- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 15, 2007

Jennifer Connelly is one of the most acclaimed of popular actresses. Her performance in the recent film “Blood Diamond” is no exception. There’s a scene, for example, near the end of the film in which Miss Connelly learns some tragic news while having a difficult conversation on her cell phone. The effect of the information can be seen on her face: a single tear rolls down the actress’s cheek.

It’s a moving performance. There’s just one problem — it wasn’t all performance.

A visual effects supervisor exposed a trade secret earlier this year when he revealed that part of that performance was created digitally. During the Visual Effects Society’s “Show and Tell” conference, the organization’s chairman showed before-and-after versions of this scene in “Blood Diamond.” The before version showed Miss Connelly talking on her cell phone with a clear face. The after version showed her talking with that tear running down her cheek. Jeff Okun revealed that the tear was added after shooting using visual effects.

“Acting is all about honesty, but something like this makes what you see on screen a dishonest moment,” an anonymous technician told the London Times about the “Blood Diamond” effect. “Everyone feels a bit dirty about it.”

Well, maybe not everyone. The experts to whom I spoke can’t understand what all the fuss is about.

“What controversy?” asks Jeff Heusser, a visual effects artist and co-founder of the leading visual effects Web site, fxguide.com. He was surprised to find the media interested in the “Blood Diamond” story.

“From what I have read, the filmmaker decided while editing the film (likely long after photography was complete) to add a tear to the scene. If this can be done without the need to reshoot the scene, why shouldn’t it?” he asks. “It is not a documentary or news footage. It’s entertainment.”

Mr. Heusser says he’s unaware of any debate within the industry about how far visual effects should be taken. “Filmmakers generally use visual effects to enhance storytelling,” he says. “We routinely replace skies, do digital cosmetic work, extend sets. It’s all part of the same vocabulary. Nothing you see in a movie can be assumed to be unaltered.”

He asks if such digital wizardry is any different from “an actor standing on a box to alter their on-screen height with a taller co-star” or “eye drops being put in the eye before the take.”

“Are these more honest?” he wonders.

Thomas Nittmann shares this view. He’s a visual effects producer with Lola Visual Effects, which made headlines with one of last year’s most striking visual effects. The company made Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen appear about 20 years younger — without the use of makeup — in the opening flashback sequence of “X-Men: The Last Stand.”

They do less drastic work all the time. Women who spend thousands a year on beauty products in an attempt to look like their favorite actress might be surprised to discover that effects artists often remove zits, fix eye bags, add muscles and change hair color. “It’s becoming more common, especially as HD DVD and Blu-ray formats extend into the consumer marketplace,” Mr. Nittmann says. These high-definition formats show great detail in extreme close-up.

The technology has become more cost-effective in the last couple of years, making more serious changes more common.

“Performance enhancements occur less frequently, but we have turned frowns into smiles, corrected dialogue and enhanced facial expressions,” Mr. Nittman says.

He sees no moral quandary in his work either. He points out that effects artists work under the direction of the filmmakers. “For the most part, we are helping them achieve vision, guilt-free.”

But what about the actors? One imagines that Jennifer Connelly wasn’t too happy when her performance was revealed as being not quite authentic.

The Screen Actors Guild declined my request for an interview, saying they didn’t have time to do the research on the subject before deadline. In negotiating contracts with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers in 1998, the union tried to secure an agreement that an actor’s performance could not be altered digitally or otherwise without his consent. The proposal was rejected, so concerned actors must get such a stipulation in their individual contracts. So far, none have complained to the union about alterations. There may be a reason for that.

“Most of the time we are enhancing the actors’ appearance, making them look more attractive and sexier or fixing plastic surgery defects,” Mr. Nittman points out, adding that “it’s better to modify the actors’ appearance digitally than have them go under the knife and physically face more risks.” And who wouldn’t want to see themselves on-screen 20 years younger?

Digital alteration is clearly a double-edged sword for the acting community. But one wonders if it could ultimately make actors obsolete. Perhaps the day will come when a performance can be created completely digitally — without the need for a single ego-obsessed thespian.

“I see better and better digital actors being used in situations that make sense, but I don’t think they will be wholesale replacing human actors,” Mr. Heusser says.

Still, the technology is getting more astounding. Mr. Nittman reveals, “As more content is archived in high-resolution formats and 3-D technology progresses, we may be closer to resurrecting dead actors.”

When actor Oliver Reed died before finishing the shoot of “Gladiator,” effects artists grafted a 3-D, CGI mask of his face onto a stand-in’s body.

Clearly, this is a technology here to stay. But will it have any effect on acting awards, like those handed out at the Oscars? When viewers can’t tell what part of a performance is real, how are Academy members to decide whose performance was the best, the most moving, the most honest?

Mr. Heusser counters that Gary Sinise received a supporting actor Oscar nomination for his role as the disabled vet in “Forrest Gump.” Digital wizards made the actor appear as if he had no legs.

Still, awards could be somehow tainted and — rightfully — taken less seriously once digital enhancements start winning actors more statuettes.

Perhaps digital alteration will prove to be a blessing in disguise for another dramatic medium — the theater. Now, actors do time on the boards to prove their acting chops. Maybe in the future, they’ll do it to prove that they exist.


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