Hyperbole Check: People seem a little too impressed with mo-cap

Mo-Cap: It Gives Chimps Souls! By Vince Mancini

Rise of the Planet of the Apes opened to $54 million domestically and rave reviews over the weekend, with critics describing the motion-capture effects as “astonishingly effective,” among other things, and many calling for the guy in the digital chimp suit, Andy Serkis, to be considered a legitimate contender for supporting actor honors. In many cases, they seemed even more impressed by the film than the studio’s own marketing, which is no small feat. Assorted quotes from the making-of featurette:

“This is the first live-action film that has its main character as a thoughtful, feeling, self-aware animal.” -Rupert Wyatt, Director

“WETA brought their technology to another level for this movie to make our apes look real.” -Dylan Clark, Producer

“Andy Serkis is unlike any other actor. He can inhabit characters that don’t speak and emote in ways that you don’t often see in movies.” -Dylan Clark, Producer

“The basic usage of performance capture is that on screen you will see apes, but they’re apes which are infused with the heart and soul of an actor’s performance.” -Andy Serkis

“This film is not possible without the work of Andy Serkis.” -Producer

“Everybody’s seen chimpanzees, they’ve seen orangutans, we know how they’re supposed to look. So I think the bar in terms of needing to make photorealistic characters is really high.” -Erik Winquist, WETA VFX Supervisor

“One of the improvements in motion-capture since Avatar really have to do with detail. And the type of imagery that they’re getting out of the cameras gives us more facial information. And that subtlety is what’s going to make the apes work.” WETA Animator

“My first reaction to seeing it was, that’s Andy Serkis looking like a chimp! And that was what was so amazing, that you get to see his performance.” -Rupert Wyatt

“We’ve managed to put the soul within this character. And that comes through the actor’s performance.” -Rupert Wyatt

Wyatt isn’t the only filmmaker in town with a big boner for motion-capture right now, and rightly so (see also: Tintin). It’s the new toy. As with any new toy, you have to play around with it for a while to figure out what its strengths and limitations are. I actually liked ROTPOTA, so (for me) it certainly passed the most important test there. But the hype is starting to get nauseating, and hailing motion-capture as this revolutionary technology is a bit premature. We seem to be in the same stage of development with performance capture that we were with microwave ovens in the 60s, when people were still expecting them to bake entire, golden-brown chickens. Mo-cap certainly has its place, I just don’t think we’ve quite perfected what that is yet. And it shouldn’t become such a go-to that people forget that there are other types of effects that are pretty damned good too, types of effects that still (and may always) accomplish certain things better.

It’s strange to me that I seem to be only one fascinated by the idea that they got an actor to pretend to be an ape to help the CG artists better animate an ape. That’s hilarious to me for a number of reasons, not the least of which being the mental picture of James Franco having a tender moment with a dude in a ping-pong-ball-covered leotard who grunts and farts like a chimp while Franco strokes his face and kisses his forehead. Awww, Fwanco wuvs you, intelligent monkey man (it sounds like one of Franco’s performance art, pieces, doesn’t it?). I imagine the animators standing around in awe of themselves, one of them starting a slow clap, and before long there’s at least one dude shedding a single tear at the magnificent thespianism of it all. Sorry, I sense I’ve digressed again.

Point being, the main counterpoint to my view of this as near-perfect absurdity is, as my colleague Dave Chen from SlashFilm points out, that “many chimps don’t convey the emotion expected of Caesar in the film.”

That I don’t dispute. However, I had a chance to see the Tim Burton remake of Planet of the Apes on cable over the weekend, and while that’s a different, more Wahlbergy and far inferior film, I couldn’t help notice how badass Tim Roth’s chimp make-up still looks:

What I’m getting at is that even if it’s the complex emotions you’re after, I’m not convinced Andy Serkis’s digital chimp make-up in 2011 looks as good as Tim Roth’s “analog” make-up did in 2001. Even when it’s nearly perfect — and ROTPOTA seems to be as close to perfect as anyone’s come so far — there’s still a sterility to CG and especially motion capture that you don’t get with even less-than-ideal practical effects. Yes, Caesar had to do a lot more full-body chimp things than Thade and the other apes did in the 2001 version, who were mostly human and walked upright. But the argument that they needed motion-capture to create Caesar always focuses on his face. His complex, conflicted, noble humany digital chimp face, created using tiny pin tacks and plastic vampire teeth. Seems to me like they could just as easily have used a mix of practical effects on the face (like Tim Burton did with Tim Roth, which looked awesome) and traditional (non-motion-capture) CG for some of the more dynamic action sequences.

Furthermore, it’s ridiculous to me to assume that an actor is the ultimate instrument for rendering the emotions of a fictional, fantastical being. Is an actor really so much better than, say, an animator would be? Yes, Caesar was supposed to have emotions more complex than a simple chimp. But didn’t Nemo also have emotions more complex than a normal clownfish? And how did animators ever manage to give Wall E or Johnny 5 such complex feelings without covering Andy Serkis in a ping pong balls and taking pictures of his leotard while he acted like a love-sick robot? Would Jurassic Park have been greatly improved by Andy Serkis pretending to be all the dinosaurs? It’d be funny watching him shriek at goats and bite Jeff Goldblum, but I doubt it. (Great sketch idea, by the way, someone write this down).

In the future, I’d like to see films mix some of the tricks they learned from the 2001 Planet of the Apes with the tricks they learned on the 2011 version. Because as much as we all think Rise of the Planet of the Apes looks impressive and cutting edge and groundbreaking and all that now, I have a feeling that in ten years, it’s going to look dated in a way that Tim Roth’s ape make-up doesn’t.

Post-Script: I asked a friend who animates for a living to read this before I posted it to make sure I wasn’t nuts, and this was what he wrote:

Studios like motion capture for the same reason phone companies like their number-of-G’s. It’s a bullet point in a press-release to a bunch of people who don’t know anything about how things work. It’s some teenager at Best Buy trying to sell you on a 3D TV.

F*ck Andy Serkis. You know who Rupert Wyatt should be thanking? The guys who programmed the sub-surface scattering shaders. The dude in charge of making sure the rendering farm doesn’t explode. The rigger who attached the weights to all those stupid f*cking ping-pong balls, so they fit the chimp model that some very talented modelers worked on for months. Without them he’s just some British guy in a helmet and leotard, pretending to be a magical creature.

[On the following pages I’ve included some screencaps from the ROTPOTA featurettes, only because I find them QUITE humorous]