Where Does Andy Serkis End & Animation Begin?

Published 9 months ago by

Andy Serkis in motion capture make up Where Does Andy Serkis End & Animation Begin?

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.

Andy Serkis Gollum Effects Screen Where Does Andy Serkis End & Animation Begin?

“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].”

Matt Reeves Dawn of the Planet of the Apes set photo Where Does Andy Serkis End & Animation Begin?

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.

Next: Who really deserves an Academy Award for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes?

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  1. Yes absolutely they should be acknowledged in awards. Too bad there aren’t enough mo-cap performances in a year to get its own category.

  2. They shouldnt be awarded for best actor or supporting cause thousands of people add the depth and emotion to serkis performances. Lifetime achievement award? Absolutely, or even allow them to come up and accept any special effects awards. However if you watch the side by side video you can really see how much technology enhances the performance, from the visuals to the voice itself. Serkis is a capable actor in live action roles but he doesnt reach the standards set by his mo cap performances because everything he does is enhanced and altered.

    • I agree, would not be surprised when Serkis eventually receives a special achievement award from the academy.

  3. To answer, no motion capture should never be considered alongside actual screen performances by individual actors.

    Motion capture is a collaborative effort. Serkis provides the base to make the CGI movements more realistic. It’s the animators, designers etc who actually create and drive the performance.

    When we watch Scarface, the character, presence, impact of Tony Montana. It’s all created and driven by Pacino himself. The director instructs him on the scenes yes, but Pacino produces the performance himself in his own style.

    When we see Caesar, Gollum etc, there’s nothing there to indicate it’s Andy Serkis. It literally could be any actor providing the capture. Not to take anything away from Serkis but he is only the start of the performance. The animators complete the end product what we see on screen.

    If you want to make a motion capture award category then all good. But to compare it to real acting is an insult to actors themselves. Why not just CGI the whole cast instead if we’re going down that route.

    • I don’t know, man. Live-action performances are almost as collaborative as motion capture. You mentioned the director. The makeup, the lighting, camera angles… All play a part in how a performance ultimately comes across.

      One thing I’ve always hated is that many performances are often loved so much due to action sequences and the main actor gets all the credit when it’s the stunt people who do all the coolest work.

      SO MANY people deserve recognition!

  4. Like the article states a lot of this seems like it had been drummed up by websites and some animators who may or may not have even worked with Serkis on anything. This whole notion of who should receive credit for the end result of a performance that is a combination of motion capture and post animation seems foolish. If and when they ever decided that what Serkis and other actors do constitutes acting and/or performance it will still have no bearing on how much so-called credit the animators will ever get. The various award bodies do give awards that recognize the technical aspects of film, but the company as a whole is recognized and too be honest with the amount of animators who do work on these projects not many of them will ever be singled out for their individual work. It has never happened in traditional animation and I doubt it will start because the technology has changed.

    In the end all of the people involved in these films get paid to do something they presumably enjoy and had a passion for, so they should consider themselves lucky. Other people in other jobs get zero recognition for they do, they just have to be happy to get paid.

  5. Academy Award for acting to a mo-cap guy? That’s ridiculous. First of all, no one can recognize the actor behind a cgi character. For example, Maurice from Dawn, is actually a woman. Not a fat dude who resembles an organgutan. Second, it’s the cgi that makes the character look and express their acting as they do. The “actors” only do the movement. And also, there are lots of apes in the movie, and most of them aren’t mo-capped. They are pure CGI. No one can tell the difference aside from the lead roles, which of course, are a give-away only because they’re leads. You won’t tell the difference between a pure cgi ape and a mo-cap ape. In fact, most people in the world don’t know or can’t tell that the apes aren’t all CGI.

  6. if any awards happen – it should be a team accepting any acknowledgement – ie. performer and digital artist team leaders, etc
    as I’ve said before: new type of performance + new technology = new type of award – no reason to make it complicated

    and in reality these type of characters CAN still be created without the performers (or at minimum without the “name” talent) – anyone can put on the suit, move their arms around and make faces – even if they’re not “acting” and saying one word of dialogue and guess what the digital artists can still do their work and make it look exactly the same

    infact in CartoonBrew articles – they state that Andy Serkis was NOT even present when they filmed certain scenes of Gollum – they just got someone else to put on the suit and bingo bango – they created the scene they wanted – so does that mean Andy Serkis needs to share the acting credit ??

    what’s really new about Mo-cap performances is that “name talent” can now do all the physical stuff (like David Prowse did in Star Wars) and they can also do the voice work (like James Earl Jones did). heck if digital animators had a robot they could do all the physical movement on set and just animate that – take the actor out of the equation.

    if Andy Serkis or any other mo-cap actor was honest with themselves they would be happy to share the spotlight and any awards with the team of people who do all the post-production work. And personally I think there is a difference between doing an onset make up job for a few hours and a 6 month or longer post-prodcution digital effects job to ‘create” a character.

    • “And personally I think there is a difference between doing an onset make up job for a few hours and a 6 month or longer post-prodcution digital effects job to ‘create” a character.”

      So your personal estimation of the work practical effects artists is that it is somehow easier or less involved than digital post production, how is that any different from what people are accusing Serkis of doing by downgrading someones contribution to creating a finished product?

      And since you brought up the point of taking actors out of the equation then the digital effects artist would have to do more traditional animation and keystroke all of the movement themselves. Which in a way makes working with an actors prerecorded movements not the same as traditional animation or working with 3-D models. Does one deserve more credit than the other ?

      • re: on set make === no I’m not saying they don’t deserve recognition – far from it – they DEFINITELY deserve acknowledgement – but there’s certainly a difference between an actor with make up (you can tell the difference what an actor brings to a performance – Tim Roth in PotA remake – and what the fantastic make up job is.
        but there’s clearly a way to tell what is the actor and what is the make up

        but with mocap – clearly the effects team plays a much larger role in the final product – and realistically they can create the character without an actor – like I said – anyone can put on the suit and do the movement, body and face and allow the animators to do their work and it would probably be fairly identical to doing with with a “name actor” – the reason they get name actors now is because their also doing the voice work -or in Hulk’s case – Ruffallo is also playing the human character

        and as I stated in the beginning – these are new types of characters and yes deserve EQUAL recognition for the performer and the digital artists.

        • for example – on GotG were able to create Groot & Rocket Raccoon without Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper on set full time
          James Gunn’s brother is in the movie and plays both a human character and did some (may be a lot??) of the mo-cap work
          for at least one or more characters in the film – does that mean he played those roles ??? his name is certainly not in the press releases or posters – so shows you they don’t need “specific” actors for creating these characters

          doing mo-cap work (without also doing the voice work) is akin more to stunt work than it is to “acting”
          but if the performer (Andy Serkis or others) are doing both the mo-cap and the voice work then they’re “acting”
          clearly some performers can do it better – but if Andy Serkis got hurt – they’d probably just get another guy to do all the mo-cap and then Andy would do the voice work – would he then say the stunt guy was playing the role ??

          • I’m not sure you completely understand the type of performance capture used in the Apes movies, if you’re conflating it with Sean Gunn’s stand-in work on Guardians of the Galaxy. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes uses the performance capture technology that was created for Avatar in order to accurately capture the expressions of the actors along with their body language (hence the dots on their faces and boom-mounted head cam), whereas Sean Gunn’s work on Guardians was more along the lines of what Andy Serkis did in the Lord of the Rings trilogy over a decade ago.

            Compare the way that Reeves and Letteri talk about the Weta animators trying to translate the actors’ performances as closely as possible to the way James Gunn described the animation for Rocket:

            “Our Rocket is based on a combination of our voice actor, Bradley Cooper, our on-set actor, my brother Sean Gunn, the movements and behavior and look of Oreo [the raccoon], as well as my own animation.”

            Guardians of the Galaxy and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes are worlds apart in more ways than one.

            • no no I get it that there’s a difference in how they did it (for those specific movies)
              all I was pointing out is that mo-cap work (even when it’s the actors face) – can still be done with virtually any person – stunt actor or other wise – sure it may be a different performance -but the digital team will still be able to do what they do

              and if Andy Serkis got hurt – would they shut down production or would they just get another dude to fill in – would he then be sharing any credit ?? he’d probably want production to wait on him – but the reality is they wouldn’t have to

              and the end result should be shared credit and acknowledgement of performer and digital team – that’s all I’m saying – either way – no skin off my back

            • I”m not sure exactly what Sean Gunn did on the GotG – re: the mocap – but I don’t think it would be considered stand-in work (in the literal sense) – when a performer is doing work for the main unit (ie. working with main director) – that’s considered principal work (not stand in work)

              the difference he’s not getting major top line credit for his “performance” is because he is not also doing the voice for the the two lead digital characters – and in reality the real life raccoon is probably the performer they got much of the motion off and also same with the face – I would guess piece by piece and then they manipulated it however needed when mixed with Bradley Cooper’s facial movements when he was reading his lines.

          • I agree that in theory anybody could be behind the mo-capped digital make-up. But I also think it’s a talent that shouldn’t be ignored. I am sure some people must have been rejected during the casting because they couldn’t move like an ape. It’ll just be extra work for the animators/digital make-up artists, if they have to do a lot of post-editing of the movements as opposed to the actor just nailing it. And we shouldn’t ignore that workload. After all, the whole reason we’re using mo-cap is that it saves time and provides more realistic movements.

  7. Honestly, the Academy is a joke if you ask me. Who cares what a bunch of old farts who probably saw Moses part the Red Sea think?

    At the end of the day we and the actors themselves now how amazing they are and to me that’s all that matters. Not what a bunch of snobby, wrinkly, old farts who’s heads are so far up their *ssess they won’t give credit where it’s did.

    • Amen to that!
      I think everyone over-estimates the importance of the Academy. There are so many great films that the Academy turned their noses up at just because they weren’t ‘artsy’ movies. Anything with a decent-sized budget is going to get snubbed by the Academy, DOTPOTA sadly included.

  8. Too little, too late.

  9. Motion Capture work seems far more akin to voice-acting work than it does to traditional performance and voice-acting isn’t usually evaluated in the same way. As impressive as Robin Williams might be in Aladdin, for example, the reason the character works is because the animators designed and drew a character that fit his voice perfectly. It’s the same with motion-capture and it seems to me its impossible to completely separate the effects work from the performance.

    However, in both the case of animation and motion capture visual effects I ultimately think its the animators that are more important. If the goal is to create a character that looks like a genie or an ape, it’s the animators that have the ultimate responsibility for making the final product look believable on the screen.

  10. Considering what we reward with an acting award, here’s THE CASE AGAINST ANDY SERKIS…


    • That’s actually a really good article.

  11. Too much relies on digital effects, no awards should be given

  12. When one considers the amount of manipulation in all aspects that goes into what some might call real live performances by real live actors (e.g., directorial influence, scripting, multiple takes, film editing, makeup and prosthetics, costuming, stunt doubles, ADR work which sometimes doesn’t involve the actual actors, sound design and modification, outright digital manipulation of video to affect the appearance of those live actors onscreen), some of which many folks may not even be aware of, then it seems far, far less of a stretch to consider Serkis for an acting award.

    • It’s a good point.

      I was for example flabbergasted when I saw how bad a guy like the Academy Award-winning Sir Ben Kingsley could be in Uwe Boll’s Bloodrayne. Or for that matter a guy like Michael Madsen who is always cool when directed by Quentin Tarantino.

  13. I think the academy should at least come out with a new category just for Andy Serkis, if they don’t want to consider him for the best actor award.

  14. Until mo-cap is used wildly enough that there’s multiple performers and effects houses involved for it to have it’s own outright category and it’s not just Andy and Weta in Film A, with Andy and Weta in Film B etc. then it should be considered in the visual effect categories.

    As for who goes up, once the Academy has chosen a winning performance they should then go back and choose a winning SCENE. Then the mo-cap performer and lead animator for that scene should get a statue.

  15. The guy is a legend.

    I know the technology has been developed by others but it is Serkis who seems to have done more to maximise the potential and raise the bar on the possibilities.

    Recognition by ones peers is important and Andy Serkis is overdue the honours he more than deserves.

  16. I couldnt tell the difference in performance levels from one mo-cap actor to the next in this movie, they were all good renditions of psuedo sfx apes. Serkis didnt stand out performance wise but he was the intended focus.

  17. There is more recent article about this in Cartoon Brew


  18. I think awards shows should consist of people in the industry coming together to thank US, the paying public. They should give awards to the people who spent the most money in a year on movie tickets, to those people who religiously follow movie news on websites, to people who “like” movies on Facebook, to all those crazy fans who camp out overnight to see certain movies, etc. It should be one big lovefest from them to us!

  19. 2 days and only 30 comments, mostly against it.

    Pretty much no one cares unless you actually have to get you’re butt out there and participate on par with your colleagues.

  20. I would really like to see him nominated for best actor but there would be a whole lot less drama if they just came up with a new award. Andy Serkis deserves the oscar nod (maybe even the win in my opinion) but the year isn’t over. Plus if they just came up with a motion capture award then there would a whole lot less arguing.