From ape leader Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes through lovable rogue Captain Haddock in Tintin, back to tragic halfling Gollum in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films; it’s been a good year for Andy Serkis. There’s a campaign afoot for a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his role in Apes, but why do so many argue he doesn’t deserve credit for his own performances?
The trouble is a lot of people still think of motion capture – or rather performance capture – as a form of animation and so accusations fly that actors like Serkis are stealing credit from the digital effects guys. Bloody actors, eh? Arrogant, egotistical bloody actors stealing the credit from the jobbing computer techies who do all the real work for the crappy pay.
Of course the reality’s a bit different. Unlike in, say, the Toy Story films, where the characters’ physical expressions are created from scratch by the animators, the clue is in the title with performance capture. It starts with the actors, and the visual effects guys alter the physical appearance, rather than manipulating the performance itself, so it ends with the actors as well.
Serkis has described the process as being like wearing digital make-up and in a recent interview with The Independent, he was asked whether he thought performance capture roles could be Oscar-worthy. He replied: “For anyone who has been through the process of doing performance capture, it’s just no more than acting. If I was wearing prosthetic make-up you wouldn’t even be asking this. There are different ways of approaching performance capture but it’s just digital make-up, basically.”
He has a point. John Hurt’s performance in The Elephant Man isn’t exactly credited to the quality of the make-up that makes him unrecognisable, stunning though that is. More recently, Charlize Theron walked away with an Oscar after being caked in prosthetics for Monster and right now Leonardo DiCaprio is turning heads for his latex-plastered performance as FBI boss Hoover in Clint Eastwood’s biopic J Edgar.
Audiences see Caesar, or King Kong, or Neytiri (the Na’vi warrior played by Zoe Saldana in Avatar) and rush to judgement because the rendering resembles animation. Filmmakers often seem to be fielding questions about whether they think there is a danger of the actor becoming redundant in the moviemaking process as characters rendered through performance capture are transformed so completely with this digital make-up. Take a look at behind-the-scenes footage from Avatar and it becomes clear how unlikely that really is.
Watch the crew filming James Cameron’s sci-fi behemoth – especially scenes that took place on the alien planet of Pandora – and you might be forgiven for thinking the whole thing was put together with a budget similar to what your local community college spends on tea and biscuits in a week. The actors are dressed in their crude skin-tight leotards, with tails apparently stapled to their bums and even pointy plastic ears glued to the sides of their heads. The sets themselves have a few padded obstacles strewn around like a jungle gym at the amusement park, only without the slide.
If anything, this is arguably restoring the purity of dramatic performance. It’s a minimalist surround. While the actors deliver, everything else is a mere reference for the visual effects team. Wardrobe, production design and a world entire in the cases of Avatar and Tintin, are built around the hugely advanced technical reference points set up in this otherwise bare-looking studio, at enormous expense of course.
Spielberg and Jackson built on the process for Tintin and Jackson is evolving that process right now with his Hobbit films, and then Serkis will at some point dive back into the sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
Serkis is unlikely to get the Oscar nomination this year, but the campaign seems principally symbolic. It calls for audiences, the Academy and all the other naysayers to get their facts right when they consider the merits of a performance, and then to hand out the rewards accordingly.
Get past the weird leotards and the blue-skinned aliens and focus on how they make you feel. At the moment it’s ushering in a new facet of dramatic art and it’s worthy of attention.