As War for the Planet of the Apes hits theaters this weekend, the annual debate as to whether or not Andy Serkis should be up for an Oscar again rears its familiar head. Having anointed himself the undisputed king of what was formerly known as “motion capture” (a term which has been expanded to performance capture to reflect the process encapsulating acting and not just movement), many have called for the Academy to modernise, recognizing his work as being just as legitimate as the live-action work of his peers. 20th Century Fox seems to be in agreement, as they included Serkis for consideration when rolling out their awards campaigns for both Rise and Dawn. Now, as we stand at the conclusion of one of the best blockbuster trilogies to ever grace the silver screen, it is time that the Academy gives one of the hardest working actors in Hollywood his due.
In breaking down the argument against Serkis being nominated, the crux seems to be that what he does is not “real” acting. This seems to be a moot point if you think about it. Acting is an art form, and one that affords artists a lot of freedom in their exploration. Whether you subscribe to the naturalistic teachings of Stanislavski or its growth through Strasberg’s school of the method, art is and should always take acting to potentially new places. It is a craft that has been evolving constantly since its inception, and it was inevitable that new technologies would be at the forefront of that evolution at some point. Performance capture is that massive change that will define acting’s future. Serkis will be viewed as a legendary pioneer decades from now. Many were adverse to Marlon Brando popularising a style that rebelled against the classically-trained delivery made famous in cinema by the likes of Olivier, in favor of creating less verbose characters who made screen acting feel less like a play that was being shot with a camera. Now, he is recognized as one of cinema’s greatest stars.
Actors like your Brandos, your Hoffmans, and your De Niros flipped our perception on what great acting was, which is exactly what Serkis has been doing for over fifteen years. The difference here is that those men won multiple Oscars for their trouble and are credited ad nauseam with innovating the entire field of acting in films. What possible reason could one pin on performance capture being an illegitimate acting style? The first thing that is always brought up is that Serkis is relying heavily on visual effects to look good. In fact, it is often the only thing that is brought up. However, this argument rings hollow to me. Firstly, that carries an implication that the animators don’t get the same level of credit that Serkis does, to which I point to the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, which the previous two Apes movies have both been nominated for. Secondly, this ignores how performance capture works, as it is a lot more reliant on Serkis than many would lead you to believe.
Look at the name “performance capture.” The clue is right there. An already existing performance is being taken and merely transposed into a rendered CGI character. The work of Serkis isn’t being altered, and nothing is being added. He has effectively been retrofitted with a highly advanced costume. Tell me, should John Hurt’s acting in The Elephant Man not have been nominated for an Oscar due to the aid of heavy prosthesis? Yes, Serkis would look ridiculous without being made into an ape, but Hurt would have been difficult to take seriously as a heavily deformed man if he just looked like regular John Hurt. This is why I like to describe performance capture effectively as digital make-up. This styling is simply added after the fact with a computer. Andy Serkis is still responsible for the movement, facial expressions, physicality and delivery of Caesar; it is his performance. In fact, one could argue that he has an even harder job than other actors, as he doesn’t have the benefit of a costume or make-up to help him clearly picture how he portrays the character in his head. He is filmed in a skintight onesie, with his face covered in dots pretending to be a talking monkey. The fact he can do it well enough that he is able to convince the viewer that someone like Caesar could exist demonstrates a certain level of acting brilliance.
Taking all of this into account, I must ask what disqualifies Serkis from Academy Award recognition? He has managed to create a compelling and fully formed character without the aid of even knowing how he’ll look in the final film. He puts faith in the hands of animators to take his talent and not make him look ridiculous, much how most actors put faith in make-up artists and costume designers. Traditional character design is now being done inside a machine, but none of the acting is truly lost. I have no doubt that years from now, Serkis will be awarded an honorary Oscar. However, all too often those are given to people as an apology for never receiving a competitive Academy Award during their active career. When performance capture is the norm (and it’s already on the way there, with major Hollywood stars trying their hand in effects-driven movies and even video games), we will be looking back to the genius that is Andy Serkis. Starting with Gollum and now culminating with Caesar, Serkis has done amazing things for the world of acting while confined to spandex. While he is also an accomplished live action performer, receiving BAFTA and Golden Globe nominations over the years, his legacy will ultimately be defined as being the first person to fully embrace performance capture. It is time for the Academy to broaden their horizons and give one of the greatest actors of this generation his due course.