Are Performance-Capture Actors The Most Underappreciated Talents In Hollywood?

Are Performance-Capture Actors The Most Underappreciated Talents In Hollywood?



Back in January at the Golden Globes, cohost Amy Poehler facetiously lauded Wild star Reese Witherspoon for doing “all of her own walking,” then lobbed a follow-up joke: “And Andy Serkis was great as your backpack!” As awards-show zingers go, it was pretty gentle, but if Serkis laughed, viewers didn’t see it. Of course, they rarely see the performance-capture actor nonpareil doing anything as himself, but in this case, Serkis wasn’t in attendance. Despite universal critical acclaim and significant lobbying from 20th Century Fox, his portrayal of hyperevolved chimp Caesar in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes wasn’t nominated for an acting award—receiving, it seems, only informal nods for Best Inanimate Prop and Easiest Punch Line.

“It’s actually a very pure form of acting,” says Serkis, the technology’s unofficial spokesman, thanks to his groundbreaking work as Gollum in director Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and as King Kong in the 2005 remake. “You’re not helped by any sort of artifice or aided by any costume or prosthetic makeup.” Instead, performance capture relies on a complex system of movement-mapping registered by multiple cameras, rendered digitally, and completed by a team of animators. It’s an impressive feat of cinematic magic that has seduced filmmakers and moviegoers alike but has failed to change attitudes pertaining to authorship of the role, the blurring lines of performance and special effects, and, ultimately, the lack of a warm body onscreen. Serkis, who’s been nominated for a Golden Globe and an Emmy for his live-action work, is adamant that the use of technology doesn’t undercut the artistry. “It’s a very old-fashioned, Luddite view. The performance comes from the heart and soul of the actor,” he says. “This isn’t CG cheating.”

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Unlike the Hollywood Foreign Press Association—which hinted at precedent last year by deeming Scarlett Johansson’s voice-only performance in Spike Jonze’s Her ineligible—the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hasn’t disallowed performance-capture work. But its repeated snubbing of Serkis’ tour de force roles led his Rise of the Planet of the Apes costar James Franco to write an article for Deadline that stated, “Andy doesn’t need me to tell him he’s an innovator; he knows it. What is needed is recognition for him, now. Not later when this kind of acting is de rigueur.” Franco’s opinion—that Oscar voters don’t fully understand or appreciate this relatively new art form—is one shared by Neill Blomkamp, director of 2010 Best Picture nominee District 9 and this month’s sci-fi film Chappie, about an experimental sentient robot. “We’re dealing with people from the last millennium,” he says. “The industry is decades behind. Ten years from now, you’re going to have maybe one actor fitting into the realm of what they consider ‘normal.'”

Sharlto Copley, Blomkamp’s longtime friend and previous collaborator on District 9 and the futuristic thriller Elysium, performed the role of Chappie in a Lycra motion-capture suit alongside costars Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman, and Sigourney Weaver. His mechanical form was trace-animated over his body in postproduction, a painstaking process called rotomation. Except for a pair of LED-lit eyes and two horizontal metal bars suggesting brow and chin lines, the robot is faceless, an impediment that gave Copley a newfound respect for the process. “In a way, the work is more difficult,” he explains. “To make a really good character using only voice and movement takes a skill and understanding of the business that goes beyond traditional acting.”

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Greatest Show on Earth

The changing faces of performance-capture pioneer
Andy Serkis

Gollum, The Lord of the
trilogy (2001-03)
King Kong, King Kong (2005)
Caesar, Rise of the Planet of
the Apes
(2011) and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)
• • •

Performance capture’s lack of awards recognition stems at least in part from a perceived threat to the old guard. In 2010, Jeff Bridges suggested, however winkingly, that the success of James Cameron’s Avatar could endanger the craft: “Actors will kind of be a thing of the past,” he told a reporter from the Los Angeles Times. “We’ll be turned into combinations. A director will be able to say, ‘I want 60 percent Clooney; give me 10 percent Bridges; and throw some Charles Bronson in there.'”

When faced with the choice, Hollywood has shown more willingness to embrace Dr. Frankenstein than his monster, opting to view performance-capture work as an effects-driven collaboration and typically heaping “technical” awards on films that feature it. Joe Letteri, senior visual-effects supervisor for Weta Digital, the New Zealand–based visual-effects company that worked on the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies and the Planet of the Apes franchise, has won five Oscars and received nominations each of the past four years. “The Best Actor category implies a self-contained performance,” he explains. “But because we’re teasing these performances apart [digitally] and putting them back together, nobody is sure exactly what to make of it. It happens in cinematography, makeup, and art direction, too—you’d be surprised how much green screen is used these days—but those don’t have the same level of emotional attachment.”

Critics like the New York Times‘ A.O. Scott have found poetic ways to laud this innovative alchemy: In his Dawn of the Planet of the Apes review, he called Serkis’ Caesar “so evocatively and precisely rendered that it is impossible to say where his art ends and the exquisite artifice of Weta Digital, the special effects company, begins.” But shared credit is a pricklier concept in Hollywood, a fact that occasionally leads to tension between actor and animator. “We create new characters from scratch,” says Letteri, who agrees that the actors author their own performances but balks, along with other effects specialists, at the commonly used characterization of his craft as “digital makeup.” “A lot of people ask me, ‘How did you manage to keep Andy’s eyes in Caesar?’ Those are not Andy’s eyes. Those are chimp eyes.”

One oft-suggested solution is a new awards category dedicated to performance-capture roles, a change Letteri would support. “There was once a concern that creating a separate category would ghettoize animation, but now you have recognition for animated films each year,” he explains, “and that’s a good thing.” Serkis, on the other hand, would rather continue his crusade for equal acknowledgment, among both peers and awarding bodies. His own performance-capture studio and consultancy, the Imaginarium, is responsible for Mark Ruffalo‘s revamped Hulk character in May’s Avengers: Age of Ultron (and Serkis also has a live-action role in the blockbuster sequel). He’ll follow that with a top-secret part in J.J. Abrams’ hotly anticipated Star Wars: The Force Awakens and his directorial debut, Jungle Book: Origins, which boasts an A-list cast playing performance-capture roles. “We have Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett, and Christian Bale in the suits,” Serkis says. “And they’re certainly not saying, ‘Well, this isn’t acting.'”

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