Sunday, February 07, 2010

Ed Hooks on Avatar

Ed Hooks is the author of Acting for Animators. While his own background is not in animation, he's identified many things that animators need to be thinking about while doing their work.

One point that he's made is that the quality of a performance is based on the script supplying the necessary foundation for building a character. In his February 2010 newsletter (scroll down for the relevant material), he talks about the shortcomings of Avatar's script from an acting standpoint.
Zoe Saldana is Neytiri, the Na’vi female lead. She has been raised in a kind of New Age Garden of Eden. The Na’vi spend a lot of time tuning into trees, plants and their spiritual vibes. But what are Neytiri's personal values? The script really doesn’t say. In her first scenes, she's helping chase off those pesky humans. But then, in the second act of the script, she befriends the fake Jake avatar and gets romantic. And, at the very end of the story, she slays the dragon, Col Quaritch. You look through the script again and again, searching for clues about Neytiri's values, childhood, former love life…anything at all that might help. Not much there. She’s a Na’vi princess, that’s all, and she does what Na’vi princesses do. She is reactive to the events that happen to her. It is difficult to find her objectives. The transitions in her character don’t really work.
I found this essay particularly interesting in light of James Cameron's complaints that the actors in Avatar were passed over for Oscar nominations. Cameron specifically mentioned Zoe Saldana as being ignored. Cameron's view was that the technology involved was somehow seen as cheating, but as Hooks points out, the problem was not the technology, it was the script.

Hooks criteria could, and should, be applied to recent animated features, many of which suffer from the same shortcomings. While animation artists are constantly asserting "story, story, story!" the truth is that their understanding of story is lacking. Too many animated films have a disconnect between personality and plot, where characters do things based on the needs of the plot rather than the needs of the character.


David said...

Thank you for posting that , Mark. You always find the best articles.

It occurs to me that the "Schism" you spoke of in an earlier post on Avatar (i.e. "The schism isn't between mocap and keyframing; it's between realism and caricature.") is also part of an even deeper schism between people who approach movies primarily as a storytelling medium about compelling characters who we can empathize with (or who are at least interesting or witty) vs. people whose primary entertainment aesthetic is formed by video games and/or theme park thrill rides , who therefore prefer "Gee Whiz Wow!" spectacle and will overlook or are unaware of the deficiencies of the script and the shallowness of the character development because it never occurs to them that the characters or the script should have any content beyond the "Gee Whiz Wow!" spectacle ?

I think part of this is the result of a long erosion of literary values because many of the people who write , produce, and consume movies nowadays are post-literary people who do not read and do not have a rich inner imagination or a shared cultural frame of reference formed by literature. (whereas in previous generations the people who wrote movies tended to come from literary or theatrical backgrounds.)

A reader can still visualize better special effects in their own "mind's eye" when reading The Lord of the Rings or Prince Caspian than anything that can be put on screen by the most up-to-date motion picture technology , so while I appreciate the amazing digital special effects in modern movies on a technical level I am not overwhelmed or charmed by them to the extent that they become the be all and end all.

Special effects at the service of good storytelling : YES. Special effects as a substitute for good storytelling: NO.

Pete Emslie said...

Ditto, everything David said! Mind you, I take it even further, as I find today that more and more I enjoy movies less and less. In fact, it seems that my enjoyment of a movie is in direct converse proportion to how much computerized imagery that movie contains. I still haven't seen "Avatar" and do not feel particularly inclined to do so. Especially not while there are so many more classic films I'd rather spend time watching in the comfort of my home on Turner Classic Movies.

Floyd Norman said...

Well said, gentlemen. Talk about the tail wagging the dog...

Anonymous said...

Not to be weird but this will still be the best visited movie ever. It's proven itself far beyond any criticism it's been given. And another thing a maker cannot be everything James Cameron has written and directed it. He is not an actor like Hooks. So the acting and the motivation is a bit weak does that all of a sudden make it a bad movie? If you want to see good films drewl over a Haneke or a Kubrick movie and be all intellectual about it. Popcorn films like Cameron makes will allways be popcorn films. Someday someone will make something that will be all it cracks up to be this film is just a first step in tat direction.

Wade White said...

Not to be a dissenting voice (or at least, not for the sake of dissent itself in any case), but I’m not sure I agree with everything Hooks writes in his article about Avatar.

For example, I didn’t find I necessarily had to dig too deep into the script to find numerous indications of Neytiri's personal values. The very first time we meet her, in fact, she saves Jake’s life because, in her own words, he has “a strong heart. No fear.” While her overall disgust with his lack of hinting skill comes across as a generic Na’vi opinion, I never got the sense that, for example, Tsu’tey would have saved Jake’s life under similar circumstances, i.e. even if he too had witnessed that Jake had a “strong heart” by facing his attackers (in fact, Tsu’tey may well have helped the wolves). If personal values are part of what distinguishes one character from those around her, then to me this very clearly shows her own personal set of values coming into play. It wasn’t simply some inborn instinct of her species. She made a choice.

Or back at the tree, when Neytiri is ordered to teach Jake their customs, she balks. Yes she’s a princess, but now we know several more specific and interesting things about her from this scene. She’s sulky (she called Jake a baby, but she’s not necessarily completely mature herself just yet), yet she still obeys her elders in something that is clearly distasteful to her. Though she’s feisty enough to show that dislike, which not every proper princess would be. And this is even after she saw all the little puffy whatchamacallits land all over him, which she interpreted as a very significant sign. So we know she’s not necessarily easily won over either, even when nature (and nature is a big deal with them) bestows its approval on Jake.

And then there’s her relationship and eventually mating with Jake. What do we discover from watching this unfold? Well, we learn she and Tsu’tey were promised to each other and that she went against clan tradition [note: this would seem to debunk Hooks claim that we don’t know anything of her former love life; we do in fact know that she was betrothed], so we know she follows her heart. And to even get there in the first place she has to overcome her dislike of Jake (which has not been required of her; she was told to teach him, not like him), so we know she’s willing to re-evaluate her own prior opinions of her own accord. That’s depth of character for anyone.

What else? She turns Jake over to be killed when he reveals his mission, showing the depth of the betrayal and anguish she feels, and she accepts him back in the end when he once again proves his worth to the clan, showing her equal depth of forgiveness.

If none of the above shows her character’s personal values (and these are but a few), then I guess I’m not sure what does. Now Hooks (and others) may be saying that these characteristics are nothing new for princesses these days and that we’ve seen them all before and that they are even to some extent becoming cliché (and he wouldn’t necessarily be wrong), but that’s not the same as saying they’re not there in the script. For them to not be there they would have to... well, not be there.

Further example: I personally thought Jake earned Neytiri's love. He may have done it in ways we’ve seen other boys win a girls heart, but he still did it. It’s there on the screen. She doesn’t just up and decide she likes him. She gradually warms to him because of the character he displays, his fearless heart, etc, his willingness to be taught, his humbleness in acknowledging that he is very much like a child to them. And we know he has good reasons not to pursue a relationship with her. Now one might describe these specifics of their courtship as tired or overused in cinematic storytelling, but again that’s not the same as saying they’re not present (and Hooks seems to me to be very clearly saying they’re not present in the script at all, unless I’m completely misreading him).

[more to follow]

Wade White said...

To switch gears, I’m also not convinced the central debate regarding the film is really special effects vs. storytelling. I say this because there is the basic issue of “show vs. tell” in filmmaking which has been pushed very hard on the screenwriting/directing front over the past couple of decades (and before). All the recent screenwriting books (that I’ve read anyway, and I’ve read a reasonable number, both old and new) place particular emphasis on “visual” storytelling (not “visual” here meaning “special effects,” rather “visual” in the aforementioned show vs. tell sense). Films are supposedly saying less with dialogue and more with visuals (again, not special effects per se) all the time, or at least that’s what the storytelling gurus would have them doing. So to be fair I think there’s a general push to do a lot more “showing” in films because of the medium itself, and it just so happens that some of this showing in certain films/genres relies heavily on CGI (I get the thing about the overuse of CGI in recent years, I’m just saying I don’t think that’s “telling the whole story”).

I’m not trying to say Avatar is the best story ever put on film. I more or less agree with a reviewer I read who said the movie is essentially Dances with Wolves in space, and perhaps not with quite as much depth (but then some people found Dances with Wolves long and boring). But that doesn’t mean Cameron skipped Storytelling 101 altogether either. It may be a story we’ve seen before (though honestly, what movie isn’t) but that doesn’t automatically mean it’s a bad story.

Anyway, if I haven’t put my foot completely in my mouth yet let me close with a wee objection to the earlier statement by another commenter regarding: a) “people whose primary entertainment aesthetic is formed by video games and/or theme park thrill rides” and b) that these same people must be “unaware of the deficiencies of the script and the shallowness of the character development because it never occurs to them that the characters or the script should have any content beyond the "Gee Whiz Wow!" spectacle.”

The overall context of the statement seems to be suggesting that anyone who genuinely enjoyed the film must match this description (i.e. “people whose primary entertainment aesthetic is formed by video games” etc), but I become a bit wary when we start critiquing the audience instead of the film (i.e. are we saying “I’m right in my evaluation of the storytelling merits of the film and anyone who disagrees must therefore be wrong, and for these reasons”?). As I said, although for me the story was nothing earth-shatteringly new, I still quite enjoyed it and thought there was considerable depth to the characters. And I have, on occasion, also been known to watch films of a more “literary” nature too. Oh, and I love video games :-)

Mark, I hope I haven’t overstepped the bounds by writing at length here. Interesting topic.

JPilot said...

Mr Wade White: Nicely put.

As for my own opinion, once I made my peace that this story was "Pocahontas in Space", I quite enjoyed it. I am also thankful that I was spared from listening to Celine Dion's singing at the end of the film.

Comparing a special effects heavy movie's storytelling to the likes of Casablanca and Lawrence of Arabia is one thing, but the argument made here would be more fitting of a film like G.I. Joe or Transformers, than it would Avatar. Just to get the proper perspective.

Mitchel Kennedy said...

Not just "character," but "relationships" too!

Ricardo Cantoral said...

Anything James Cameron makes should be automatically barred from any Oscar Nomination. Though it isn't saying much given my own personal disdain for that sham of an award.

King Marvin Mugabi said...

she's as lead though her story as any reactionary disney princess of the pre-nineties.

looks like motion capture performances has changed post cameron...or maybe just the way the world looks at it.