Fox campaigns for Serkis, reignites mo-cap debate

Posted by · 4:55 pm · November 7th, 2011

It seems longer ago than August that the movie-blog fraternity was getting worked up about Andy Serkis’s digitally-enabled performance in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” with many getting prematurely irate about the awards attention he would inevitably not receive.

I wrote my two cents about it then, arguing that, skilful as his work is, “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.” Whether that qualifies for acting awards or not is in the eye of the beholder.

For my part, I don’t find the perfectly nifty finished performance interesting enough to merit consideration, so it’s a moot point. Personally, I find Serkis’s second motion-capture creation of 2011 — the sozzled Scottish seadog Captain Haddock in “The Adventures of Tintin” — the more rewarding turn, and I wouldn’t throw statuettes at that one either. I appreciate I may be in a minority here.

Even with the release of “Tintin,” I rather expected this mo-cap debate to depart with the summer. However, with the news that Fox is planning to mount an Oscar campaign for Serkis, it appears to be back with us: his cheerleaders from August are once again shaping up for a fight, while the less convinced among us wonder if they’re more in love with the idea of history being made than the year’s finest screen acting being recognized. (I’ve said this before: where was all this support for Serkis when he hit it out the park, in human form, in last year’s “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll?”)

Could you give Serkis an Oscar and claim that it’s only the on-screen emotional effect, rather than the process behind it, that’s being celebrated? I expect the arguments to continue, even if Serkis doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance of a nomination. (Certainly not in Best Actor; campaigning him elsewhere would be fraud of the first order.)

Among the people who disagree with me, surprisingly enough, is Fox head Tom Rothman; in a good piece on the issue by the LA Times’s Rebecca Keegan, he professes himself high on the actorly elements of Serkis’s performance:  

Our job is to try to have people be aware of and recognize great performances, even when they come in this case in an unusual skin… I think it’s one of the great emotional performances ever. The challenge is to overcome preconceptions and certain prejudices, to have people understand that … the emotionality of the character on screen is not provided by the animators, it’s provided by the actor.

“One of the great emotional performances ever” strikes me as hyperbolic praise even from a man as invested in the cause as Rothman, but it does suggest that, for every industry type wary of the technology, there’s another getting genuinely excited about it. Serkis himelf, who’s well accustomed to the curiosities of motion capture by now, seems to think it’s on the road to normalisation: 

For many years talking about Gollum, it was about the technology, the how of it all… Performance capture was an exotic, strange activity, separated from the craft of acting. People thought when I was doing Gollum, ‘What is he? Is he a contortionist or a dancer or a circus performer? How does he fit into the process?’ Ten years down the line it’s become an industry standard and it’s more about talking about character.

If, as Serkis says, we’re this close to performances like his own in “Apes” becoming an “industry standard,” one can only presume we will eventually see an acting nominee emerge from the format — though it’ll need to be sufficiently relatable that motion capture isn’t the first aspect of the performance we think about. That Serkis’s work in “Apes” is largely wordless and expression-based doesn’t help him: amid the techno-wizardry, vocal work can be more easily attributed than gesture.

Keegan mentions the lack of acting nods for FX evtravaganzas like “Avatar,” though you’d be hard pressed to find many objectors there. Serkis’s work in both “Apes” and “Tintin” is a step up, and eminently commendable at that, but when the right mo-cap candidate for an Oscar comes along, I like to think the performance will comfortably dwarf talk of its creation.

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