When actor Andy Serkis approaches the security gate on a studio lot, he probably should have his photo ID ready.
Serkis may be the most famous film actor people don’t recognize. He played Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, the namesake gorilla of “King Kong” and, most recently, the chimpanzee Caesar in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.”
All of which should make Serkis the poster boy for motion capture — the technique of digitally capturing actors’ movements that become the basis for animated characters.
This year it will be hard to ignore what Serkis has achieved: His poignant performance as Caesar was pivotal in “Apes,” and he plays a major role in “The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn,” for which Steven Spielberg used motion capture to transform the drawings of Herge into stylized animation. These two uses of motion capture couldn’t be more different.
Now the question is whether voters will consider motion capture performances worthy of awards attention.
“It’s very gratifying,” Serkis says about those who believe his work should be noted during kudos season. “People were emotionally engaged with Caesar as a character; he just happened to be an ape.”
The actor admits, though, that “from an acting perspective, it’s taking a while. For ‘Avatar,’ Jim Cameron wanted support for his actors, and I think that opened people’s eyes. The biggest block at the moment is convincing the acting community that performance capture is just acting.”
The Screen Actors Guild has embraced this view, honoring Serkis’ Gollum along with the rest of the cast in its 2004 film ensemble nod for “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.” SAG now has a performance capture committee, chaired by Woody Schultz, whose credits include “Avatar” and “Tintin.”
“I understand the confusion on the part of some actors about honoring these kinds of performances,” says Schultz. “Especially when a character isn’t human, it’s difficult for people to recognize the acting.”
Schultz notes capture technology was used in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” and Brad Pitt landed a lead actor Oscar nom.
Serkis sees signs of growing awareness. “People used to say, ‘Andy Serkis lent his movements to Gollum,’ and now they say ‘Andy Serkis played Caesar.’ That’s a significant leap,” he says. But greater acceptance among actors voting on acting honors may ultimately depend upon more of them getting comfortable with the process, especially as motion capture becomes physically less cumbersome.
On “Apes,” the actors were captured by motion capture cameras right alongside film cameras, which Serkis thinks makes the process easier.
“Every single moment was crafted by actors on a live-action set, so we could capture the intensity of a scene,” he recalls. “That’s becoming more of an industry standard now. I’m currently doing ‘The Hobbit,’ and actors are coming on set and knocking performances out of the park.”
When it comes to parsing eligibility for awards, there will be continued debates about what part of a character’s performance is actor-driven and what part is “authored” by animators.
“It’s a slippery slope,” says Richard Edlund, longtime member of the AMPAS board of governors and of its VFX branch. “Motion capture is always tweaked by animators, sometimes to a great extent, but if it’s a character performance, it’s acting.”
Supporting vs. lede debate an annual discussion | Ingenues have tradition of landing lead actress nom | Studios hope early releases have kudos traction | Motion capture perfs under review