When you see Sunday’s Oscars telecast, note two glaring omissions.
One: The Adventures of Tintin was not nominated in the Best Animated Feature category.
Two: How did Andy Serkis not nab a Best Actor nomination for his performance as the super-intelligent chimp Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes?
In a word (or two): performance capture, also called motion capture.
Ever since the Lord of the Rings films, it seems the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences doesn’t quite know what to do with this technology, which translates an actor’s movements into the digital realm. Is it animation? Special effects? Trickery? Do performances have to be “live” to qualify as acting? And what exactly defines animation?
Adding to this controversy — and causing trouble for the Academy — is this inconvenient truth of how actors work today. Actors are appearing as digitized selves not only in TV and movies, but they are “acting” as videogame characters (either by providing voice work or having their body movements captured). Should voice work for a cartoon or videogame be Oscar-worthy? Does the Academy need to consider videogames as a subset of film? Or, perhaps, consider them a kind of TV? Other award-bestowing groups like the Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globes look at television performances. Why not have a category called “motion capture,” too?
At least the Golden Globes did give Tintin an award for best animated film. Meanwhile, the Academy won’t, and not because the film didn’t qualify for the Best Animated Feature category. Oscars rules state that to qualify, “a significant number of the major characters must be animated, and animation must figure in no less than 75 percent of the picture’s running time.” Three motion-capture movies were OK’d — Tintin, Mars Needs Moms and Happy Feet Two — as well the live action/animation hybrid Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked. (The other hybrid, The Smurfs, was disqualified, but no great loss there.)
Looking at Tintin, clearly it’s as good as if not a superior film to the cartoons that were nominated: Kung Fu Panda 2, Puss in Boots, Rango, A Cat in Paris and Chico & Rita. So why did the Academy snub the Peter Jackson/Steven Spielberg juggernaut? I’d argue that most voters in the animation category probably find something intrinsically fake or cheap about motion-capture-generated cartoons, that they’re a shortcut compared to old-school, animate-each-frame-of-movement cartoons.
It’s an ironic shift in perception, because only a decade or two ago, traditionalists protested against the wave of digital animation Pixar was pushing as not being “true” animation, compared to old-fashioned, drawn “cel” animation. Now what defines animation clearly encompasses digital 3-D cartoons. Animation enhanced by motion capture gets no respect.
Now, on to Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Andy Serkis faced the same respect problem when he played Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films. (Serkis also played Tintin‘s Captain Haddock, but that performance was less noteworthy.) Everyone agreed his performance as Gollum was mesmerizing, but the Academy turned up its nose. Now, as Caesar the chimp, he’s as much an actor as James Franco, or even a better one. We don’t end up caring about Franco’s scientist Will Rodman. We care about Caesar. As Caesar, Serkis carries the film. To my mind, it doesn’t matter if we see part or all of Serkis’ “real” face or body, or if that performance isn’t “pure.” What matters is the performance.
Clearly, performance capture is redefining what is acting, just like, historically, other technologies have challenged our notion of acting and performance. Think how special makeup made the Tin Man “tin” in The Wizard of Oz. Or how prosthetics in The Elephant Man, The Mask or Mask enhanced performances. Or puppetry (Yoda) or costumes (Darth Vader or C-3PO). Here’s another example: As the serial killer Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, Anthony Hopkins won a 1991 Best Actor Academy Award. It was a role he largely played behind glass, and behind a mask. Isn’t that much like playing behind the “mask” of digital enhancement?
Digital performances are simply another step in film’s ongoing evolution. No need to panic, Academy. They deserve to be recognized. If it makes an Oscar more palatable, give them their own category: “Best Performance-Capture Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role.”
The only question is, when the Oscar is someday awarded for a motion-capture performance — and some day, it will be — does the actor accept the award solo? Or, accompanying him or her onstage, should there also be the team of animators, artists and technicians who made the entire performance possible?
Luckily, the Academy has time to revise its rules and get a second chance: Serkis will be reprising his role as Caesar in a Rise of the Planet of the Apes sequel.