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Culture Warrior: The Importance of Honoring Motion Capture Performances

By  · Published on February 14th, 2012

The performance was so compelling, and the digital handiwork so real, that critics believed it would be a huge oversight if the Academy didn’t find a way to recognize this historical milestone. Audiences were compelled and engrossed with a CGI creature whose features and expressions were so detailed that he seemed to integrate seamlessly with his flesh-and-blood cohorts on the silver screen, occasionally even going so far as surpassing them in terms of the quality of his performance. The character was Gollum, the film was The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, and the performer was a talented but then little-known British actor named Andy Serkis. Almost a decade since, Serkis has since found his rightful place as the premier motion capture performer working in Hollywood, but he is still yet to be recognized by the Academy for his work. I imagine that the debates over his snub for Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes will surmise yet again with another standout performance, just as this year’s debate closely resembles the one contested over Gollum nine years ago.

It’s not that The Academy is slow to adapt to significant technological changes in Hollywood. The Best Cinematography (Black and White) Award, for instance, no longer exists. But more importantly, as an occasion that (almost exclusively) celebrates Hollywood, the ceremony only benefits by advertising new adaptive technologies in full force. For instance, the academy devoted a significant portion of screen time to a documentary that depicted the making of the first Toy Story during the 1996 ceremony. If cinema is a spectacle (especially through the digital saturation that has defined biggest of Hollywood’s output since the mid-90s), then the industry only benefits from selling the mechanics of that spectacle. Just as early cinema audiences fascinated by the moving image alone watched films with the projector loudly operating within the same room, we admire special effects not only because of the potential power of the illusion they create, but also the artistry of their creation: the political economy of special effects have become as much a selling point as special effects themselves.

It’s strange, then, that the Academy is still reluctant to honor motion capture performances. Perhaps they don’t know exactly who deserves the credit in this case: the actor, or the team of technicians tasked with rendering that actor unrecognizable. But such logic assumes that a similar collaboration isn’t taking place in more “conventional” cases where the sign of the actor is perfectly and clearly visible onscreen. This year, Meryl Streep is nominated for portraying Margaret Thatcher, and with the aid of makeup she ages several decades in the film. Why is it that the presence of the post-production digital artist makes the fidelity of the motion capture actor’s performance suspect, but not the makeup artist for the “conventional” performer? Actors are accompanied by a bevy of other collaborators whose influence may not be totally visible by the film’s final product, including dialect coaches, stuntmen, stand-ins, dance or fight choreographers, etc. Film is a collaborative medium, and an individual’s contribution to a larger work is never without the influence of other contributors (this may be a larger problem with the act of categorizing necessary to give out such awards in the first place).

Perhaps Academy voters see performances like Serkis’s as less of a contribution by the actor because of the heavy special effects work. After all, the technical awards are often voted on by separate voters from the major awards – perhaps the only way to truly allow motion capture performances to be recognized is to have a collaborative voting block between special effects voters and acting voters (as acting voters may be prejudiced in thinking that all such performances are only products of post-production, or that Serkis’s creative role has little to do with how Ceasar ultimately portrayed in the final film). However, such an undertaking would assume that the role of the Academy voter casts their ballot based on what they think happened behind the scenes of a set they weren’t present at, when voters can only do what they’ve always done: evaluate the film based on the final product, not inferences about its production process. After all, the Academy has regularly recognized screenplays for films that were improvised – films, in other words, for which no shooting script actually existed.

As suggested in a recent Time article, the dual “snub” of Serkis and Spielberg’s Tintin may point to the Academy’s collective reluctance to accept motion capture. But this points yet again to a larger problem: the greater blurring of the supposed line between animation and live action. The Best Animated Picture category was introduced only a few years ago, and was seen as a productive move to honor the brilliant animated work being done which, with the exceptions of Beauty and the Beast and Up, goes largely unrecognized in a top category which greatly prefers “real” actors. But who is to say that the 11-times nominated Hugo isn’t, in so many ways, an animated film? Can we really say that a movie whose effect on its audience is so indebted to post-production wizardry belongs definitively to a “live action” category? It seems that we judge whether or not a movie is live action or animated almost solely by how we perceive actors and their performances/roles in the film.

Three years ago, Brad Pitt was nominated for Best Actor for a performance in …Benjamin Button that contained significant components of motion capture. Pitt’s face, however, was always visible and recognizable, even as it was placed on another performer’s body (in a case in which at least two bodies manifest the same character, when recognizing the performer, one is honoring something quite different than recognizing the performance). Pitt’s face provided an index for who this performance belonged to, even if such an index didn’t illustrate the full picture of how that character came to be onscreen. The case is quite different for Serkis, who has been recognized more for his performance capture roles than his life action ones. But this comparison perhaps points to the greatest reason why institutions like the Academy are reluctant to recognize performances such as Serkis’s: it relents to a greater change that’s been taking place in terms of who (and thus, what content) is valued in a given film.

The acting awards have been the Academy’s greatest draw for viewers for most of its broadcast history. Stars have been manufactured by the Hollywood system for mass audience appeal, and thus it is the actor (not the director or even the movie itself) which has been the most appeal for the ceremony’s audiences. The actor provides a clear frame of reference for the viewer, even as their performance is chopped up and reassembled by the filmmaking process. The exhaustive fashion critique enacted at each year’s red carpet focuses on actors, not filmmakers. If the Academy begins recognizing performances rendered invisible by technology, then the ceremony’s economy of stardom is weakened. Yes, Meryl Streep and Brad Pitt’s faces were rendered nearly unrecognizable in Iron Lady and Benjamin Button respectively, but they still provide assurance to audiences that, beneath these layers of artifice, still lies the great actor, star, and celebrity. Such a sense is not as clear or comparably indexical with the motion capture performance. While Serkis may not have played an icon like Margaret Thatcher or a silent film star, he did what I assume very few actors can in embodying a character of a different species.

But not recognizing motion capture performances based on its potential threat to our conventional understanding of the Hollywood performance only ignores the larger problem: that the centrality of stardom in Hollywood is waning, a reality made by a Hollywood that seeks to profit off the spectacle of performances like Serkis’s and gain repeat business from franchises like the Apes films. In a year in which Rise of the Planet of the Apes made more money than two Brad Pitt Best Picture nominees and one George Clooney Best Picture nominee combined suggests that Hollywood needs to recognize the relevance of its own creation and consider thinking about motion capture performances as performances. By real actors.

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