New techniques make visual effects more actor-friendly
Actors' chops meet techno shops

By David S. Cohen
December 12, 2006

'Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest' ' Bill Nighy acted in a mo-cap suit that looked more like Devo than Davy Jones.

Since the birth of cinema, acting and visual effects have seemed to be in a tug of war, pulling movies in opposite directions.

Actors give films their humanity and heart. Visual effects let the audience see things that no camera could capture. So the battle lines were drawn: soul vs. spectacle.

Yet in recent years, the warring camps have found common ground. Visual effects are letting actors do more and, in some cases, making their workdays shorter and less painful.

Actors were essential in the creation of such digital characters as Gollum in the "The Lord of the Rings" movies, Sonny in "I, Robot" and Kong in "King Kong," all clearly "visual effects." Some animated films have even used performance capture to lend life to characters that aren't remotely human, such as the penguins in "Happy Feet."

So actors are finding that their old enemy, vfx, instead of overshadowing them -- or, as some feared, making them obsolete -- is actually expanding their opportunities. Along the way, too, some actors are learning to actually like working with visual effects.

Thesp Bill Nighy, who played Davy Jones, the villain in Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," got his first taste of hybrid performance-capture acting for the film; he was completely erased and replaced with a 100% digital image. Nonetheless, says helmer Gore Verbinski, Nighy's work was absolutely essential to creating the character.

"I think visual effects don't exist without good acting," Verbinski says. "I don't think Davy Jones exists without Bill Nighy's performance."

Nighy himself had been skeptical at first about how much of his work would actually make it onto the screen. Verbinski and the ILM team had shown him conceptual art of the octopus-headed, tentacle-bearded character and promised the subtleties of his acting would be retained, but Nighy says, "I was never sure that technologically it was possible."

In truth, neither was Verbinski, who admits that he was lying when he assured Nighy, "It'll be fantastic." In fact, he knew "it could be a disaster," since ILM was employing a new performance-capture system and there was no time for a thorough test.

Nighy came to the shoot with an idea about what to expect. He'd played a vampire in the "Underworld" pics using traditional makeup. In such makeup, "you're limited by how good the makeup is," he says. "Once you're inside that thing, the thing is the performance. You're left entirely with the vocal performance."

His "Underworld" makeup required six hours to apply and a couple of excruciating hours to remove. Right from the start, his "Pirates" experience was different: He went to work in what he calls "deeply embarrassing and lame-looking computer pajamas, and skullcap, and white dots on your face."
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