'Apes' and 'Tintin' star Andy Serkis on performance capture's place in awards season

Posted by · 11:39 am · December 5th, 2011

Andy Serkis is in the middle of nowhere. Quite literally. He’s at the base of Mt. Cook in New Zealand’s Southern Alps filming second unit material on Peter Jackson’s heavily anticipated film “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” and cell service is a luxury.

Last Thursday, in fact, the actor accepted the Tech Pioneer Award from the Whistler Film Festival via Skype. But it wasn’t so easy. He was in a helicopter, landed in a field in a remote farming community, found the house of someone who knew someone who knew someone on the crew and set up a laptop in the living room to call in.

This morning — amid a number of dropped calls, natch — I talked to him ostensibly for an upcoming Tech Support interview regarding the visual effects of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and “The Adventures of Tintin” (each of which feature Serkis in performance capture roles). But it seemed like a good opportunity to get his thoughts on the technology’s place in the awards season while I was at it.

We’ve mentioned the concentrated push on behalf of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and Serkis’s performance in particular a couple of times. It’s highly unlikely the move registers for the Academy, but it’s a noble effort on behalf of the process that could make it bubble up in a few areas this season, as it did over the weekend when Serkis received a Best Supporting Actor nomination from the Washington D.C. Area Film Critics Association.

This is what the actor had to say about whether performance capture portrayals should be considered alongside live action portrayals:

“I absolutely believe it should be a part of the acting category. At the end of the day, performance capture is a technology. It’s not anything other than that. It’s a way of recording an actor’s performance, and so if the performance is emotionally engaging and means something to an audience, then that is generated initially by the work of the actor. The enhancement of it in a film where the ownership, the authorship of the character originates from the actor, that’s significantly different than an animated movie, where the authorship of the character really belongs to a much bigger group of people.

“When I’m working on the scripts or working with the other actors or rehearsing with the director, and when the director is cutting the movie and we’ve shot the scene, the director is not looking at the visual effects. They’re looking at the performance you’ve recorded on the day. And that performance has to live or die or work or not work accordingly. You can’t jazz it up significantly enough to change it and make it more emotionally engaging. That’s just not possible. So it should be considered as acting. I really don’t think it should be considered as anything else.

“It has been frustrating, I suppose, in the past. The way people have referred to my work in the past has been very elliptical, I suppose because there has been a lot of mystery around performance capture. What’s happening more and more is it’s explained a lot more clearly; it’s easier to show stuff. You can see direct correlations between an actor’s performance and the final digital manifestation. And actually the whole new generation of filmmakers and performers totally get it. It’s incredibly gratifying to see that it’s being received now and not looked at as something mystical and strange.”

Be on the lookout for that Tech Support interview with Serkis and Weta Digital visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri in the coming weeks.

For year-round entertainment news and awards season commentary follow @kristapley on Twitter.

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