Sunday, February 7, 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.

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