Tuesday night I had the pleasure of moderating a conversation with Andy Serkis, director Rupert Wyatt and supervising sound supervisors Chuck Michael and John Larsen about their work bringing Caesar to live in the critically acclaimed "Rise of the Planet of the Apes." The evening was part of 20th Century Fox's campaign to land Serkis a best supporting actor nomination for his role as Caesar, an ape with extreme intelligence who falls victim to the prejudices and fears of man. If Serkis finds himself among the five nominees announced a week from Tuesday, it will make history as the first motion-capture performance recognized by the Academy (let alone any major awards organization). Can he surprise the pundits? Co-star James Franco, who played Caesar's adoptive human father Will, certainly thinks so.
Franco wrote an Op-Ed over the weekend that spoke passionately about how his emotional scenes with "Caesar" could only have been achieved through the dynamic that came between the two actors standing across from each other. In his view, the interactions between their characters wouldn't have been the same if there was a tennis ball standing in for a CG animated Caesar. Speaking to Serkis before Tuesday's event, I asked him his thoughts about Franco's passionate argument on his behalf.
"I thought it was incredibly eloquent," Serkis says. "I think it was very bold. [It was] one of first times I've really felt that there has been such support and understanding and such articulate kind of understanding of the craft and that is born out of the experience of working together and him witnessing it at close hand. Someone told me about it and I was just blown away by the fact that he thought it necessary as an actor to put it out there to try and increase the understanding and education of what performance capture technology can do for an actor."
While Serkis seems to realize there is a long way to go for his fellow actors to completely accept motion-capture performances, he does believe there have been major strides since he first pioneered the technology with director Peter Jackson and WETA digital for "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy.
"There is no doubt there has been a huge change, particularly since 'Avatar.' I mean it was 10, 11, 12 years ago that it wasn’t even considered to be acting. It was some sort of a freakish activity that happened on a peripheral stage somewhere," Serkis says. "I think there is still a level of fear and [a] kind of not ignorance, but a kind of a lack of knowledge really of the [ownership] of a performance. That’s really where I think the problem lies. You know how much of the performance is owned and altered by the actor and how much by the visual effects team and animators after the fact and I think that’s one thing that James actually explained quite well. As the performance capture technology has evolved we can [now] shoot on live action stages totally at the same time with the other actors."
Serkis continues, "I mean, when I did 'Lord of the Rings' I was still acting on film sets where the performance was filmed, but I had to then go away and reshoot the performance capture separately, whereas, with say 'Rise of the Apes' I’m being filmed on the performance capture cameras at the same time as James is being filmed on the live action cameras and so there is absolutely no disconnect, which makes it a lot easier to understand. I mean the fact of the matter is I've always said that performance capture is not a form or a genre of acting. It’s a technology."
During the conversation, Fox provided three new examples of Serkis' pre-animated work to compare with the final product. Watching the comparisons, it's simply hard to imagine anyone not changing their tune over what he brings to the picture because of his work. And in the long run, that message seems to be what matters to Serkis the most.
"Acting is acting and performance capture is just another method of recording actors’ performance and I think that’s a really important thing for everyone to understand," Serkis says. "And when you’re working on a scene with an actor and a director it’s exactly the same process. Also when you’re researching, getting into a role it’s the same process as acting you know as it would be with any live action situation and the director then shapes the scene and the actors work off each other and react off each other and only when the scene is complete will the director move on and feel happy with that scene. Then at that point it goes into an edit and it’s not until much later down the line that the visual effects start coming, so the director has already got a final performance side of it."
Serkis has bounced back and forth between motion-capture work and live action over the past decade. And while he's instantly recognizable in films such as "The Prestige," "13 Going on 30," "Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll" and "Brighton Rock," it's still the buzz for his motion capture work in "King Kong," "Apes," "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy" and, most recently, Steven Spielberg's "The Adventures of Tintin" that the media and fans seem to relish the most. Serkis has formed his own production company for motion-capture work, The Imaginarium," but he wasn't necessarily searching for more mo-cap roles when the opportunity to star in "Apes" came his way.
"['Apes'] was the most beautifully written script and really it was written with love for the original source material and the character arc with Caesar was fantastically well drawn," Serkis recalls. "It was clearly a great acting role regardless of the fact that there is no dialogue. It wasn’t one of those scripts where you rush through it to see how it ended. It was just a fantastically brilliantly written mega-role with a journey from infancy through to self-awareness through to leading a revolution."
There have been lots of changes with the Oscars over the past four years in categories as significant as best picture and best documentary. I asked Serkis if he'd be satisfied if they created a new motion-capture honor and he clearly thinks that would be a mistake.
"I firmly believe that it shouldn’t be anything but acting categories because that’s a part of the process that as I say is where the actor alters the performance," Serkis says. "Visual effects have their own category and animators and visual effects are already accoladed for the work they do on projects like 'Rise of the Apes' or 'Lord of the Rings' or 'Avatar' or 'King Kong.' In actual fact what hasn’t been accoladed and was the [key achievement] in 'Avatar' or recognized as such [were the motion capture performances] and that’s why I firmly believe that this is no more than acting. It’s an important message. An important message to the acting community that it’s no more than acting because its a tool which enables us actors to play so many different characters and how it is finally manifested onscreen is not really the issue."
And for those who still have problems with the concept of accolades for those in mo-cap roles, Serkis offers an intriguing example of a similar live-action role. One that was actually nominated for a best actor Oscar. Serkis questions, "Is there any less acting than John Hurt’s performance as 'The Elephant Man' who was completely unrecognizable or any kind of performance captured role where the actor is altered? I think what it does, what is interesting is that it’s shaking up the whole notion of what acting is."
Serkis' has spent most of this year in New Zealand stepping back into the precious mannerisms of Gollum for Peter Jackson's two-part "The Hobbit" adaptation, but also taking on new responsibilities as second unit director on both pictures.
"It has been extraordinary and it’s something that I've relished," Serkis admits. "When I came onto 'The Hobbit' I really thought that I would be going back to—it’s a similar story to Lord of the Rings. I went to New Zealand for two weeks to play Gollum again and Peter asked me if I’d direct second unit. He’s known that I wanted to direct for a long time and I have live action and performance capture movies that I'm wanting to direct. So it sort of fell into place perfectly for me and I've had the most brilliant, brilliant time working with such talented people. It’s another realm for me and it’s huge. I mean the second unit is a big operation on the Hobbit and we’re covering everything from drama through to battle scenes and aerial shots and, of course, traditional second unit stuff. It’s a fantastic education and I'm working with a great team of people who are all having a really great time on it, so it couldn’t be better."
As you read this Serkis is likely on his way back to New Zealand to begin work on "The Hobbit" again, but he'll no doubt be paying close attention to the Oscar nominations on Tuesday, January 24. Will the Academy membership make history and justly reward him for his incredibly work as Caesar? Stranger upsets have happened this season and in years past.
In the meantime, check out this incredible example of Serkis' work in "Rise" embedded at the top of this post. The scene finds Will (Franco) forced to leave Caesar at a local apes sanctuary and Caesar's realization that he's been caged. It was powerful on screen, but even more startling in the comparison.
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