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Andy Serkis, the Oscars, and VFX: Round 2

November 30, 2011

Recently the argument about Andy Serkis’ potential eligibility for an Oscar nomination, for his contribution to the character Caesar in RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, re-ignited with the announcement that Fox would be lobbying the Academy on Serkis’ behalf. I got embroiled in it a little bit on Twitter and Facebook, but I’m not here to reiterate my stance, because it really doesn’t matter. Whether or not Andy Serkis is officially recognized for his contribution to Caesar’s final performance, the VFX artists will not be for theirs. It’s not a question of whether or not they should, the simple fact is that they won’t. The Oscars are about three months away. That probably wouldn’t be enough time for an organized effort to make a difference in the rules, much less our directionless mess of an industry.

Whether you think Serkis deserves it or not, whether you think the artists should have a piece of that or not, those are opinions, but this is a fact: this is a fight we should have had years ago. We didn’t. And now it’s too late. We already forfeited on the issue of RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. It sucks, but continuing to argue and whine about it will get us nowhere. We can’t, and shouldn’t, have the fight over this film. But we can, and should, have the fight for the next one, and the one after. That’s a fight we could actually win.

If you write a script and it gets made into a film, it will pass through many hands before it reaches the screen. Including, in many (even most) cases, other writers. Sometimes a dozen or more other writers. So who gets the credit? Because credit is not just about credit — whoever gets a credit is eligible for a share in any residuals and awards. The WGA has a whole process for determining who contributed substantially to the finished film, and who thereby gets a credit. So you could potentially have some six writers (the max allowable credits, last I checked) sharing an Oscar nomination, even though some of them may never have spoken to each other before. That hasn’t yet happened, as far as I’m aware; the movies that have such great swaths of writers tend not to be Oscar-bait, but that’s another topic for another day.

But more importantly, those writers share a stake in the film. Not much of one — another for another — but it’s something.

SAG has no such arbitration process, because it’s never needed one. The actor either gave a performance, or someone else gave it. But it’s not that easy anymore. As we move into this new world of performances which are substantially digital, perhaps the notion of an “actor” should expand to regard “performers.” Before the issue of Oscar-worthiness even enters into it, before the film is even released, there would be an arbitration process during which everyone involved in the creation of the character — the original actor, the animators — makes their case as to why they should be considered to have contributed substantially to the final performance. You could have four or five credits for a “single” character, all of whom collectively would be the nominee/recipient of any awards should the performance garner them. And all of whom, much more importantly, would share in the success of the film as actors do now.

It wouldn’t be a perfect system, obviously. If you had a dozen animators but only one could demonstrate a substantial contribution — by shot count if nothing else — then the other 11 are assed-out; or if the system had a maximum number of credits like the writers do, those who didn’t make the cut would likewise lose out. But hell, it’d be something, and a damn sight better than what we have now. Better three out of five get a cut, and better luck next time to the others, than nobody does, ever.

If we could work that, then down the line at the Oscars a “Best Performance” Oscar might be offered to a team rather than an individual. We wouldn’t need a new category to start with, but as these performances become more common perhaps one could eventually be warranted (just as Best Animated Film didn’t exist, until finally there were enough of them annually that it did).

I’d maybe call it “Best Collaborative Performance” — so you could include not only digital characters but puppets and animatronic characters as well (puppeteers, by the way, are already covered by SAG), making it about the performance and not the technology. Maybe also subdivide it, the way the short film categories do, into Best Collaborative Performance: Live Action, and Best Collab: Animation.

But that’s all fairly complicated and tough to implement (SAG won’t like it, for one thing), all just wishful thinking. What I’m getting at is, to go on about the Oscars is to miss the point. The Oscars just reflect the industry — if we want to change the way they see us, we have to change the way the industry does. First you get respect, then you get awards. It doesn’t go the other way round. To get any kind of respect and recognition at all, for animators or anyone else in the pipeline, we’ll need to do what the writers and the actors did decades ago to get their bite at the apple: organize. It’s all very well to whine about how the industry doesn’t respect us, but let’s take a good look in the mirror and ask ourselves: why should they?

This industry works many of us to the bone, often pays crap wages, often ignores our legal rights as members of the labor force (which rights, side note, also only exist because people organized and fought for them), and otherwise fails to appreciate our contribution not only to the art form but to the bottom line. They do all that while asking for the moon, and what do we do? We give them the moon, and more besides, and we may piss and moan on Twitter — when we’re pretty sure they’re not looking — but when the project is over we come back, hat in hand, and meekly implore them to do it to us again. Why should they respect us when we keep proving they don’t have to?

You think it’s bullshit Andy Serkis might get the lion’s share of the recognition for Caesar? You’re pissed off about it? GOOD. It IS bullshit. You SHOULD be pissed off — but not at Serkis. Our position of weakness is not his fault, and it’s not his responsibility. It’s ours. So if we don’t want to be back here again in a year or two when the next digital performance starts to get some buzz, let’s take the anger being directed at him — where it’s doing no goddamn good at all — and point it at the situation we’re in. Use it as a motivation to stand up and say “Enough!” And this time, let’s actually do something about it, besides feel sorry for ourselves on social media. Because if there’s any one lesson we should have known already, but we’ve sure as hell proven to ourselves by now, it’s that nobody else is going to.

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