In the second season of Entourage, way back in 2004, James Cameron makes a half joke that in 5 years he won’t even need actors. A part of me likes to think that this line was at some stage improvised by Cameron and the producers loved the joke so much that they threw it in. Considering this would have been ten years after Cameron says he first dreamed up Pandora’s 3D world, perhaps the issue was already on his mind.
Of course motion capture had been around long before a computer pinned a tail on Zoe Saldana and painted her blue, even before Andy Serkis arguably redefined digital performance. A quick Wikipedia search* tells us that in 1990 Total Recall was the first film to use motion capture for CGI characters, that Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within(2001) was the first to use motion capture for all its’ character’s actions, and the first film made primarily with motion capture was, apparently, Sinbad: Beyond the Veil of Mists in 2000. I haven’t heard of it either.
Just like the advents of colour and sound in film, CGI and motion capture techniques have taken audiences to new and wondrous places – without these advances, films like the Matrix or the Lord of the Rings trilogies would have looked and felt entirely different. Different, but not impossible.
You see as much as these technologies may give the audience a greater, richer experience within the world of the film, without a story they are nothing. By today’s standards, Hitchcock used some terrible effects in his films, but they still remain some of the most compelling pieces of storytelling on celluloid that have ever been seen.
The Uncanny Valley, that realm of not-quite-perfectly-replicated-humanity between cartoonish imitation and true human image, becomes more prevalent in film discussion the further Hollywood moves towards trying to replace human action on film with computer generated substitutes.
To me the greatest hurdle in accepting an artificial construction as a true part of the film world it is placed into is simply that the brain knows. We know it’s not a young Jeff Bridges reappearing after years being lost in Tron: Legacy, we know the Governator didn’t age backwards to fight naked in Terminator: Salvation, and we know that Sam Worthington’s facial expressions in Avatar were all thanks to animation. If only they’d autotuned his accent too.
Because our brains know these things, we cannot accept them as reality. We’re kinda clever like that.
So we come, in a roundabout way, to Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which I saw this evening. After reading the conjecture surrounding Andy Serkis’ performance as Caesar and the push from affiliates of the film and the large online film community to have Serkis’ work recognised come Oscar season, I was keen to form my own opinion.
Of the film in general I was a little disappointed, but perhaps that’s my fault for expecting more than just another effects driven blockbuster. Every performance** is typical of this fast-paced, box office busting genre – find your light, say your line and if your character is feeling an emotion it must be overplayed. David Hewlett is the perfect example of this, using his experience in weekly pulp sci-fi serial Stargate: Atlantis to optimum effect, and you could be forgiven for thinking James Franco was only captured on film accidentally as he passed by the set to pick up his paycheck.
Within this painstakingly calculated formulation of script, cast and effects, Caesar the Ape is a renegade protagonist – an animated monkey finding his way towards ruling the world of men – and the work of Andy Serkis is evident. You obviously couldn’t have such focus on this character without an actor of great skill and capability giving everything to the role.
Recently, Serkis has been quoted as saying “I never approach a live-action role any differently to a performance-captured role. The process of acting is absolutely identical.” I agree entirely. Unfortunately for those who campaign for Serkis’ Oscar cause, the final product is not absolutely identical.
Just as the animation would not succeed without Serkis, Serkis would not succeed without the animation – he would never be able to perform this character fully without the benefits of motion capture and CGI. Because he’s not a monkey.
All past Oscar winners for performance obviously owe a debt to the people who set the tone of the film – lighting, musical scoring and so on – and the editors who pick the best of their bits from in front of camera and assemble them to give the best effect overall, hopefully more in the interests of the film than the actor particularly. But the performance that is seen in the final cut will always be entirely the product of the actor.
And the greatest job of an actor is to be a conduit for the story – to present the reality of the constructed world to the audience simply and effectively, without undue artifice or complication, keeping as little between the audience and the story as possible. To hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature.
The problem with computer generated (or possibly computer enhanced?) performance is that between the actor and the audience is at least one artificial layer – the mask of the animation. We will never see the actual performance that Serkis gave onset, because for the story to have a human impact we must suspend our disbelief and accept that it is a real ape rampaging through San Francisco on cue. Even then it’s a difficult leap, because our brains know.
I cannot picture James Cameron’s dream of a world where actors aren’t necessary, because I cannot imagine any computer that could recreate the full range of human emotion and reaction in all its’ complexity. There can never be a substitute for honest, unimpeded and entirely human performance.
And if you don’t know what that’s like, head to the theatre sometime.
*I do not apologise for quoting Wikipedia as an information source. It’s easier than doing my own research at midnight.
**With the possible exception of John Lithgow, who brings majesty and brilliance to everything