“War for the Planet of the Apes” has opened to universal acclaim and a renewed call to give an Oscar to Andy Serkis, the actor who pioneered and perfected motion capture acting as lead ape Caesar in the Planet of the Apes trilogy, as well as King Kong and Smeagol/Gollum in Peter Jackson’s sojourns to Skull island and Middle Earth).
This push to award Serkis an acting oscar (now for Caesar and earlier for Gollum) or a Special Achievement Academy Award has come up many times over the years, yet so far yielded no nominations and no special consideration. Conventional wisdom is that many actors feel threatened by motion capture, fearing that its special effects creations will eliminate acting work, rather than recognizing it as a vehicle for greater acting opportunities and adding to the art of acting. However the tide may be turning this year, because a champion of Andy Serkis’, none other than Whoopi Goldberg, has just been elected governor of the actors branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Board of Governors. And within less than two weeks after joining the Board, Goldberg made this public endorsement of Andy Serkis on The View:
“I saw “War for the Planet of the Apes”. It was so good. It was so good on so many levels. There are a lot of folks in the film, but it’s really a two person character piece. And it’s Woody Harrelson and this marvelous man who you’ve seen in other films like “Lord of the Rings”, he played Gollum. His name is Andy Serkis. … Andy is able to do things in this film that other actors would love to be able to elicit from people. …
I do think it is [a new frontier for actors]. It is a whole other genre of acting. When you look at him as Gollum … What you see on that creature’s face, all of that that you’re seeing is not made up. That’s the actor. The CGI, the dots that he’s wearing so that they can paint in the creature he’s being – it’s kind of spectacular when you can see what he can do, because it’s him doing it.
[Can he get an award?] I’ve been working on this since he did the very first Gollum. The first time I saw him and found out it was an actor doing it, I was out of my mind. Then I saw Planet of the Apes, and I was like ‘Somebody needs to give this man an award from the academy saying: for forwarding the actor’s ability.’ Because he is now taken us to a different level where actors can actually play anything. They can now play anything. It’s amazing.”
Goldberg makes what to me looks very much like a public opening salvo in her intentions to use her new position of clout and influence as the newly elected governor of the actor’s branch to push for a special achievement honorary Oscar for Andy Serkis. She gives the argument to reward motion capture from the actors’ point of view. And with Andy Serkis we have the actor with whom the art of performance capture performing not only began but has been pioneered most thoroughly, to the point where he now runs his own performance capture studio and is directing a Jungle Book movie that relies fully on performance capture work.
But there is just as strong an argument to be made regarding the visual effects artists when awarding advances in motion capture performance. And the man who has been the pioneer and perfectionist of the field along with Andy Serkis, as far back as the first “Lord of the Rings” movie through “King Kong” to “Planet of the Apes”, is Joe Letteri at Weta digital. Unlike Andy Serkis, he has already won four competitive Academy Awards, for visual effects of course.
Joe Letteri and Andy Serkis raise the bar of excellence again on “War for the Planet of the Apes” (as has director Matt Reeves with the overall filmmaking). The realism of the Ape performances, the details, the subtlety, the soulfulness captured in camera, and preserved/recreated through the special effects artists is absolutely astounding, and makes for an incredibly moving experience. As Matt Reeves attests: “What these effects represent from Weta is a high water mark. It takes tremendous artistry on both sides [actor and animator].”
The following clip is not a scene in the movie, but an illustration of how Serkis’ performance is captured and digitally made over into the character of Caesar:
I don’t believe there would be much resistance from visual effects artists to giving a special achievement award to honor the leaders in the art of motion capture. There is a long history of Special Achievement Academy Awards going to visual effects and animation artists, but a special achievement award for advancing the art of acting would be a first. I think Whoopi Goldberg becoming the governor of the actors branch is the turning point that will lead the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to award a Special Achievement Honorary Oscar to Andy Serkis and Joe Letteri this year for their work on motion capture performance in “War of the Planet of the Apes”.