OSCAR EXCLUSIVE: James Franco On Why Andy Serkis Deserves Credit From Actors

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.

    1. The most disheartening part of the article is that an Ivy League Masters in English like James Franco still can not use an apostrophe properly.

  1. I wish there was a way to credit Andy Serkis for his work without minimizing the work of the animators who were instrumental to the final performance. Maybe it seems necessary in order to make Serkis’ performance seem Oscar-worthy, but it always comes off as insulting to everyone else.

    1. I don’t think it’s minimizing the work of the animators so much as emphasizing where the heart of the performance lies. Is the work of the makeup artists minimized when praising the performances of, as Franco mentioned, John Hurt in The Elephant Man or Nicole Kidman in The Hours. It’s basically the same thing.

      1. No, it’s not the same thing as what make-up artists did in the Elephant man, etc.

        In those earlier “practical” films, the Actor’s performance was genuinely their own underneath all of the mak-up. No one “improved” or changed the performance to better suit the shot, the scene, or the director’s intent.

        With so-called performance captured, there is an initial batch of data that represents what the actor physically did. From there, that data is then applied to a rigged character in different proportions than the actor, requiring a level of interpretation to the performance right off of the bat.

        After that, tweaks can and are made, in order to correct the actor’s performance. I will say that again — tweaks can and are made in order to correct the actor’s performance. These are done by animators at the request of the director.

        In the end, the actual performance of the actor is nothing more than a guide for the cg artists to ensure that the actions, timing and emotional state of the character has been defined and is consistent. This, however, is not acting, it is no longer the actor’s actual performance outside of voice.

        1. What a load of b.s. With all due respect to the digital artists, who do amazing work, that nuanced performance came about because of ACTING. It was far more than a blueprint and light years more than simply a voice.

          1. First of all, comparing the work of animators to makeup artists is one of the most inaccurate comparisons I have ever stumbled upon. Does a makeup artist go in front of the camera while they are roling and, like a pupateer, move the actos limbs in the motion the director asks for? No.

            And therein lies the root of this argument. Those not working in the CG industry still fail to understand exactly what we ‘VEP’s’ do and exactly how we are required to enhance a large amout of the sequences to meet the directors vision.

            Granted, the many weeks spent modelling, followed by weeks sculpting, then texturing, then shading, then fur simulating then look dev’ing… well you get the point, could be remotely likend to what a make up artist does (very very losely). However, the huge amounts of time spent on things like character rigging, moCap & analaysis and finaly animating is nothing like what a makeup artist does.

            I am sure that Andy did put in a brilliant performance as an actor, as most actors do. However it is important to remember that the final performance seen on screen is for the most part far from entirly his. For months on end, long after the physical set has been dismantled and the actor is deep in to their next project, animators are working very long hours to both fix and change the performace at the directors whym. Things like deciding cesar should walk upright in this shot rather than on all fours, or he wants the club in the left hand rather than the right as it was fillmed, changing not only the motion at that part of the shot but also the motions leading up to and after the event. Or how about he turned too quick or his arm swung too fast and high so it needs lowered and slowed. How about shots where mocap could not be used and humans simply cant perforn the movement required, these have to be hand animated but then blended into the (recently adjusted) motion from the actor, only to find that it is impossible to line up the motions so the end of the acting has to be changed to better accomodate the full CG part. I could go on for ages but you get the point.

            Lets not forget we would not be having this conversation if any single department (both CG and acting) failed to produce high end work, as any single piece of poor work would have removed all believable life from the character. So while Andy does deserve recognition for his skill as an actor he should not be awarded for the technical skill of those who spent a lot more time in their part of creating the life of Cesar.

        2. >“However it is important to remember that the final performance seen on screen is for the most part far from entirly his”

          This is garbage that bespeaks the technophobic Luddite mentality of the performance capture haters. The only place an actor gives a pure unadulterated performance is live on stage. Movies are constructed out of countless takes and angles. Even if they film a conversation with two cameras simultaneously, they still have the ability to take shots out of context to achieve the finished effect. This is the way they’re made and doing 20 or 30 takes of a scene isn’t unheard of; the opening scene of The Social Network reportedly ran into 100 takes.

          How can you say that a five-minute scene cut together from 100 takes of multiple camera angles of coverage is “real” acting while the ability for an animator to adjust some aspect of a captured performance is not? What if Serkis performed the role live on set with realistic prosthetic makeup – would he be eligible for the recognition you’d deny him because the makeup is made of pixels and applied later?

          People like you probably are still bitter about color and talkies. The future is here. Try to catch up.

          1. I don’t think you actually understand what part of his performance is actually left. Here’s a great visual representation of why:

            Notice that in the very credit statement it says:

            1) Caesar Goodbye (Weta Digital)
            Everything was keyframe animated, except for the character’s spine where mocap data was used & polished

            What that means is that the performance is SOLELY the work of the animator. Here’s a quick definition of keyframe animation for you:

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Key_frame

            Each pose of the character, emotion and all is derived from a keyframe with the exception of the characters spine which was derived from MOTION CAPTURE data, which is what the performance capture is truly called in the industry.

            So tell me, why does Serkis deserve an award when his spine is the only thing that’s used in this particular take?

    2. Serkis himself said:
      “When you see the character move on screen, that’s the animators. But when you see the heart and soul of the character, that’s me.”
      It doesn’t diminish the work of animators to recognise that the basis of their ‘performance’ comes from a human source. Pixar films are pure animation and get validation as such, but the onus of blending live-action with animated parts is on the actor in this case. It’s people like Serkis that make you care for something that would otherwise fall into the uncanny valley.

      1. That’s the problem.

        I saw the character move on screen, but I never saw the heart and soul of the character.

    3. They should give Serkis a “Special Oscar” in recognition of his contribution to cinema, like the ones they gave Walt Disney or Judy Garland.

  2. I agree, it’s about time. Acting is “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances” (Miesner)and that is what he’s doing while helping his fellow actors play off of him.

  3. In a few Years time, I’ll bet Serkis will get one of those “Special Achievement” awards to make up for everything.

    1. I don’t think it’s so much about plugging the movie, he mentioned numerous other films that Serkis has been in or that have groundbreaking use of performance capture. I think what he’s trying to do it use a film he worked with Andy in as an example to give his argument weight, to prove that he knows from experience what kind of actor Andy is.

      It would be plugging if he’d done this six months ago but now the film is out of theatres and has been on DVD for a while, it’s not going to effect his bottom line or line the pockets of the studio execs at this point and I think pretty much everyone knows that realistically, at least this year, a nomination for Serkis is unlikely.

    2. I respectually disagree. If Franco wasn’t IN the movie, how would he have the experience to relate first-hand knowlege of the Serkis’ skill and performance.

      Without the been-there, saw-that quality, the article would be just another fan whinning that Serkis should get (well-deserved) acting recognizition for his performance in a movie he saw on screen like everyone else. Actors are not known for loving to share the limelight. So indeed, for me it lends even more credibility.

      1. Good lord. And for my next trick I’ll spell, respectfully”, “knowledge, “whining” and “recognition” correctly!

        That has to be a record for me….

  4. I couldn’t agree more. Academy or no, when it comes to performance capture, Andy Serkis is freakin’ Elvis!

  5. When Franco says ‘recognition’ I wonder if he is referring to an Oscar nomination or an actual win. A nom is realistic but a win will not happen.

    It’s cool Nikki posted this exclusive or whatever you want to call it.

    1. I’m thinking he would like Andy to be at least nominated for an Oscar as currently his name is not on the list for possible consideration (CRAZY,CRAZY,CRAZY).

      Andy deserves to be on the Best Supporting Actor list no question asked.

      Proud of James for backing up Andy in such a detailed response (A+), he didn’t have to do this (DECENT GUY), aaaaaahhhhh the father looking out for his son.

      I’m also kind of shocked that Deadline printed this article, I thought they hated James Franco?????? It must be a New Year…..

      Anyway, well done Deadline (fresh start), I really hope it helps Andy in some way; he needs all the support he can get, heck his waited long enough and I hope he wins or create a special award for him without him waiting another 40 years to receive it.

  6. Excellent point, James, well said. I’m an actor and can certainly concur about reacting being the source of the happy surprises as well as the magic of not planning, of being in the moment. Hope your message gets around and sinks in. Body language offers truth in a way that audiences will instinctively react to, even when they don’t know why. You just told ‘em why! :) Kudos to Andy for giving his all.

    1. Thanks for that. I’m sure everyone here feels enlightened by your subtle desire to tell everyone you’re an actor. I’m disappointed you didn’t post your IMDB pro account as well. Jesus H Christ…

  7. This is a tough one indeed. Not to diminish Andy’s talents but his motion capture is merely a template for the animators to work from. It is a very good template but nothing more. Andy has become a bit of a brand when it comes to motion capture performance, his name almost has marquee/promotional value. There are however many, many talented individuals essentially professional pantomimes that could deliver the same product for the animators to bring to life. Was Andy the only guy flawlessly pretending to be a primate in this film, no. There were dozens.

    Question: Does Andy have a motion capture stunt double?

    1. I agree. Perhaps, Andy should receive a special tech award for his Performance Capture animation, but I don’t think he deserves an award for his performance, as I did not see what everyone else seems to have seen on screen. I saw plenty of brow-furrowing and scowling,a few extremely angry shouts near the end and a couple manipulative and cloying “tender” scenes but, other than the grueling physical demands of “performance capture” animation, his portrayal of Caesar was, most decidedly, not one of the best of the year.

  8. There is a sliding scale of capturing the soul of a performance that is shared between actors and animators even when motion/performance capture is used… (little secret that some animators are forced to throw out mocap data and hand animate to get shots approved despite being told to alter next to nothing by the director… since the “true mocap” won’t get approved for little issues that popped up in the performance that are harder to fix or smooth than to reanimate by hand). In animated films the animator is the “actor” and gets little to no credit since it’s not usually a visionary individual but rather a team that has to interpret the character via their animation supervisor, leads and the director’s vision. In that way it’s sometimes more impressive the cohesive soul they can create. Prior to recent years they would have little to no reference acting but their own (done in mirrors or captured on video more recently) to help inform their choices, and then as some directors have changed to a more live spontaneous sound recording environment with animated films in the likes of Fantastic Mr. Fox and Rango, their is much more video reference to swing some of the performance credit back to the actors through both the spontaneity of voice but also of the physicality. It’s always easier to give credit and single out individuals over teams of people but narrative visual storytelling is a true collaborative medium and I wish they would give credit more widely than they normally do in discussing these films. Andy Serkis delivers an amazing performance but the animators at Weta along with the Modelers, Texture Artists, Riggers, and Compositors give this performance the ability to truly live and breathe in the real world. Without the insane talent and continuing technological breakthroughs, his performance would likely seem laughable… so I wish people would understand how important all these pieces of the puzzle truly are.

    1. So true! I caught some behind the scenes footage of “apes” and the site of Serkis running around and acting like and ape was hysterical. It actually made me admire Franco’s performance more…I kept thinking, “How the heck is he keeping a straight face.”

  9. I think Serkis and the industry at large would be better served if the vague, confusing (and pretentious) “performance capture” term was replaced with the simpler, more straight-forward (and accurate) “digital prosthetic make-up”, which is a far better definition of the technology at work here. (This is not mere “motion capture”.) Yes, the digital artists deserve credit – just as traditional prosthetic make-up artists do – but you can’t deny the power or achievement of Serkis’ performance. It is just as worthy of an Oscar nomination as John Hurt’s was for The Elephant Man (which is a good and appropriate comparison). Alas there’s still just too much confusion and ignorance (as evidenced by the comment by Mr. Gibbs) that I fear Serkis will be unfairly overlooked come nomination time.

  10. It’s funny how the Tin Tin people push for montion capture to be consideres animation and The Rise Of The Planets Of The Apes people seem to imply it’s a make-up equivalent or something.

    Mo-Cap folks, you can’t have it both ways.

    1. Pedro, good point. At Oscar time everyone is thinking in their own best self interest. Never the less Andy’s performance brought an three dementional life and emotion
      to Caesar that could not have been accomplished otherwise. Love Ya Andy.

    2. Pedro, “mo-cap folks” aren’t the ones deciding how Spielberg chooses to market or submit for awards consideration his films. They’re hired guns who do the same work (animators and actors alike) regardless of the final product. Whether it’s Avatar, Apes, Kong, Beowulf, Happy Feet, Paul, Avengers… the actors act, the animators animate. The performances Andy Serkis gives should be eligible for award consideration regardless of the category the film is in. His work as Capt. Haddock in Tintin, or Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, both performance capture, and live action work such as Ian Dury in Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll should all be viewed equally, as an actor giving a performance. If the performance is good enough, nominate it for an award. Period.

  11. Franco definitely deserves some kind of award for coming up with an infinite variety of ways to publicize himself.

    1. With the amount of various talented skills under his belt, I don’t think James Franco needs to publicize himself in regards to this article.

      Anyway, this area of work doesn’t every actor/actress/director/film studio etc advertise themselves in somekind of way? Remember the reason for why the Oscars are held in the first place?

      Surely, you advertise yourself from time to time to get ahead what’s the problem?????? He has made it.

      He’s just trying to help out a friend that’s all (it might not work but at least he tried), nothing wrong in speaking up for someone you are proud of and Andy Serkis is pure talent.

  12. If Robin Williams can get nominated for voicing and animated character (which I have no objection to), why not Serkis? But I agree with “JK” – and honorary Oscar should come his way someday.

  13. When he compares the chimp to Che Guevara, does he mean Caeser was a bigot, homophobe and murderer of thousands? I love when actors make reference to “idols” they know nothing about. Next time you’re at Columbia, Franco, take a class other than “Blind Hipster Liberalism Learned From TShirts 101″.

  14. This article is well written, with a very clear, strong, valid, and concise point. Andy Serkis has reshaped the future of film making. He has had a massive amount of recognition from he fellow artists and supporters, it’s time to give him the official recognition.

    (p.s. only thing in this article I think should be removed is referring to ‘men with Squids for faces’ as that was also motion capture, and Bill Nighy did an amazing job as Davy Jones in the ‘Pirates Of The Caribean’ Sequels. Kudos to him too.)

  15. I agree but I must say generally, it’s easier to act under loads of makeup or disguise. It’s sort of a security blanket which relieves much of the nervousness and self-consciousness.

    Why did Franco do this anyway?

  16. He isn’t “plugging” the movie. The performance he is promoting is in that movie and he knows by experience how much Andy deserves a nomination b/c he acted with him. The movie came out in August and did well and is doing well in DVD sales. It doesn’t need plugging!

  17. Cynical much? He is voicing his support for a fellow actor whose talents he respects. He knows probably better than anyone how archaic and backward thinking the Oscar people are and he is putting in a good word for someone he feels as do many others, deserves some recognition

  18. Franco is homest and isnt afraid to voice his opinions, which i respect. He is voicing his support for a fellow actor whose talents he respects. He knows probably better than anyone how archaic and backward thinking the Oscar people are and he is putting in a good word for someone he feels as do many others, deserves some recognition

  19. The process of motion/performance capture is way too complicated for any of these comparisons. It’s not Make-up. It’s not animation. It the amalgamation of the talents of a bunch of people done over the course of months if not years. Honoring just the “performer” for the work does, indeed, undercut the work of the “animators” and vice versa.

    Motion/Performance capture doesn’t belong in either the acting or animation catagories.

    What the Academy should do is, first, figure out if this method of rendering a character in a film is “here to stay.” If it is (and it looks like it is) then the Academy should create a category called “Best Motion Capture Performance” or “Best Animated Performace” (or something like that) — and the nomination should go to both the Performer and the Animator.

  20. I fail to see why the academy has to “honor” Serkis.

    Is mo-cap acting the same as regular acting? No. On set, there may be little difference between what Serkis is doing and what Franco is doing. But in the theater there is a huge difference. Is see Franco as Franco (more or less) looked and acted like on set. Not the case with Mo-Cap.

    Is Serkis a good actor? Honestly, I don’t know. I’ve never heard his named mentioned outside of this mo-cap discussion. But…

    Is it is special talent that he possesses? YES. Of Course. Why else would he be the only one the industry calls on to play mo-cap characters — especially mo-cap characters in live action films? He’s good at it. The best even. He has the market cornered! Serkis is the guy you call when you need that thing he does so darn well. He has no competition for work. Zero.

    But we don’t give awards to people who have no competition.

    We all know that a lot of decisions go into casting a particular actor. but when you are making an “oscar” movie (and you know when you are) one of the criteria (along with B.O. draw, etc.) is “Who can play this part better than anyone else?” Then you go after that person and hopefully you land them. But there is a field of people from which to choose when casting (ostensibly).

    With mo-cap, the field is a field of one: Serkis.

    With Serkis, there is nobody else. To some of you, this might sound like a case “for” Serkis…but it’s actually a case against.

    When there is no competition…there is no award.

    1. You fail to realize that Serkis’ is but one of many performances that could be considered for awards in a given year. His just happen to consistently be among the very best and he works in this field more than any other principal actor (at the moment). However, Daniel Craig, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Toby Jones, and Jamie Bell could all be considered if an awards group felt their performance was worthy. Much like in past years when they might have considered the work of amazing actors like Tom Hanks, Anthony Hopkins, Michael Jeter, Angelina Jolie, Jim Carrey, Colin Firth, Robin Wright, Crispin Glover, Sigourney Weaver, Zoe Saldana, Seth Rogen, Mark Ruffalo, Ray Winstone, John Malkovich, Steve Buscemi, Kathleen Turner, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Sam Worthington, Catherine O’Hara, Fred Willard, CCH Pounder, Laz Alonso, etc. So, as you can see, Andy Serkis may work in performance capture more often than most actors, but he certainly isn’t in a field by himself. And that field is already mighty thick with talent.

    2. How does lack of competition disqualify you from winning an award? If Helen Mirren is the go-to person for playing a “dignified older English woman”, she should still be eligible for winning an acting award if she does an amazing job at it. If you’re so good at something that you’ve cornered the market, that just means you did a great job. Same with Serkis. He has an undeniable acting skill, sure it’s a very particular skill, but it’s still an acting skill. And if Academy voters feel moved by his performance, I don’t see why he shouldn’t be at least considered.

    3. One reason he is always called on for performance capture is because all the projects he has been involved with are either for the same director – Peter Jackson — or for projects at that director’s Special Effects company — WETA.

      To say that Serkis is the only guy running around in a MoCap studio is completely proposterous. There are scores of MoCap studios around. MoCap has been around since the early 90’s. He has been fortunate to have been put in a suit at the time when CG technology evloved to a point where it was possible to create photrealistic characters.

      As an animator with 15 years of experience in Animated Feature, Film Effects, Television Animation and Video Games, I find this discussion completely disgusting.

      The goal of special effects work is to be as invisble to eye as possible. It is to make what is unreal seem natural and true. In other words, it is to take a guy running around in a skintight suit trying to behave like a monkey and turn him into one.

      Regardless of how good or bad Serkis’s “performance” is or would be, the job of the effects artists is to make it real. If you through Serkis’s actual performance out there without corrections or interpretation it would like a guy jumping around in an Ape Suit.

    4. Excellent point!

      Hence, Serkis should receive a special achievement award or a special tech award; perhaps, the “Acadummy” should create a category for “stunt acting”.

    5. See, the reason he’s the only one who does that area of acting is.. because there’s no one else who’s good enough to do it! Andy is incredibly talented and just because he’s the only one in that field it does not mean he doesn’t deserve an award. Obviously you don’t think that deserves anything, but I think he deserves some sort of special achievement award and some recognition.

      1. “he’s the only one who does that area of acting”! “the only one in that field”!

        Where on earth did you get this ridiculously short sighted fact from?

        Do you honestly think that the many hundreds of moCap suites around the world sit empty year after year gathering dust in the hope that one day Andy will come and use it?

        We alone have had 5 different actors in our moCap suite this year, that’s an average of 1 every 2 days. They are all very talented but unfortunately for them their talents will be shadowed by the hollywood actors they are providing us with reference for when their respective films are released.

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