Face Value: Where Actors End And Effects Begin

Zoe Saldana plays Neytiri i i

hide captionThe Eyes Have It: Among the special-effects alterations applied to actress Zoe Saldana in Avatar is one that seems calculated to invoke what's sometimes called "the cute response." Hint: Those big eyes aren't just about night vision.

Twentieth Century Fox
Zoe Saldana plays Neytiri

The Eyes Have It: Among the special-effects alterations applied to actress Zoe Saldana in Avatar is one that seems calculated to invoke what's sometimes called "the cute response." Hint: Those big eyes aren't just about night vision.

Twentieth Century Fox

If Avatar earns actress Zoe Saldana an Oscar nomination for her performance as Neytiri — the 10-foot-tall, largely computer-generated, blue Na'vi amazon — who should get the Oscar? Saldana, or the army of digitizers who've modified her features?

The question's moot, of course. It would go to Saldana.

But what about that army of animators? Do they give her certain advantages over the other performers in the category?

Critic Bob Mondello tells NPR's Michele Norris that he's glad it's not up to him to decide. Saldana was great in the film, he says, but "I'm not absolutely certain that she is what's fantastic about the performance."

And it's not the first time he's had this problem.

'Sneaky Little Hobbitses' And Hybridized Brad Pitts

"In 2002, when Gollum appeared in Lord of the Rings, I couldn't tell anymore," Mondello says. "Gollum was a character," played by actor Andy Serkis, "who's kind of this little ogre. And he is partly an actor who was acting with the motion-capture stuff, and partly digital creation. But he's clearly not human."

Andy Serkis plays Gollum

hide captionIn the Lord of the Rings films, director Peter Jackson fused computer-generated images with motion-capture footage of actor Andy Serkis to create the decidedly nonhuman Gollum.

New Line Cinema

Brad Pitt gave another heavily enhanced performance in 2008's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,, playing a man who aged in reverse — so as a small child, the character has an ancient-seeming face.

To achieve that effect, the digital wizards on the film stitched Pitt's (heavily aged) features onto another actor's body — "so you're dealing with two sets of body English ... and it's all blended together," Mondello says.

These digital adaptations go far beyond simple makeup. After all, wasn't Margaret Hamilton's Wicked Witch of the West also given a wacky complexion — she was green — and hadn't her physical features been manipulated? (Big nose, long chin, giant wart.)

Mondello says that for a critic, the trick is figuring out at what point you are no longer able to see the performer.

No problem with Pitt's Benjamin Button, by that measure. And in the case of Avatar's Na'vi tribe, the figures on screen do resemble the actors who play them; director James Cameron waited to make the film until motion-capture technology had advanced to the point that he'd be able to capture the movements of every muscle in every face.

But the digital elongation of those faces makes them reflect emotions differently than human faces do. One of the most notable differences is in the eyes: The Na'vi have huge eyes, almost like those sad-eyed Keane Kids paintings from the 1960s.

Margaret Hamilton and Judy Garland i i

hide captionMakeup director Jack Dawn gave Margaret Hamilton a big wart, a sharp nose and a long chin to help make her green-skinned witch more wicked in The Wizard of Oz — but the performance underneath the prosthetics was still recognizably human.

Getty
Margaret Hamilton and Judy Garland

Makeup director Jack Dawn gave Margaret Hamilton a big wart, a sharp nose and a long chin to help make her green-skinned witch more wicked in The Wizard of Oz — but the performance underneath the prosthetics was still recognizably human.

Getty

"You looked at [the Keane paintings], and you thought, 'They look so sad.' And psychiatrists looked at that and said, 'Well, the reason you're feeling like that is because they've infantilized the characters.'"

Infants — like puppies, kittens and most other baby mammals — evoke an involuntary "cute response" in humans because their eyes are large in proportion to their faces. They seem vulnerable, and we instinctively want to nurture and protect them. The baby-faced Na'vi arguably play on audiences' instincts in a similar way, Mondello points out.

The question is, could we feel the same way about Meryl Streep or George Clooney, who only have their own eyes — or what a makeup artist can do with them — to work with?

"It's a brave new world, a brave new form, a brave new something," Mondello says. "But it's a fascinating moment to be looking at film."

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