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Monkey Business: Could Andy Serkis Win An Oscar?

Okay, I think we all know the answer is “no.” I thought better than to try to pretend there was the slightest hint of even a nomination. However, considering some of the chatter around Serkis’ performance in the superb Rise of the Planet of the Apes, I can’t help but wonder if the Academy will everrecognise motion-capture performances with acting nominations. After all, where does the line end between the performance of the actor, and the special effects work put in by the technical team?

Serkis folk...

I think that’s potentially my biggest issue, and I suspect it might be one of the larger concerns for the Academy. I mean, I know that Serkis provided Caesar’s movements and his facial expressions, but I’m not sure of where exactly the distinction is made. I don’t know a lot about the digital side of these sorts of things, so I phrase this more as a question than an observation, but surely the act of “translating” (for lack of a better word) the actor’s movements to those of a CGI chimpanzee is as much an art as a science? As much research as Serkis may have put into studying how monkeys move and react, the simple fact is that it’s hard to believe that this wasn’t a more complicated process than putting a CGI “suit” on the actor.

Of course, there’s a good chance of the technical team receiving a nomination and, truth be told, I wouldn’t begrudge them. However, at the same time, it’s a shame not to see Andy Serkis get any form of recognition. It’s clearly something that takes a great deal of skill – not only does it seem like Serkis is the first choice for all these roles, from Lord of the Rings to King Kong, but the actor has actually managed to leverage a fairly respectable live-action career out it. After all, he played Ian Dury in Sex & Drugs & Rock ‘n’ Roll and played the second lead in Burke & Hare. None of which could have happened if he didn’t impress as Gollum.

Call me Nav'i, but I believe Saldana deserved a nomination...

The second, and perhaps bigger, problem that the Academy probably has with motion capture is one of perception. I think Avatar did a great job legitimising computer-generated effects, to the point where the Academy came out and actively stated that it wasn’t an “animated” film, but I do think that most of this sort of heavy special-effects work tends to be featured in films that the Academy traditionally ignores. Regardless of how good Serkis’ performance might have been, he would have been even less likely to pick up a nomination if he had been performing under an ape mask.

Being entirely honest, I think the last CGI performance (and perhaps the onlyCGI performance to date) that had a chance of picking up an award was Zoe Saldana in Avatar, and I say that as somebody who didn’t really like the film. The Best Picture nomination demonstrated that the Academy had been convinced by Cameron to emotionally invest in computer-generated fantasy adventure, in a way that they seldom do. It was a film that managed to transcend populist appeal and reach that block old-school large-scale cinema fans in the Academy. I honestly believe we need to be talking about a movie of that creative and commercial magnitude in order to legitimately have a discussion over the possibility of a motion-capture performance receiving a nomination.

Sad monkey...

Of course, there are the practical and political concerns that also make a performance like this less likely to receive a nomination, the sheer demographics of AMPAS – it’s an actor-driven organisation and I honestly believe that there aren’t enough members who really have that much respect for what motion capture performances involve. I think there’s a certain amount of believe that a performance where an actor physically transforms themself – like Christian Bale in The Fighter or Natalie Portman in Black Swan – represents genuine commitment to the craft, while digitally transforming yourself could be considered “too easy.” I think that grossly underestimates the work involved, but I do believe that’s a contributing factor.

So I don’t know. I think Serkis is great in the film. I think it’s a fantastic lead performance, and I think it deserves to be talked about when discussing the competition. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s the best of the best, and I honestly think there might be five strong candidates than Serkis come the end of the year – but the important issue is whether the Academy will allow themselves to talk about Serkis in making that list, or whether he’ll be dismissed on the basis that it’s not a “real” performance. I’d like to hope not, but experience has taught me never to under-estimate the Academy’s conservative nature

10 Responses

  1. I’d be shocked if a motion capture performance gets a nomination, at least in the next few years. Perhaps once it’s a more common practice (which it no doubt will be), they’ll introduce a new category?

    Either way, I see Serkis getting an honorary Oscar in twenty years or so for his entire mo-cap career.

    • Yep, I’m sad to say, but I do see it ending up as an honourary Oscar for a large body of work. which is a shame, because I get the sense he’s a guy who kinda wants to be seen as an actor in his own right, with all the live-action performances of late. But, as they say, better late than never.

  2. I feel like a curmudgeon saying it, but I don’t think motion cap performances should be recognised because it’s not complete acting to me. I’d say, allow the actors name to be listed as one of the visual/tech team but not as an acting award.

    • I can see where you’re coming from, but I think that if Avatar is “not an animated film” you should be able to make the case that Andy Serkis is actually playing the character. of course, Cameron has ultimate control of Avatar (in that the special effects guys answer to him, and the buck stops there), while you’re right that Serkis probably can’t claim 100% of Caesar.

  3. I don’t think he will, I certainly think he should. If you’ve watched more than one of his films you’ll recognize that the performances seen on screen are all him – and they’re amazing.

    He actually just did an interview on this for the Coventry Telegraph:

    http://blogs.coventrytelegraph.net/thegeekfiles/2011/08/andy-serkis-on-rise-of-the-pla.html

    I say, give the man his due. I’m all for prosthetics and on-screen EFX but digital makeup doesn’t make his performance any less genuine.

    • And he’s not at all bad in live action either to be fair. He stole the mess that was Burke & Hare. I think that Serkis is one of those guys who has secured his cred in geek circles, even if he’ll never headline a blockbuster (despite putting in the best performance and playing the lead). We’ll be talking about “the next Andy Serkis film” while all our non-film-buff friends will be like, “who now?”

  4. I am still not quite sure where I stand in terms of the “Should he be considered for a nomination” question-I think this generation needs some time to adjust to the idea! Acting styles and the definition of acting itself changes from decade to decade and this type of acting is surely just as valid as the rest, with CGI being the tool or medium through which Serkis can deliver his performance…then again, the emotion he brings would not be as effective without the decorative add-ons from the technical team. It’s hard to know whether to attribute a larger portion of acclaim to the actor or to the latter.
    All I know is that Smeagol and Caesar were more heartbreaking then any of their fellow characters. I wish Serkis’ name was plastered across the movie posters instead of the current layout.

    If Serkis us immediately ruled out without a thought, then maybe the Academy should reconsidered all “tampered” performances with prosthetics, like Theron in Monster. Both have a layer of false visuals, but are moulded around the real expression and performance. In fact, Serkis probably had even more attention to detail in terms of emoting physically, which is mainly what we pick up on in life anyway.

    :/

    • That’s actually a great point. But then the academy would argue that somehow it’s “harder” to act “through” makeup, while CGI literally enhances your performance. I say nuts to that – all acting is a lot harder than most people think it is, and there are strengths and weaknesses to each approach. I don’t think it was any easier for Theron to show us a serial killer’s soul beneath mountains of make-up than it was for Serkis to give us a glimpse into the mind of an ape through computer pixels. Hell, the very act of editting can obscure or enhance a performance.

      • Exactly. With an ill-fitting soundtrack, an entire scene can be ruined, so it’s really a matter of where to draw the line between enhancement and…I can’t quite find the right word..perhaps, puppetry? When I started seeing talk of the Oscars and the issue people have with Serkis, Black Swan came to mind…Enhancement or morphing?

        Sometimes when I am watching a film and there is a poignant moment (particularly if it is verging on gratuitously sentimental), I imagine it without musical accompaniment to see if I find it as effective. It’s like it’s a way to see if it’s the acting that is noteworthy or the entire package. It’s an annoying habit, to be honest 🙂 Don’t try it…There’s no turning back!

      • That’s not a bad idea. I might give it a go.

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