20th Century Fox
By now, you’ve hopefully seen one of the films in the new Planet of the Apes franchise, if not all of them. From Rise to Dawn and now War, Andy Serkis’ brilliant motion-capture performance as Caesar deserves to be recognized by the Academy.
Personally, I was blown away by Serkis’ performance in Matt Reeves’ trilogy-closer War for the Planet of the Apes, in which Caesar is now an older, more experienced leader who carries the weight of his tribe on his shoulders. His struggle to deal with the guilt he feels over Koba’s death in Dawn continues in this film as he faces off with a dangerously unbalanced military leader (Woody Harrelson) who’s assembling his forces in the north. Once again, Serkis delivers a layered, vulnerable and complex performance that is more than deserving of an Oscar nomination. Unfortunately, the Academy has yet to nominate any performance-capture actor, but the question is, could that change with the organization getting significantly younger and more diverse? Could this influx of new blood be open to more experimentation in terms of the vote?
First, let’s take a moment to educate ourselves, shall we? Motion capture — which encompasses performance capture, for the unitiated — is a surprisingly old process that was first developed by Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne-Jules Marey in the late 1800s to settle a bet about whether a horse’s four hooves ever leave the ground simultaneously during a full gallop. For our purposes, I will focus on a specific specialty of this technology called performance capture. It’s defined as “a type of acting in which an actor wears markers or sensors on a skintight bodysuit or directly on the skin.” While the actor performs the scene, multiple cameras from different angles simultaneously record the actor’s movements as well as the three-dimensional position of the sensors. This information is then fed into the computers which allows the filmmakers to create a “digital character” and place him or her in any setting.
Now that we know a bit more about the process, let’s explore the two main reasons why no performance capture actor’s work has ever been nominated. The first reason I’ve heard from my fellow actors over the years is that supporting this technology might render the Actor unnecessary in the future. This is rooted in the fear that validating this work will hasten the demise of the acting profession itself.
Marlon Brando was famously so worried about this that he had himself digitally rendered in 3D before his death so he could control his digital look on film in the future. The closest the Academy likely ever came to nominating a digitally-enhanced performance was Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The argument there was that he aged backwards into his younger human self from his older, digitally-created self.
20th Century Fox
In an interview with Wired in 2012, Serkis himself said that “Motion capture is a tool that allows actors to transform themselves into many different characters. You’re not confined by physicality. You can play anything.” Lupita Nyong’o as Maz Kanata in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Zoe Saldana’s work as Neytiri in Avatar, Benedict Cumberbatch as Smaug in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and even Kaarin Konoval’s work as Maurice in the Apes movies are proof of this.
In Konoval’s case, it’s irrelevant that she’s a woman playing a male orangutan, because she portrays the character with depth, vulnerability and an engaging charm. Performance-capture technology allows actors to play anything, regardless of race or gender, and that limitless flexibility gives filmmakers more motivation to create extensive worlds. World-building requires the introduction of new creatures and other characters, and actors are needed to fill those roles, thus extending the life of the acting profession.
The second reason is rooted in the idea that visual effects artificially “enhance” an actor’s performance, and that removing the physical body somehow makes the acting less authentic or tangible. Voiceover actors have heard this argument for years, most recently during the Oscar campaign for Scarlett Johannsson’s exceptional work in Her, but I take exception to that because the foundation of performance-capture work IS the physical body of the actor.
I’ve been on set with actors doing performance capture and watched them work. They’re required to create a layered, nuanced performance that both connects with and moves the viewer, all while acting in front of green screens opposite tennis balls on poles. I’d argue that mo-cap work demands more of them emotionally, physically and mentally, because they are using their imagination to create the environment, establish relationships and set the scene. The visual effects exist to serve the physical performance, not “enhance” it.
In fact, the aid of a computer is really no different than the prosthetic make up John Hurt wore for his role in The Elephant Man, or Ralph Fiennes in The English Patient. The fact remains that Serkis’ best known mo-cap characters, Caesar and Gollum, have numerous genuine and affecting moments in their respective films because of the authenticity of his work as an actor, both physically and verbally.
20th Century Fox
Over the last few years, we have seen the Academy pilloried for being too white, too old and too male. But they are taking steps to change it, as the Academy is in the middle of a five-year diversity initiative known as A2020 that was championed by Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the African-American president of the organization. As recently as 2016, the demographics for the Academy voters were 91% white and 76% male, with their average age being 63 years old. These numbers are down from four years prior, but they’re not nearly where they should be.
While the Academy’s recent decision to revoke voting rights from inactive members led to cries of ageism, the truth is that the voting body needs to change with the times, even if progress is uncomfortable — and especially if it’s uncomfortable. No one said change would be easy, but it’ll be worth it if it means less stodgy groupthink and more diverse voices that might think outside the box and honor mo-cap performances such as Serkis’ stunning work in the new Apes movie.
We constantly strive for progress in our society and we rely on the youth to wake up our staid ways of thinking and being. You only need to look at how our views have changed on gay rights and diversity issues over the last few years to see the truth of this. Performance-capture technology has presented a whole new arena of performance methods and challenges, just as motion pictures did for theater actors. So it’s inevitable that as the Academy becomes younger and more diverse, and as performance-capture work becomes cheaper and more available, there will be a groundswell of appreciation for it. This will hopefully spur an industry-wide acceptance of its value, which will lead to award nominations, and maybe even little gold statues.
We have embraced all other forms of technology in film, so it’s time we started embracing performance capture work in greater numbers and honoring it on the acting side — beginning with Andy Serkis.
John Rocha is a host, actor and voiceover artist in LA. He currently hosts the Outlaw Nation and The Top 10 podcasts on the SK Plus channel and The Cine-Files podcast on iTunes. When he’s not doing that, he’s winning and losing belts as The Outlaw on the Movie Trivia Schmoedown. Feel free to send him a tweet or Instagram post at @TheRochaSays.