With motion-capture, why can't adults play live roles, too?
Andy Serkis has made a name for himself playing apes of the giant and genius variety, as well as a misshapen Middle Earth monster obsessed with a ring.Which raises an interesting question: How would he feel about playing a 10-year-old? Serkis — the reigning king of performance capture — has been featured in “King Kong,” “The Planet of the Apes” and “The Lord of the Rings.” Watching some upcoming TV shows, though, I began to wonder if modern technology couldn’t be put to use reducing the number of child actors as well. Kids, after all, are an inconvenience in Hollywood terms, raising all kinds of issues regarding child-labor laws and curtailed shooting schedules. Moreover, there’s enough evidence that growing up on movie sets isn’t great for kids — see “The E! True Hollywood Story” — and anything to mitigate the process seems worth considering. Notably, television has already found interesting ways to circumvent this problem — especially within programs depicting minors in a more provocative fashion than would normally be acceptable. Faster than you can say “Bart Simpson,” the perfect solution: Animated kids. Because if motion capture has become a go-to method to make the fantastic plausible — bringing blue aliens and Martians to life — animation represents a means of introducing helpful layers of unreality into situations that might otherwise seem a little too real. FX’s latest comedy, “Unsupervised,” features teenage characters (good luck scheduling production around that) and surrounds them with sex, drugs and absentee parents. But they’re not really kids at all. The show is animated, with adults providing the voices for virtually all the characters. In this regard, the show is hardly alone. From “The Simpsons” to “Beavis and Butt-head” to “South Park” — along with such lesser lights as MTV’s “Good Vibes” and Fox’s short-lived “Allen Gregory” — adults have given voice to kids, who, thanks to the cushion of animation, can be presented in wildly inappropriate (and occasionally quite funny) situations. So why stop there? Obviously, there are all kinds of practical concerns in replacing kids with motion capture, starting with cost. But the technology’s only going to get better, which will gradually make wider use of computer-altered or enhanced surrogates more feasible, especially for more generously budgeted studio productions. And the savings associated with less restrictive work hours when kids play larger roles would likely help offset some of the additional expense. The practice of adults playing children has already been used in computer-rendered movies like “The Polar Express.” But we’ve also seen some creative uses of technology, such as FX’s “American Horror Story,” which digitally took about 30 years off Jessica Lange for flashback sequences, in much the way Brad Pitt aged downward in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” What’s a few more decades among friends? Most of the discussion through the years about motion capture has surrounded such issues as its prospects of putting actors out of work, or the relative merits of those performances vs. flesh-and-blood portrayals, most recently spurred by an awards-consideration push behind Serkis’ work in “Apes.” As for child actors, there will still be a need for them, but fewer kids could grow up on movie sets. Besides, talk to people in Hollywood and most would think twice before setting their own children on that particular path. Variety’s tech guru David Cohen has accurately written that while computers can approximate extraordinary figures, it remains “fiendishly difficult to make realistic CG humans that just look, move and talk believably for more than a few seconds. It’s never been done in movies, even with performance capture.” Still, one could argue people already accept a degree of unreality when it comes to teenagers, given the longstanding habit of casting young adults as high-school students — from “Grease” to “Glee” — for all the obvious reasons. Cynics have joked we’re not far from a day when all parts will eventually be played by Serkis, as productions like “Avatar,”"Beowulf,” “John Carter” and “The Adventures of Tintin” continue to perfect techniques allowing actors to be something they’re not, from towering aliens to rampaging apes. Add adorable little tykes to that list, and maybe we can spare one or two children from winding up on E!