On the “danger” of Andy Serkis

Posted by · 6:42 pm · August 13th, 2011

I suppose some might put it down to the fact that I didn’t find the film as spirit-lifting as many critics did, but I have a hard time signing the blogosphere’s imaginary petition for Andy Serkis to get a Best Supporting Actor nomination for “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.”

It’s not that I don’t admire Serkis’s expertise, or accept motion-capture performance as a valid and exciting discipline. Nor am I a physical purist in terms of what constitutes award-level acting. Not two years ago, I happily included James Gandolfini on my hypothetical Oscar ballot for “Where the Wild Things Are,” and I have no beef with the 2001 BAFTA nomination handed to Eddie Murphy in “Shrek.” An actor’s face may be his foremost tool, but if he can affect audiences without it, then more power to him.

I will admit, however, to some uncertainty as to the border between Serkis’s contribution and that of the FX team; whereas I can locate and identify the limitations of Gandolfini’s work, much of the critical praise for Serkis’s Caesar hinges on a undeniable expressiveness that has nonetheless been enhanced beyond the actor’s own means.

Luckily, this winds up as a moot point for me, given that I don’t find either the character or the interpretation of Caesar — however impressive — sufficiently rich or layered to merit consideration as one of the year’s best performances, be it the product of unfathomable technical wizardry or a man in a monkey suit. (Compared to Serkis’s Gollum from the “Lord of the Rings” films, for example, Caesar is a pretty thin creation; meanwhile, the critics marvelling at how the film’s impressive rendition of Caesar dwarfs the film’s human performances are promoting a false dichotomy when the humans in question are as flatly written as James Franco and Freida Pinto. The Golden Gate Bridge out-acted them too.)

An Oscar for motion-capture acting may be an interesting story to chase, but I have yet to see an individual performance that fires my interest in it beyond the theoretical. I rather wish Serkis’s cheerleaders had been as vocal when he delivered a less groundbreaking but considerably more exciting in-the-flesh turn as Ian Dury in “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll,” but that wouldn’t have afforded them the opportunity to claim high ground in the Brave New World stakes. I can’t help suspecting that many of those pre-emptively bashing the Academy for their conservatism in this matter like the idea of Serkis’s “Apes” performance even more than they like the performance itself.

One word I wouldn’t use to describe Serkis’s work — and not only because I’m not a working actor — is “dangerous”: until someone decides that motion capture technology is a necessary expense for non-fantastical, character-driven drama (hey, check out those digitally rendered scowls in “Winter’s Bone!”), I don’t see how the innovation narrows the scope of an average actor’s career as much as it extends it:

One man who disagrees, however, is veteran critic and performance essayist David Thomson: in a recent essay for The Guardian, he admires the process behind Serkis’s characterization, while also describing it rather vaguely as a “grave warning”:

Serkis has said he finds no difference between performance-capture and acting. We should take this as a grave warning. Pioneers are often innocent opportunists, yet sometimes they sense a new nature in the world. So it’s worth stressing that Serkis can be a brilliant and disturbing actor with no more technology on his side than film, a camera and a good part…¬†We may not see such miniature work again, and no one will dispute the right of a once-harried actor to find comfort and splendour. But the pioneering that Serkis leads is more important, and every bit as dangerous, as far-fetched lab experiments with chimpanzees.

It’s a sketchily thought piece — at no point does Thomson suggest what he thinks the consequences of this imagined danger could be, or how it might pertain to actors less practised in the process than Serkis — and I don’t share his belief that an Oscar nomination for Serkis is anything close to likely. (Thomson has never been the most astute of awards pundits.) Indeed, his own piece rather points to why it isn’t: Thomson may not be an AMPAS voter, but his concern couldn’t be a more textbook illustration of the resistance many industry folk (particularly those of more advanced years) might feel to the idea of out-of-body performance.

[Photo: 20th Century Fox]

→ 19 Comments Tags: , , | Filed in: Daily

19 responses so far

  • 1 8-13-2011 at 7:00 pm

    Chad Hartigan said...

    Agree 100%, Guy. And I laughed out loud at the Golden Gate Bridge joke.

  • 2 8-13-2011 at 7:05 pm

    JJ1 said...

    Serkis was phenomenal as Gollum. But I just don’t see what was so amazing about Caesar. I give Serkis credit where it is due. But I just don’t think any kind of normal nomination is warranted, here.

  • 3 8-13-2011 at 7:10 pm

    Will said...

    Agree on all fronts.

  • 4 8-13-2011 at 7:18 pm

    John G said...

    If I remember right, Kris was not a big Lord of the Rings fan. What do you think about those films, Guy?

  • 5 8-13-2011 at 7:28 pm

    She said...

    You said it! He wouldn’t get noticed in live action, yet everyone is supposed to believe he is the motion capture equivalent of Meryl Streep. Oh pleeze! That’s the kind of job that’s in the shadows for a reason. Not that it isn’t important, but really… it isn’t important. ; )

  • 6 8-13-2011 at 8:09 pm

    George said...

    All this talk is so silly. I agree with you. To run around wearing a light suit is different than facing a camera with your own face. They should have given the original Frankenstein an Oscar, he was better than any of these motion capture people.

  • 7 8-13-2011 at 9:33 pm

    kel said...

    If he’s the Mo-Cap equivalent of Meryl Streep, then he’ll have to wait a few more centuries to win an Oscar..

  • 8 8-14-2011 at 12:10 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Kel: Yes, so many centuries that fans will forget the two Oscars he already has.

    John G: I’ve never been a devotee, personally, though I think the trilogy is an impressive achievement in many respects — and I’m not sure how much better most filmmakers could have realised the material. I look at how much joy they’ve given Tolkien buffs like my dad, and I can gladly admit that they work. (I thought The Two Towers was the most satisfying of the three; The Return of the King by some margin the weakest.)

  • 9 8-14-2011 at 6:12 am

    JJ1 said...

    Two Towers is also my favorite. And Return is also my least. That said, I love the trilogy. I know that TT is seen as the bastard of the 3, so to speak. And yet, more & more, I see people online citing it as their fave, as well. I think I just love Rohan, & the battle at Helm’s Deep.

  • 10 8-14-2011 at 10:06 am

    Maxim said...

    Two Towers is *by far* my favorite LOTR film too.

  • 11 8-14-2011 at 10:08 am

    Al said...


  • 12 8-14-2011 at 10:10 am

    Maxim said...

    As for Serkis, sure his performance was altered but I could tell by the bts footage that he was emoting even better than his character. I would be a-ok with his being recognized.

  • 13 8-14-2011 at 12:20 pm

    Fitz said...

    Talk about hyperbole. Why is Thomson suggesting that motion-capture is as dangerous as genetic testing of apes?

    It’s a good performance. If I had a ballot though I would have picked ‘Kong’ for Serkis to be recognized.


  • 14 8-14-2011 at 2:13 pm

    Rashad said...

    Do people like Two Towers more for the action and Gollum? I think it’s very good and I rate on part with the first, but the Fellowship is the more complete film. I also think the forest fight there is by far the best battle. Return is certainly the weakest.

  • 15 8-14-2011 at 5:02 pm

    JJ1 said...

    For me, for TT, it’s a little of everything. I loved Gollum, Rohan, Gandalf the White, Helm’s Deep, etc.. I also loved the more ‘complete’ Fellowship, as well; as mentioned above. Return is not quite on the others level, to me.

  • 16 8-14-2011 at 8:35 pm

    tintin said...

    Return is amazingggggg!!!

  • 17 8-15-2011 at 7:49 pm

    half empty said...

    You’re dead on about the “Brave New World stakes.” There’s a bit of a straw man present. Too many people seem to be jockeying for cred by embracing mo-cap as legitimate performance, when the reality is that it’s been pretty warmly embraced. Serkis has gotten glowing reviews for all 3 of his notable mo-cap roles, and Zoe Saldana is a moderately famous person on the strength of a strong mo-cap showing….in the highest grossing film of all time, which was filled with filled with motion capture.

    I wouldn’t be surprised to see a motion capture performance nominated in the near future, but I hope it’s for a genuinely compelling performance and not just a series of convincingly human facial expressions.

  • 18 8-15-2011 at 8:44 pm

    Jack said...

    For me, Fellowship is the best and Two Towers is my least favorite, but it may have the best scene in the trilogy where Elrond tells Arwen of her fate if she decides to stay in Middle Earth. It contains some of the trilogy’s best writing, and it provides a very emotional (like these films needed anymore) basis for everything going forward.

  • 19 8-16-2011 at 10:13 am

    Moviehobbyist said...

    The point is that the Ape-only sequences were truly magnificent and very human. That’s the grand achievement of the film.