The notion that a chimpanzee could win an Academy Award for acting (or anything else) seems farcical at first glance but, of course, it’s not an actual chimpanzee being discussed in the case of the latest role by Andy Serkis.
Rather, it’s an incredibly sophisticated amalgam of the actor and the very latest computational visualisation techniques from Weta Digital.
Serkis’ performance as Caesar, the leader of the fledgling ape society in the recently-released Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) once again has Hollywood commentators pondering the possibility of an Oscar nod for a synthespian – a synthetic thespian or virtual actor – but this is far from the first time this question has been raised.
Andy Serkis has been behind some of the most memorable cinematic faces of the last decade, but it’s not quite his face. Rather, Serkis has held pioneering roles utilising performance capture technology.
Performance capture features the real-time recording and digitisation of an actor’s movements, which are then used to drive a complex digital model.
With the digital powerhouse of Weta Digital behind him, Serkis’ performances have driven Gollum from The Lord of the Rings (2001, 2002, 2003) (and now The Hobbit - 2012, 2013, 2014) films, the titular ape in Peter Jackson’s King Kong (2005), and the role of Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) and the new sequel, Dawn.
For many, the question of where the acting ends and the computer-generated imagery begins, undermines the authenticity of a performance captured role as a performance, but no performance exists in a vacuum. Every actor’s appearance is constructed through costume, make-up and lighting, their dialogue taken from a script, the eventual role on screen painstakingly led by a director, and carefully filtered and refined during the editing process.
Performance capture is similar in many ways, but with the additional digital processing to translate the motion and facial expressions of an actor onto an often non-human character.
In a brief promotional featurette, Serkis explains how the performance capture technology has developed, with scenes now able to be shot outdoors where once they had to be on a soundstage against a green screen.
Most significantly though, for Serkis, is the fidelity with which the performance capture cameras and software can directly map an actors’ face and performance onto the digital character they are playing.
And given that technology has always been part of acting, the authenticity of performance captured roles speaks to the symbiotic relationship between fleshy, embodied actors and the informatic machines that enhance and facilitate those performances.
Early industry fears that synthespians might replace “real” actors reveals an insecurity about the relationship between people and technology. If a character can simply be created by a computer, the millions of dollars spent on A-list stars might just seem a little unnecessary.
The reality of performance capture, though, shows the opposite to be true: its takes a huge team to bring a single performance capture character to screen, with the actor remaining integral, filmed in excruciating detail, but also then combining software engineers, digital artists, and a range of other digital effects personnel to keep the best of the performance and use it to drive a state-of-the-art digital model.
Yet every director and crew who have worked with Serkis since his days as Gollum, as well as Serkis himself, have spent over a decade arguing for the legitimacy of performance capture as “real” acting.
After the pivotal role of Serkis in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), New Line Cinema and director Peter Jackson led the first attempt to get a role driven by performance capture acknowledged at the Academy Awards.
In his first outing as Caesar, Serkis was widely applauded, with 20th Century Fox mounting a campaign for a best actor nomination. Co-star James Franco was particularly vocal in arguing that Serkis’ performance was integral to the character, worthy of critical attention and praise.
And with the success of Dawn, the director and co-stars are once again lining up to applaud Serkis’ performance.
In terms of literally performing animals, Serkis and the team playing the various apes in the film do a remarkable job in evoking empathy without sacrificing the specificities of chimpanzees and other apes.
It is noteworthy that Rise received a specific commendation from PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) about the way animals were portrayed and filmed. Having a human actor behind the animal performances not only guarantees no animals will be harmed on set, but at a deeper level also begs the question about the relationships between humans and animals.
Such questions are at the heart of Dawn, wherein the similarities between apes and humans drive the plot rather than intrinsic differences.
Andy Serkis’ role as Caesar is central to Dawn, and as numerous online features emphasise, this is his acting, and his performance. Whether this is the year that such a digital performance is captured by the Oscars or not remains to be seen.