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

As audiences discover “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” a film where the performance-capture simians steal the show from the live-action humans, there’s sure to be another spate of talk about Andy Serkis as a contender for acting awards.

Let’s get this out of the way: Serkis is great in the role of Caesar, the ape leader, but it’s almost inconceivable the Academy or SAG will nominate him. The business isn’t there yet. Maybe critics and press awards will be more open-minded.

At the moment, too, the case for Serkis and his performance-capture cohorts in “Apes” is being hurt by a nasty spat between visual effects animators and Serkis himself. The issue is whether the actor alone creates a performance through the process, or whether the animators deserve credit.

At the risk of getting punched by both sides, I’m stepping into the middle of this fight. Here’s some advice for angry artists and Andy Serkis alike: Walk away. This is not the fight you want to be having. The argument itself is hurting you more than losing would.

For those joining this fight in the middle, here’s a summary of the action so far: Serkis gave an interview to a website in which he offered his take on the state of performance capture. He talked about the improvements in the process, saying, “It’s a given that they absolutely copy (the performance) to the letter, to the point in effect what they are doing is painting digital makeup onto actors’ performances.”

Serkis’s quote was picked up by an animation website that ran a story with the headline “Andy Serkis Does Everything, Animators Do Nothing, Says Andy Serkis.” Incendiary headline? Well, if so, it set exactly the fire it was meant to. Serkis became a pariah among many vfx artists and an object of ridicule on social media.

I’m going to tell everyone involved some things they don’t want to hear, but first let me first address vfx pros who are angry about this. (Disclosure: I was a theatre major with an acting and directing concentration, and started out as a stage director. I love actors and their work. So if you think that means I can’t be fair about the contribution of vfx animators, skip down and read the section where I address Andy Serkis. On the other hand, I have been covering visual effects for the better part of 15 years. I love what these people do. So if you think that means I can’t be fair about the contribution of actors, well…)

Look, I know you vfx pros are feeling disrespected. And you are disrespected. Probably no craft in Hollywood history has ever received so little for contributions so great. Your compensation has shrunk and your fringes have withered. You face many of the same problems as itinerant actors, but without the protections of a union or guild.

But in this argument, you are asking for a level of respect no craft gets.

Film actors have never been solo authors of their performance. They don’t choose the takes that make it into the film or what’s left on the cutting room floor. They don’t write their words or stage their scenes. That line that everybody still remembers? Written by some schmuck with an Underwood, er, Macbook. That shot that created a sex symbol? The d.p. hid the blemishes. That hilarious reaction shot? Could have been cut in from another scene. That tear rolling down their cheek? Might be digital.

But when it’s time to give out acting awards, it’s the actor at the podium. It’s customary and polite for the actor to thank the director, fellow actors, agent, manager and family, and maybe the writer if the music hasn’t come up, but not the editor, or the d.p. or any of the other crafts that burnished that actor’s performance. And nobody seriously argues they should.

Years ago I interviewed a film editor who lamented how bad the footage he gets often is. He told of a film where he was at wits’ end trying to piece together a performance from the leading lady, whose work he thought terrible. Punchline: She won the Oscar for the part.

Now, maybe that editor is right, and the footage was bad — or maybe not; editors love to say they’re the hero on every picture they cut — but even so, she has an Oscar on her mantle, and he has a story to tell bartenders and reporters.

It will always be so.

With performance capture, specifically, the involvement of animators is a bug, not a feature. It’s a necessary bug, because apes and N’avi and the like aren’t a neat match for the actors who play them, but the better and more precise the process gets, the more the actors will translated to the screen. Progress in the field is defined by steps that shift control from the animator to the actor.

Like picture editors, you will inevitably make profound contributions that can make or break a performance, but you’re never going to get credit for being the creator of the performance. If you want that kind of credit, stick to traditionally animated characters and avoid performance capture.

Okay, now that I’ve pointed you vfx artists toward a neutral corner, let me turn to Andy Serkis.

Andy, when we talk, you don’t seem angry about this, or about your fellow actors’ reluctance to accept performance capture as simply the next evolution of their art. You seem mostly baffled that people don’t understand what you’re trying to say.

I get that you’re campaigning for respect for your craft, when from your point of view acting is acting, whether it’s done with period costumes or mo-cap suits. And in fact, you are probably not as respected or famous as you should be, given the quality of your acting in so many hit films.

You and I spoke recently about the flap over your “digital makeup” remarks. You could have defused it with a little groveling. But your answer wasn’t aimed at courting favor with angry animators.

First you dismissed that inflammatory headline: “I’ve been told that some guy wrote something like ‘Andy Serkis does everything, animators do nothing.’ Of course I never in a million years said that, wouldn’t ever say that. It’s not within my understanding of filmmaking to ever say anything like that.”

But you didn’t back down on “digital makeup.” You explained, “It is really meant to convey an understanding of the creation of a role on set with a director.” You said performance capture “enables actors to author a role so that every single emotional beat … is driven by the actor.”

You were careful not to disparage the animators who translate those emotional beats to the creatures and characters you’ve played. “It’s a marriage between actors and the (animation) experts,” you said, calling the animators artistry “incredible.” But you argued that it’s actors like you who create the timing and performance.

“Absolutely, animators do have a role, and it’s interpreting the actor’s performance. Obviously it’s a lot of work in rendering and texturing and following an honoring the performance of the actor. But it is exactly that: It’s honoring the actor’s performance on set with the director.”

Here’s why you need to drop this fight and join forces with the vfx people to gain full respect for your craft.

I don’t know whether you are aiming your talk about “digital makeup” and “authorship” at your peers, in hopes of getting more acceptance and recognition for this craft, or thinking that this may be the year awards voters see what you do as “real acting.” If so, forget it. Voiceover actors in animated features don’t get that kind of acceptance and recognition — at least, not at awards time — even when they’re big stars and everyone loves their movies. And their craft has been around since the Roosevelt administration.

You have said yourself that cinema isn’t an actor’s medium. That’s especially true of performance capture. Animators are as essential to performance capture as cinematographers and picture editors are to traditional live action. Arguing over “authorship” is counterproductive for both you and the animators who interpret your performance, because the argument itself distracts from the results, which are sometimes spectacular.

For now, don’t worry about authorship, worry about drawing attention to the excellence of the work. It will do the whole field a lot more good if people are talking about how great the apes are in your new movie, and not about who is sniping at whom.

And one more thing for vfx artists: You too should stop bickering over who is the author of the performance and work with Andy Serkis — or Zoe Saldana or Jamie Bell or Ray Winstone — to get awards, even if it’s a special achievement award made up for the occasion, for a performance capture role. Because people like winning awards, and helping an actor win an award will make you more desirable for the next film that puts a big actor in a performance capture suit.

So what if nobody says your name from the podium? At least you’ll have have a great story for bartenders and reporters.

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