Friday, 12 December 2014

One page on an overlooked profession

So in honor of the conclusion to the Middle-Earth saga, I figured I would do something about the often overlooked second unit director of the Hobbit-trilogy. If you didn’t know what a second unit director does, he is basically responsible to film the scenes that need a lesser amount of attention by the director, like landscape or smaller sequences. However, for example Helm’s Deep in “The Two Towers” was 90% second unit, so the second unit director is an important person.

Oh, and also, the second unit director on the Hobbit is also none other than the godfather of motion-capture, Andy Serkis himself. If you are at all interested in movies, you have probably heard people championing him for an Academy Award, first for Gollum, now for his work on Caesar. So in the spirit of a fair discussion, I want to put together the main arguments for both sides, pro and con.

 Serkis himself has always stated that to him, motion-capture is basically a digital costume. He argues that he does the same thing other actors do, only his costume and make up gets put on later. There really is no point in arguing with that, this is the way it works. I would even go so far as to say motion-capture-acting is arguably harder in some aspects.

First, any actor, when asked will tell you that being in a costume is a huge help to get into a character. Playing Elizabeth Bennet gets a bit easier once you are in a dress that fits the period and on a set that is designed carefully by professional set-designers. In motion-capture, you have a grey motion capture suit with funny balls attached to it and a green screen. At least that is the way it used to be, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” was the first movie to actually take the motion-capture equipment, which is huge, on set, into the woods… and it was awesome. But still only grey suits.
And now imagine you have to become a dragon. No other actors, no set, just a director who tells you what’s good and what isn’t. The point is, everything has to come from your own imagination. That is insanely hard.

The second part is the kind of roles motion-capture enables. Acting students do a thing that is called animal studies, where they have to study an animal’s behavior and imitate it. Jack Reynor tells a great story about how he, pragmatically, as all his fellow students were studying monkeys or elephants, picked a turtle and spent the rest of the class being lazy. Because there really isn’t a way that this is something that would actually ever come up in a normal acting career, right? I mean, voice-work for sure, but actually having to play an animal on screen? Well, there is now.
For every great performance, actors look for a way into a character, shared experiences, things the actor can empathize with and then imitate. Well, what experiences do you share with an ape whose mother got experimented on, leaving you with a rapidly growing brain? Serkis had to look in completely different places for his performance than actors usually do.

So if motion-capture is like a good costume and is really as hard as I just laid out, (and please don’t take this as me saying normal acting isn’t hard in comparison, it really is) then why hasn’t Serkis got an Oscar yet? What is keeping the Academy from finally giving him the recognition he deserves?
Well, it’s basically one argument, and sadly, it is a very good one. It is true that you can compare motion-capture to a costume that is put on after the actual performance, but therein also lies the problem. If you put the costume and make up on digitally after the fact, what keeps a director from asking the effects team to change details of the performance? This reportedly happened on “The Two Towers” a few times, and that is an understandable reason to ban this from any best acting category.

However, don’t despair yet, as Serkis and other people working in the field are very aware of this concern and try everything to work against these allegations. For “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”, featurettes aimed at showing how closely the animators adhered to the original performance were released, showing Serkis and Kebbell (Koba) in their motion capture suits and their finished ape form, side-by-side. Of course, until they release the full movie in this format, there is still room for allegations of cherry-picking the moments that support their cause, but we can see a development into a good direction here.

Overall, I believe that we will see motion capture work being recognized next to conventional acting at some point in the near future. Will it be this season, for “Dawn”? I hope so, but I’m not putting any money on it yet. There are a lot of people arguing for it, studios, actors, directors and animators, but the opposition is still strong as well and their argument is a strong one.

1 comment:

  1. Truely a difficult topic. Another question that arose during these arguments was wether motion capture performance should get its own category or not.
    I personally think that wouldn't work, because there just isn't enough motion capture performances in the time period of one year. Every actor playing a digital character would basically be an instant nominee and it would either become an "easy" way to win an Oscar, or "The Andy Serkis Award", as he could dominate simply by experience and the number of films.
    Still, I hope he'll get some more recognition in the future. Maybe an Honorary Award at the very least?

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