There are plenty of unsung heroes who go under-appreciated when the praise for a great film starts rolling in; crews handling big-budget productions can run into the thousands, but there’s no Academy Award for Best Gaffer, Best Second Assistant Director, or Best Best Boy. While it’s common knowledge that filmmaking is a collaborative art, the question of how credit should be distributed has become even more complicated in recent years, with groundbreaking performance capture technology blurring the lines between the actor and the animation.
One person who has felt the keen edge of this debate more than most is Dawn of the Planet of the Apes star Andy Serkis, the unofficial poster boy for motion capture acting who hasn’t been shy about his belief that mocap performers deserve to be considered alongside their fellow actors when it comes to recognition – including the Academy Awards.
In 2011 Serkis co-founded a performance capture studio himself – dubbed The Imaginarium – and has long been passionate in his belief that the new technology will help to enable entirely new ways of filmmaking.
It’s not all sunshine and lollipops, however. Serkis came under fire for his comments earlier this year in an article published by Cartoon Brew with the shamelessly inflammatory headline, “Andy Serkis Does Everything, Animators Do Nothing, Says Andy Serkis.” In case it’s not immediately obvious, Serkis never actually said anything of the sort.
Here is his actual statement, taken from an interview with io9.
“The technology has evolved in the sense that it’s become more transparent. You don’t really realize that it’s there at all anymore. And even more importantly, the perception has changed — the use of the authored performance is much more respected.
“Weta Digital, whom I’ve worked with on [a lot] of those projects… have now schooled their animators to honor the performances that are given by the actors on set. And the teams of people who understand that way of working now are established. And that’s something that has really changed. It’s a given that they absolutely copy [the performance] to the letter, to the point in effect what they are doing is painting digital make-up onto actors’ performances. It’s that understanding which has changed as much as anything.”
There was particular umbrage taken with Serkis’ frequent use of the term “digital make-up” to describe the animation of motion capture performances, though this is problematic for a couple of reasons. First of all, treating the term “make-up” like an insult is, in itself, offensive to practical make-up artists. Secondly, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes director Matt Reeves (one talent squarely in Serkis’ court) recently revealed in an interview with /Film that the term “digital make-up” was actually coined by the Weta Digital team that worked on Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – not by Serkis.
In an interview with Screen Rant, Reeves expressed the opinion that both the actors and the animators are absolutely vital when it comes to creating the apes that we see on screen: “You can’t have Caesar or Koba without Weta. It doesn’t exist. They create that. But you don’t have the heart and soul of those characters without Andy and Toby [Kebbell].”
It’s easy to see why Serkis might become a target for the frustrations of under-appreciated animators and visual effects artists. He appears on talk shows, has been interviewed by countless websites and magazines, and was recently praised by Rolling Stone as “The King of Post-Human Acting” – a reality that was only made possible by tireless animators. Resentment is a natural response, meaning Serkis will come under fire any time that the efforts of Weta’s visual effects team are perceived as diminished.
Dawn‘s special effects supervisor Joe Letteri has weighed in on the issue of acting vs. animation – and specifically who should end up on the stage in the event of an Oscar win. Speaking in an interview with Collider, Letteri pointed to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ uncertainty on the issue of whether to honor motion capture performances as live action performances or ignore them completely, as is the policy with voice-over performances in animated films:
“It’s a tough question, because obviously Andy gives you the heart and soul of the performance, but we also come at it with creating what you see on top of it. So there’s this hybrid and I think that the Academy… is not quite clear how to honor that combination, because this a new thing where you can take the performance and separate it from the visual image of what you see, but then it all has to come back together again as though they were one and the same to start with.”
In the same interview, visual effects supervisor Dan Lemmon stated that what we see in the screen is “a performance driven by actors.” As many have pointed out however, a performance driven by an actor may not be exactly the same as a solo acting performance. And the Academy isn’t the only group confused by the combination.
The concept of performance being a collaborative process is not unique to motion capture roles: ultimately any on-screen performance is shaped by the director, the editor, the cinematographer, the make-up department, the costume department, and many more members of the production and post-production crew. In an action movie like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Serkis isn’t alone in being absent from his character’s actions; for example, human lead Jason Clarke had multiple stunt doubles.
From an outsider’s perspective, it’s honestly difficult to gauge the ratio of actor-to-animator input that ends up in the final cut of a film. Twentieth Century Fox has released featurettes showing side-by-side comparisons of actors and their ape counterparts, reflecting Serkis, Letteri and Reeves’ statements that animators try to translate the original performance as closely as possible. These snippets only represent a tiny fraction of the film’s total running time, however, and skeptics will be able to claim they have been cherry-picked.
One of the main problems with the whole controversy is that the charge against Serkis has been led by animators who don’t work for Weta, and claim offense on behalf of the people who do. Serkis, Reeves and Letteri have all indicated that Weta now has a very unique, very specific approach geared towards honoring the actors as much as possible. If that’s the case, then it’s possible Weta’s visual effects team might actually concur with Serkis’ statement.
Without hearing from those people at the heart of the process, this conversation is missing a very important voice. Screen Rant tried reaching out to some of the Weta crew that worked on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in order to get their perspective on the issue, but it quickly became clear that the team’s hands are tied by strict NDAs, preventing them from speaking in detail about the processes that they use. One Weta animator did tell us, however, that “in the end… the final motions of the character are the way they are because of the director, not Andy Serkis or the animators.”
With awards categories now struggling to keep up with the pace of filmmaking technology, the question of who most deserves to be on the stage to collect an Oscar for a motion capture performance remains a difficult one. At the end of the day, however, the amount of available space behind the podium isn’t exactly limited. You could probably fit more than one person on the stage.
Of course, the entire debate may prove moot given the Academy’s overall reluctance to honor science fiction movies (or other genre films) outside of technical categories. Rise of the Planet of the Apes only received one nomination out of the 2012 Academy Awards for Best Achievement in Visual Effects (the win went to Martin Scorsese’s Hugo).
For anyone who feels troubled by the way that actors are thrust into the spotlight while crew are left in the shadows, you can at least take comfort in the fact that, for now, the animators behind the Apes movies have actually received more Oscar recognition than Andy Serkis ever has.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is out in theaters now.