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

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?

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.

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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