For the most part, end of the year awards are complete and total bullshit. We could go through list of films from every single year and pick out which movie should have won and Oscar, what actor or actress deserved the Golden Globe, and point out all the best picture winners that have faded into obscurity while movies that didn’t even get a nomination have become universally regarded as classics. Awards are little more than a way for the movie industry to congratulate itself, and many serious movie fans don’t put a great deal of stock into them as anything more than a curiosity. Less than a year later I barely remember who took home what trophy. Still, with the release of Matt Reeves’ phenomenal Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the subject of praise and actors wearing motion capture suits has come up quite a bit.
The two best, most memorable characters in Dawn are computer generated apes, and it’s time to revisit the subject of exactly how much praise do we heap on actors who spend entire movies cloaked in pixels and hidden beneath layers of digital effects? Should they get as much recognition as their less-encumbered counterparts? Do they deserve to have their performances vaunted along with their fellow actors who have nowhere to hide?
The two characters I’m talking about, the two completely realized individuals in the entire movie, are the ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his bonobo second-in-command, Koba (Toby Kebbell), he’s the one with one eye and that nasty looking face scar. This isn’t to say that the humans aren’t without merit, there are a number of strong characters, like Jason Clarke’s Malcolm, but it is this pair of apes that steal the show. The very first time you see one of the apes is an extreme close up of Caesar’s eyes, and for a few minutes, as the apes engage in an organized hunt, all you can do is marvel at the intricate detail, the subtle expressions on their faces—especially between Caesar and his wounded, petulant adolescent son, Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston). In short, you’re taken by how fantastic the special effects are.
But after a few minutes of this—Reeves makes sure that your first ape encounter is full of action so the effects are front and center—something truly remarkable happens, you stop noticing them. The focus quickly shifts from the spectacle of a bunch of escaped apes running around the California Redwoods, bouncing from tree to tree, fighting bears, and lands squarely on the characters and story. You stop responding to these apes as an oddity and begin to react to their stories and relationships and struggles. This is high praise for the digital artistry, which is a must for a movie like this, and totally delivers.
This is a single element that goes into creating these characters, an element the actors have no control over. It helps to think of it as an extreme form of costuming—Serkis recently ruffled the feathers of many an animator when he referred to what they do as digital make up, and while they function in a similar manner, there is so much more to what they do. So much of acting is movement, gesture, body language, and the like, in situations like these, where you’re be buried beneath various layers, you still have to figure out how to convey emotion and get your performance across. In this regard, Dawn never falters.
If you want to see a prime example of exactly what an actor can do in a costume, and if you can find it, check out the documentary I Am Big Bird about Carol Spinney, the man who has operated the iconic Sesame Street puppet for decades. Without him we would be talking about an entirely different character. In many ways motion-capture is an updated version of this type of performance.
After plying his trade in the likes of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, and as Caesar in multiple movies, Serkis is widely regarded as the working master of motion capture. He’s even earned roles in J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: Episode VII and The Avengers: Age of Ultron. Every one of his roles ends up with acclaim dumped on top of him. Characters like Gollum and Caesar, individuals that are integral to their movies, would have been completely different had it been anyone but Serkis providing the voice and movement. Certainly, their exteriors would have looked the same, but the rest, not so much. Still, people seem reluctant to talk about, let alone praise, similar performances.
Motion capture has proven to be much more natural looking on screen than a completely digital construction, so having actors running around in skintight green suits covered in dots and balls in order to translate every last subtle movement is only getting more and more prominent. As the frequency and public awareness of this increase, this topic is only going to keep coming up.
Later this summer, the core of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy will feature two key motion captured characters, Rocket Raccoon and Groot, the eight-foot-tall alien tree. And while that falls into the same category as Serkis and Kebbell’s performances in Dawn, there are important differences, too. While Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel provide the voices, other actors are responsible for the movement.
In Groot’s case, the voice is going to be especially important. He only ever says three words, “I am Groot,” and as that phrase always has a different meaning, Diesel’s inflection, tone, volume, and all the rest is going to be vital to the character and the movie. But even if he’s great, which he admittedly was in movies like The Iron Giant—another voice role where he doesn’t say much—how are people going to react because he only provides a part of the performance? How are we supposed to absorb and interpret roles like these, where multiple different parties contribute to the finished product that appears on screen?
I think that’s the main problem so many people encounter when talking about this issue, you rarely know how much an actor actually does, and how much is created by a team? In the case of Dawn, much has been made of the contributions of Serkis and the others, but in most instances, this isn’t the case. Should there be a specific award for this kind of hybrid performance, a kind of collective trophy that includes actors, designers, and special effects contributors? Should they fall solely in the realm of special effects, without the actors getting any of the acclaim? We’re seeing this type of character with increasing frequency, and as a result, this debate is only going to intensify as those behind-the-scenes players grow to desire, and deserve, more public recognition.