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...

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