Will ‘War’ give Serkis act­ing cred he’s owed?

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY STEPHANIE MERRY MOVIES stephanie.merry@wash­post.com

Stephen Col­bert be­gan his re­cent in­ter­view with Andy Serkis by say­ing that when­ever he hears peo­ple call the Bri­tish ac­tor an “amaz­ing mo­tion-cap­ture per­former,” he can’t help but cor­rect them. “I go, ‘No! He’s a fan­tas­tic per­former who’s fa­mous for do­ing mo­tion cap­ture,’ ” Col­bert clar­i­fied.

In case the dis­tinc­tion wasn’t clear enough, the host then rolled a clip of Serkis act­ing out a scene from “War for the Planet of the Apes.” The first half of the scene is a close-up of the ac­tor do­ing a mono­logue with dots cov­er­ing his face be­fore he seam­lessly morphs into his ape char­ac­ter, Cae­sar. The take­away of this PSA? Serkis’s stel­lar per­for­mances aren’t just about the fancy bells and whis­tles in post­pro­duc­tion. The emo­tions and ex­pres­sions are all his.

Tech­nol­ogy ob­vi­ously al­tered his ap­pear­ance. But, as UCLA’s head of un­der­grad­u­ate act­ing, Joe Olivieri, puts it, what Serkis is do­ing “isn’t any dif­fer­ent than what the Greeks were do­ing 3,000 years ago.” Act­ing is act­ing.

Still, from a viewer’s stand­point, it can be dif­fi­cult to tell where the ac­tor stops and the spe­cial ef­fects be­gin. That’s why Serkis and his co-stars have been work­ing hard to ed­u­cate peo­ple. Even back in 2012, Serkis’s “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” co-star James Franco was writ­ing an op-ed in Dead­line, prais­ing the work Serkis did. Franco com­pared the mo­tion-cap­ture tech­nol­ogy to dig­i­tal makeup — no dif­fer­ent from what was done to Ni­cole Kid­man in “The Hours” or John Hurt in “The Ele­phant Man.”

“His prob­lem is that the dig­i­tal ‘makeup’ is so con­vinc­ing that it makes peo­ple for­get that he pro­vides the soul of Cae­sar,” Franco wrote.

Five years later, the mes­sage still hasn’t been re­ceived, or else Serkis’s new co-star, Steve Zahn, wouldn’t feel com­pelled to tell Vul­ture how he gets of­fended when peo­ple pi­geon­hole Serkis as “a mo­tion-cap­ture ac­tor.” “I go, ‘No, he’s one of the great­est ac­tors I’ve ever worked with,’ ” Zahn in­sisted.

Could this be the year that mo­tion-cap­ture act­ing fi­nally be­comes, sim­ply, act­ing? And how long be­fore the Academy Awards takes Serkis se­ri­ously?

Serkis was nom­i­nated for a Golden Globe for the his­tor­i­cal TV movie “Long­ford” in 2008, but he’s never had a more vi­able shot at a ma­jor award for a mo­tion­cap­ture per­for­mance than he has for his lead role in “War.” De­spite the trail­ers, which make the drama look like an ac­tion movie, it has more in com­mon with “Apoc­a­lypse Now” — and it has a lot in com­mon with “Apoc­a­lypse Now” — than the lat­est “Trans­form­ers” in­stall­ment.

The film fol­lows Cae­sar as he tries to shield his rag­tag band of pri­mates from the hu­man sol­diers who want to dec­i­mate them. Cae­sar’s arc re­quires a wide range of emo­tions, from tri­umphant to de­spon­dent to blood­thirsty, while he re­tains more hu­man­ity than any of the hu­mans around him. This is more ac­torly heavy lift­ing than Serkis did play­ing the fiendish Gol­lum in the “Lord of the Rings” movies or King Kong in Peter Jack­son’s take on the giant go­rilla or the in­tim­i­dat­ing (if onenote) Supreme Leader Snoke in “The Force Awak­ens,” all mo­tion­cap­ture roles.

“Avatar” notwith­stand­ing, movies with a lot of mo­tion cap­ture don’t tend to be awards con­tenders. That’s the first hur­dle to Serkis get­ting a nom­i­na­tion, ac­cord­ing to the New York Ob­server’s Thelma Adams, who has an im­pres­sive track record pre­dict­ing Oscar win­ners.

“They’re up against the bias against pop­corn movies,” she said. In­die art house movies and Bri­tish biopics are al­ways more likely bets. “The other hur­dle is the sus­pi­cion that mo­tion cap­ture, de­spite ev­ery­thing Andy Serkis wisely says in his beau­ti­ful ac­cent, is not re­ally a gold stat­uette-win­ning per­for­mance.”

Sharon Car­nicke, an as­so­ciate dean at the University of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia’s drama school, thinks the academy mem­bers mis­take mo­tion-cap­ture per­for­mances for voice act­ing. But there’s a dif­fer­ence, she says. Mo­tion cap­ture — like light­ing, cos­tumes and makeup — is sim­ply a tool for ac­tors.

“The most amaz­ing thing about mo­tion cap­ture, in my opin­ion, is that even though the cam­eras do not pho­to­graph the im­age of the per­son, only the mo­tion, that per­son does not dis­ap­pear,” she said. “If you know the per­son who’s per­form­ing, you ab­so­lutely rec­og­nize them through the mo­tion.”

This isn’t the first time tech­nol­ogy has changed how we see ac­tors. Car­nicke is quick to re­mind that act­ing used to take place out­doors in the mid­dle of the day, be­cause there was no elec­tric­ity. Now light­ing can heighten a per­for­mance or change the mood. Tech­nol­ogy is con­stantly re­fram­ing the art form, even as the act and pur­pose of per­form­ing has re­mained fun­da­men­tally the same.

Serkis now has a unique niche, but he started his ca­reer like a lot of other ac­tors. He did stage pro­duc­tions be­fore tran­si­tion­ing to bit parts on tele­vi­sion shows and even­tu­ally movies. Jack­son changed his tra­jec­tory, though, when he hired him to play Gol­lum/Smeagol in 2003’s “Lord of the Rings: The Re­turn of the King.” It was sup­posed to be just a voice role, but Serkis’s evoca­tive phys­i­cal­ity as he acted out the part in­spired Jack­son to fig­ure out a way to mimic the ac­tor’s move­ments in the fin­ished prod­uct.

You can wit­ness the same bril­liance that Jack­son saw by watch­ing the clip from Col­bert’s show, in which Serkis reads a cou­ple of Don­ald Trump’s tweets in the voice of his most fa­mous char­ac­ter. To do it right, Serkis hopped up onto his seat so he could pose in Gol­lum’s stooped crouch. And then he trans­formed him­self into the char­ac­ter with­out an ounce of dig­i­tal makeup, us­ing just his ges­tures, his fa­cial ex­pres­sions and, of course, that screechy growl.

Car­nicke thinks it’s only a mat­ter of time be­fore peo­ple equate mo­tion-cap­ture work with tra­di­tional act­ing. Drama schools, in­clud­ing the one at USC, are even ex­pand­ing their pro­grams to in­clude new me­dia, in­clud­ing mo­tion cap­ture, vir­tual real­ity and video games. She isn’t go­ing to place any bets on how soon the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion comes around, though.

Even then, in­sti­tu­tions like awards shows tend to stick to the sta­tus quo. Adams has a hard time imag­in­ing — even with all the con­spic­u­ous ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties — that Serkis will get a nom­i­na­tion for “War for the Planet of the Apes.”

At least he has a con­so­la­tion prize. She refers to him as the “king of mo­tion cap­ture.” And at the mo­ment, there’s no one close to tak­ing his crown.

PHOTOS COUR­TESY OF TWEN­TI­ETH CEN­TURY FOX

Andy Serkis, above cen­ter, plays Cae­sar in “War for the Planet of the Apes.” The film fol­lows his char­ac­ter as he tries to shield his band of pri­mates from hu­man sol­diers.

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