Face Value: Where Actors End And Effects Begin Over the past decade, movie technology has become so sophisticated that it's tough for a critic to discern where an actor's performance stops and the work of hundreds of artists and digital technicians begins. The groundbreaking Avatar is just the latest example that makes the question harder to parse.

Face Value: Where Actors End And Effects Begin

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

The decade that just ended marked a big change in moviemaking. Films didn't just get big. They got digital big.

(Soundbite of movie)

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Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) Damn them!

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NORRIS: Transformers, pirates, wizards, vampires, whole other worlds. Hollywood's gotten to the point where if a director can dream it, it can be brought to digital life on the screen.

But our critic Bob Mondello says he has a problem. Movie technology has gotten so sophisticated over the last decade that he says it's now tough for a critic to tell where an actor's performance stops and the work of hundreds of artists and digital technicians actually begins. And Bob joins me now to try to help us figure out what to do about that problem. Welcome to the studio, Bob.

BOB MONDELLO: Hi. It's good to be here.

NORRIS: Now, I know the movie "Avatar" is what got you thinking about all this. They've been talking about their motion-capture technology and how that's let them blend the actors with that technology. People were very excited about this movie, but you're saying this is a bad thing?

MONDELLO: No, no, no, no. It's wonderful for the audience. It's tough for a critic. I'm sitting there, and I'm trying to decide who's doing what. At Oscar time particularly, I'm going to have to say okay, well, that was a great performance.

Now, if I'm looking at somebody like, let's say, Meryl Streep...

NORRIS: In "Julie & Julia."

MONDELLO: ...in "Julie & Julia," I can judge whether that performance is a good performance. If I'm looking at a digital character who is 10 feet tall, has a wasp waist of maybe 15 inches and has a big, blue tail, I have a little more trouble judging whether the performer is acting well. And...

NORRIS: Now, for people who haven't seen the movie "Avatar," they don't necessarily know that you're talking about Zoe Saldana, the...

MONDELLO: Right, who is fantastic, I think, but I'm not absolutely certain that she is what's fantastic about the performance.

NORRIS: So when she - we're talking about Zoe Saldana when she's - when you see her on screen, and there are things that she does that are really quite subtle and almost endearing, sometimes almost a little bit scary, but you're wondering: Is that really her, or is that some digital technician?

MONDELLO: Right. I can actually tell you when I started having this problem, starting in 2002 when Gollum appeared in "Lord of the Rings." I couldn't tell anymore. Gollum was a character 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.

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Mr. ANDY SERKIS (Actor): (As Gollum) Must have the Precious. They stole it from us, sneaky little hobbitses.

MONDELLO: Now, in order to create him, director Peter Jackson took computer-generated images, CGI, and attached it to this motion capture of Andy Serkis. But what you end up with is this character who can't exist in real life. I mean, he's too gnarled and too small. It was one of those worrisome things. I think we really dodged a bullet that he didn't get nominated for an Oscar because if he had been, we'd have been trying to figure out back then who did what, which is kind of the problem.

NORRIS: Who'd get the statue?

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MONDELLO: Exactly.

NORRIS: Now, this isn't something that's new, at least between the two of us. We have talked about this. I remember last year, we talked about "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." Let's just listen for a minute before we actually talk about that film and the character Benjamin Button in that film.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button")

Mr. BRAD PITT (Actor): (As Benjamin Button) I don't think I have worms. This is just how I am.

NORRIS: That was Brad Pitt, in case you didn't recognize that voice.

MONDELLO: Brad Pitt as a very little boy, which is weird because he's aging backwards there. So when he was a small child, he had a very old face. And in order to create that, they took another person's body and they superimposed Brad Pitt's features on this other person so that you're dealing with two sets of body English, kind of, and two sets of features, and it's all blended digitally. And that was a case, I mean, Brad Pitt was nominated for an Oscar. And...

NORRIS: Deservingly so, in your estimation?

MONDELLO: Well, I think it was a terrific performance, based mostly on the other scenes, where I could see Brad Pitt all the time and I was sure that he was doing it. So that was another one where I was - you know, this is a tricky problem, and it's a problem that we didn't have in the old days.

If you think just about makeup - take Margaret Hamilton in "The Wizard of Oz." She's got this enormous nose with a big wart on it. She is green. So it's not the color of the skin or the difference in the appearance that's getting me. It is the fact that I'm not sure I can see the performer.

NORRIS: Are they trying extra hard to make sure that you do see the performer? And I'm thinking specifically of "Benjamin Button," where they did try to make sure that - you know, Brad Pitt has very particular features, and there are certain expressions that you see in several of his films. And they made sure that you could see that in the character, even when he was a younger version of an older man. They made sure that when you saw that person, you could see Brad Pitt's unique features. Are they doing that with someone like you in mind?

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MONDELLO: I don't know. I doubt that they have me in mind under any circumstances, but I think in "Avatar," they have gone way out of their way to do that. I mean, the characters really do look like the actors when you see them as Na'vi, because, you know, they're blue and they're 10 feet tall, but their faces are elongated. And something really interesting happens to the face.

And this is - here's my problem.

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MONDELLO: I've got lots of problems with this, but here's the real one. In "Avatar," they've been very canny about this. They have made the faces elongated and beautiful. The figures are elongated and beautiful, and the eyes are enormous.

Do you remember Keane drawings, those - K-E-A-N-E? They had children with enormous...

NORRIS: With very big eyes.

MONDELLO: ...huge eyes. And you looked at them, 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. They've made them look like babies, in a way, and that our reaction is to want to protect them.

Well, I think that's what they've done to the Na'vi. By making their eyes so big, they've made us want to protect them. Now, would I feel the same for Meryl Streep as Julia Child? She can't open her eyes as big as that.

NORRIS: So she can't amplify her emotions with some sort of digital technology. She's got to work with what God gave her.

MONDELLO: That's right.

NORRIS: Or maybe a makeup artist.

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MONDELLO: And I think - you know, this is not a bad thing. This is a good thing. It's really wonderful that they can manipulate things like this, but it's tricky. And on some level, when I'm trying to pull the thing apart and say oh, well, that was wonderful, I'm not sure who I'm complimenting.

NORRIS: So this is a Bob Mondello bugaboo, or is this something that many movie critics talk about and wrestle with?

MONDELLO: Oh, I don't know. I mean, I think what's kind of interesting about it is that it's infecting so many different kinds of movies these days. If you look at, well, take "Happy Feet," a picture that is a big, animated cartoon about penguins, right? And they use Savion Glover's movements. They motion-captured him and translated that into penguins.

Well, having done that, you've got a penguin who's dancing like Savion Glover. They are moving the penguin closer to reality, in a way, at the same time that you're moving reality closer to animation by doing all of this. And where we are now is kind of right in the middle of that, and it's a brave new world, a brave new form, a brave new something. But I think it's a fascinating moment to be looking at film.

NORRIS: Always good to talk to you, Bob.

MONDELLO: And to you.

NORRIS: That's our film critic, Bob Mondello.

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NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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