Thanos, Stanislavsky and VFX

I’ve found myself once again fascinated by acting and the art of working with actors. Subsequently, I’ve been re-reading Stanislavsky’s An Actor Prepares – and I realize now that that’s incorrect. Confession time: When I was in undergrad, I never really read Stanislavski. I had some sort of unhealthy distrust of him, and I don’t exactly know why. Perhaps I was afraid of corrupting my intuitive “talent” with any kind of prescribed “method.”

Regardless, I’ve finally begun truly reading his seminal work, and it lives up to the hype. It’s tremendously applicable not only to acting, but to any art.

At the same time, I’ve been watching the “VFX Artists React” series, along with the “Stunt Men React” series on Youtube. So with both things on my mind, I’ve gotten a better articulation of why, to me, Thanos works so well as a CG character.

It stems first from this quote of Stanislavsky’s “A role which is built of truth will grow, whereas one built on stereotype will shrivel.”

  1. Josh Brolin understands acting, clearly. He’s a great actor. He knows that in order to play a character like Thanos, he cannot view himself as a villain. He must view himself as a being with desires, whose own desires and needs and emotions are grounded in a reality that, to him, makes the most possible sense in the universe. He bases his performance of the role in as much reality as he and his directors can muster.
  2. The character as a CG entity is based on facial capture techniques that are continually advancing, yet have been tested heavily by now, with amazing success in the cases of Gollum and Caesar (thanks Andy Serkis and team for pioneering this). So again, the animation is not manufactured so much as generated based on a physical reality: the movements of Josh Brolin’s face, which have in turn undergone Brolin’s extensive acting work based on the reality of the character as it relates to Brolin’s own inner being. As Stanislavsky would say, Brolin has trained his bodily instrument to be supple and expressive, not so that it can manufacture false emotions but so that it can easily transmit an inner life that is as real as possible.
  3. The hardest part of this is putting actors in a room together without the majority of the actual physical elements they’ll be dealing with. Getting characters to interact that are at different heights, for example, can involve creating a prosthetic head that mounts above Brolin’s own head so that the eyelines are correct. I’m willing to wager, however, that this varies from scene to scene. In scenes where the interactions are more physical and up-front (like a combat scene, or when Thanos is, say, stabbing Iron Man) it is easier to produce believable performances with the strange-eyeline methods. However, in scenes where more intimate, face to face interactions are necessary, I will bet my left foot they shot closeups arranged so that the actors can look each other in the eyes. When Gamora and Thanos are having a nuanced discussion of her past, you want Zoe Saldana to be able to look Josh Brolin in the eye and each of them to experience the full emotional impact of each others’ performance. Dialogue scenes like this are probably the easiest to shoot but also the easiest to screw up.

Thanos works, I believe, because the makers of the film have, consciously or no, followed the basic principle stated by Stanislavsky: a role built on truth will grow. Basing a character in reality is not always easy, and not always done the same way, but it is always necessary to create an effective performance. Now that performances are created by teams of the actor, director, editor, and vfx artists, this is MORE true than ever, and requires a new level of coordination.

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