By JAMES FRANCO
The new Planet of the Apes film, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, belongs to Andy Serkis. Narratively it was always his film: I play an emotionally stilted scientist who in the process of mistakenly unleashing a lethal virus on the human race, learns to care for others; Serkis gets to play Caesar, essentially Che Guevara in chimp form. There is no question that his character arc is much more dynamic and fascinating, it is the story line that takes the franchise’s central theme of culture/racial/species clash and turns it on it’s head by making the maligned apes the unequivocal heroes. We get to watch the fall of mankind and enjoy it because we root for the underdogs, the apes.
But this narrative structure is only half of the story; there is also an acting revolution that has taken place. Andy Serkis is the undisputed master of the newest kind of acting called “performance capture,” and it is time that Serkis gets credit for the innovative artist that he is.
When Serkis was hired to play the inimitable character, Gollum in Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy it was initially only for his voice, the character was meant to be entirely animated. But Serkis got so physically involved in the production of the character’s odd voice – Serkis was inspired by his cat coughing up a hairball – that Jackson decided to find a way to capture the performance so that it could be translated into a digitally rendered character. This was the birth of performance capture as we know it, the process that led to the nuanced performance behind King Kong, the blue things in Avatar, and now Caesar. Audiences are used to large scale effects: impossible explosion, space travel, fantastic fairytale worlds, boys in tights swinging around New York, men with Squids for faces, but there is still a disconnection that happens when a character’s outer surface is rendered in a computer like Caesar’s was. We want to forget that there is a human underneath, the effects are so well rendered we either forget that the spark of life in it’s eyes and the life in its limbs is informed by a breathing human or we are so drawn into the ontology of the character we can’t grasp its artistic origins or exactly how it was created. What this means is that we can enjoy such a character – enjoyment testified by the response to such films as Avatar, Return of the King, and Planet of the Apes – but we don’t give artistic credit where it is due.
I, as much as anyone, can get anxious when I think about the future of movies and the possibility of the obsolescence of actors, or at least actors as we know them, but after making Apes I realize that this is backward thinking. Performance Capture is here, like it or not, but it also doesn’t mean that old-fashioned acting will go the way of silent film actors. Performance Capture actually allows actors to work opposite each other in more traditional ways, meaning that the actors get to interact with each other and look into each others eyes. For years computer technology forced actors to act opposite tennis balls if a movie wanted to have CG creatures, but now the process has come full circle so that actors playing CG creatures can perform in practical sets, just like the “human” actors. In acting school I was taught to work off my co-stars, not to act but react and that was how I would achieve unexpected results, not by planning a performance, but by allowing it to arise from the dynamic between actors, and on The Rise of the Planet of the Apes that’s exactly what I was able to do opposite Andy as Caesar. And Andy got to do the same because every gesture, every facial expression, every sound he made was captured, his performance was captured. Then, what the Weta effects team did was to essentially “paint” the look of Caesar over Andy’s performance. This is not animation as much as it’s digital “make-up.” There are plenty of Oscar winning performances that depended on prosthetic make-up to help create the characters: John Hurt’s in The Elephant Man, Nicole Kidman’s in The Hours, Sean Penn’s in Milk. Those actors depended on make-up artists to augment the look of their characters, but the performance underneath came solely from the actors. Well, that’s exactly the same position that Andy is in, his problem is that the digital “make-up” is so convincing that it makes people forget that he provides the soul of Caesar. That soul, the thing that was so compelling about that film, came from Andy, and the way he rendered that soul is of equal importance, if not more important than the photo
realistic surface of the character.
Andy doesn’t need me to tell him he is an innovator, he knows it. What is needed is recognition for him, now. Not later when this kind of acting is de riguer, but now, when he has elevated this fresh mode of acting into an art form. And it is time for actors to give credit to other actors. It is easy to praise the technical achievements of this film, but those achievements would be empty without Andy. Caesar is not a character that is dependent on human forms of expression to deliver the emotion of the character: despite the lack of any human gestures, and maybe two or three words of human speech Caesar is a fully realized character, not human, and not quite ape; this is no Lassie and this is no Roger Rabbit, it is the creation of an actor doing something that I dare say no other actor could have done at this moment.