Last December, New Line Cinema launched an extensive, though ultimately unsuccessful, campaign to have Andy Serkis nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his remarkable performance as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. In the end, the Gollum character was instead recognized with an Academy Award for Achievement in Visual Effects, suggesting Hollywood’s uncertainty about synthespians.What, you ask, is a synthespian?
The word has been circulating in Hollywood circles for more than a decade to describe digitally-generated characters, ranging from Shrek, star of a computer animated movie, to Jar Jar Binks, cast alongside live action performers, to the huddled masses in Gangs of New York who were, in fact, digital extras.
In some cases, the synthespians are totally synthetic. In others, the initial character template is generated through motion capture and then enhanced in the lab. This ability to create the semblance of life through purely artificial means has become a new kind of Turing Test by which computer modelers and AI specialists hone and measure their skills. The technicians are working towards what they see as the inevitable moment when a synthetic character can appear alongside a human actor and leave people scratching their heads trying to decide which is which.
Of course, no real confusion is likely when consumers avidly seek behind-the-scenes information about special effects and producers are keen to crow about their latest technical breakthroughs. In the short term, synthespians are used more often to impress us with their creators’ virtuosity than to confuse us about the line between reality and fantasy. Simone, a recent fantasy film about the world’s first computer generated celebrity, reversed this process, showing that supermodels are almost indistinguishable from synthespians.
All of this bold talk within the special effects industry has led to some frankly silly speculation about digital actors ultimately displacing flesh and blood performers, a nightmare for actors who worry about mechanization at last entering the performing arts and taking away their jobs. Let’s have a reality check, folks: right now, synthespians are an extremely costly and laborious means of creating extremely wooden performances. If all you want is an automaton, wouldn’t it be easier just to hire William Shatner?
So far, characters like Jar Jar Binks or Scooby Doo look on screen like what they are-cartoon characters. Lucas’s inclusion of Jar Jar Binks in the Star Wars films was an aesthetic failure that went well beyond the limitations of the computer modeling work. Jar Jar didn’t belong in the same reality as the other characters.