can think of at the screen, including lots of big: big noise, sets, moves, effects, stars and, yup, even big breasts.” As for the maker of Beowulf, adds Dargis, “mostly he throws technology at us.”

Indeed, the Beowulf filmmakers have explicitly confessed to entering states of aesthetic panic. Chen likens the making of a movie with mocap in these terms: “You’re jumping off a cliff, and all you can do is hope your parachute opens.” And Ralston admits that “watching [Anthony] Hopkins doing a particular scene, and the subtlety of some of the stuff he was doing—we were freaking out, because we were realizing, this is either going to work, or its going to be a gigantic disaster.”

Perhaps it is not surprising that the film transmogrifies Beowulf’s famous monster into a bulky, shapeless hulk. In light of the loss of the full array of the human actor’s formal constraints, could Gerndel be seen as anything less than the incarnation of that “loose, baggy monster” Henry James asserted must rise from the swamp of formless art?

Walter Idlewild, a resident of New York City, is the author of The Aesthetikon. He maintains a web site at

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