Stephen Colbert began his recent interview with Andy Serkis by saying that whenever he hears people call the British actor an “amazing motion-capture performer,” he can’t help but correct them. “I go, ‘No! He’s a fantastic performer who’s famous for doing motion capture,’ ” Colbert clarified.
In case the distinction wasn’t clear enough, the host then rolled a clip of Serkis acting out a scene from “War for the Planet of the Apes.” The first half of the scene is a close-up of the actor doing a monologue with dots covering his face before he seamlessly morphs into his ape character, Caesar. The takeaway of this PSA? Serkis’s stellar performances aren’t just about the fancy bells and whistles in postproduction. The emotions and expressions are all his.
Technology obviously altered his appearance. But, as UCLA’s head of undergraduate acting, Joe Olivieri, puts it, what Serkis is doing “isn’t any different than what the Greeks were doing 3,000 years ago.” Acting is acting.
Still, from a viewer’s standpoint, it can be difficult to tell where the actor stops and the special effects begin. That’s why Serkis and his co-stars have been working hard to educate people. Even back in 2012, Serkis’s “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” co-star James Franco was writing an op-ed in Deadline, praising the work Serkis did. Franco compared the motion-capture technology to digital makeup — no different from what was done to Nicole Kidman in “The Hours” or John Hurt in “The Elephant Man.”
“His problem is that the digital ‘makeup’ is so convincing that it makes people forget that he provides the soul of Caesar,” Franco wrote.
Five years later, the message still hasn’t been received, or else Serkis’s new co-star, Steve Zahn, wouldn’t feel compelled to tell Vulture how he gets offended when people pigeonhole Serkis as “a motion capture actor.” “I go, ‘No, he’s one of the greatest actors I’ve ever worked with,’ ” Zahn insisted.
Could this be the year that motion-capture acting finally becomes, simply, acting? And how long before the Academy Awards takes Serkis seriously?
Serkis was nominated for a Golden Globe for the historical TV movie “Longford” in 2008, but he’s never had a more viable shot at a major award for a motion-capture performance than he has for his lead role in “War.” Despite the trailers, which make the drama look like an action movie, it has more in common with “Apocalypse Now” — and it has a lot in common with “Apocalypse Now” — than the latest “Transformers” installment.
The film follows Caesar as he tries to shield his ragtag band of primates from the human soldiers who want to decimate them. Caesar’s arc requires a wide range of emotions, from triumphant to despondent to bloodthirsty, while he retains more humanity than any of the humans around him. This is more actorly heavy lifting than Serkis did playing the fiendish Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” movies or King Kong in Peter Jackson’s take on the giant gorilla or the intimidating (if one-note) Supreme Leader Snoke in “The Force Awakens,” all motion-capture roles.
“Avatar” notwithstanding, movies with a lot of motion capture don’t tend to be awards contenders. That’s the first hurdle to Serkis getting a nomination, according to the New York Observer’s Thelma Adams, who has an impressive track record predicting Oscar winners.
“They’re up against the bias against popcorn movies,” she said. Indie art house movies and British biopics are always more likely bets. “The other hurdle is the suspicion that motion capture, despite everything Andy Serkis wisely says in his beautiful accent, is not really a gold statuette-winning performance.”
Sharon Carnicke, an associate dean at the University of Southern California’s drama school, thinks the Academy members mistake motion-capture performances for voice acting. But there’s a difference, she says. Motion capture — like lighting, costumes and makeup — is simply a tool for actors.
“The most amazing thing about motion capture, in my opinion, is that even though the cameras do not photograph the image of the person, only the motion, that person does not disappear,” she said. “If you know the person who’s performing, you absolutely recognize them through the motion.”
This isn’t the first time technology has changed how we see actors. Carnicke is quick to remind that acting used to take place outdoors in the middle of the day, because there was no electricity. Now lighting can heighten a performance or change the mood. Technology is constantly reframing the art form, even as the act and purpose of performing has remained fundamentally the same.
Serkis now has a unique niche, but he started his career like a lot of other actors. He did stage productions before transitioning to bit parts on television shows and eventually movies. Peter Jackson changed his trajectory, though, when he hired him to play Gollum/Smeagol in 2003’s “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.” It was supposed to be just a voice role, but Serkis’s evocative physicality as he acted out the part inspired Jackson to figure out a way to mimic the actor’s movements in the finished product.
You can witness the same brilliance that Jackson saw by watching the clip from Colbert’s show, in which Serkis reads a couple of Donald Trump’s tweets in the voice of his most famous character. To do it right, Serkis hopped up onto his seat so he could pose in Gollum’s stooped crouch. And then he transformed himself into the character without an ounce of digital makeup, using just his gestures, his facial expressions and, of course, that screechy growl.
Carnicke thinks it’s only a matter of time before people equate motion-capture work with traditional acting. Drama schools, including the one at USC, are even expanding their programs to include new media, including motion capture, virtual reality and video games. She isn’t going to place any bets on how soon the general population comes around, though.
Even then, institutions like awards shows tend to stick to the status quo. Adams has a hard time imagining — even with all the conspicuous educational opportunities — that Serkis will get a nomination for “War for the Planet of the Apes.”
At least he has a consolation prize. She refers to him as the “king of motion capture.” And at the moment, there’s no one close to taking his crown.