Another year of Oscar nominations has come and gone and still no accolades for Andy Serkis. Serkis’ motion capture performance skill hit a new high in 2017 with his final go-round as Caesar, the lead character from War for The Planet of the Apes. Caesar’s arc is quite extraordinary over the Apes trilogy, going from victim to tortured leader to hero. The stakes and emotions in War run high and Serkis’ delivers a knockout performance with all the subtlety and nuance of someone who’s actually on screen.
Oh, that’s right, he’s not on screen. At all. You often forget that, as the visual effects team does such an excellent job translating Serkis’ acting to the character of Caesar. But perhaps that’s what’s holding back the Oscar nomination. The quality of an actors’ portrayal of a character can always be scrutinized because the acting is filtered through all the other elements of the filmmaking. For example, the editing can control the actor’s pacing, the angle of the shot can influence a viewer’s opinion of a character and the music can underscore (and heighten) the emotion of an actor’s speech. These film components can help or hinder the actor’s final performance. Then, layer on top of that the fact that, in Andy Serkis’ case, the entire performance relies on how much success the visual effects team has in transforming his acting into a Caesar we can see and hear. With all this at stake, maybe Serkis’ work is considered too technical for Academy voters, more visual effects achievement than acting achievement, with too many filters for the work to have to pass through (and be affected by) before it reaches the viewer. Perhaps they see it as more a team effort than individual acting.
Of course, we’ll never know. Oscar voters simply check who they want to nominate and don’t have to write a Supreme Court decision-esque treatise as to why they voted the way they did and why they chose to snub others. One reason TO nominate actors who interact heavily with the intangible is to reward their incredible imagination. In Serkis’ case, there’s a small camera right in his face, attached to a large piece of head gear with sensors all over his body and he’s supposed to pretend he’s an ape? Convincingly? Well done, sir.
Even when they themselves are not transformed by visual effects, similar imagination is used by actors to realize their surroundings now more than ever before. Sally Hawkins was nominated for The Shape of Water, and she had Doug Jones to work alongside to realistically present a completely unrealistic love story between a human female and a male sea creature. It’s a fantasy, but the actors couldn’t act that way. The VFX reel for The Shape of Water shows how director Guillermo del Toro used computer generated graphics to enhance Jones’ character’s expressions, leaving Hawkins to look at…who knows what? A blank expression mask? It would’ve been hard for Jones to facially emote through the thick makeup so she had to employ…her imagination. And, in turn, ours is also engaged.
This has been rewarded before. Some of Leonardo DiCaprio’s biggest scenes in The Revenant involved a bear who…wasn’t there. But watch that film and tell me Leo wasn’t mauled by a giant grizzly. You can’t! Russell Crowe in Gladiator had to enter an ornate arena filled with unruly Romans and whip them into a frenzy. The arena was partially there, by no means ornate, and a handful of spectators were filmed, then duplicated over and over again by director Ridley Scott’s visual effects team. DiCaprio and Crowe again had to convince themselves they were in those situations, and in turn, that convinces us. Best Actor Oscars for both.
Actors reacting to things that aren’t there isn’t new. James Cameron was at the forefront of digital technology that had actors reacting to the T-1000s, water creatures and entire ship sinkings that, on set, were imaginary (Kate Winslet was Best Actress nominated for her efforts). Actors on the set of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Parkogled with astonishment at dinosaurs that, on set, were tennis balls on sticks. Their reaction sold the hell out of the dinos and matched our own amazement at witnessing a special effects game-changer.
The Jurassic Park cast went to Hawaii to look and react to the fake Brontosaurus, but there are plenty of projects that ask actors to imagine everything that will eventually be on screen, and not just for CGI enhancements that will be added to the footage, but they’ll have to work with the director, production designer and visual effects team to totally understand an entire world that will be created AFTER they’re finished acting. This includes the cast of Avatar, but most impressive to me is the work of Neel Sethi who played Mowgli in Jon Favreau’s 2016 adaptation of The Jungle Book. Sethi shot an entire movie about the jungle, complete with thick brush and animals, and it was filmed in studios in downtown Los Angeles. Actor and puppeteer Allan Trautman appeared on The Movie Guys’ podcast and told stories from the set about playing Bagheera, among other animals from Rudyard Kipling’s story, with giant puppet heads to assist Sethi’s performance, giving him sight lines and something to act against. Sethi had to imagine all the puppet characters as living things and he was only twelve years old. It’s a phenomenal performance.
What’s my point in all of this? Years ago, there was a campaign for Robin Williams to be Oscar-nominated for his role as the Genie in Aladdin. It was a tour-de-force vocal feat, for sure, but the nomination never came to be. Williams most likely rolled into Disney Studios and cranked out that role in a half day or so. It would’ve been a very interesting nomination when compared to what Gene Hackman did in Unforgiven (the Best Supp. Actor winner), or Jack Nicholson’s legendary take on Colonel Jessup in A Few Good Men. How do you compare Williams to those roles?
But performers acting and not being seen on camera is a different game today. Andy Serkis isn’t laying down a bunch of lines in an afternoon and hitting the club. He’s putting in weeks laying the groundwork for a character that will eventually have real-world life, heart, pain and joy. There’s a lot to deal with, from real sets, to green screens, to head gear and tight no-doubt-uncomfortable suits, all the while still going for…authenticity. I think these performances should start being rewarded somehow. Special Oscar, maybe? The opportunity to give one to Serkis, if The Academy’s not going to do it this year, will come around again next year, as later in 2018 Serkis stars in and directs an all-motion capture take on….The Jungle Book.