In yesterday’s post, I talked a little bit about cinematic performances and how we perceive them as an audience. Generally speaking, we tend to think of performances in live action films as mainly coming from the actors, while in animation we err on the side of treating them as a collective achievement. Recently, however, we’ve been getting some film performances that blur these lines. Where does work like Andy Serkis’s motion capture performances for films like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes fit in this binary? Do we think of Serkis as the primary author of this work?
If you ask a lot of people, Mr. Serkis included, the answer is, “Yes, of course! Duh!” Characters like Gollum or Caesar are the results of Serkis’s actions being translated into a digital model that mimics him with a high degree of accuracy. Even if it’s not him up on the screen, what we’re seeing are his movements, his expressions, and, therefore, his performance. It’s not just that Serkis was present on the set of Lord of the Rings carrying out all of the actions and emotions that Gollum goes through (or, for that matter, that costars Elijah Wood and Sean Astin’s performances incorporate reactions to Serkis’s on-set performance). It’s that his presence becomes a kind of digital dictation for what the computer-generated character ought to be doing. You can trace that character back to a specific, one-person source, and that’s Andy Serkis.
And, it’s true, not everything that the digital character does in the film is carried out by motion capture performer on the set. When King Kong climbs up to the top of the Empire State Building, that was not captured off of a direct physical action. But, just like a stunt double would be made to look like a star performer and model his or her movements to create an illusion of character continuity, the animators would still be working off of their familiarity with the motion capture actor’s physicality. Even if they don’t execute 100% of the actions, the actor’s physical performance is what sets the parameters for the animated character.
Going back to the terms that we talked about at the start of this piece, if you look at the way in which Serkis has talked about the role animators have played in these films, it seems that he thinks of them as being in that supporting network capacity. In this interview on the advancement of motion capture technology from i09, Serkis says:
[Weta digital] have now schooled their animators to honor the performances that are given by the actors on set. […] 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 makeup onto actors’ performances. It’s that understanding which has changed as much as anything.
Serkis’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes director, Matt Reeves, weighed in on the issue in a recent interview with Hollywood Elsewhere. Speaking to the breakdown of who deserves credit for what pieces of the jigsaw puzzle, Reeves said:
What Weta does is, they translate what Andy does onto an anatomy of an ape…the WETA guys have to translate what is in Andy’s eyes…what Weta is doing is equally fantastic, but in a different category. This is not done without artistry but their artistry is in taking Andy’s performance and translating it into an ape…so ‘translated’ is the term, but it’s no easy task.
This is a particularly articulate and balanced take on the debate. Rather than get lost in the minutiae of who deserves credit for the character, Reeves simply splits it into two separate, highly sophisticated tasks that are handled by two different entities. One side handles the complicated task of creating a believable character with a rich dynamic range and recognizable emotions (that’s Serkis) and another takes on the complex mission of translating all of that from one anatomy into another. Neither is muscling in on the other’s accomplishment, it’s just a matter of different departments carrying different kinds of work. One is an acting triumph, the other a technical one.
Serkis has also spoken out against the idea of any kind of special award or Oscar category being created to honor his work, the rationale being that it would, in a way, ghettoize his craft. In his own words from a Hero Complex interview:
Over the years, people have asked me, “Do you think there should be a separate category for acting in the digital realm? Or hybrid sort of awards for digital characters?” and so on. And I’ve always really maintained that I don’t believe so. I think it should be considered acting, because it is. My part in it, what I do, as say the authorship of the role, the creation, the emotional content of the role, the physicality up until the point of delivering that for the director, it is acting.
For him, it’s really not a difficult question. The animation is all based on his movements, his expressions, his performance, his acting. Case closed.
Only… there are a lot of people who say no, case definitely not closed. And a lot of those people are the animators Serkis is working with, many of whom are not happy with the implication that all of the character decisions are coming straight from the actor.
For their perspective on all these matters, join us again tomorrow.