World Festival of Animated Film /
short and feature edition 4 to 9 June 2018
World Festival of Animated Film / short and feature edition 4 to 9 June 2018
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Defining and Cataloguing Synthespian Performances in Film – Jason Kennedy (Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand)

Numerous articles have been written about synthespians, but much of the academic discourse about synthespian performance focuses on only a handful of films: Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, The Polar Express, King Kong, Beowulf, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,Avatar, andTron: Legacy. While these movies are worthy of the discourse they generate, most were produced during the previous decade, and these movies do not fully represent the range of hundreds of synthespian performances in films produced since then. This paper attempts to highlight some of these unsung performances by cataloguing and categorising the different ways in which synthespian characters perform within film. This is achieved, in part, through compiling a comprehensive list of all synthespian characters that appear in feature films between 2010 and 2018 (at the time of this writing). Producing an exhaustive list of synthespians in film is difficult due to the lack of a clear differentiation between a synthespian and a mere digital double.

I suggest a definition, based on my experience as an actor, that clarifies the differences between these two categories, and I show how this definition guides my selection of characters that qualify as synthespians. This process of selection raises the question: how can we define what constitutes acting within a synthespian context? By extension, when is a digital character “acting” versus “not acting”? In this paper I address these questions from a performance-based perspective – specifically, from my experience as an actor-animator. Additionally, this catalogue suggests a trend toward a more frequent use of synthespians within feature films (on a year-by-year basis), as well as a greater range of performance categories for synthespians in general.

Jason Kennedy is a senior lecturer and Animation Pathway Leader in the Digital Design department at Auckland University of Technology. He is a practicing artist with work in 3D animation, 3D fine art, motion capture, video projection, and fine jewellery. Jason is currently working on his PhD, which examines how our understanding of what is acting must change in light of modern animation and performance capture practices. In addition to being an animator, Jason is also an actor, and he draws on these two areas of experience to create his thesis.