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July 15, 2005

Ewan on Acting in Front of a Blue Screen

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

In movies that make heavy use of computer-generated imagery, the actors spend much of their time acting in unreal environments, or even opposite vacant space that will be filled in by computer only later. How can such conditions not contribute to the hollowness so many people complain about when they watch today's movies?

After all, it's the people onscreen -- the actors and their acting -- who have traditionally given audiences their most direct way into films. If we're charmed by the performers and if the performers manage to generate some sparks -- and, of course, if the camera happens to register these sparks -- then we're turned on and borne along by the fiction. But if the spark isn't there? Then you've got echo-chamber emptiness -- movies like so many of the ones we endure these days.

Since performing in front of a blue screen (or opposite thin air) gives an actor nothing specific to respond to, he/she tends to wind up doing schtick or being very general. The performers become Photoshop versions of themselves. The human content evaporates, and abstraction takes over.

But don't trust me on this. Here's Ewan McGregor on the same subject. Playboy asks him what he has found it like to act in a few "Star Wars" movies. McGregor responds:

They were horrendously difficult because you do so much of your work in front of a blue screen. Backgrounds and effects are added later. It's tedious, and there's no soul to them. By the nature of those movies, all the creative work is done afterward. They don't spend nearly as long on the acting as they on everything else.

How long do you think it will take the mainstream arts press to understand this point?



posted by Michael at July 15, 2005


Watching Citizen Kane on DVD recently I was struck by how much of that film was also done in "unreal" environments. I guess my question is: why is it so different for Ewan McGregor to act in front of a computer-generated alien landscape than Judy Garland acting in front of a painting of Oz?

Posted by: Tosy and Cosh on July 15, 2005 10:59 PM

At least Judy Garland could see the painting, Ewan could only imagine the flowing lava, sprawling city-scape, etc.

Posted by: nate k on July 15, 2005 11:14 PM

I agree with Tosy and Cosh. I don't understand how an actor who can perform on a stage without any scenery at all, can find it so frightfully difficult to act in front of a blue screen. Movie actors in the past have successfully acted in front of matte paintings, obviously fake sets, and front and rear-screen projection. What I find frustrating here is that many movie fans, including movie critics, are strangely ignorant of how much trickery has always been involved in movie making and delude themselves into believing that somehow in the past movies were somehow more pure or naturalistic.

"Sin City" was largely done with blue screens, and is mostly well done, while other films like "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" and the latest Star Wars films are inert messes. And yet, "The Empire Strikes Back" is not only the best Star Wars film, but a damn fine film, period.

I suspect that some directors are not good at getting the best performances from actors, and technology such as blue-screen can add to the difficulty. But I also suspect for sad and complex reasons, George Lucas chose to hide behind his toys and gadgets and failed to engage his actors, and ultimately failed to engage his audience as well.

Posted by: Alec on July 16, 2005 12:17 AM

Tosy -- It's a good question. I think there are some big diffs between something like "Kane" or "Oz" and a "Star Wars" movie. One is that nearly everyone involved in something like "Kane" and "Oz" had a lot of theatrical and audience experience. Training and instincts can carry you a long way. Plus, real-live theater experience leaves you with a lot of brio and panache. Today's performers are often very well-trained, but they also often don't have much in-front-of-live-audiences experience. (Not their fault!) So they don't (and can't) carry that kind of experience with them into the movie studio. Also, in the older films, they were seldom acting opposite nothing. "Kane"'s cast had acted together a lot, they were mostly present on the set, and Welles himself, in addition to being a heckuva an actor, was also a heckuva director of actors. Today's directors often have zero theater experience, and are often 'way more into the visuals and the technology than they are into the performers. So you've often got performers out there in the middle of nowhere, acting opposite nothing, being given very little help by people with no direct audience experience. So things get deracinated.

There was a big transition, movie-historywise, that doesn't get discussed enough that has a little something to do with this. Early movies (right into the '50s and '60s, come to think of it) got a lot of their charge from performers who'd grown up in vaudeville and the theater. By the time a lot of these people arrived in Hollywood, they were polished performers with distinctive personalities and a ton of energy. Since the '60s, actors have more and more been growing up in schools, or in front of cameras. They aren't bringing much to the screen from elsewhere. They can often be subtle (and can open themselves to the camera) in ways actors from previous generations couldn't. But they also don't bring anything like the full-on charge that performers with lots of live experience did. That's one reason why standup comedians have made such an impact in the last 15-20 years. These are guys with live performing experience, who can turn on the energy and inspiration like a switch -- they give movies a lot of energy. I often wonder if it wouldn't be smart for makers of CGI-heavy movies to use a lot of standup and inprov-style performers rather than more conventional actors.

NateK - Another good point. Which reminds me of another diff too -- it's that computerized moviemaking is amazingly laborious, and very head-centric. The sales pitch is that computers make it all easy. But it isn't easy. Everything has to be planned out to a fare-thee-well, which also helps kill the spontaneity, and the possibilities for waywardness and inspiration. You take your place in the diagram, and that's all you've got to contribute.

Alec -- One of the diffs is that a stage actor (even one who's acting in something abstract) still has a couple of important things that an actor contending with a CGI-heavy movie doesn't have: other actors, right there and present; and weeks and weeks of rehearsal. (Not to mention a script that can be acted.) Plus there's the continuity -- once you're in the drama, you're there for 90 minutes, where the movie actor of course is doing it in bits and pieces. So the stage actor has the chance to fully imagine his circumstances, and he has real live human beings to work with and act opposite. The poor actor in a CGI movie is often pretty bewildered, and also often has a director who has no real idea how to work with actors. (The director of "Empire Strikes Back" was an excellent director of actors -- good for Lucas for hiring him. And in terms of its production, the film wasn't really a computer spectacle. It was more akin to "The Wizard of Oz" than it was the more recent CGI movies.) It's almost impossible for an actor in a CGI movie to do anything specific, because he's got nothing specific to react to. So he falls back on generalities. Aside from quitting, or shooting the director, what else can he do? I love the idea you seem to be suggesting -- of putting together a couple of directors on a project, one who can manage the technology and one who knows how to work with actors.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 16, 2005 12:47 AM

I agree with Alec who agrees with Tosy and Cosh. If the guys at the Globe Theater could act without scenery then it's not a problem.

The difficulty of the Star Wars films is in the writing, not the production methods. You can read the scripts online. here's the most recent one; nothing but idiotic buddytalk and longwinded exposition.

I have an actor pal who says the hallmark of a good role lies in its ability to answer the question "Who does what to whom?" It's the "to whom" bit that's important, he says, and it's also the bit which is all too often forgotten. Characters who do things to other characters are characters who create sparks.

The Star Wars characters (and most other characters in today's scriptless Hollywood) don't affect each other in any way. They sit there talking past one other while enunciating plot points and giving exposition about what makes the gadgets work, and that's what makes them un-actable. The first Star Wars films didn't have this problem at all, which gives them their vitality.

Posted by: Brian on July 16, 2005 12:51 AM

Brian -- The scripts are a real problem, god knows. But so are the circumstances. The actors at the Globe didn't just have good scripts, they had each other (most of acting is reacting to the other actors), they had the guidance of people with actual audience experience, and they had 2 continuous hours to inhabit their imagined world. Those are some serious contrasts to the way CGI movies are made.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 16, 2005 12:53 AM

Acting in front of a blue screen is not at all like acting on a stage without scenery. Ask any actor. Even an actor performing a one-person show on a bare stage will be interacting with the audience. He can modulated his performance, moment-by-moment, based on how the audience is responding. Actors talk about this as responding to the "energy" in the room.

That said, classically trained British actors probably can deal with the blue screen situation better than a lot of the methody-trained American actors, which is why Ian McKellan is in X-Men and Lord of the Rings and Christopher Lee was in LotR and Star Wars.

McGregor is a classically-trained Brit and that might be one of the reasons he came off better than a lot of the Star Wars cast. (Granted some people didn't like his performance either, but the general critical consensus was that he did okay, compared to say Natalie Portman and Sam Jackson). I'm kind of surprised that Tosy and Cosh and Alec and Brian are so willing to dismiss McGregor's testimony. After all, he's worked in a lot of different situations--on the stage, on British TV, in art movies, in CGI movies--so I figure he might have some idea of what he's talking about.

Posted by: Jon Hastings on July 16, 2005 10:19 AM

All these discussions of acting in Shakespeare's day raise a point--to wit, how similar was what Elizabethans considered "acting" to what we consider "acting"? It's not as if there were acting schools, or even much in the way of established acting traditions in Britain in Shakespeare's day. (Although its possible that there was influence from the theater of other countries, Italy foremost I would assume.) I wonder if a loud voice, the ability to remember and enunciate the lines, a good dose of self-confidence and some obvious pleasure in being the center of attention wasn't pretty much all there was to it in Elizabethan times.

Of course, I say this as a possibly perverse fan of ham acting in all its delightful forms. I think we ought to run a contest for the least 'sincere', best scenery chewing performances of all time. We could call it the Anti-Stanislavsky Prize, or something.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 16, 2005 12:20 PM

I do corporate video work, and we often use a blue screen. It is very difficult to create a sense of place and time, and corporate video is pretty damned emotionally empty to begin with.

However, I don't think this is what causes the emotional vacuity you see in Hollywood movies. That emptiness is a true depiction of the emotional state of the young actors.

By way of analogy, I've gone to comedy clubs a couple of times recently in Manhattan. The shtick of the comedians is always the same. They were raised in a repressive environment by up-tight parents, etc. Trouble is, I know these kids. It is rare for them to have had any type of religious training. More likely, their parents were free-wheeling hippies. The rebellion is completely fake. Their purported hatred of religion is completely empty, since they don't even know what it is.

The kids were raised in the absence of tradition, religion, respect for authority and in total ignorance of the past. This creates a soulless person. It's no accident that they don't get married until they are 35, or that so many don't get married at all. Self-absorption is the only life they know.

The movies are reflecting this reality. It's not the blue screen.

Posted by: Stephen on July 17, 2005 8:18 AM

"I wonder if a loud voice, the ability to remember and enunciate the lines, a good dose of self-confidence and some obvious pleasure in being the center of attention wasn't pretty much all there was to it in Elizabethan times."

That would probably be enough to get small roles, but to be a headliner (either get major roles or, on a higher level, become a partner in a theater company) an Elizabethan/Jacobean actor would have to be fairly accomplished and celebrated. A leading actor would need to be fluent in 9 or more plays at one time, have at least some superficial knowledge of Italian, French and Latin, some sword-dueling skills and some ability to sing and play a musical instrument.

It is also incorrect to assume that the Elizabethans didn't have acting schools. While they didn't have formal acting schools like we do, there were many theater companies consisting entirely of boy actors, and every theater company employed boy actors for female (and other) parts. Many of the boy actors had been in choir schools, and if they joined boy troupes, would also undergo additional formal training in elocution, voice, rhetoric, etc.

It's likely that the acting in Elizabethan times would probably appear crude to us, but it's not correct to under-estimate the technical abilities of Elizabethan actors, many of whom, by their early 20s, had already been involved in professional acting for 6-10 years.

Posted by: burritoboy on July 17, 2005 4:21 PM

In no particular order: I don't think you can even really compare theater today to Elizabethan theater in terms of the experience the actor has on stage. Audiences today do not typically howl, jeer, or throw things at actors in the middle of their performance if they (the audience) don't like it.

See Ewan McGregor talk about shooting pickups to adjust performance due to green screen work here (about 1 min. in):

Stage acting does not require the precision that film does. If you stand six inches behind your mark on stage, it's no big deal; in film, you're likely out of focus. On stage, you can look off into the distance to the right one night and to the left the next; in film, an actor is often looking at a piece of tape to ensure a proper eyeline once the scene is cut together. Films are also shot out of order, so film actors have to know where they are in their emotional arc to give the proper performance for each shot. A good director keeps an eye on the film as a whole, but also has many more people demanding his or her attention on set.

Poor direction and bad writing contribute a great deal to the vacuousness of films today.

It's interesting to note that computer animated films of the last few years have had some of the best storytelling across the board. The actors' performances weren't hindered by spending days by themselves in recording booths. Still, I would argue the key to success for Toy Story 1&2, Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles was great scripts. Without great writing, the actors would again be lost.

Posted by: claire on July 17, 2005 8:43 PM

I don't think a lot of performers in the fourties and fifties were exactly acting like recognizable human beings! See some REALLY dopey musicals that people have, for whatever reason, "fond memories" of. I think what made "The Wizard of Oz" memorable is it had some really extraordinary performers, not just "typical" ones. There have always been plenty of vaccuous movies.

However, MBlowhard does raise a good point---directors have to be better acting-directors than ever with all the "effects added later" element of these bohemouth computer productions. But they won't bother to be, until people stop buying tickets to the half-assed versions Hollywood is putting out now. The audience is partly to blame. They don't seem to want recognizable human emotion.

Posted by: annette on July 18, 2005 10:50 AM

This has been a very interesting interaction on blue screen and acting, so please let me add a few more thoughts:

Again, I think that some folk are creating a false comparison between supposedly more creative moviemaking in the past and modern CGI filmmaking. As I stated before, I think that we have more of an insider’s knowledge of some aspects of movie making today, but also a lack of appreciation of how artificial much movie making has always been, and how actors and directors have to adjust. So I am not dismissing Ewan Macgreggor’s concerns, but simply noting that ultimately this is a matter of technique and comfort, and his grousing is much like a theater trained actor who complains that movie making (close ups, scenes shot out of sequence, dialog recorded in post-production) is not as “organic” as acting on stage. I think that Ewan’s performance in the Star Wars films is as much undone by the flat script as it is by the technology.

Rehearsal and theatrical background may help, but I find it interesting that during the 40s and 50s, movie actors who were products of the studio system with no significant theatrical training often delivered wonderful radio drama performances. Also, today, actors deliver nuanced performances in animated films even though they usually perform entirely alone in a sound booth. So here, the notion that theater training or interaction with other actors confers advantages just does not seem to be the case.

I like Michael’s suggestion that maybe you need two directors, just as movie musical directors often had another hand help with directing the dance and choreography scenes. On the other hand, even though they are not all films of major importance, the actors who have appeared in Robert Rodriguez’s films (from “Sin City” to “The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl in 3D”) have noted that Rodriguez goes out of his way to help them understand what creatures, scenery and objects will ultimately be created in the blue screen universe. Rodriguez also apparently works with a small crew in a studio that he largely built and designed himself in Texas, and goes out of his way to make the actors feel like part of his personal repertory company and family.

Also, I would just like to throw in the idea that some of the greatest actors who came out of vaudeville, Charlie Chaplain and Buster Keaton, as directors were visionaries who made films that went beyond anything that was happening in theater, and that films actually regressed somewhat during the Sound Age. Actors had to be fixed in place around microphone hidden in props on the set, and studios sought stupidly to duplicate a theatrical experience instead of exploring more deeply the possibilities of cinema. The inevitable result was that many of these late 20s and early 30s films are stiff, forgettable and almost painful to watch, and there is a notable lack of fluidity and creativity when compared with the best Silent Era films. You also notice that many of these sound films avoid location shooting because sound at first could not be controlled and post-production was rudimentary. These technical issues, which affected the actors' performances, ultimately were overcome. Similarly, I think that while some directors have no idea of how to use CGI and blue screen creatively, other directors understand how to use these tools more effectively.

A bit of trivia about movie magic (camera work and editing). “Trouble in Paradise” is a great film and a wonderful comedy. But how many of you know that “the scenes in which Herbert Marshall is running up and down the stairs at Madame Colet's were done with a double who is only seen from the waist down. Mr. Marshall lost a leg in WWI and although it was almost impossible to notice that he used a prosthesis, he could not perform any action that called for physical agility.” (from IMDB and the Criterion Collection background). Lubitsch wanted to suggest that his protagonist was an agile jewel thief, and also exploit the architecture of his set while making a satirical point. But we as viewers (unless we are also film historians) are ignorant of how cinema trickery had to be used in order to render what appears to be a very simple scene.

Posted by: Alec on July 18, 2005 6:28 PM

Wonderful discussion. I echo Alex's points; I wasn't out to dismiss McGregor as much as note that a lot of what he's referring to--the fakery and so on--isn't new. The consensus take makes sense to me--it IS possible to get wonderful performances in front of blue screens (see any number of moments from the LORD OF THE RINGS films), but it does take special attention and focus. Part of my comment was a simple reaction to Roger Ebert's commentary track on the CITIZEN KANE DVD, in which he points out how much "trickery" was used there, including at least one scene in which the actors were shot separately and put together "in post." I just think it can be too easy to blame the blue screen and not the directors/actors for working harder/smarter towards a more real performance. (And that's not a dig at McGregor either--see my site and you'll see that I'm an unabashed Star Wars fan who thinks McGregor was just excellent, *especially* in this last film).

Posted by: Tosy and Cosh on July 19, 2005 10:37 AM

Just in case anyone hadn't heard this, there's a terrific story (rumour?) about Terence Stamp's cameo in "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace." He arrived on the green-screen set looking for Natalie Portman and was told that she'd been given the day off. George Lucas told Stamp that she would be added in post later and that he should direct his lines towards a stick that matched her height. "I did not come all the way out here to act with a stick!" Stamp thundered, and promptly marched off the set. P.A.s had to run and calm him down while Lucas just shrugged.

Posted by: Scott D on July 20, 2005 10:44 AM

Except...Elizabeth Taylor tells about her audition for "Lassie Come Home" when she was ten. She was on a blank soundstage, and they told her to pretend she was petting a dog. She did. As she said, kids do it every day. "Pretend the tree is the Indian teepee...", etc. It sounds like Terence Stamp's ego was a bit bent out of shape that Natalie was treated as more important!

However, Ewan MacGregor's point might be that "pretend you are petting a dog" is a more specific instruction than he got in terms of the graphics to be added to the blue screen.

Posted by: annette on July 20, 2005 3:14 PM

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