I feel the same way about Andy Serkis receiving a Best Actor Oscar nomination for Rise of the Planet of the Apes as I do whenever I see Mike Leigh has received a screenplay nod: it doesn’t seem entirely fair. Let me elaborate.
With Leigh’s screenplay credits, he’s working with dialogue and plot beats harvested from his actors. It seems to me like they should all share the recognition, as they’ve all played a significant part.
Similarly, with Andy Serkis, he was not alone in bringing the performance of Caesar to the screen. It could be argued that he did most of the work, but also that there was still a significant amount remaining for the FX teams to do.
Performance capture just isn’t a plug-in-a-player technology, as the hype would have you believe. And it goes beyond the CG artists being charged with menial, wrinkle-removal ironing jobs into full artistry.
We’ll discard the “stunt” moments where Caesar is an entirely keyframe animated creation, as these happen for live action performers too – imagine Tom Cruise replaced with CG for a moment as he’s hit by a car, or Batman going swooping down into a digital landscape.
What we need to concentrate on instead are the quieter moments, the close-ups, the calm beats. In a live action film, there’s no need for a CG team to come in and alter things here.
But with performance capture, there almost always is. And it’s not automated, it’s a process that requires the judgment of artists sitting at computer terminals making decisions about the performance. Yes, they might well have footage of the player to guide them, but they’re still having to make choices themselves.
Here’s how Joe Letteri, who worked on Apes, put it to me when I was asking about this very idea:
We look at what is going on with the live action performance, and we try to teach the computer to understand what the actor’s intent was and how to translate that to the character. If the actor would give you exactly the same expressions [as we modelled ahead of time], the computer can give you exactly the same expression back on the character. But the fact is that the human face is infinitely flexible, so that in fact never happens.
But it can get close, and we get the computer to give us the best answer that it knows. But then animators go in and work out those expressions. Even the ones that computer starts out with, because it needs something to start out with, were done by animators. This is all done by an animation and a modelling team that makes all of these things and say “This is Tintin smiling, this is Tintin sad.” It’s all really artistically driven and we use the computer as a way to learn these so that once we figure them all out, we don’t have to go back and create it all again by hand.
And if it had been possible for me to stay on that topic for longer, I would, and we’d have built up an even better explanation of why the animators, and their personal, creative decisions are crucial.
So, really, I’m not saying that I wouldn’t want to see Andy Serkis nominated, I just think the credit for Caesar’s performance needs to go to more than one individual, and that it would be unjust to leave out the animators who each made a personal, meaningful contribution and gave Caesar the expressions and reactions that were needed, that worked, and which communicated Serkis’ intent. They’re far, far more than digital make-up artists.
It is a great performance, and Serkis’ contribution was undoubtedly crucial, so let’s celebrate it with this clip, courtesy of HitFix. This exists as part of the Serkis Oscar campaign, as does their acommpanying article.
Oscar for Andy? Sure. He did an amazing job. And another one for the animators too, because so did they.