Andy Serkis of 'Apes' on why motion capture is real acting

That's Andy Serkis behind the digitally applied ape exterior - a process that uses technology to capture what Serkis does but not undo or alter his performance.
That's Andy Serkis behind the digitally applied ape exterior - a process that uses technology to capture what Serkis does but not undo or alter his performance.
Posted: July 11, 2014

SOONER or later it's going to happen - some actor in a motion-capture suit is going to deliver a performance that wins an Oscar.

And when it does happen, the question will loom: Who deserves the Oscar? Is it the actor whose performance is captured on set, or is it also the animators and artists who add digital texture to the performance in postproduction?

I put this to Andy Serkis, the motion-capture specialist who played Gollum in "Lord of the Rings," the title character in "King Kong" and Caesar in the "Planet of the Apes" movies, the latest winning Serkis some extraordinary and well-deserved praise.

Serkis, pondering the question, sounded just a bit miffed.

"The way I see it, they are actually two separate categories. The visual-effects artists are to be applauded for their wonderful work, but there should be a special category for what they do.

"There are two distinct stages of the process, and what it boils down to is authorship of the performance. It's the actor who undergoes the trauma, who provides the emotional backbone of the character, who sees the arc of the character from page 1 to page 120 of the script. The performance is really no different from live action. You immerse yourself in the character, you live inside his psychological world, you embody that world on set and you are that person for the entirety of the production. The visual artists apply their technology to the process at a much later date, when the essence of the performance has already been defined, by the actor and by the director," Serkis said.

"Avatar" director and motion-capture pioneer James Cameron has said that the line between what actors do and what artists do will eventually be erased.

Serkis said that, right now, that's premature.

The line is very much still there.

"What we're doing now is really more analogous to what John Hurt did in 'Elephant Man.' He's playing this role internally, and effects artists are adding the amazing effects on top of it. But there's no confusion as to who gets authorship of the performance, nor should there be."

You wonder, though, if there might be confusion in the minds of Oscar voters, who may not fully understand the technology, and aren't sure how much credit to give the actor.

"I think there needs to be some education about what exactly is going on, on set," Serkis said. "There's an air of mystification about it, which needs to be got rid of."

In a motion-capture performance, Serkis dons a special suit covered with tiny sensors, so that his movements are captured via camera in a way that can be digitally animated to become Gollum or Kong or Caesar.

Less widely understood is that mini-cameras also capture the tiny movements of the actors' faces, registering movements of the eye and facial muscles that suggest a wide range of emotions. Those motions are preserved, rather than invented, by the animators.

"What this is really about is the way the proliferation of the digital realm of filmmaking affects the way we think about what we do. What we're doing with motion capture, what the director of photography did on 'Gravity,' it's all being redefined. Digital technology means a whole new range of collaboration, and it will take time for everyone to catch up."

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