Monday, August 15, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Rise of the Planet of the Apes
seen @ Green Acres Cinemas, Valley Stream NY

The website Rope of Silicon did a podcast discussion last week on whether or not Andy Serkis deserves Oscar consideration for his role as Caesar the ape in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It's a conversation we'll likely hear more of in the years to come as performance-capture technology not only improves, but is used more often in films. And of course, it's a testament to Serkis' skill in playing a computer-generated, super-intelligent ape so believably in what was a quite entertaining and exciting movie that this discussion is even taking place.

In the podcast, the arguments against an Oscar nomination in acting for Serkis (presumably Supporting Actor, although one could argue for Lead Actor as well) were good ones. Perhaps the most basic argument, as far as Academy voters are concerned, is whether or not what we see on screen is 100% of Serkis' performance. An image of a scene was posted on the same page as the podcast comparing Serkis - headgear, facial dots, bodysuit and all - to the finished image of Caesar, and one can clearly see a slight difference in the position of the mouth. A minor thing, perhaps, but enough for one to wonder what other changes the CGI artists made.

There were other arguments. Does Serkis deserve full credit for the performance? Is this not as much a triumph of the computer animators as well? If one can credit Serkis, then why can't one credit voice actors in animated movies? The titular robot of WALL-E also generated emotion and sympathy without making human sounds. Should that be considered an award-worthy performance as well?

I don't have any easy answers to these questions. Like many people, I went into Rise knowing in my head that what I was seeing on the screen were computer-generated apes rendered through P-cap tech, and marveling not only at the look of it, but in how seamlessly it blends with the live actors and sets (including outdoor locations). After awhile, though, I forgot about all of that and only saw the characters and the performances - and the movie goes to great lengths to impress on you that Caesar is a character, a self-aware individual with desires, emotions, and ultimately, a purpose. 

Like Serkis' roles in the Lord of the Rings movies and King Kong, and Zoe Saldana's role in Avatar, the technology is in service to the actor that brings the character to life, and my feeling is that this is what distinguishes P-cap from voice work in animated films like WALL-E. In Rise, Serkis now has the ability to interact directly with the other actors on set and on location. That's significant. As for the issue of whether or not we see Serkis' complete performance, I admit, that's much trickier. If there is doubt, then perhaps what's needed is a "Best Digital Performance" category - one in which Serkis could share a nomination with the visual effects team. That seems like the best compromise to me.

I don't have the answers, but I know this much: sooner or later, the Academy will have to make a decision as to where they stand on P-cap performances. They're not going away, and if Serkis' body of work in the field is any indication, they're only going to get better. I believe the most we can expect from the Academy would be a special non-competitive Oscar, the kind they've given out like M&Ms in the past (including, ironically, one for the makeup in the original 1968 Apes movie). Even that, however, may be expecting too much. There's still a great deal of misunderstanding, and dare I say it, fear over P-cap and what it could mean for working actors. If so, then that's something they need to discuss in an open forum.

So how about it? Which side of the debate do you fall on?


  1. I wasn’t actually expecting to be as moved as I did from this material but Serkis just really channeled the inner ape within him, and nails this perfect motion-capture performance as Caesar. Good Review!

  2. I don't think a lot of people expected his performance to be so moving.


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