Saturday, 19 July 2014

Why Andy Serkis deserves an Oscar nomination for Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes

It's the 1969 Academy Awards, and Walter Matthau and a tuxedo wearing chimp present John Chambers with an honorary Oscar for his work on Planet Of The Apes (1968). Viewed in retrospect it's one of the more surreal presentations in the ceremony's history, but this was something of a landmark event for the industry. It was only the second time the Academy had dished out a prize to make-up artists – William J Tuttle won previously for 7 Faces Of Dr Lao (1964) – and it highlighted the growing importance of Hollywood's backstage creative artists.

Fast forward 45 years and prosthetics are giving way to pixels – for characters that require a complexity of movement and expression, performance capture technology gives a director the scope to execute their vision by marrying an actor's performance with visual effects. In its basic form, the actor wears a bodysuit that's wired up to a computer. All their movements (and facial expressions with the help of mini cameras and tracking dots) are recorded and translated to 0s and 1s to allow visual effects artists to build up a fully-rendered character for the final image.

Robert Zemeckis employed this technique in three back-to-back productions, The Polar Express (2004), Beowulf (2007) and A Christmas Carol (2009), while James Cameron famously used the technology to bring the Na'vi to life in Avatar (2009). However, if anyone is to be the poster boy for this technology, then it's surely Andy Serkis. After initially CG animating Gollum for Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring (2001), director Peter Jackson turned to Serkis and performance capture to bring the character to life in both Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers (2003) and Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King (2003).

Clad in an unflattering bodysuit, Serkis gave the cast an on-set performance to play off against – there were no tennis balls on sticks here, the interactions felt genuine. For Jackson and VFX team Weta Digital, Serkis' performance could be fed into a computer in real-time and handed a rudimentary Gollum 'skin', which gave the filmmakers a grasp on how the completed scene would look on screen.

In the 15 years since the Lord Of The Rings trilogy, the technology has accelerated at lightning pace with Serkis the man behind King Kong (2005), Captain Haddock in The Adventures Of Tintin (2011) and Caesar in the Planet Of The Apes series reboot Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes (2011). It's the latter that seems to represent a watershed moment for the technology.

During the promotional rounds for Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, there were calls for Serkis to get recognised during awards season for his contribution to the movie. That drum is set to beat loudly again with the release of Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, a sequel that boasts another outstanding turn by Serkis and excellent work from Toby Kebbell (War Horse) as duplicitous ape Koba.

Both men may have delivered their performances with the aid of performance capture, but we're a long way from the uncanny valley effect that plagued the medium in its earlier years. Dawn starts and ends with a close-up on Caesar's face – for the first time it feels like there's a soul lurking behind a digital character's eyes. In the two hours between these bookends we're taken on an incredible and surprisingly emotional rollercoaster with Caesar and his apes forging a connection with the human cast, and in turn us the viewer. The film works because Serkis and the visual effects artists have reached a point where they can dovetail in perfect unison. There are moments watching Dawn when you can truly see Serkis through his ape avatar.

Serkis has found himself largely ignored by the mainstream awards circuit and after witnessing his performance in Dawn it feels like this has the potential to be a tipping point. Perhaps the industry is still uncomfortable with the foggy lines between actor and visual effects artists? If so this is something that needs to change or, at the very least, get rethought. In the grand scheme of things awards don't really matter – a performer's work will stand the test of time regardless of whether they have a dazzling shelf full of trophies – but an Oscar nod for performance capture-driven acting would be a significant acknowledgement.

"I think he's one of the best actors I've ever worked with," Dawn director Matt Reeves told Digital Spy when asked about Serkis. "I think he's amazing. If you're responding emotionally to Caesar, then you're responding emotionally to Andy because he's giving that performance."

Reeves isn't wrong. People are responding to the film, and pretty much every Dawn review you'll read is lavishing praise on Serkis.

An endorsement of Andy Serkis in the Best Supporting Actor category should in no way be seen as diminishing the work of the VFX artists – Serkis himself would probably be the first to acknowledge the importance of their contribution. However, there's a history of actors under heavy make-up regularly taking home Oscars – Nicole Kidman in The Hours (2002), Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight (2008) and Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady (2011) – so where's the love for Serkis?

The Academy came under fire for ignoring makeup artist Christopher Tucker's work with John Hurt on The Elephant Man (1980), which was ultimately the final straw in forcing through a Best Make-Up category permanently. Hurt himself won an Oscar nomination for playing John Merrick, and there's probably a lively debate to be had about the merits of acting versus outside assistance for both Hurt and Serkis. It should be noted, however, that there's been a sole Oscar category for Best Visual Effects since 1963 – these 'behind the scenes' magicians aren't getting ignored.

"It's all to do with performance," Serkis recently told The Daily Telegraph. "Caesar and all the other computer-generated characters I have ever played are driven by one thing, and that is acting. Audiences want to be moved by acting, not by a visual effect.

"The reason the audience feels what it does towards these characters is purely, I believe, because of performance."

"Acting is acting and visual effects are visual effects and it's a marriage, but the authorship of performance – everything you watch on screen that you feel and think about a character – comes from the actor."

Serkis is pretty much the sole practitioner of the performance capture form, so any specific Oscar category (or 'assisted performance' strand) seems redundant right now. That may change in the future, but for now wouldn't it be something to see him recognised by his acting peers?

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