A couple of years ago, Andy Serkis' name again made the rounds in the awards conversation vis a vis his performance capture work. The talk concerned his performance in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” and came nearly a decade after he stirred consideration among more progressive minds for his work in Peter Jackson's “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.” Well, with a performance in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” that is sure to outshine a great many that will be in the actual running, it's time to dust off that conversation once again.
First, a quick review. At the time of “Rise,” then-Fox honcho Tom Rothman naturally stumped for Serkis' work to be considered in the Oscar race. Here's what he said back then:
“Our job is to try to have people be aware of and recognize great performances, even when they come in this case in an unusual skin… I think it's one of the great emotional performances ever. The challenge is to overcome preconceptions and certain prejudices, to have people understand that … the emotionality of the character on screen is not provided by the animators, it's provided by the actor.”
A note on that last comment, though. The effects work done on these movies is really exciting and it remains a huge mistake that the Academy at large opted for “Hugo” in the Best Visual Effects category rather than “Rise.” But plenty of heavy lifting is done by those artists when it comes to conveying emotion, so while I understand the point Rothman was making (and which Serkis himself has made himself, sometimes to an inflammatory degree), I think that's worth pointing out. The synergy has never been more impressive than in “Dawn,” though. No, you're not just watching a piece of animation, but you are reacting emotionally to the life breathed into the character by the actor and then translated with very little in the way of seams by digital artists.
Getting back to two years ago, not long after Rothman went on the record, I spoke to Serkis myself. I asked him flat out if performance capture work should be included in the same category as flesh-and-blood performances, and he of course gave me his mission statement:
“I absolutely believe it should be a part of the acting category. At the end of the day, performance capture is a technology. It's not anything other than that. It's a way of recording an actor's performance…When I'm working on the scripts or working with the other actors or rehearsing with the director, and when the director is cutting the movie and we've shot the scene, the director is not looking at the visual effects.”
He went on to mention that the mystery surrounding his work in this field over the last decade had led to a lacking knowledge base, and that more and more, with behind-the-scenes footage and explanatory elements, people can be educated on what, exactly, he and other performance capture actors are doing.
Flash forward to “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” which is easily one of the year's best, most thought-provoking pieces of genre filmmaking (or filmmaking period, for that matter). And Serkis takes it all up another notch. This time, though, it's less about how he physically relates to his co-stars (both human and performance-captured). It's more about the emotional beats, some of which would make the Greeks weep. Serkis is working with his fellow perf-cap performers in deep, moving ways, and that brings me to this…
If Serkis deserves to be in any awards discussion, then Toby Kebbell should be right there with him this time. As Koba, the film's eventual antagonist, Kebbell plays a wide spectrum that always boils down to profound, unadulterated HATE. His performance is oozing out from behind the effects artists' work and it's sort of staggering to witness, especially in his scenes with Serkis.
The Academy is conservative as hell. Nominating these kinds of performances alongside Steve Carell in “Foxcatcher,” Michael Keaton in “Birdman,” you know they'll just choke on the notion. So I'll just put forth this recommendation once again: drag out the Special Achievement Award already and recognize a very real, ultimately very vital element of this industry's future. Serkis deserves to be joined by all the effects artists and performers that are furthering this vision, but if a single man ought to be on that stage clutching a trophy on behalf of forging this path, he's the one.
Just do it, Academy.