An actor who likes being recognized finds himself playing a 30-foot reptilian alien. 1,847 words. Story and illustration by Mark Fearing.
Decker Bronc was hanging ten feet in the air on a soundstage that was wrapped in green screen material ready for the motion capture shoot. He was wearing a bright green spandex jumpsuit with ping pong-sized white balls stuck all over it. His face was covered with white dots the size of erasers on pencils back when people still used pencils with erasers instead of delete keys. He also wore what could only be described as headgear, consisting of straps that tightened a metal helmet to his forehead and which supported a foot-long rod in front that held a camera lens on the end pointed at his face.
Three bored-looking young men stood hanging onto the wires and ropes and back-up ropes that supported Decker mid-air on the green sound stage. But even with all the discomfort, Decker was still glad he was there amid the grips, gaffers, best boys, computer geeks and one very overworked-looking script supervisor all rushing around. This had been a last-minute job booking and only his second credit in more than two years. It was his first motion capture gig but while his body would be animated at various times, at least he’d be back on the big screen again.
Andy Garcia, seeking to break out of playing stereotypical Latino gangsters, had snagged the part first but then dropped out at the last minute. That’s how the business worked for Decker; he had to wait for the fall throughs, the no shows, the rehab visits and the ego trips. Then he got the job.
Decker had been an almost A-lister once. Now he was probably a B-lister on his best days. And, when guest hosting game shows, definitely a C-lister. But his agent had assured him this massive budget tentpole with the latest CGI could put him back on top. After all, as the tenpercenter had reminded, both Marlon Brando and Russell Crowe had played Superman’s father Jor-El in state-of-the-art CGI pictures like this one.
A guy young enough to be Decker’s grandson who’d introduced himself as the director that morning now yelled up to Decker.
“You okay up there, Deck? Looking great!”
“Ready!” Decker yelled back. He had learned his lines in two days. That’s one skill which he’d improved on since his youth although the spandex green bodysuit showed what hadn’t improved since his youth. Was his belly really that big? Did the suit make his man parts look small? He swore that if any photos of him wearing this get-up were posted online he would hunt down and kill whoever had done it. That’s when Decker began to realize he had to pee.
Shouts echoed and the soundstage quieted. It was just Decker hanging in mid-air, the harness rapidly hurting his back and the heavy headgear slowly giving him a headache. He felt like a too-old Peter Pan in traction at the hospital after a car wreck.
Decker flung himself backwards and raised his head. “Who dares to enter the Kingdom of Losalopos? There is no mortal with enough courage to stand before…”
The people below exploded into action. Computers whizzed, lights switched on and off, conversations which had been hushed started back up.
Decker yelled to the director, “Okay down there?”
But the helmer was busy looking into various monitors while surrounded by a group of fifteen people hitting buttons and unplugging and replugging cords and gadgets and things. Decker enjoyed a bird’s eye view of the soundstage as lights flickered. He saw a clique of suits eating bagels at the craft table. A man running back and forth following cables around the soundstage appeared to be looking for something wrong.
“We lost the connection between the real-time rendering and the latest CG models and the face unit,” the director finally answered.
Decker didn’t know what any of that meant. Meanwhile, his need to urinate wasn’t going away.
He’d expected the shots to go quickly when his agent told him it was “an all soundstage job.” Only when his rep mentioned, a little too casually, that the actor would be hanging in mid-air most of the time did Decker’s prostate issue come to mind.
“Twenty!” yelled the director and a bell rang. Decker blew a raspberry of relief, then noticed the three men who controlled his harness wires and ropes were headed to the craft table.
“No, no, noooo!” begged Decker.
The director looked up and then over to the rope crew. “Bring him down!”
Decker was lowered back to sweet mother earth and his main harness was taken off. The actor felt like kissing the ground but the camera hanging in front of his face wouldn’t allow it.
“Can I get this thing off?!” asked Deck, pointing to the headgear. It felt like he was wearing a box of books glued atop his skull.
The helmer walked over. “Oh man, I wish but it’s calibrated. If we take it off, that’s another half hour to 45 minutes of extra work you’re making for us. And we’re fucked today on shots.”
Decker paused for a moment, thinking now might be a good time to ask a few questions while the tech-heads were busy. It’s not often he actually got to talk to a film director on set these days.
“Uh, I have no make-up and only these dots on my face. I know you’re capturing stuff, but do I later get into makeup and you re-attach my face to…” Decker was lost talking the terminology.
The director stared.
Decker felt like he had to fill the void of silence. “I’m asking when do you shoot my face without all the stuff on it?”
“You’re playing a 30-foot-tall reptilian alien. I thought you understood that,” the helmer said, exasperated.
“Yes, I’m King Bathar, Second Regent of the Hundred Planet Alliance. But people know my face. My agent said that’s why you cast me. Because I’m recognizable.”
“Look, that camera on your head will capture your facial expressions and transfer them down to the real-time gear. You’re practically biometric man. We get everything you do — every twist, smirk, blink. Hell, I bet if you fart, we get that too. Come over here and look at this.”
The director led Decker over to the bank of monitors and the geeks in front of them. The actor stepped awkwardly because the gear on his head weighed him down like the giant panda head he’d worn when he was in his twenties just starting in showbiz: working at Pandaland Amusement Park dressed as Happy Panda.
On one monitor flickered video of Decker hanging in mid-air and inset was his face covered with white dots. On a huge monitor next to that was a giant flying reptile, like something out of a video game. It kept rotating as various messages popped on screen and then off before Decker could read them. On another monitor was a futuristic background, elegant and barbaric at the same time.
The director continued excitedly pointing at the monster on Screen Two. “See, this is you. So we get your body actions and your facial expressions, and then we translate your acting to this computer model. It’s the first time it’s all done wirelessly. You’re free from all the camera cables. That’s pretty cool.”
“Pretty cool,” said Decker showing a bit too much that he didn’t think it was all that cool, actually. “But isn’t acting more than just facial expressions and physical gestures?” Decker wrinkled his nose to punctuate his distress. And then he noticed that on the huge monitor the creature’s face moved, too. Decker lifted his arms and the creature lifted its tentacle-like appendages as well.
“We have feed again!” yelled one crew member.
“Is the back-up working?” asked another.
Then Decker tried to focus on what was really bugging him. “So, is my real face going to be anywhere on screen?”
The director rolled his eyes like people do when they get asked for the third time what their car license plate is when checking into a motel at one in the morning. “Didn’t someone explain this when you were called?” insisted the director.
“I was only cast four days ago.”
“That’s right, Andy dropped out when he heard about the rigging.” The director shook his head a tiny bit. Decker wondered if the motion capture rig would have motion-captured something so subtle. He really had to pee now.
The director mustered all his charm and placed a hand on Decker’s shoulder just underneath the aluminum strapping gear. “It’ll be you on screen, but not you. Your voice, but not your mouth or eyes. Honestly, we make great eyes now, way better than actual eyes. It’ll be better than you, and you won’t need to sit for eight hours in make-up.”
Just then someone exclaimed, “This back-up drive is crap! Replace it and we will be good to go.”
Decker looked at the harness and wires that awaited him. How many more hours in the air today, he wondered. And when the film is finished and everyone’s at its premiere, will he or anyone else recognize anything of himself on screen?
“You better strap up again,” one of the crew told him. “We’ll be running in a few minutes.”
The three men in charge of hoisting Decker into the air surrounded him like guards escorting an executive off company property after he was fired for flipping off the CEO at a meeting.
“Get him strapped, and let’s roll,” instructed the director.
Decker began to walk back to the ropes and bright green screen. It all looked to him like a Disneyland version of an S&M movie.
“Wait!” He’d almost forgotten. “I have to use the bathroom.”
“Make it quick. We’re behind already today,” the helmer barked.
Decker and his hoisters hustled to the bathroom. “Don’t bump the head unit or the lens. That’s a five hundred thousand dollar rig,” warned the handler in charge who had circles under his eyes.
“At least they sewed a flap on this suit,” Decker said gratefully as he entered the stall and struggled to close the door. “Otherwise I’d be in here twenty minutes trying to take this thing off.”
Despite his best effort, Decker clanked the camera lens and aluminum rod against the stall wall, prompting another warning to be careful. It’s going to be a long and tedious week, thought Decker, awkwardly positioning the massive helmet rig so he could see what he was doing and wouldn’t pee all over the place.
On the soundstage, unbeknownst to Decker, a group of 30 people gathered around the monitors. They watched as the 30-foot-tall reptilian alien King Bathar, Second Regent of the Hundred Planet Alliance, was appearing to pee on his ginormous feet.
Naturally the footage was leaked to TMZ and went viral on Twitter and YouTube. Ten million viewers saw it, way more than went to the movie. Decker should have been relieved that no one knew who’d been in the bathroom. But he wasn’t. Because people were supposed to recognize him.