‘War for the Planet of the Apes’: It’s Time to Revamp the Special Achievement Oscar

'War for the Planet of the
20th Century Fox

Matt Reeves’ “War for the Planet of the Apes” hits theaters July 14, but the filmmakers and 20th Century Fox are clearly confident in what they have. The review embargo lifted early Monday, more than two weeks ahead of release, while those who saw the film at a handful of early screenings were encouraged to share their enthusiasm on social media immediately.

And there was plenty of enthusiasm to go around. Reeves has crafted an epic and emotional study of grief and vengeance and the folly of man. It’s a truly remarkable tentpole film amid the frenetic summer fray, but it’s also yet another victory lap for the performance capture techniques Andy Serkis has been championing and defending as they’ve slowly but surely moved from industry-threatening boogeyman to wave of the future.

Which leaves the question: Is it time for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to dust off the defunct special achievement award and recognize Serkis’ efforts, along with those of the talented artisans behind the scenes who have helped bring his performances to life? It’s a good year to do it, particularly with Serkis’ directorial debut, “Breathe,” on the way later this year. But moreover, wouldn’t it be prudent to resuscitate the honor on an annual basis at a time when technology and ingenuity are changing the nature of cinema at a dizzying rate?

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The Academy awarded 17 special achievement Oscars during a 23-year span from 1973 to 1995 before discontinuing the practice. Beginning with a nod to the visual effects of “The Poseidon Adventure,” the honorary commendations went to films like “Logan’s Run,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Superman,” “RoboCop,” and “Total Recall.” The final prize was awarded to John Lasseter in 1996 for his leadership of the Pixar team that birthed “Toy Story.”

The award was given in recognition of achievements that made exceptional contributions to the motion picture for which they were created, but for which there was no annual award. Typically it was for sound effects editing or visual effects, but a couple of times the notices came for accomplishments that to this day have no simple categorization, like Lasseter’s leadership, or Richard Williams’ animation direction in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.”

Serkis’ work in the realm of performance capture absolutely qualifies, and through his efforts at the Imaginarium Studios in London, he remains at the forefront of a technological pursuit that continues to push cinema to new and exciting horizons.

Of course, that’s all old news. Every time Serkis and these exceptional effects artists dazzle anew, the same sentiments are conveyed. The “special achievement award” drums have been banged frequently enough as well (ahem). But “War for the Planet of the Apes” is a crowning achievement in this realm. Reeves is boldly fixated on faces in the film, telling much of the story through close-ups rather than retreating to wide angles to enhance the scope. That puts Serkis and the other performance capture stars front and center, embossing the idea that their work as actors drives the effects.

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Andy Serkis vs. Visual Effects Animators: The Wrong Fight for Both Sides

Serkis has stirred dissent in the past with remarks like “digital makeup” that have caused some effects artists to gripe that their work was being diminished. That couldn’t be farther from the truth, however, and the whole enterprise is notably a collaboration. Reeves made mention of the yin and yang following a recent “War” screening in Los Angeles. “We’d have them side-by-side,” he said of a production shot and the ongoing effects rendering of same. “I’d say, ‘Andy’s angry here, and we have that, but he’s also sad and I’m not seeing that yet.'”

All of that is to say that Serkis taking the spotlight with a sole honor would not be the best course of action. Someone needs to be there to represent the yang, and few would make better sense than visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri. The Weta Digital director has been right there alongside Serkis every step of the way, going back to Gollum and “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.” The 10-time Oscar nominee (and four-time winner) has also innovated away from Serkis with James Cameron and the “Avatar” films. He would be a perfect steward for the visual effects community in this equation.

Serkis has long sought consideration as an actor first and foremost for these accomplishments. His work in the first installment of the new “Apes” franchise, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” stirred best actor chatter in 2011, and again (along with Toby Kebbell’s brilliant work) for “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” three years later. The new film will likely revitalize the conversation anew, and rightly so. But getting the acting branch on board for something like that will likely remain an uphill climb until the ridiculous notion of performance capture rendering the role of an actor obsolete finally evaporates completely.

In the meantime, the bigger picture goes unrewarded on the Academy’s grandest stage as these individuals continue to shape the industry. Perhaps it’s time for that to change.

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  1. No. Not a Special Achievement Award. Andy Serkis deserves a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Caesar. He’s a character actor no different than Gary Oldman, Claude Rains, Boris Karloff, or Phillip Seymour Hoffman except Serkis “wears” CGI instead of make up and a costume. The voice, the delivery, the intonation and phrasing, the emotional execution, the movement, the ACTING are all his and shine clearly through his computer generated “costume”.

  2. sanecatguy says:

    Put dots all over your green suit and pretend you’re a monkey = Oscar gold

  3. That's What She says:

    If Robin Williams can be nominated Best Actor for voicing, that flood gate has long since opened.

    • Nick says:

      Butt since he was never nominated or won for Best Actor for Voicing–and is now gone–I guess the flood gates are still closed.

  4. BD says:

    When you have a huge movie star and “greatest actress of all time” title holder Meryl Streep talking shit about this, you know Hollywood isn’t ready for a performance nomination/win. So the Special Achievement makes sense to reward this amazing work. And it fits Serkis perfectly considering his previous work in three BP nominees one of which won, plus these three films, all six of them blockbusters.

  5. Anna Bohlman says:

    That sounds so boring it’s just war against apes and people I wouldn’t see that one

  6. brndtnlsn says:

    Note that the Special Achievement Award is still in the Academy rulebook.

  7. Bill B. says:

    As impressive as it has been, it seems more a visual effect than a true performance. At the very least, it’s certainly a combination of the two. A special award? Certainly. A best actor nomination? I don’t think it would be deserved.

  8. jedi77 says:

    “resuscitate the honor on an annual basis” – absplutely not. What makes it special is that it is only to be given out when warranted. That way it’ll mean so much more.

    Preferably only once every 5 or 6 years.

  9. Ilan says:

    I think it will have to be a Special Achievement award, a Best Actor statue is many years off for pcap work, if it ever happens at all.

  10. MIchael says:

    Best way to honor Serkis is with a Best Actor nod. It would not win but it is the nomination that matters here. I think the actors branch realizes the skill and craft in what he is able to accomplish by simply acting. Perhaps the most raw form of acting, movement, mime craft, gesture and expression that reminds one of silent film.

  11. Ariel Casanova says:

    Mostly everyone seems to agree that Serkis deserves an Oscar and that these movies are of the highest quality (which I fully agree with, BTW), yet they get sidelined so often in deference to bigger, invariably worse, films. The franchise has totally earned recognition – what’s holding them back from giving it to them? :D

    • Nikki says:

      They do deserve an Oscar. For FX. But isolating the acting is very tricky unless you include the visual effects animators who do most of the acting and work bringing the apes to the screen. Doing so would blow the door wide open to other animated films being considered–films like Moana, Inside Out, and Tangled had great animation acting. And some good voice talent, too.

  12. Cary Coatney says:

    This is bullcrap!! Embargo or not. A film review shouldn’t appear in print or new media until DAYS before the official release date. This review spoils a lot of things for people pumped up to see the picture!!

    ~

    Coat

  13. Mark says:

    So long as the ANIMATORS who brought all the apes to life are also recognized. Not a single shot of the mo cap work has gone through production without significant acting work done by the animators. In many cases–the mo-cap is tossed entirely, or just used as general reference.

  14. Steve Barr says:

    If John Hurt deserved an Oscar nomination for The Elephant Man Andy Serkis deserves something for the Apes movies.

  15. Another Poster says:

    It’s also time to give out an annual award to the Best Stunt Man, Stunt Woman, and Stunt Team of the year, as many other entertainment award shows do. Stunt people risk life and limb for the motion picture industry and they should be given an annual award for their dangerous work.

    • Holly Wood says:

      Who shouldn’t get an award? You can’t make a movie without a P.A. so how about recognizing the best one. Best office P.A. On A Historical Drama? Shouldn’t the Locations Managers Guild’s give an award for best locations manager also be recognized? Best Assistant Location Manager Of The Year?

      Imagine if every other industry spent so much time and money patting themselves on the back for doing their jobs well. It would be heartbreaking to lose the Best Court Stenographer At A Securities Fraud Trial to that kid who got on the Madoff case with practically no experience and you just KNOW you recorded the crap out of that investment counselor’s testimony while that kid practically had it handed to him on a silver platter. Bastard.

      Fun Fact: Best Office P.A. isn’t real – yet – but the Location Managers Guild and its awards are. Best Assistant Location Manager Of The Year is a thing. Look it up.

      PS – Stunt awards are already a thing and they have their own standalone show.

      • Brother of a Stunt Player says:

        Nice. PA’s aren’t expected to put their life on the line to, “get the shot”. No one ever died, getting coffee or asking someone to be quiet on set. Nice way to belittle the stunt community. Stunt Players deserve an Oscar Category. The Stunt awards came about pretty much because of the decades old snub from the Oscar committee. It’s time for a change.

    • RX says:

      The question that will inevitably surround the stunt industry being included in the Oscars is how much CGI enhancement is in play. It used to be just wire removal, but now it’s complete replacement of humans for all but the initial leap and the landing of many physical stunts. Even car stunts are heavily augmented much more than ever before. The results are often dynamic, but there’s STILL those tell-tale signs that the stuntmen or stuntwomen may have been replaced entirely for several frames, or those stunts that are just a little too “perfectly” wild and seat-of-the-pants. If anything, the stunts category should’ve been a thing from the dawn of the Oscars right up to the 2000’s, before CGI enhancement really made it difficult to trust our eyes. It’s appalling that decades of work performed by these people went essentially unrecognized by the Academy.

  16. Steven Solomon says:

    Good idea. In addition to the award worthy performance from Andy Serkis, I hope the Academy overcomes it’s perception of “popcorn” films and recognizes the heart and humanity in this film. It’s the best of the three and clearly worthy of a Best Picture nomination.

  17. Simians Rock! says:

    The “Apes” series is the best action franchise currently going, and I think it’s absurd that the first 2 movies – both nominated for the VFX Oscar – didn’t win for what is clearly very brilliant work. Perhaps 3rd time will be the charm?

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