The Sound of Film Acting

By Wojcik, Pamela Robertson | Journal of Film and Video, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

The Sound of Film Acting


Wojcik, Pamela Robertson, Journal of Film and Video


AMONG THE ACTING NOMINEES FOR THE 2003 OSCARS, Andy Serkis. the actor behind the digitally created character Gollum in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), was notably absent. This omission occurred even though New Line executives campaigned aggressively for Serkis's performance. They argued that his performance was more worthy than voice-over acting, and claimed-mistakenly perhaps-that voice-over was technically eligible for an Oscar.1 While linking his performance to voice acting. New Line nonetheless asserted that Serkis not only supplied a voice to Gollum, but also created the character's movements using a motion-capture suit and, crucially, they argued that "There's an emotionality as well as a physicality to the performance" (Bloom 14). Interestingly, despite Variety's assertion that new technologies are "blurring the line[s] between . . . pix and perfs," New Line's plug for Serkis, along with most other accounts of the actor's work, insists on a retroactive reading of his performance as distinct from the digital animation and asks us to view the creation of Gollum as "actor-led" rather than driven by technology (Brett 74-79). Unswayed by this argument, presumably, the Academy did not give Serkis the nod, though MTV honored him with a prize for "Best Virtual Performance."

The Serkis case, along with questions about the nature of acting in The Hulk (2003) and the recent Sfar Wars trilogy (1999, 2002, 2005), points to a crisis in the conception of acting, a crisis that is seemingly historically and technologically determined: the issue of acting in the digital age. I would suggest, however, that these recent debates are closely related, in part, to views of voice acting and dubbing as somehow lesser forms of acting, an assumption that posits the actor's body as his true instrument and the voice, if unfastened from the body, as somehow lacking. In relation to the Academy Awards, for instance, an actor has never been nominated for voice acting, and actors whose voices have been dubbed by others are specifically prohibited from nomination according to Academy rules and regulations. This privileging of the actor's body parallels the privileging of the visual over sound in most film theory, and reinforces the idea of sound as what Roland Barthes called "a supplementary instrument of representation," "conceived to reinforce the lifelikeness of the anecdote" (347). Further, this debate highlights an assumption that acting and cinematic effects are distinct entities: whereas theatrical effects, such as make-up and prosthetics, are seen as supplements to good acting, cinematic effects, such as special effects and digital technology, are seen as hindrances. This separation of film acting from the cinematic occurs not only in popular discourse but in academia as well, where acting is generally sidelined as a vaguely theatrical topic, treated as part of the miseen-scène (itself a theatrical term suggesting something that exists prior to and on a different plane from cinematography), dismissed in ontologies of cinema that are technologically determined, and rarely considered in any complex way as part and parcel of technology (Wojcik, Movie Acting 1-13).

Rather than view digital imaging or animation or voice acting as oddities, I suggest that they bring to the fore aspects of film acting that need to be more fully taken into account, namely the use of sound and the relation of sound technology to what we call acting. At the most obvious level, a discussion of sound and film acting begins with the voice, and we can, of course, consider various components of the voice, including i) the rhythm of speech, the use of silence, pauses, stutters, and other vocal techniques; 2) the grain of the voice, how it affects performance and is intertwined with conceptions of type and persona (and we could consider the mythological failure of many silent stars due to a perceived ill-fit between their visual persona and their voice); and 3) accent, how it functions as part of performance and type. …

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