In Defense of Andy Serkis
The recent release of RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES — starring a completely digital ape named Caesar, performed by Andy Serkis — has set off another round of what’s become a perennial argument about whether or not an actor should be recognized, specifically by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, for performing a character which is ultimately realized synthetically.
The argument began with Serkis himself, when he portrayed Gollum in THE TWO TOWERS and THE RETURN OF THE KING. It surfaced again when he proceeded to portray KING KONG, and has since been raised in conjunction with Bill Nighy’s portrayal of Davy Jones in PIRATES 2, Brad Pitt’s starring role in THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON (for which, it should be noted, he did receive an Oscar nomination), the various Na’vi performances in AVATAR, and now we’ve come full circle back to Serkis for his turn as Caesar, leader of the ape rebellion.
For those not in the film or VFX industry, if the controversy here is not apparent, it’s like this: can an actor really be said to have portrayed a character when none of the actor’s original performance makes it to the screen? It has been interpreted, manipulated, reconfigured and translated into a digital creation, passing through multiple hands — possibly dozens or even hundreds — before arriving on the screen. Does the actor deserve recognition for a performance that has been filtered through so many other peoples’ contributions?
Many in the VFX industry, at least the ones who blog and tweet, say no, and have attacked Serkis for what they perceive as slighting or disrespecting the contributions of the visual effects artists. I disagree with them entirely.
I currently make my living as a VFX artist — in fact I’m writing this post during renders on a big freelancing project I’m in the middle of — but I’ve been an actor. It’s something I enjoy, and for a while I thought I would pursue it as the focus of my career. I decided a few years ago that I was going instead to focus on my career behind the camera, but being a director, IMO, means in large part understanding actors. I know what it is to be an actor, to care about the craft, and I have many friends who are actors still.
So here’s what you’ve got to understand, if you’re not an actor or someone who has a lot of experience with them: actors are not well-respected. Sure, actors have the highest visibility and the greatest potential for fame — when an actor becomes successful, the world will know their name. The only other crew positions that can even dream of becoming household names are the director and the producer, and only the most successful in their respective field — someone with hit after hit after hit — ever get attention outside the industry. Anything else, forget it. The last superstar VFX artist was probably Harryhausen, and only because he was effectively the only guy doing what he was doing. Dennis Muren is a god in the VFX world, and rightly so, but nobody outside of VFX or FX-interested film circles would know his name.
All that to say, acting seems very glamorous and the sky is the limit to the possible rewards. But for the 99.8% of actors who are not Name Actors, it’s not glamorous. You show up and you do your thing and a lot of times if you’ve done it right, it’s part of the tapestry of the film and doesn’t call attention to itself. If you’ve done your job well, much of the time, people watching the film unfold aren’t supposed to realize you’ve done anything. (Sound familiar, VFXers?)
To give a good performance — let alone a great one — you have to reach into yourself, find the part that connects with and understands the character, and bring that up into the open. You have to find the part of you that is that character and show it to the world. When an actor gives a great performance and you can look into her eyes and see the pain of what she’s going through, you can’t fake that. She had to really feel it so you could see it. If she faked it you’d spot it instantly.
A lot of hay is made whenever an actor does a nude scene, and with the exception of the completely classless/tactless it’s understood by everyone that the actor is in a highly vulnerable position and they need to be able to trust that they will not be made to look foolish, that they will be given a certain degree of respect for laying themselves bare.
What is not understood is that an actor who cares about his/her job does the emotional equivalent of nude scenes every single day. It’s easy to dismiss actors as having an easy gig — they get paid well to play pretend all day long — but what they do isn’t easy. If it were there would be no such thing as bad acting. Bad actors aren’t incapable of behaving like human beings. Presumably they do so all the time when the cameras aren’t rolling, most of them anyway. What they lack is the ability to tap into their emotions at will, and be sad or angry or whatever on cue. For some it’s a lack of ability to imagine being in that moment, or a lack of introspection, but I believe for many it’s because they’re afraid to make themselves vulnerable for the camera.
This goes double for working with VFX. Think of how it has to feel to run and jump and yell and scream and throw yourself around when there’s nothing there. It feels ridiculous. It looks ridiculous. But the actor has to throw himself in with complete abandon and accept the reality of the effect, and trust that the VFX team will hold up their end of the bargain and pay off his investment.
The relationship is symbiotic. If the actor doesn’t give a good performance in a situation where he’s interacting with effects, then nothing the effects team does — short of outright replacing aspects of his performance — will make it work. But if the VFX team doesn’t bring their A-game, he’ll look like an idiot on the screen. They both need the other to be giving their all.
What I’m trying to impress upon my VFX brethren here, who may not have much direct experience with actors or acting, is this: you know how you feel when you hear someone say, of VFX, that “the computer does all the work” and that you “just press the buttons”? How angry and insulted and demeaned you feel? How much of an ignorant asshole you think that person is? That’s how actors feel when they’re told they’re “paid to play dress-up” or, in the case of a performance capture character, they “just provided the reference for the real work.” That’s right. You’re being the asshole now.
I won’t deny the way Serkis described the VFX process — “painting over the character frame by frame with pixels” — was oversimplified and ignorant to the point of being kind of insulting, but I don’t believe he fails to appreciate the contributions of the VFX team at all. He just doesn’t work in that field. If I tried to explain to you how my car works, I’d probably sound like just as much of a tool as Serkis does explaining VFX, but that doesn’t mean I don’t need and appreciate it, or always want and appreciate the best people I can get keeping it in working order. The appropriate response to an ill-informed statement is information. It’s not to make insulting oversimplifications back.
Let’s get real: performance capture adds something valuable to an animated character. If it didn’t, they wouldn’t do it. And we’ve seen the results. Once animated characters became based on actual human actors, and not just talented animators working off vocal tracks, the reality and impact of those characters took a quantum leap forward. I knew it was Bill Nighy portraying Davy Jones, and not because I had foreknowledge of him in the role, and not because I recognized his voice. I recognized his performance. The VFX artists deserve all the accolades and awards for having the skills and artistry to take that performance and translate it into a completely digital character with such fidelity that I could recognize it. No one wants to take that away from them. But it is absurd to pretend that he never contributed the performance at all.
Yes, the performance would have been altered, interpreted, recontextualized to the extent that perhaps some of the most successful moments were flourishes by a VFX animator and not in the actor’s intent at all. But how different is that, really, from the way a brilliant editor can extract a completely different performance in the edit bay than was delivered on the set? No one would argue that the actor was ineligible for awards because the performance that reached the screen is different than what was shot. And few (besides editors) would argue that the editor deserves an award for the actor’s performance. The actor performed, the editor cut, together they made magic; each is appreciated for his or her particular contributions to the magic.
Now, of course, it’s worth asking the question: does Serkis even deserve an Oscar nomination anyway? Is his performance that good? Would anybody be even talking about it if it weren’t filtered through what is a best-in-class digital character’s performance?
Think of it this way. Pretend we’re not talking about a movie about apes at all. It’s about a GATTACA-esque future world where the mentally handicapped are treated like animals, used for science experiments, etc. Then one of them gets smart, and after briefly trying to assimilate in society he realizes that he doesn’t WANT to be part of this world, and rebels. It’s a mute role, for whatever reason.
Serkis plays the role, and delivers the same performance that he did for Caesar. No special makeup or VFX necessary. Does that role earn him an Oscar nomination?
I say if it doesn’t, he’s been robbed.
Caesar, the thinking ape, is magic. That particular version of the character could not have happened without actor and VFX working in harmony. But the performance in itself is a thing of beauty, and would be quite as powerful in a non-ape version just as well. So if you’re going to judge the performance, then judge the performance. And the performance came, primarily, from Serkis.
I think the most asinine comment I’ve seen made has been along the lines of “if he deserves an award, then so do the riggers and the modelers and the guy who programmed the subsurface scattering shader.” Might as well say that if a DP wants to be nominated for best cinematography he had better be the one who designed and manufactured the lights he used. Or that the fact that a colorist made changes in the DI suite likewise makes the DP ineligible for recognition. No one is denying that skill was needed on all fronts of the visual realization of the character, but if we’re talking about the performance, then the rest of that is irrelevant.
We have a category for outstanding achievement in visual effects. Andy Serkis and other performance capture actors don’t want to take the recognition of your achievements away from you, VFX guys and gals. They just want the appropriate recognition for theirs, because right now, as the anti-Serkis VFX bandwagon has so aptly demonstrated, they are not getting it.
I don’t know the guy, but I’d bet anything that Andy Serkis respects and appreciates and in no way intends to denigrate the VFX artists into whose hands he entrusts his performance and, to a large extent, his reputation and livelihood. He’s a fierce and vocal advocate for a cause he believes in, so why don’t we help him believe in ours instead of just attacking him? If he’s ignorant to what we’re dealing with, the answer isn’t to fire ignorance back at him. The answer is education — for both sides. Instead of getting into a cockslapping contest about how each of us feels like we’re the less respected industry, how about we work to start respecting each other more, and that’ll be a small step toward solving that problem?
Yes, actors have it better than us in a lot of ways. They get to be famous in the best cases and they’re paid well and usually treated well with various perks that they can benefit from due to collective bargaining that we don’t have. But I don’t see why they should be punished and demonized because they’ve got their shit together and we don’t. VFX artists need to come together and protect our own, we need to get the respect our work deserves in terms of its contributions to the overall film industry. But what we don’t have to do is try to knock down and disrespect other groups as a way of building ourselves up. This doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game.
Solidarity among VFX is a worthy and important goal, but ultimately the fight for fair treatment isn’t between us and every other organization in the chain. It’s between those who are here to make money, and those who are here to make magic. Instead of seeing enemies everywhere, let’s start learning to recognize our allies.