For better or for worse, performing in front of green screens is the new normal.
Sir Ian McKellan was reportedly reduced to tears while filming the first Hobbit film.
Apparently, the visual effects-heavy film required Shakespearean-trained McKellan to perform a significant portion of his role solo, and in front of a green screen for weeks on end.
For better or for worse, this is a new normal for actors in the 21st Century. Instead of pretending to be a wizard speaking to hobbits, McKellan had to pretend to be a wizard speaking to pretend hobbits.
Pretending to pretend is the new acting.
This second-order acting is an emerging skill set. Donning costumes and performing on set requires a degree of disbelief suspension and character embodiment. Donning ping-pong ball-clad black leotards and performing in front of a green screen requires a step further. Actors and storytellers accustomed to sets and co-actors will need to adapt.
This is one of the costs of the increasingly immersive media landscape. Storytelling is being consumed by technology, in order to tell more robust stories. The final battle in Avengers: Endgame could not have been fully realized without CGI. How else could you convincingly portray a clash between a trans-dimensional army led by Iron Man, Captain America and The Hulk against Thanos’ hordes of galactic villains?
Pretending to be Iron Man pretending to defeat a pretend Thanos is not easy. It is a skill that will continue to grow alongside the growth in computer-enhanced mediums. As a result, more imagination will be demanded of performers in order to realize increasingly elaborate visions of storytellers.
Within the past generation, technology has eclipsed what storytellers can envision. There is no scene that cannot be convincingly delivered on screen, in audio or even in virtual reality. The coming decades of movies will be rich with never before seen stories, as writers and directors explore a limitless space of creation.
But maybe there is something lost in transition to CGI. The battle to take Fort Wagner in the movie Glory is visceral, real, intense, on a level that doesn’t exist in armies of computer generated soldiers. If such a battle scene were shot today, it would undoubtedly dazzle audiences with CGI-enhanced scale, accuracy, but maybe at the cost of some human connection.
Sir Ian McKellan’s exhaustion is perhaps not just from adapting to a new normal, but a lamentation of what is being lost. The further you move away from campfire stories and theatrical monologues towards computer-enhanced spectacles, the further you move away from human-centered storytelling. Writers and directors would be best to remember.
Technologies offer entirely new palettes with which storytellers are able to paint. But hopefully that doesn’t mean we will lose what was best about the artform in the first place.
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Originally published at https://digitalabsurdist.com on November 9, 2020.