On the back of the unexpected success of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the big news isn’t a planned sequel but rather a “a healthy seven-figure deal for Andy Serkis to reprise his role as lead ape Caesar” along with the announcement that 20th Century Fox will be mounting an Oscar campaign aimed at getting Serkis a long overdue nod for Best Supporting Actor. It’s significant, too, because we never see Andy Serkis directly in Rise; rather, Caesar was created by the meshing of Serkis’s visceral, physical acting and the state-of-the-art computer wizardry from Weta Digital. Whether you prefer the term virtual actor, synthespian (‘synthetic thespian’) or just performance capture, an Academy Award for Serkis would demonstrate a widening understanding of what ‘acting’ actually means.
While synthespians aren’t entirely new, they’ve always been treated with a certain level of suspicion. On one hand, actors and unions feared that studios might find a way to do away with physical actors altogether, preferring the more reliable, less demanding and infinitely more malleable certainty of digital datasets. However, as Dan North convincingly argues in Performing Illusions, rather than making actors superfluous, synthespians actually illustrate ‘an interdependence between the human and the machine, the digital and the analogue, the real and the simulated’. Anyone who has worked with performance capture knows that it takes more people to facilitate the work of a virtual actor, not less. Perhaps more difficult to overcome is the sense that since the on-screen presence is necessarily created by digital technology, then for virtual actors it’s very difficult to tell where the actor ends and the virtual begins. If software like Photoshop has challenged the truth value of photographs, then a synthespian might embody that distrust writ large.
In some respect addressing the uncertainly associated with virtual acting, in the Rise of the Planet of the Apes – Weta Featurette released to showcase the film’s special effects on its initial cinema release, Serkis describes performance capture as a means to create ape characters “infused with the heart and soul of an actor”. Director Rupert Wyatt goes a step further, arguing: “You can be blinded by the technology, you can find yourself weighed down by it, and I think Andy brings a spirit and an understanding and a simplicity. He’s able to push the technology to one side and just think about it interms of just a real live action performance.” These promotional clips could almost be seen as the opening salvo in 20th Century Fox’s Oscar campaign.
While Fox may be driving the campaign to get Academy recognition for Serkis’s work in Rise, in some respects the road to the Oscars has been part of an 8 year long argument made by Peter Jackson and Weta Digital. Amongst the vast sea of extra features on the Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers Extended Edition DVDs was a full 30 minute documentary about the creation of Gollum and how Andy Serkis’s performance completely changed director Jackson’s thinking about the character. An initial plan to animate Gollum and just use a voice actor (as seen in the brief glimpses of Gollum in Fellowship of the Ring) was discarded when Jackson saw the intense physicality Serkis brought when auditioning for the voice role. Instead, Serkis spent a large proportion of the following years working in a leotard covered with dozens (and then hundreds) of reference points. While a point of some humour, this was also the beginning of the process that Weta Digital has since dubbed Performance Capture. And every time Performance Capture is mentioned, Weta, Jackson and anyone involved with the technology always goes to great pains to emphasise it only works if the underlying performance – the acting – is outstanding, a point reinforced in the promotional material surrounding Serkis’s subsequent work as the titular ape in Jackson’s King Kong.
If make-up and costuming can win Academy Awards at one end of the spectrum, and general achievement in special effects can be recognized at the other, perhaps it’s time to recognize that the category of acting is changing as well. Whether performance capture is considered digital costuming or special effects, after seeing Serkis’s impressive performance as Caesar, it’s hard not to recognize the performance as a performance.
While still fairly small, a grassroots effort to recognize Serkis’s work began long before the Fox campaign was announced. The Oscar for Andy Serkis as Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes Facebook group has around 750 members, and an associated Twitter account OscarForAndy has 400 followers. While even getting a best supporting actor nomination will be a big admission by the Academy about the changing nature of acting in the 21st century, it does seem timely. The original Planet of the Apes (1968) resulted in a Special Achievement Academy Awards for Makeup for John Chambers (the category didn’t become a regular award until 1981), perhaps Rise will cause the Academy to hedge their bets and have a similar special achievement award created. I, for one, can imagine no better acceptance speech than Andy Serkis walking onto the stage, looking the squarely at the camera and whispering, ‘Oscar is home’.