47-year actor Andy Serkis, who I have previously described as “the greatest invisible actor in motion picture history,” made some interesting remarks earlier this week in a BBC interview about the recognition or lack thereof associated with screen performers who work extensively with CGI “make-up.”

Serkis has played iconic characters in some of the biggest movies ever made. However, he is one of a rare breed of actors able to walk down busy streets and remain totally unrecognised by people who have watched and loved his performances.

Serkis’s most famous role was the ring-pinching, creepy-voiced Gollum from Lord of the Rings, for which he donned performance capture technology suits that were given a CGI makeover in post production. Serkis also played the title character in Peter Jackson’s King Kong, will star as Captain Haddock in the upcoming TinTin movies and will return as Gollum in Jackson’s upcoming The Hobbit two-part adaptation, using the same performance capture technology.

“The emotional content of these performances live and die by what the actors bring to the roles on set,” Serkis told the BBC. “I never approach a live action role any differently to a performance-captured role. The process of acting is absolutely identical.

“It should be recognised that there are two parts to the process. The first part is capturing the performance. Only later down the line do you start seeing the characters being painted over frame by frame using pixels.”

Serkis’s comments, which arrive in the wake of his latest performance as Caesar, the protagonist of director Rupert Wyatt’s unexpectedly stunning Rise of the Planet of the Apes, essentially argue that the manner with which performances are aided by CGI effects equates to a modern version of applying make-up. His logic seems to be that it is silly to punish one performance for using more make-up than another, digital or otherwise.

Serkis’s arguments are buoyed by several reasons, the first and foremost being that he is a proven thespian — a talented actor who does not need special effects to hide behind. His performance as British punk rock legend Ian Dury was tour-de-force mesmerising in Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll (which sadly never received an Australian theatrical release). And then there was the odd situation regarding Oliver Reed, who died during the filming of Gladiator (2000), his performance completed by a mixture of digital effects, a double, and creative use of outtake footage. Reed was posthumously nominated for a BAFTA even though he died before much of his performance was completed.

There is no doubt Andy Serkis’s performance as Gollum, Kong and Caesar provided the backbone, the lifeblood, the raison d’être for these vivid and startling characterisations. The tragedy is that audiences have no way of easily determining how great his performances were aided by post production techniques; how much of them were authentically “him.” Look into Caesar’s face during Rise of the Planet of the Apes and you will see a strikingly combination of competing emotions. His performance — however much you attribute that to Serkis — is vivid, soulful, ripe with spirit and dramatically powerful. But the make-up involved was far more intricate than a simple powder of the nose or even a thick layer of prosthetics.

According to this story published in The Guardian, Serkis “has said in the past that he would not want to see a special category introduced at the Oscars for motion-capture acting, insisting that success using the technique can be rewarded with current accolades.”

But this is an unreasonable expectation and leaves an awards distribution body such as the Oscars open to obvious and not unsubstantiated criticism. The answer to this vexed issue, as I see it, is for the Oscars and other awards ceremonies to do exactly what Serkis said was unnecessary — to create a  new acting award: Best Motion Capture Enhanced Performance, or something along those lines. It may not deliver Serkis the platitudes he may think he deserves, but will at least officially recognise a quintessentially modern form of acting and set in motion (no pun intended) a different way of thinking about what constitutes a great screen performance.

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Responses to this post on social media include:

  • The day the Academy creates an award for motion-capture ‘acting’ is the day I give up on H’wood & stop watching new movies. (via @insequential)
  • Criticism or not, surely just awarding him an Oscar within a normal category would be more of a statement? (via @PHILISTINE_blog)

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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