Ewan McGregor revealed earlier this year that he spent virtually the entirety of filming for 2002’s Star Wars: Attack of the Clones wandering round a blue-screen studio talking to inanimate objects while portraying the young Obi-Wan Kenobi, an experience he clearly found disgruntling. “I spent a lot of time off on my own and on this planet with tall aliens, and of course, none of that was there,” he said during interviews for the recent Disney+ show that revived the Jedi knight. “For me, it was, like, a long time walking around blue sets speaking to tennis balls and sticks and it was just not what I was used to, and it was hard to make. Hopefully, we made it realistic and we did the best we could.”
In the early days of CGI film-making, actors regularly reported similar unease, but in recent years the problem seems to have diminished. This is probably down to the increased use of motion capture where actors can bounce off their fellow cast members in a more organic fashion. The moment in Avengers: Endgame, in which Thor finally confronts Josh Brolin’s nefarious Thanos, would presumably not have been quite so tense had Chris Hemsworth been trying to chop the head off a basketball on a stick.
Nevertheless, it was intriguing to read this week that the problem does not seem to have entirely gone away, at least for the actors involved. Elizabeth Olsen, AKA Scarlet Witch in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, told Variety she spends most of her time on set utterly bewildered as to what is going on, a problem that was compounded during The Infinity War segue in which Wanda Maximoff is forced to kill her partner, Vision, by removing the Mind Stone from his forehead. On set, it turns out, the scene didn’t pan out in quite the same way.
“[It’s] very embarrassing shooting those kinds of things, because, like, the world depends on you doing it,” Olsen revealed, “Because you’re like – [holds out her hand]. Ugh, I’m doing this in public. But you have one hand out that’s stopping something with energy. And then you’ve got another hand that’s extracting this fake thing from this dotted face. And it’s painful and emotional.”
Christian Bale, who entered the MCU for the first time recently as Gorr the God Butcher, antagonist of this year’s Thor: Love and Thunder, described a similar sense of bafflement and discomfort during filming of Taika Waititi’s movie. Labelling green screen acting as “the definition of … monotony”, the Wales-born Englishman added: “You have no idea what to do. I couldn’t even differentiate one stage from the next.”
The difference, of course, between Attack of the Clones and the Marvel movies above, is that you can tell McGregor is walking around a blue studio talking to tennis balls (and the Scotsman certainly wasn’t the worst performer in the Star Wars prequels) whereas it is rare to see poor performances in the MCU. Having witnessed filming of the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie in 2014, I can confirm that the Disney-owned studio goes to great lengths to create a mise-en-scene that works for its cast. At one point during the 2014 shoot, assembled journalists witnessed a crowd scene being shot for over an hour with all extras remaining in full costume and director James Gunn’s brother Sean standing in for Bradley Cooper as the CGI character Rocket Raccoon while the actors and director seemingly tweaked the script in real time until it really hummed with energy.
That approach doesn’t seem to have been quite enough to keep the likes of Bale and Olsen completely happy. But you have to wonder if it really matters that Marvel’s stars spend the entire shoot in a sense of utter bafflement, provided we in the audience only see the glorious final result.