Wednesday, 27 February 2013

The Oscar Serkis

I'm back, folks!
The move went well and the new house is lovely. Even better, though, is how much time you have when there's no internet! It's incredible - I got absolutely loads done. But now I'm back - wasting my time, and yours, with my reviews and half-baked insights!

My return to the internet handily coincides with the Oscars, so let's talk about that. Specifically, let's talk about Andy Serkis.

Serkis is the genius who brought us the likes of Gollum, King Kong, Captain Haddock, and Caesar from Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Performing each of those roles in a spotty leotard, he's the leading pioneer in the field of motion-capture (or "mocap") - the process by which the movements of an actor are translated into the movements of a digital character. He's not behind the technology, but he's the one actor constantly pushing this technology forward with absolute commitment and amazing performances. He's even set up the UK's first dedicated mocap studio, to drive the medium further.
So good is he in many of those roles (most notably Gollum and Caesar) that many believe he deserved to be nominated for them in the Academy Awards. I, frankly, don't believe he deserved to be nominated - I believe he deserved to win. But this year, once again, Serkis was completely ignored as Gollum - despite being the most memorable character of the year, and the best thing in The Hobbit by a huge margin.
The Academy continually refuses to recognise mocap as true acting, so Serkis has never been, and may never be, nominated. The reason for this has very little to do with the actual acting, and has everything to do with the technical details.

I actually wrote my university dissertation on this subject. It ended up somehow being about "hermeneutic memetics" (a brand new field of semantics that I literally pulled out of my arse), but at its core it was about the Academy’s unwillingness to accept mocap. That essay dealt with the idea that because mocap fundamentally looks more like animation than acting, and because animators do often tweak the digital performance to fix tech errors such as clipping and deforming, it may never be accepted. Even though the performance originally comes from Serkis, the conversion process necessarily involves the input of animators - making this a team effort and rendering him ineligible for individual acting awards.

Until this year, my response has always been, "But that's ridiculous! Actors have won awards wearing prosthetics before - which requires the input of an entire team of makeup artists - and that still counted! Mocap is no different!"
But this year, I had an epiphany. I realised that there is another response. A better response. And that response is, "So what?"

So what if Serkis' performance is a team effort? Why should that be a problem? It's not a problem in any other category.
Films can have multiple directors, and still win awards for their direction. Films can have multiple editors or writers, and still win awards for those disciplines. There's no other category where this would present a problem - only acting.

This is actually really weird, if you think about it, because the acting that appears on screen is always collaborative. The director always has a hand in the performance. The writer has a hand in the performance. The other actors in the scene have a hand in the performance. The cinematographer has a hand in the performance. Even the costume designer and hairstylist have a hand in the performance. And the editor absolutely has a massive hand in the performance.
This is always true. Add one more name to that list - "the cleanup animator has a hand in the performance" - and what difference does that actually make?

The problem, as I see it, is in that word "Actor". It's singular; but, more than that, it describes a person. "Editing" describes a concept. As does "Writing", "Design" or "Cinematography". "Best Director" is an odd one, as multiple people can be nominated and have even won (West Side Story, 1961), though it's certainly rare. Tellingly, though, the Oscars' own website actually calls the award "Directing".
None of these words describe the person doing a task - just the task itself. It doesn't matter how many people do that task, only that they did it and they did it well. Why should acting be any different?

What I propose, in my capacity as some dude on the internet that the Academy has never heard of, is to change the category names. The obvious choice is "Best Acting in a Leading Male Role" (etc.) which is a step in the right direction, but it still brings up awkward arguments about the definition of "acting".
What then? What is the actual concept that we are awarding when we give a gold statue to an actor?

We've actually already answered this. If you look back through this (overlong) blog post, you will see a word that keeps cropping up. It's "Performance".
Now we're getting somewhere. "Best Male Acting" may have been a problem because (arguably) only an actor can provide acting. "Best Male Performance", on the other hand, could be provided by Andy Serkis and the animators at Weta and still be rewarded as a single unified performance. It then doesn't matter who did what, exactly, because you're awarding the performance itself, not the actor. Gollum would be up for "Best Supporting Male Performance", not Serkis. In Avatar, Neytiri would be nominated for "Best Leading Female Performance", not Zoe Saldana.

I can see an argument that this would devalue the award in some way. That Daniel Day-Lewis deserved his Best Actor award because the performance is entirely his. But again I ask how much of that performance is actually down to Spielberg, his director? And how much has Day-Lewis' raw acting been cut down by an editor to provide a more dynamic performance? We'll never know.
It's exactly the same with mocap. How much of Caesar is actually Serkis' raw acting? We'll never know. But the performance is still incredible, and it's the performance that the Oscars are celebrating, even if they don't know it, when they give out Best Actor awards.
Day-Lewis would still be the one on stage, holding the statue, just as Serkis would be the one on stage. Serkis would just have to thank a few extra people - that's all that would be different. I don't see any value lost in that.

This simple word change, as far as I can tell, would sidestep the mocap problem. Is a mocap performance technically acting? It wouldn't matter, because it's still a performance.
But, as an added bonus, this actually blows the acting categories wide open. What's to say the semi-mocapped four-armed Tars Tarkas from John Carter isn't the Best Supporting Male Performance? Or, for that matter, the Hulk? Why can't Pixar's Merida be considered for Best Lead Female Performance?
Looking to a performance from this year that genuinely did receive a great deal of critical acclaim, what about Richard Parker, the Bengal tiger from Life of Pi?

Food for thought...

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Wreck-It Ralph Review

Something amazing has happened!
While we weren't looking, mainstream animation has had a growth-spurt, matured and finally decided what it wants to be when it grows up. We've reached the point that Walt Disney always wanted animation to reach: It's no longer just for kids.

Pixar has obviously been leading this charge ever since Toy Story - peaking with Ratatouille, which isn't really for kids at all - but even their credibility took a hit with the less-adult-friendly Cars 2. Dreamworks have always been at the other end of the spectrum, with much more emphasis on fart and poop jokes. The reborn, reinvigorated Disney (Meet the Robinsons onwards) lands somewhere in the middle.
But we suddenly find that each of the big three have delivered true family films - accessible to kids, but just as accessible (if not moreso) to adults.
It finally feels like the industry has figured out that distinction. Even Madagascar 3 is said to have pretty universal appeal (though I still couldn't bring myself to watch it) and, for the first time since Ice Age, Blue Sky seem to be targeting their next film at more than just kids (though the title, Epic, is bland enough to appeal to precisely no-one). That's five - a full-house!

When I say that they appeal to both adults and children, you may think (as the marketing sometimes implied) that Wreck-It Ralph is a kids' film with some gamer-jokes thrown in for parents. But (as Dreamworks have proven time and again) filling a childish movie with adult jokes is a guaranteed way to alienate both camps.
No, this recent animated trio succeed because they are all films with deep, fully-rounded characters, emotional challenges as well as physical ones, moral complexity, real stakes and real danger, and dark villains who reflect what our heroes (or their mothers) might become. They are, in other words, just Good Films. And Wreck-It Ralph is the best of the three.

The titular Ralph is the villain of a Donkey-Kong-alike arcade game called Fix-It Felix Jr. He's a big angry guy who destroys everything he touches - but it's not his fault. He's not bad; he's just programmed that way. When the other characters in his game refuse to see this, Ralph begins jumping between the machines in the arcade, searching for a way to prove his worth.

It's in this early stage that most of the in-jokes and cameos that filled the advertising take place. The first act is a mass of blink-and-you'll-miss it sight-gags and references. There are crowd-scenes that gamers will be pausing to trawl through for years to come! But these are in no way integral, and they don't distract from the story at all. It's strictly background stuff and, while getting these jokes will add another layer to the experience, not getting them won't harm your enjoyment at all (I have no idea what a Q*bert is, for example). Games aren't the subject of the movie or even the theme - they're just the setting.
The potential of that setting is incredible. With so many varied games in the arcade (both real and fictional) and with each one containing its own world and set of rules, there's a sense this film could go literally anywhere. It's all rendered beautifully, too - each game-world is distinct and looks fantastic, and there's some great tics to the animation to more closely mimic games. The movie makes the most of this potential at the start but, after visiting only a couple of worlds, the game-jumping aspect is dropped and the rest of the story plays out in only one game. It may seem like a wasted opportunity, but Wreck-It Ralph is absolutely right to do so, and this would be a much weaker film if it didn't.

It's here, in a candy-themed racing game called Sugar-Rush (where the characters look like Miis and the final level looks suspiciously rainbow-like), that the film settles down and has a chance to breathe. After the manic, frantic excitement of the first act, we're allowed to explore this place organically - meet its characters, learn its rules. And it's here that we meet Vanellope von Schweetz.
Vanellope is a glitchy, broken character who shouldn't really exist. Like Ralph, she is shunned by her peers and longs to be accepted as part of the game.
As well as not existing, Vanellope shouldn't work. By all rights she should be incredibly irritating. She's loud, abrasive, showoffish, childish, selfish and hyper (presumably from all the sugar). She even makes poop-jokes. She could easily have been a disaster but, somehow, she pulls off adorable, sweet and, more than once, completely heartbreaking.

Her friendship with Ralph is the emotional core of the film, as they both slowly grow to trust and confide in someone else for the first time. It's the ups and downs of that friendship that make the film affecting and even powerful. And there really are ups and downs - the movie makes them work for it. When things get really bad it's devastating - but the awful lows just make the highs that much sweeter. Their friendship is handled so brilliantly that there's a moment lifted straight from Monsters Inc. which, while just a throwaway gag in that film, had me blubbing happy tears in this one.

Don't think it's all soppy emotional stuff, though. There are chases and races and flights and fights and many other action-scenes that probably rhyme. That core friendship is wrapped inside a bigger story that threatens both of their worlds and both their lives. We're told early on (by Sonic the Hedgehog, no less) that, though you might normally respawn at home, death outside your native game is permanent. So whenever Ralph is in danger - and there's quite a lot of danger - we know the peril is real. And the fate reserved for glitches like Vanellope is somehow even worse. Throw in a genuinely scary bad-guy, and a final act that escalates into something much bigger and even more affecting, and the stakes do get surprisingly high!

With the emotion, weight and visual polish of Brave, the scale, action and variety of Rise of the Guardians, and a vein of humour and game-culture that's all it's own, Wreck-It Ralph is an almost flawless family film - up there with Dreamworks' finest, if not quite with Pixar's.
Just like Vanellope, the film is loud, showy and hyperactive but, just like Vanellope, those aren't the reasons you'll love it.

Sunday, 3 February 2013


So, February marks one month since I randomly decided to use my barren, empty blog as, y'know, a blog. Not sure why it's turned into a movie blog, exactly, but there you go.

Sadly, February also marks the date my fiancée and I move into our new house (note: house, not flat). Being fairly useless people, we've failed to make any arrangements for phonelines or internet to be installed, so it's unlikely I'll be updating much in the next few weeks. I'm actually posting this with the Blogger app for Android!
I'll try my best to, if nothing else, review Wreck-It Ralph which (FINA-bloody-LLY) comes out in a week's time (almost half a year after the States) - but no promises!

When our internet is set up, I shall return; more powerful than you can possibly imagine. By which I mean there will be more reviews, more weird essay-things, more pictures of wrestlers, at least one Dudey Joe update (at least!) and the start of a new blog-series I'm tentatively calling "Mangaphobia".
Exciting times, I'm sure you'll agree! All that and more, after a brief hiatus; whatever that means.