Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Replacements

I spent the first 15 years of my professional life as an actor. It’s a society I’m still proud to have been a part of. And I continue to cherish the experience and insights I gained which inform my work as a writer and producer these days.

Much as those of us who write, produce, direct or apply make-up and pull cable hate to admit, it’s actors who draw the public to what the rest of us do. They are the face and the heart of our industry.

But the seamless facility with which good actors appear to embody a character does not come as easily as it appears. It’s a tough craft at which to become accomplished. Yet, it’s also one that is constantly maligned.

Most people still don’t think it’s a “real job” and even within the industry that depends on them there’s often a palpable irritation with actors.

Actors are always “improving” on a writer’s script, preferring a “different take” than the director, “editing” their performance before it arrives in an edit suit and bending producers and production managers out of shape with “perk” requests.

From my earliest days in the profession, I had the feeling a lot of people would be happy if they could do without us.

And when I was doing voice work on cartoons, I sensed that such a desire might already be in the pipeline.

Back in the day, animator’s drawing tables came with a mirror (like the one pictured above) and you’d walk past the work stations watching animators try out the expressions they then replicated to their characters.

When I saw those animated characters onscreen, I couldn’t help but be impressed by how well people who drew hundreds of pictures a day for a living captured the nuance, timing and emotional insight we thespians worked weeks to perfect.

And I wondered if maybe anybody could do that –- and what would happen once you didn’t even need to know how to draw in order to accomplish it.

Lately, as more and more actors struggle to find enough work to sustain a career, I’ve begun to notice that change in action.

Used to be, animated features were a rarity. Maybe a handful of releases reached the multiplex each year. But as the cost of animation has fallen, there now seems to be three or four released every month.

And where “The Simpsons” was once the only Prime Time animated series, there are now entire nights of them on some networks and many more on specialty networks.

And on shows like “The Family Guy” and “Archer” it’s not the performers that the audience is tuning in to enjoy, but the writers and technicians.

Yeah, there are still jobs on these films and series for actors. But unless the show is a phenomenal success or the actor brings a known name to the table, it pays less than an on camera performance. And animation eliminates the need for a huge number of crew positions as well.

Similarly, the rise of video games has spun off both technologies capable of replicating humans in a more realistic setting and an audience grown more comfortable with gaming visuals as an acceptable entertainment option.

Down at the multiplex and on such televised series as “Spartacus” and “Game of Thrones”, the “Cast of Thousands” has been virtually eliminated. No more armies of extras with their requisite box lunches and truckloads of wardrobe. No more days of planning and multi-camera setups to execute stunts.

Sometimes, characters seen in fleeting shots and one line parts are even “painted in” without the audience ever realizing it’s not a real person.

And now that process has become even more sophisticated thanks to chip maker Invidia and a new software called “Faceworks”.

Faceworks basically recreates a completely believable human face, allowing an animator to create a performance which an unsuspecting audience will never know isn’t a real person.

You can probably count all the live-action replicant films released without real actors in them without taking off your shoes.

“Tin Tin”, “Beowulf”, etc.

But we may well be on the verge of the release of many more. Or we might just see more films in which the smaller parts, where most actors find their breaks or enough money to pay the rent, are played by a computer generated character.

If you thought green-screen and digital media skewed the economics of film production, wait until a producer doesn’t need half as many cast members nor the wardrobe, make-up crew, transport, casting costs or per diem that goes along with them.

More than once, I’ve run a scene I’m writing through an online animation program like “Goanimate” to see how it plays. And now and then I’ve wished I could put an entire script that isn’t selling through a similar process or just eliminate the nightmares of development and make it myself.

And maybe the way I originally envisioned it.

Perhaps that’s now closer to being a reality. And I’m not sure that’s going to be a good thing for actors.


Dead actors are already taking some of the commercial work.

h/t: Clint

1 comment:

Clint Johnson said...

If you haven't seen the commercial for Galaxy Chocolate that used a completely computer generated Audrey Hepburn- it is a milestone marking the climb out of the uncanny valley. I wrote about it a couple weeks ago:

I also noted that Google has a program that takes anyone's voice and breaks it down into the individual components of speech. They demonstrated it with a man speaking English, translating it to Mandarin and the software speaking it back using the man's own voice. It probably wouldn't take much to re-purpose that software to reading script dialogue using the hours of Audrey's voice saved on film.