The Future Of Film: There’ll Be An Oscar For Performance Capture

And the Academy Award goes to...

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In Hollywood at least, the jury is still out on whether performance capture should qualify as acting, or a combination of VFX and animation. As early as 2002, after astonishment at Andy Serkis’s deeply committed realisation of schizoid mutant hobbit Gollum in The Two Towers, there were calls for the trailblazing actor to receive a Best Supporting nomination from the Academy. He didn’t; the film won a deserved Oscar for Best Visual Effects. In other quarters – not least the reader-voted Empire Awards and a few critics’ bodies – Serkis has received numerous acting nominations and gongs for performance-captured roles, including King Kong and Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes’ Caesar. The Academy, however, can’t quite see it.

In one sense, you can’t blame them. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles didn’t help the cause. Two of its performers (Danny Woodburn and Pete Ploszek) had their characters revoiced, and its VFX supervisor Pablo Helman openly located the characters’ creation somewhere beyond the process of performance. “You discover the characters as you create them,” he told Empire. “They’re the actors, but also not really, once you put them into their digital asset.”

Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes

Andy Serkis filming Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes with director Matt Reeves.

However, Serkis doesn’t delineate between ‘regular’ performance and captured performance. “I never have,” he says. “I am playing a character in a movie which has a different set of cameras filming me in order to achieve the aesthetic. That’s the difference. That’s all it is.” He doesn’t deny, though, that there is a process of enhancement, of tweaking, of adapting an actor’s work when they do performance capture. Far from it.

IT SEEMS ESPECIALLY ODD THAT, FOR EXAMPLE, JOHN HURT COULD RECEIVE A BEST ACTOR OSCAR NOMINATION FOR PLAYING JOHN MERRICK IN THE ELEPHANT MAN, WHEREAS SERKIS DIDN’T FOR TWO TOWERS.“The cut of the movie and the selects that the director makes to put into that cut is where the authorship lies — just as it is with a live-action movie,” he explains. “And that’s as much input as you can have into the thing as an actor. You don’t have any choice, whether it’s music or sound or lights or choice of angles or whatever. It’s not an actor’s medium, film. It’s a director’s medium. So all our performances are enhanced in some way, shape or form. The only difference is putting a costume on beforehand, or putting costume and make-up on [digitally] afterwards.”

This is perhaps the best response yet to those who claim that performance capture shouldn’t qualify as ‘acting’ because you can’t tell where the acting ends and the visual effects begin. And in the light of this, it seems especially odd that, for example, John Hurt could receive a Best Actor Oscar nomination for playing John Merrick in The Elephant Man, whereas Serkis didn’t for Two Towers (or Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes) when you’re physically seeing the same amount of each performer in each role. Hurt was entirely smothered on-camera in prosthetic make-up; Serkis in post by what are effectively digital prosthetics. Other craftsmen (primarily make-up creator Christopher Tucker) were instrumental in creating Merrick’s look for The Elephant Man, just as Weta Digital was instrumental in creating Gollum and Caesar.


Performance capture game-changer: Andy Serkis' Gollum.

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES' CHARACTER FELT SO MUCH MORE REAL AND NATURAL TO ANYTHING WE’D SEEN BEFORE THAT AUDIENCES IN A WAY STOPPED SEEING THE VISUAL EFFECTS.Even so, there is a strong sense that things are finally, gradually changing. Serkis has long been at the vanguard of defending performance capture as an artistic process rather than a technical trick, and his arguments are sinking in. And, in a strange, inverse way, the technological advances also help massively. Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes showed that motion capture can be made to work on external locations, while also pushing facial-performance interpolation to astonishing new levels. As such, its ape characters felt so much more real and natural to anything we’d seen before that audiences in a way stopped seeing the visual effects. To a greater degree than ever before, those astute performances — from the likes of Toby Kebbell and Karin Konoval as well as Serkis — shone out. And it will not be long before we see further advances, in the likes of Warcraft (also starring Kebbell in a motion-capture performance, this time as an orc), the Avatar sequels and, of course, director Matt Reeves’ next Apes film.

So it is not inconceivable that we’ll see a shift in the way the Academy views this new kind of artistic/technical collaboration. If not as far as including performance capture in the main acting categories, then perhaps seeing it as a category in itself. With so many studios and filmmakers embracing it now, it’s not like Hollywood’s esteemed voters will be stuck for choice.


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