Welcome to the final installment of our multi-part saga on the art of motion capture performances. Over the past few days, we’ve been exploring the subtleties of this nascent art form, with a special focus on work done by Mr. Andy Serkis, and trying to determine what’s the best way to critically engage with it. At first, things seemed like an open and shut case: Serkis provides the creative acting and the animators transcribe it onto a digital character. Then, however, things got murkier. There are cases where you could definitely argue that creative character decisions are coming from the animators, and the issue of how heavily a performance is influenced by its surrounding accouterments is not a particularly cut-and-dried one. So with all of that in mind… is there anything that can help us parse out how we engage with and reward merit in these cases?
In certain ways, it feels tempting to turn away from animation to look for a different frame of reference with which to tackle this problem. Perhaps there’s something to be gained from films that have collaborative roles, characters that are played by more than one actor. Consider things like Luis Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire, where Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina together play the character of Conchita, the Heath Ledger-Johnny Depp-Colin Farrell-Jude Law tag team in The Imaginarium of Doctor Paranussus, or I’m Not There’s six-person, kaleidoscopic portrayal of Bob Dylan. We can appreciate the individual performances that each actor brings to the table, while always being aware that they are part of a larger depiction of a character that goes beyond just that performance.
This almost works, but the problem is that it’s a lot easier figure out what each person’s contribution is to the finished film in those cases. You can see where the Cate Blanchett ends and the Christian Bale begins in I’m Not There, but without a very thorough behind-the-scenes account you can’t know which parts of Gollum et al. came from Serkis and which came from the animators. The two halves are so interwoven that it’s hard to declare one side of it a great performance with any amount of confidence.
Heck, Serkis’s physicality is so subsumed within each of the roles that it’s almost impossible to track any kind of an acting style onto him beyond the technological baggage he carries from film to film. If the credits were removed from the movies, it would be impossible for all but the most Holmesian masters of body language to realize that the same actor plays Gollum, King Kong, Captain Haddock, and Caesar. Reaching that degree of unrecognizability has traditionally been considered one of the loftiest heights that actors can achieve, but the fact that it goes so far in these cases leaves us on a bit of uneven ground. Consider Roger Ebert’s take on this, from his review of Rise of the Planet of the Apes:
The movie has its pleasures (…) Caesar, to begin with, is a wonderfully executed character, a product of special effects and a motion-capture performance by Andy Serkis. One never knows exactly where the human ends and the effects begin, but Serkis and/or Caesar gives the best performance in the movie.
The performance praise gets moved towards the character and away from the actor. Perhaps this is why this question that has been met with so much controversy and debate, the reason why so many people have been unwilling to legitimize animated acting with the label of “great performances.” The digital and motion capture revolutions have opened a lot of exciting doors, but they’ve also, in their own way, reduced the perceived importance of the individual actor. It’s no accident that the “collaborative” performances that have been most easy to accept, like Robin Williams’s in Aladdin or Brad Pitt’s in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, are the ones that remain very tied to their actor’s physicality or recognizable persona. There’s a sense of, “Only this one person could have done this.” But Serkis’s performances are so chameleonic that they seem to work against his sense of individual indispensability. Is it completely insane to consider the idea of a not too distant future where a film producer, finding himself unable to afford Brad Pitt, instead hires Serkis to motion capture a performance for an identical, digital double of Pitt?
In the same Hero Complex interview we quoted in part two, Serkis was quoted as saying:
[Performance capture is] such a liberating tool. I am quite evangelical about it to other actors because I think it’s such a wonderful — it’s a magic suit you put on that allows you to play anything regardless of your size, your sex, your color, whatever you are. As long as you have the acting chops and the desire to get inside a character, you can play anything.
You can play anything regardless of your size, sex, color, and identity… Perhaps this is the true paradigm shift that Andy Serkis and his motion capture revolution are bringing about, a movement away from our focus on performers and towards an emphasis on performance, where an actor’s physical particulars no longer limit him from the acting jobs he is equipped to apply for. Unfortunately for him, the price of these advancements is that the individual actor’s contributions will get so tied up in such an intricate cinematic tapestry that they may no longer be readily identifiable.
Maybe the folks at Press Play and Roger Ebert are right, and these discussions may be the early signs that we are outgrowing the idea that there is a one to one ratio of characters to responsible parties. If that is truly the case, it is not without a sense of irony. Serkis’s work is opening up frontiers for thespians everywhere, enabling them to come into a brave new acting world, but it’s also reframing our appreciation of these performances so that our praise is going more towards the final, collaborative character than the original, germinal actor. Serkis may go down in history as the man who opened up a realm of possibility, but the price of that change may well be the recognition and credit that has gone hand-in-hand with live action acting for so long.