x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Could Andy Serkis get an Oscar?

Speculation that the actor, who stars in the motion-capture movie The Rise of the Planet of the Apes, could be nominated for an Academy Award.

Andy Serkis is known for his motion-capture films.
Andy Serkis is known for his motion-capture films.

Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro – the Academy Award for Best Actor has been bestowed on some of the most famous faces in film history. The idea that the most prestigious acting award in cinema could be given to a performance without a human face – or more accurately, an ape – seems ridiculous. But, incredibly, such a scenario moved one step closer to reality last week, when 20th Century Fox revealed it would be giving a hefty awards push to Andy Serkis, who clambered into a motion-capture suit to play Caesar, the genetically modified chimpanzee in this year's excellent Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

"Our job is to try to have people be aware of and recognise great performances, even when they come in this case in an unusual skin," said Tom Rothman, the co-chairman and chief executive of Fox Filmed Entertainment in the Los Angeles Times. "I think it's one of the great emotional performances ever."

But it's a digitally enhanced performance. For the uninitiated, that means the actor wears a suit made up of markers and sensors, and moves about the set in the same way he would if he was playing, say, an ape wearing heavy make-up. Every little facial expression and movement is captured, and only later is the human actor "painted" over using pixels, into the creature we see on the screen. The intention is to make a non-human character move and behave in a more physically accurate way, but an interesting by-product is that CGI-heavy films are now easier for the human characters to act in. Having something to act "against", rather than a blank space to be filled in later by an animator, is far more fulfilling.

And if any actor is to receive a nomination for a motion-capture performance, it would surely be Serkis. And he's something of an expert in the form, having played Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the gorilla in King Kong and Captain Haddock in the current Tintin movie. You'd expect him to be evangelical about the technology, then, and he revealed in a recent interview to the BBC that "the process of acting is absolutely identical. The emotional content of these performances live and die by what the actors bring to the roles on set. I never approach a live-action role any differently to a performance-captured role."

The argument is that performance capture is the same as make-up on a human character, just augmented digitally. But it was telling that none of Avatar's nine Oscar nominations in 2010 were for acting. So even though Sam Worthington was pretty sympathetic as the former marine Jake Sully, he was, in the main, a 9ft blue Na'vi created on a computer screen. Bill Nighy and Jeff Bridges both did sterling mo-cap work in Pirates of the Caribbean and Tron: Legacy respectively, but remained largely unrecognised by their industry peers.

So will Serkis's performance in Rise of the Planet of the Apes be a game-changer? There's certainly the sense that motion-capture will have to be recognised sooner or later. Avatar 2 and 3 will no doubt, judging by James Cameron's desire to push boundaries, refine the technique further. Gollum will appear again in Peter Jackson's two Hobbit films. And one of the most high-profile films of this autumn, Steven Spielberg's The Adventures of Tintin, uses motion capture in every shot to give the animation a lifelike feel (unlike, say, Pixar's Ratatouille, where there's actually a stamp labelling the film "100% Pure Animation — No Motion Capture!").

There are some good performances in The Adventures of Tintin – particularly Daniel Craig as the pirate Sakharine. But Pixar's slightly snide comment was revealing, sending a message that using motion capture for animations featuring quasi-real humans is not universally welcomed.

It also tends to make characters look like waxwork marionettes. They may move perfectly, but there's something not quite right, almost spooky about these almost-human forms. Other mo-cap animations, such as Beowulf, A Christmas Carol, Polar Express and Mars Needs Moms, all struggled with the same, distant, glassy-eyed problem.

But when motion-capture works, when it lends the sense of weight and reality to a non-human form in a recognisably real world – the results are awe-inspiring. It might be a while yet before we're heralding an ape as the best actor of the year. But a mo-cap nomination is surely not far away. Does a black tie go with a motion capture suit? Serkis is probably working that one out right now.