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Sam Worthington plays Jake in "Avatar: The Way of Water." Photo courtesy of IMDb.

OPINION: “Avatar” highlights the danger of computer-generated films

Well, it’s official: we’re gonna see a whole lot more “Avatar” in the next 10 years. With “Avatar: The Way of Water” poised to make its money back and essentially confirming that we’ll see an “Avatar” 3, 4 and 5, we can rest easy knowing now that the original “Avatar” truly did have some sort of cultural impact and naysayers were just wrong. This begs the question, though: what about its impact on filmmaking, or rather, lack thereof?

At the time of writing this article on Saturday, Jan. 14, the sequel is poised to reach $566.7 million at the US domestic box office over Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend which will put it at number 13 for the highest grossing films of all time in the US and Canada, according to Deadline. Now, out of curiosity, how many other films in this top 15 contain the same level of computer-generated characters and environments? Discounting “The Way of Water,” it’s two: the original “Avatar” and 2019’s “The Lion King.”

“The Lion King” helps us to get to the bottom of the “Avatar” problem. The film currently sits at a 52% Rotten Tomatoes score from critics: “While it can take pride in its visual achievements, ‘The Lion King’ is a by-the-numbers retelling that lacks the energy and heart that made the original so beloved — though for some fans that may just be enough,” the critics consensus reads. Considering the 2019 film is largely a beat-by-beat retelling of the animated original, what caused this lack of energy and heart? It’s the visual effects.

There are 12 principles of animation that essentially every good animated film abides by with.  Squash and stretch, and especially exaggeration, are the two that are arguably the most essential. While 2019’s “The Lion King” is admirable in its visual effects, it disregards these two very important principles in favor of realism, which creates something that lacks the distinct energy and heart that is present in the animated original.

Of course, some of you might say, “Well, the 2019 version is a live action film and it doesn't need to obey these rules.” There is only one shot in that film that is not entirely computer generated — it’s an animated film: just because it aims for realism doesn’t mean it can just be classified as live action.

This doesn’t mean I’m trying to say that “Avatar” is an animated film because of its heavy employment of CGI, or that because of its own dedication to realism it also fails on the same grounds as 2019’s “The Lion King.” What I am trying to say is that the computer-generated characters of “Avatar” — these, for all intents and purposes, animated characters — have no heart. You could have the best actor in the world in the motion capture suit, but as soon as you cross that threshold into the entirely computer-generated territory, it’s nothing more than exaggerated voice acting.

Take this viral behind-the-scenes clip of Zoe Saldana from the original “Avatar.” Her performance here is outstanding; this is some Oscar-worthy work from Saldana. But watching the final version from the film, you don’t get the same nuances in Saldana’s physical performance. Chalk that down to what is probably an irresolvable margin of error in translating a motion capture performance. Virtually all of the performance comes from Saldana’s line delivery: she’s voice acting. And now we’re back at our “Lion King” problem.

Finally, I want to briefly look at what is a widely well-received motion capture performance: Josh Brolin as Thanos. In any of the however many films Thanos is featured in, it often feels like Brolin is the only one giving an entire performance; it’s not just voice acting. But why is that? Well, Thanos doesn’t have any expressions. He’s just a smoldering, straight-faced villain. There’s no exaggeration needed. Brolin’s Thanos plays to what motion capture can do well: straight faces and meaningless expressions.

This is all to say that when we think about the impact that “Avatar” has had on filmmaking, we should acknowledge that: one, it’s relatively minimal (there’s really no other film like it, thankfully) and, two, that computer-generated characters should not be prioritized over real actors. I do think that there are good performances to be found in motion capture (Andy Serkis in the “Planet of the Apes” films), but not enough to justify it as the most viable option when it comes to bringing nonhuman characters to life.

The next time you watch a film that features a character who’s been rendered with CGI based off of a motion capture performance, I want you to ask yourself: is this actually a good performance or just good voice acting? The answer might surprise you.

John Scott is the editor-in-chief at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at editorinchief@dailylobo.com or on Twitter @JohnSnott 

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