The Academy Needs to Wrap its Head Around Mo-Cap Performance

Now that Roger Deakins has broken his losing streak, here's a new Oscar injustice hill to die on.

War for the Planet of the Apes

Now that Roger Deakins has broken his losing streak, here’s a new Oscar injustice hill to die on.

There was a disturbance in the force when Roger Deakins finally won a much-belated Oscar for his spectacular cinematography on Blade Runner 2049. That same night, 2049’s CG wizards nabbed the visual effects Oscar. Or as we put it:

Huh. Now, the fact that the original Blade Runner went home empty handed seems like a relevant thing to bring up. But why does it matter that the Academy snubbed the fuck out of the visual effects of the Planet of the Apes trilogy?

Well. The short answer is a pithy one: a lot of folks (myself included) took a peek at the tea leaves and thought that War for the Planet of the Apes was going to win. The two previous entries in the trilogy, 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes and 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, were nominated and lost, so surely the Academy was going to honour the entire trilogy in one retroactive swoop like it did with Lord of the Rings. I think a lot of folks felt that the Academy’s recognition of Apes’ bar-raising motion capture was overdue. And while 2049‘s effects are certainly deserving, War‘s loss was deeply felt. I’d wager this is something fans of Deakins’ work can relate to.

But the narrative that “Apes deserved to win because of its cumulative snubs” betrays a more pressing point at the heart of War’s Oscar loss: the Academy has a mo-cap problem. Namely: they do not know how to deal with the way mo-cap aligns performance with digital animation. And their confusion only seems to be growing stronger as the technology improves. 

Blurring the Line Between VFX and Performance

The word “plays” in “Andy Serkis plays Cesar” is controversial because Serkis’ performance is being mediated by digital animation. And given that Serkis has a list of snubs about as long as his IMDB page, the folks at the Academy seem to believe that the involvement of animators invalidates performance in some way.

The acting community has worries about performance capture because they believe it’s some form of replacement for performance when in fact, it’s the opposite,” Serkis explained in a phone interview with Wired. “Reviewers have a strange way of describing my performances. They’ll say things like: ‘Serkis lent his voice to’ or ‘inspired the emotions’ or ‘lent his movements to’ or ‘emotionally retained the backbone of,’ as opposed to ‘performed the role.’ I suppose the question is, at what point does the camera snap and capture the emotional content of a scene?”

20th Century Fox

Karin Konoval as Maurice

VFX heavyweights like the Visual Effects Society have been clocking the cinematic impact of Weta Digital’s Apes work since 2011. And, truly, War has set a new standard for CG hyperrealism, emotive subtlety, and the capabilities of on-location tech. And as motion-capture performance technology has become more and more sophisticated, it has become increasingly tricky to untangle the live performer and their digital costume. A.O. Scott of the New York Times described Serkis’ performance as “one of the marvels of modern screen acting.” As Scott puts it: “[Serkis’] facial expressions and body language are so evocatively and precisely rendered that it is impossible to say where his art ends and the exquisite artifice of Weta Digital…begins.”

This increased fidelity of “convincing” mo-cap performance seems to be presenting the Academy with a very murky question: if we can’t differentiate the digital parts of Cesar (his grey hairs, the texture of his skin, the way his fur moves in the wind) from Serkis’ performance (his delivery, his facial expressions, his physical choices), where does mo-cap fit within the Academy’s categories?

Redefining Performance in the Digital Age

It’s here that the Academy would have to start asking itself some weighty existential questions, least of all: what is performance? How is Serkis’ “digital makeup” in War any different from the academy award-winning prosthetics Gary Oldman wore in The Darkest Hour?

As Vogue’s John Ortved suggests, validating mo-cap isn’t just about stodgy Academy types getting woke and adding an entirely new “Digital Makeup” category. “It’s about technology changing an already existing [category].” It has been argued that the dynamic between performers and animators has a more symbiotic flavour to it than it does with costume designers and makeup artists. But as Serkis repeatedly stresses, the goal is always the same: to become somebody else. The ancient Greeks had their masks, John Hurt had his bonkers Elephant Man prosthetics, and Serkis has digital puppets. Dismount your high horse, acting is acting.

The fact that War only received one nomination for VFX which it didn’t win is, in Serkis’ words, a “short shift.” Despite the inundation of support for Serkis’ turn as Cesar, the Academy remains, as ever, worried about normalizing mo-cap performances. “They fear this is another step to not needing actors at all,” suggests Hollywood Reporter awards columnist Scott Feinberg. That much of the voting body of the Academy is made up of actors might further explain why “they don’t want to expedite the process by honouring it.” Cue members of the Academy having fever dreams about acting against tennis balls in green screen dungeons. 

Everything’s Made Up and the Awards Don’t Matter

This bias against mo-cap betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what mo-cap performance is. When you watch videos or interviews where Serkis breaks down motion capture, he is a consummate ambassador for his craft, determined to help you understand how it works on both a technical and an artistic level. He patiently describes the progression from lycra ping pong ball body socks to robust infrared patched suits. He calmly explains that the same amount of character development goes into performance capture acting as any other type of performance; that with mo-cap you’re still acting with other actors. “What is important,” Serkis explains, “more than awards, is a proper understanding of what performance capture is. It’s nothing more than acting, pure acting. I think the perception is shifting.”

So, yes, screw awards, get jiggy with mo-cap acting being acting—but also if you’re in search of a new Oscar injustice to rally behind, consider pestering the Academy about getting their heads straight about mo-cap.

p.s. While I have your attention I would like to say a brief word about Terry Notary, who those of you keeping score at home might remember as the ape-impersonating performance artist from The SquareWell, guess who’s the Planet of the Apes stunt coordinator/movement choreographer? Terry fucking Notary. He also plays Rocket and has a ridiculously impressive resume. Anyway, there’s a similar petition for Academy recognition happening in the stunt community right now and honestly, I just want Terry to accept an Oscar shirtless in arm stilts and reenact the banquet scene.

Burgeoning wine mom and talented napper. Secretly just three toddlers in a trenchcoat.