MovieBob - Intermission

The Mo-Cap Battle Between Actors and Animators

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Is the success of motion capture in modern cinema because of the efforts of actors or animators? The battle rages on.

The point at which I realized I’d stopped being (intellectually) a child and had become an adult was, I think, the point where I realized that despite the supposed impossibility — this technique was frequently used to blow up robot-brains on Star Trek — it was in fact totally possible to accept two seemingly contradictory concepts as fact and still function. Because the real world runs on pragmatism and compromise, not idealism or philosophy, so yes, damn it, it is 100% possible to be in favor of this or that bending of “the rules” when it benefits you but also 100% in favor of the rules standing hard and fast when bending them would hurt you — and you can call that being a “hypocrite,” but I prefer the term “guy who actually gets things done.”

But I digress…

An exceptionally visible example of contradictory-facts adherence in the movie business is The Academy Awards (aka “The Oscars,”) which almost everyone whose business involves thinking about such things holds the following to be true about: The Oscars are basically a popularity contest with next to no actual merit as an appraisal of artistic achievement… But they’re also an honor to receive and a validation for the recipient. There’s a business aspect to that, to be sure — the Oscar is culturally ubiquitous enough that having one is simply terrific from a self-promotion standpoint (i.e. maybe now you’ll get job offers from projects that want to effectively “rent” your credibility as a winner), but it also goes deeper than that. At the end of the day, it’s nice to get a trophy and be told you did good.

Which is why every few years as the movie industry undergoes this or that tectonic shift in terms of what can and can’t be done onscreen, a debate erupts over if and how certain disciplines can qualify for certain awards. Is it fair for traditionally-animated films and computer-animation to compete in the same category? Should a character-makeup that requires extra offscreen puppeteering get to compete against traditional “pieces of stuff glued to the actor” makeup? Can a voiceover performance be nominated alongside a physical one? For a while, The Academy even handed out separate Best Picture awards to color and black and white films for precisely these reasons.

For the last couple of years (going on a decade, really, but only being established as a not-going-away issue recently) is the question of whether the actors who embody characters via motion-capture and/or performance-capture animation — by which their physical movements are scanned into a computer to create a CGI-animated character — should be eligible for Best Actor/Actress nominations alongside actors who performed the traditional way. (A separate fight within the animation community regarding animated films that use the technology has been quietly raging on the sidelines for even longer.)

Technically, there’s no rule against it, largely because nothing close to that technology existed when these rules were being written…but everyone involved is well aware of the firestorm of criticism that such a nomination would result invite: It’s almost a given that at least one “rival” actor (or one rival actor’s agent, via a press “leak”) would voice complaints about the comparison being unfair, possibly even in a formal complaint the Screen Actors’ Guild, which has been paranoid about seeing the profession undermined by so-called “synthespians” for years.

At the center of this controversy from what was essentially its inception is, fascinatingly, a single man: Andy Serkis, who first captivated audiences worldwide with his groundbreaking turn as Gollum in the Lord of The Rings movies and is receiving similar accolades for his sophomore turn as primate revolutionary leader Caesar in Dawn of The Planet of The Apes. A plentitude of Apes and LotR fans, along with a growing number of critics, have been stumping for Serkis to receive an acting nomination for his “mo-cap” roles for years, and the actor himself has never been shy about considering roles like these worthy of the honor — but not everyone agrees, and in a surprising turn the most recent pushback is coming not from fellow actors… but from animators.


At issue, as laid out in this CartoonBrew summary from a few months back, is Serkis’ recent habit of using the term “digital makeup” when describing his process in regards to the animators who build the characters around his captured image and data. More than a few in the animation industry have taken offense to the terminology, feeling that it diminishes the roles that they play in crafting the characters motion-capture actors portray.

On that same CartoonBrew story, the LotR Trilogy’s Director of Animation, Randall William Cook dropped in to the comments section to opine that — while he has nothing but praise for Serkis — the “digital makeup” analogy just isn’t appropriate. In his lengthy explanation, Cook outlines the ways in which major parts of Serkis’ performance as Gollum were tweaked and enhanced beyond the original “raw” motion-capture: Expanding/altering facial expressions, changing body position, switching up the placement of limbs within a scene, etc. While he allows for the hypothetical possibility that the technology being used a decade later on the Apes films may be advanced and thus requiring far less extra input from animators, his overall point is fairly blunt: Gollum, at least, was not the sole product of his actor’s performance.

Well, then.

The cleanest of Hollywood’s dirty secrets (in terms of visibility) when it comes to awards and accolades is that almost everyone is receiving solo credit for fundamentally collaborative work — and everyone knows it. Only the most oblivious of “Best Actors” truly think they still would’ve won had their director not given them the right input, or had the editor not plucked just the right takes, or had the cinematographer not properly emphasized them in the frame. A composer could write the most gorgeous musical score of his career, but if it’s only going to underscore the events of Garfield 3 chances are it won’t be noticed. Hell, the Best Screenplay awards are occasionally regarded as an “inside joke” by those actually on the inside, who know how common it is for the “contractually credited writer” to be someone who A.) didn’t write the original script and B.) probably had their re-write re-written by several other people before it got to the shooting phase.

This is the game, and everyone knows it — that’s (one reason) why everyone’s Oscar Speech inevitably descends into a litany of thank-yous: You take the award, you acknowledge that everyone has help getting there, you let the rest of the room know that you don’t think you were the one key piece to puzzle… even if you actually do think you are. Bottom line: You never, ever say that you did it all yourself and you definitely never say anything that sounds like you’re minimizing someone else’s contribution. Even if you sincerely believe everyone would’ve still been bowled-over by your performance regardless of which hat wardrobe put on you that day, when it comes up you smile and say “Oh yeah! That blue hat — it just wouldn’t have worked without the blue hat.”

The reason that system of mutual-humility works is that it’s built to maintain the industry’s lopsided sense of balance: Big stars who hold up the tent being gracious to the “little people” who keep them standing because they need the tent. What makes the situation between Serkis and the various animators taking public and private exception to his description of how their work-relationship functions unique and thorny is that it’s a uncommon case of two chronically-overlooked disciplines — two of the “little people” — scrapping for credit.

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On Serkis’ side, motion-capture acting — the discipline that’s turned him from one more mugging character-actor into a bona-fide movie star (one considered the de-facto “king” of a particular style, even) — is a new and not well-understood process in an industry that fears change and obsolescence above all else. Some established actors look down on it, some new actors see it as a threat to breaking in (why take a risk on new young talent when established superstars can start CGI-ing themselves into twentysomething bodies?), and still more see fewer jobs overall if, say, a single mo-capped performance can be copy-pasted into an army. Those who have these fears would want to see the “merits” of what Serkis and others do diminished, and “The animators helped, so it’s not all your work” is a handy way to do it. So one can see why he’d be touchy on the subject, and looking for any chance to assert the primacy of his contribution.

Meanwhile, CGI animators have been the industry’s beleaguered whipping-boy for decades now: Creating the FX spectacles that wow audiences and bring the filmmakers immaginations to life… but also absorbing the blame for how “soulless” and “weightless” the blockbuster scene has become, and not even getting much love from the effects fandom community, which has always preferred the oldschool “toymaker’s workshop” feel of practical effects to animators and their armies of workstations. They’ve been getting it from both sides forever, and now that creations like Gollum and Caesar are getting proper attention the credit is all going to go to the actor?

Having seen Dawn, I feel comfortable in saying that Caesar (and several other main ape characters) feel like something on an entirely other level than other animated creatures — the sense of a human sentience under the pixels is undeniable. But I also have to conclude that it feels equally undeniable that the humanity being able to show through must owe a lot to the animators working out the subtle differences between Serkis’ actual physiology and Caesar’s.

Case in point: Two of the film’s most important shots involve tight close-ups on Caesar’s eyes; and while I’ve no doubt that Serkis’ own expressive gaze was the key point of reference… the human iris is difficult to photograph, much less motion-capture. And while one can appreciate Serkis’ (or any actor in the same situation) wanting to emphasize that what they’re doing is real acting, I have to say he could probably stand to take greater care that he’s not unfairly (even if unintentionally) downplaying his collaborators’ work in the process.

Beyond that, I don’t know if a solution to this exists outside of creating a special category for technologically-assisted performance at The Oscars etc, and even that would likely be regarded as “ghettoizing” the nominated performances and would still likely be handed off to the actor and maybe a credited supervisor — leaving the in-the-trenches animators overlooked again.

But the question is fascinating: Much has been made of our potential move into a “post-human” world where technology and biology begin to become indistinguishable, but it looks like the entertainment industry is going to get there first. What happens if, when the technology exists, actors begin using things like gene-manipulation on cybernetics to augment themselves for certain roles?

We also picture our Brave New World scenarios coming to a head with grand conundrums about rights or personhood… but chances are before all that we’ll be fighting over whether a singer can win a Grammy if they’ve had auto-tune implanted directly into their vocal chords, or if someone deserves a Best Actor Oscar for “The Bill Clinton Story” after having his DNA re-written with that of the actual Bill Clinton.

What a time to be alive.

About the author

Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.