Brow Beat

Can a Motion-Capture Performer Win an Oscar?

Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

The Rise of the Planet of the Apes opens Friday, and the acclaim for Andy Serkis, who plays super-intelligent ape Caesar, is growing. On Hollywood Elsewhere, Jeffrey Wells declares that Serkis should be nominated for best supporting actor—despite the fact that motion-capture technology was used to transform the man into a simian.

Apes reanimates a debate that’s been going on for a decade (since Serkis was winning raves for his performance as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings) and resurfaced last year when Avatar got shut out of the acting categories. Are motion-capture performers like Serkis and Avatar’s Zoe Saldana really “actors” in the same way that live-action actors are? Or are they something more akin to puppeteers, directing the action from offstage—a kind of high-tech update to the models who have always inspired hand-drawn animators?

This featurette on the impressive work special-effects pioneers WETA did on Apes doesn’t really clarify the issue. On one hand, you can absolutely see how Serkis’s dexterous physical work is being translated into the Caesar we see onscreen, “infusing” the ape with the “heart and soul” of the man’s performance. On the other hand, when the artists start to talk about creating the apes’ skeletons and musculature, it becomes harder to buy the argument that motion-capture effects are really no different from makeup and prosthetics.

There’s nothing in the Academy rules that would make a motion-capture performance ineligible for an acting award. But this question isn’t really about rules, or even about technology—it’s about what we believe the magic of acting is all about. Since the middle of the 20th century or so, high-quality acting, especially on film, has been about fostering a sense that the character and the actor are actually a single being. A successful performance, we like to say, is one in which the performer “disappears” into the role. The same goes for getting viewers to accept a motion-capture performance as equivalent to a live-action one: They need to really believe that what they’re seeing onscreen is Andy Serkis—not just something that is infused with Andy Serkis, or based on Andy Serkis.

Other heavily CGI-draped performances have had little trouble convincing an audience that it’s looking at a single being—but they’ve been humans. It may have required 155 artists to create the digitally-rendered, motion-captured face Brad Pitt wore for the first hour of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but audiences instinctively knew they were looking at Pitt wearing a kind of mask. (He got a best actor nod for the performance.) The same goes when we see Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort, or Chris Evans as skinny Steve Rogers in Captain America. But for non-human characters, like the ones in Avatar or Apes, it’s just that much harder to convince viewers that there’s a real actor inside the special-effects costume.

Technology is supposed to have taken us past the old “dude in a monkey suit” days. But when it comes to getting a talented actor like Serkis the recognition he deserves, audiences—and Academy voters—will have to be convinced that he is, in fact, just a dude in a monkey suit.