After you see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes this weekend, consider this question: should Andy Serkis be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor?
Serkis has been a pioneer among actors in the field of performance capture, ever since he first reached a wide audience with his portrayal of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. His work now in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has surpassed not just that and his other films (such as King Kong), but even the groundbreaking efforts he made in its predecessor, 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
There was talk around the release of Rise about Serkis getting an Oscar nomination, and now that chatter has resurfaced. And rightly so: He is absolutely brilliant as Caesar, creating a complex, multi-layered and empathetic being that can rival any human character in depth and richness. But there is a counter-argument that basically says Serkis does not deserve a nomination because he does not create Caesar alone -- that an army of digital effects experts at Weta Digital bring Caesar to life around him and enhance his performance.
There's no contesting that. Serkis acts the role, all decked out in that funny bodysuit with all the little balls and sensors on it, but he does not meticuously build the image around him down to each amazing detail, from the millions of strands of Caesar's hair to the wrinkles around his eyes. So much of the credit -- not just for this film, but for all the incredible imagery we've enjoyed over the past two decades, since CG really came into its own -- has to go to those men and women, largely unknown to the public, whose names only appear among the thousands that scroll across the screen at the end of the film as most of us are heading for the exits.
To be fair, Serkis has not helped his cause lately, calling what the animators do "digital makeup" and sort of downplaying their contribution in one interview, but then backtracking and giving the effects personnel more credit a few days later. As a result he received a mild rebuke from Weta senior visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri, who told The Wrap:
"I know that Andy has used that metaphor of digital makeup before, but I think that he was just trying to explain it to an audience that was not technically very savvy. The difference is that makeup is passive. And the more makeup you put on, the more it actually deadens the performance. Where we sometimes need to enhance the performance.
"So yes, we do make those sorts of translations all the time. For example, chimps have really deep-set eyes, and deep brows. So when you see a facial expression on an actor, you can clearly read what the eyes are doing and what the brows are doing. But on a chimp, it's all set back a little bit more, it's a little bit harder to read. So you can't do an exact one-to-one. Sometimes we have to exaggerate it so it reads in camera."
Dawn director Matt Reeves, asked by Hollywood Elsewhere about the same issue, said this:
"The subtlety, the emotionality...what you’re responding to is Andy. Andy’s performance is amazing. There’s a version of this movie that’s just Andy on his own with Weta additions, and that version works emotionally...What Weta does is, they translate what Andy does onto an anatomy of an ape...the WETA guys have to translate what is in Andy’s eyes…what Weta is doing is equally fantastic, but in a different category. This is not done without artistry but their artistry is in taking Andy’s performance and translating it into an ape...so ‘translated’ is the term, but it’s no easy task.”
This is the heart of the matter: What Weta does is truly awe-inspiring, but the core of the performance is still what Serkis delivers. Put a lesser actor in the suit -- or no actor at all -- and the results may not be quite as astonishing as what you see in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
So yes, we think Serkis deserves a nod from the Academy. But will he get one?
Probably not. A large number of actors who vote for the Academy Awards are spooked by the advances in digital technology. They envision a day when flesh-and-blood thespians are no longer needed, or are concerned about their work being manipulated in post-production by eager technicians seated at computers in cubicles far away from the set. Allowing an enhanced performance like that delivered by Andy Serkis, the argument goes, somehow diminishes the "purity" of the actor's craft.
So, while we would love to see Serkis' name up there as one of the five Best Actor nominees (and, depending on the other performances he's up against, we'd be happy to see him leap onstage to accept the statue), what's more likely to happen is that he and possibly the staff at Weta will be honored with some sort of Special Achievement Award. That, ironically, is what the Academy gave to makeup artist John Chambers back in 1969 for his groundbreaking work on -- you guessed it -- the original Planet of the Apes.
Do you think Andy Serkis deserves an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor? Start the debate below.