In Contention


Forget Best Supporting Actor — it’s time to honor Andy Serkis’ “Special Achievement”

Posted by Kristopher Tapley · 11:14 am · August 4th, 2011

There has been a lot of talk this week about Andy Serkis’ stirring performance-capture portrayal of ape rebellion leader Caesar in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” In many quarters, writers are calling for consideration in the Best Supporting Actor category. It’s a song and dance Serkis and those of us who follow the film awards season have heard before, but I wonder if it’s the wrong approach.

It’s important to face facts if you want Oscar recognition for Serkis. The Academy — an actor-dominated body — is not ready to hail performance-capture outside of the effects arena. Period. Two years ago, “Avatar” showed us that there was fear there when it missed out on a Best Picture win. It was admittedly one of a handful of issues that served as a stumbling block, but the sense (amplified by competing Oscar campaigns) was that a quickly advancing technique could one day render actors obsolete. Yes, it was a ridiculous fear, but it was a fear nonetheless. And for some, I’m sure it still is.

The truth is, without a considerable groundswell, I don’t think we’ll see a performance-capture portrayal recognized with an Oscar nomination for some time. That having been said, a number of our readers mentioned an option in yesterday’s Weta post that I and certainly others have been considering for a while now: a Special Achievement Award.

According to the Academy’s official literature, the Special Achievement Award “can be given for an outstanding contribution to a particular movie when there is no annual award category that applies to the contribution.” For years (since its institution in 1972), it was mostly given for visual effects and sound effects achievements, as those categories required a certain number of nominees in order for an Oscar to be awarded. When there wasn’t (and it happened often enough), a Special Achievement Award was presented to a worthy contender if there was one.

Outside of those instances, the honor has been given three other times:

1977: Benjamin Burtt, Jr., for the creation of the alien, creature and robot voices featured in “Star Wars.” (This is basically sound editing recognition, though.)

1988: Richard Williams, for the animation direction of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?.”

1995: John Lasseter, for his inspired leadership of the Pixar “Toy Story” team, resulting in the first feature-length computer-animated film.

These were valid instances and noble gestures on the Academy’s part. But I’d wager at least two of them pale in comparison to the legacy Serkis is leaving with his work in performance-capture.

Nine years ago, Weta Digital, Serkis and filmmaker Peter Jackson showed us what was really possible with performance-capture by breathing life into Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.” Three years later, Robert Zemeckis would use his take on the technology to give us a full performance-capture feature film (which kicked off audience interest) in “The Polar Express.”

The next year, Jackson stepped up his approach. Serkis suited up once more, this time portraying the larger-than-life title character of the remake “King Kong.” The possibilities were really beginning to widen, and a year later, Bill Nighy and effects wizards would give us the delicious character of Davy Jones in “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.”

Two years later, another breakthrough. After tinkering with the technology with Digital Domain on Orville Redenbacher commercials, David Fincher aged Brad Pitt backwards in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” rooting the technology in narrative and making a case for its usage in dramatic filmmaking.

And the next year, the doors blew off. James Cameron gave us his years-in-the-making “Avatar,” bringing things dangerously close to photo-realism and inventing an entire race of aliens in a Playa Vista aircraft hangar (with Weta’s formulas in tow, of course). Twelve months later, we saw Jeff Bridges confront his much-younger self in “TRON Legacy,” adding to the intrigue.

Along the way, animated films made use of the technology, from “Sinbad: Beyond the Veil of the Mists” (the first film to be fully motion-capture), to “Monster House” to “Happy Feet.” Later this year, Steven Spielberg will push things a bit farther in that regard, using performance-capture to animate “direct-to-canvas” and preserve the art of Georges Prosper “Hergé” Remi with “The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn.”

But Serkis’s work in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” hitting screens this weekend, reminds us — perhaps crucially — that performance-capture is only as good as the performer. And no one is better at it than he is.

So I, and I’m sure many more, would like to humbly suggest that the Academy consider dusting off the Special Achievement Award and really think hard about what Serkis and Weta started in 2002. This year’s Oscar ceremony will be close enough to the 10-year anniversary of that seminal moment in film history, so what better time to recognize — outside of the bloody arena of Oscar campaigning — truly visionary work that has made, and will continue to make, a considerable impact in this industry?

It’s because of what Serkis has brought to the table, by the way, that this shouldn’t be cast away as a segment on the ghettoized Scientific & Technical Awards satellite ceremony, which is little more than a blip on the Oscarcast. You’re talking about what will likely be seen as the biggest innovation of this decade in cinema. It deserves a moment to shine, and it deserves to have an ambassador like Serkis, a talented Actor with a capital “A,” take the stage on its behalf. Perfect synergy.

Maybe the suggestion comes off as half-measures. I’m sure Serkis would like for his work to be considered proper performance by the Academy and be allowed to compete alongside other performances, but the fact is we’re barely at a place where animated films are considered “real movies” by this group. So baby steps are in order. A Special Achievement Award would be a rousing historic moment, and another noble gesture on the Academy’s part.

[Photo: 20th Century Fox]




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40 responses so far

  • 1 8-04-2011 at 11:18 am

    Will said...

    I’d totally be on board for this. Would be a great Oscar moment.

  • 2 8-04-2011 at 11:25 am

    Chris G. said...

    I haven’t seen Apes yet, but just watching Serkis’ pre-CG performance in that featurette gave me the chills. He freaking embodied that monkey, and he didn’t even need the CG to do it.

  • 3 8-04-2011 at 11:34 am

    Rashad said...

    Also Walt Disney received honorary Oscars for both Snow White and Fantasia

  • 4 8-04-2011 at 11:37 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Indeed. And for the creation of Mickey Mouse. But that was pre-Special Achievement Award.

  • 5 8-04-2011 at 11:47 am

    Andy W said...

    If they don’t do something like this this year I could very easily see them doing it next year (or 2013) when Gollum comes back (in an admittedly much smaller role) in the Hobbit films. People may actually really recognize his work when they see the character that started it all 10 years later with all the advancements that the craft has seen.

  • 6 8-04-2011 at 11:52 am

    /3rtfu11 said...

    I guess an Honorary Academy Award is out of the question ala James Baskett for Song of the South?

  • 7 8-04-2011 at 12:22 pm

    red_wine said...

    Kris you also said the Zoe Saldana deserved an Oscar nomination for Avatar. And I thought that was ridiculous. So I’ll check out Serkis in Apes before seeing merit in such an award.

    Let me also just add here that giving Toy Story a special achievement Oscar was one of the most far-sighted decisions the academy has taken. With the hindsight of so many years, it is now apparent that Toy Story caused a revolution, is one of the most influential films ever and a cinema landmark. It should actually have won Best Picture but oh well.

    And for motion capture, lets not be myopic and heap all the credit on the performing actor. The “performance” was created by the actor as well as the animator. If an Oscar is handed out, the animator should be standing there on the stage too with a statue in his hand. I think precisely for this reason, motion capture performances will not be considered. (Neither have I ever seen one that truly deserved consideration.)

  • 8 8-04-2011 at 12:25 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    red_wine: Fine if you think that was ridiculous, but there is no questioning Serkis’s work pushing the medium into the future, so you’re arguing two different things, really. Case in point:

    “Let me also just add here that giving Toy Story a special achievement Oscar was one of the most far-sighted decisions the academy has taken. With the hindsight of so many years, it is now apparent that Toy Story caused a revolution, is one of the most influential films ever and a cinema landmark. It should actually have won Best Picture but oh well.”

    You may be saying the same thing about performance capture in 10 years.

    And it’s not myopic to understand the importance of the performer. But in any case, while it may not be perfectly clear in this piece, I’m arguing in favor of Weta being singled out, too.

  • 9 8-04-2011 at 12:41 pm

    The Dude said...

    While I haven’t seen “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” I do agree that Serkis is far overdue for some recognition. But I can’t see the Academy going for it this year, neither in a Best Supporting Actor capacity nor in a Special Achievement capacity…because within the next few years Peter Jackson’s “Hobbit” movies are going to debut, and I feel the Academy will wait for those to come out if they end up deciding to give Serkis some sort of award.

    And FWIW, I too felt Zoe Saldana deserved an Oscar nom for “Avatar” (one of the few things, aside from the FX, that I actually liked about that movie).

  • 10 8-04-2011 at 12:45 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    I don’t think The Hobbit is the time to do such a thing. Gollum will be too limited in that film and Apes is really the moment-to-shine for this technique.

  • 11 8-04-2011 at 1:07 pm

    Andrej said...

    I agree, but I wouldn’t discard a Best Supporting Actor nod yet: if Brad Pitt got a nod for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, technically the only thing preventing Serkis from getting one (aside from his movies being very genre-based) is, well, popularity.

    I have no idea how he handled the 2002 circuit with Gollum (save from a MTV Movie Awards sketch), but if he’s willing to put himself out there and roll with the buzz and the award season … it could happen.

    But honestly, The Rise of the Planet of the Apes doesn’t strike me as a movie willing to put money on FYC Supporting Actor ads. It could easily be misunderstood as a publicity stunt.

  • 12 8-04-2011 at 1:20 pm

    Ben M. said...

    It is a bit ironic that Pitt’s Benjamin Button performance is the closest we’ve seen to oscar recognition for a motion-capture performance since I didn’t think that work was nearly as good as Serkis’, Saldana in Avatar, or even Jim Carrey in A Christmas Carol. But I suspect the academy will need, like in the case of Pitt, at least a fair amount of the screentime to be traditional live-action before they recognize it.

  • 13 8-04-2011 at 1:24 pm

    JJ1 said...

    I just can’t wait to see Serkis and the film, myself. Kris, does this mean that you caught it today, already?

  • 14 8-04-2011 at 1:26 pm

    Micah Gardner said...

    http://www.npr.org/2011/08/04/138930501/serkis-playing-virtual-parts-on-the-big-screen

    pretty interesting, hearing it from the source himself. Awards-pertinent talk starts at 18:45

  • 15 8-04-2011 at 3:15 pm

    Maxim said...

    “Kris you also said the Zoe Saldana deserved an Oscar nomination for Avatar. And I thought that was ridiculous. ”

    There is nothing ridiculous about that. If she convinced us that she deserved it, and stood out among other Na’vis then she’s done all that’s needed in my book.

    Serkis, deserves to be recognized. No doubt about that. I just think that these things take time. It’s been less then ten years since Gollum. I’m sure he’ll get his due fro the Academy.

  • 16 8-04-2011 at 5:30 pm

    Loyal said...

    Well said Kris. Great insight.

    Apes doing good/great box office this month will only boost the argument to honor Serkis. Fingers crossed.

  • 17 8-04-2011 at 6:40 pm

    Afrika said...

    “Two years ago, “Avatar” showed us that there was fear there when it missed out on a Best Picture win.”

    Avatar didn’t win because it was the weakest nominated film. It was simply nothing but Pocahontas deluxe in space and AMPAS was certainly not in the mood to reward unoriginality that year ( keyword “that year” because we know they’ve done it in the past).

  • 18 8-04-2011 at 6:42 pm

    DylanS said...

    I think the idea that Motion Capture could one day render actors obsoltete is beyond silly. Not just because people like Serkis have proven that it involves skillfull acting, but because the technology is so expensive that it would be pointless to emply it in a film that has no practical use for it.

    Also, when regarding Serkis and the work he’s done, there’s no doubt he deserves a special achievement. But I don’t think that there has been a totally deserving motion capture performance yet, in terms of a nomination. Serkis’ work as Gollum is as close as it’s gotten, but even then, I don’t know that I would have considered the thought of nominating him if nobody else brought it up.

    When people started throwing around the idea of a nomination for Saldana with “Avatar”, it seemed like they just wanted to reward the actor for using the technology. I thought she was great in “Avatar”, but I wouldn’t call the performance by itself Oscar-worthy, and if the process isn’t any different from acting, as they say it is, then we should judge it as such.

  • 19 8-04-2011 at 6:53 pm

    Andrew M said...

    It’s a real shame that some actors think they are becoming obsolete because of technology. That is an insult to people like Serkis who do a great job with not only technology, but a great acting job as well. An honorary Oscar would just make sense.

  • 20 8-04-2011 at 6:55 pm

    Afrika said...

    Dylan
    Like it or not, motion capture “enhances” the performance, a benefit “flesh” actors don’t enjoy. Wrong emotions can be rectified and depth adjusted. If they want to create a new category to recognize motion capture performances then that’s fine by me. In fact, more power to their engines. But to put a motion capture performance side by side with an actor who worked his/her ass off to convey those complex emotions, without the aid of computer-generated face adjustments or some new tool from the wiz kids of Hollywood is a travesty if I ever saw one. They should give Serkis a special award for mastering the art of acting with technology; they can do that but best supporting actor? hell no!

  • 21 8-04-2011 at 8:04 pm

    Loyal said...

    “Avatar didn’t win because it was the weakest nominated film. ”

    Sigh

  • 22 8-04-2011 at 8:50 pm

    Afrika said...

    Loyal

    What was so remarkable or new about Avatar besides the motion capture? it’s recycled story line from Pocahontas, The Last Samurai, Dances With Wolves etc etc? the cheesy dialogue (you’re not in kansas anymore)? what exactly?

  • 23 8-04-2011 at 9:03 pm

    mikhael said...

    I remember there were some actors are against motion capture saying when Avatar came out. I don’t if it was because they were carrying high pride as actors or they missed out starring in the biggest film of all time.

    Will Oscar recognize Serkis’ works if they are thinking the same way opposing motion capture?

  • 24 8-04-2011 at 9:26 pm

    Speaking English said...

    ***What was so remarkable or new about Avatar besides the motion capture? it’s recycled story line from Pocahontas, The Last Samurai, Dances With Wolves etc etc?***

    How can it be a recycled storyline from three different movies? Surely two of those movies also must be recycled from the other? Your argument is lame, outdated, and superficial, not to mention terribly stupid and narrow-minded.

  • 25 8-04-2011 at 10:20 pm

    Shawn said...

    I have to agree with Afrika that Avatar simply wasn’t the best picture that year. As for performances, the guys in The Hurt Locker were pretty convincing. James Gandolfini’s voice work in Where the Wild Things Are was most touching, but I gather there’s not much chance of getting voice work recognized by the Academy any time soon.

    Let me be explicit. Where the Wild Things Are is a work of courage, vision, poignancy and beauty, as well as ugly beauty, which is hard to pull off. Avatar is perhaps half of one of those things.

  • 26 8-04-2011 at 10:37 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    “When people started throwing around the idea of a nomination for Saldana with “Avatar”, it seemed like they just wanted to reward the actor for using the technology.”

    No.

    Shawn: The Academy was close to picking that horse. Plain and simple. There were a handful of things that kept it from getting there, but the bias against performance-capture was absolutely one of them.

  • 27 8-04-2011 at 10:49 pm

    Rashad said...

    Sully’s search for identity was the driving force of that film’s narrative. Not the archetypal oppressor becoming one of the oppressed storyline.

  • 28 8-04-2011 at 10:51 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Gasp! How dare you think about it a little and refrain from regurgitating the lazy “it’s Pocahontas!” doctrine, Rashad.

  • 29 8-04-2011 at 11:02 pm

    red_wine said...

    Kris, I really doubt Avatar was close to winning. You would think that the world’s biggest blockbuster, an action fest bonanza, would atleast win the sound awards.

    But no, they went to a sober low budget indie. I really don’t think it was close. Perhaps even Precious and Basterds were closer.

  • 30 8-04-2011 at 11:13 pm

    Andrej said...

    It’s not fair to compare Avatar and The Hurt Locker’s production values against each other, because we all know which one had the more people and more money on board; but since that year was all about the blockbuster behemoth vs. little miss indie, I’d say the Oscar went where the money was better spent in each department, and by having worked with a meager 15 million, The Hurt Locker’s production values are worth their weight in gold.

  • 31 8-05-2011 at 2:39 am

    Derek 8-Track said...

    I agree! This needs to happen! should we write our congressman?

  • 32 8-05-2011 at 1:08 pm

    Pablo (Col) said...

    I’m so for it but i would still like Fox to campaign for the movie and Serkis character. He sure deserves to be recognized with an acting Oscar. A human with talent is still needed for an acting, it doesnt matter if its a motion capture one. We’re still far from AI.

  • 33 8-05-2011 at 2:06 pm

    Shawn said...

    Okay, Kris. If you put it that way, I’ll gladly take your point.

  • 34 8-05-2011 at 3:56 pm

    Afrika said...

    “How can it be a recycled storyline from three different movies? Surely two of those movies also must be recycled from the other? Your argument is lame, outdated, and superficial, not to mention terribly stupid and narrow-minded.”

    Adjective overdose does not guarantee a convincing argument love. Try again.

    “Sully’s search for identity was the driving force of that film’s narrative. Not the archetypal oppressor becoming one of the oppressed storyline.”

    How was his “search for identity” different from Cruise in The Last Sumarai and Costner in Dances with Wolves? how? I’ve written numerous academic papers on hollywood’s “white savior” complex and watched all these movies back to back, over and over again and they are all preaching the same homily. In fact, if Jake Sully wore a blonde wig, the movie might have been called The Blind Side of Pandora or if chestnut-ty black is his colour of choice for wigs, then The Freedom Na’vi Writers will be a more suitable title.

    Cheers!

  • 35 8-05-2011 at 4:01 pm

    DylanS said...

    “Adjective overdose does not guarantee a convincing argument love”

    It does when your point is shit and all the adjectives are correct.

  • 36 8-16-2011 at 1:45 am

    Jess said...

    Serkis’ performance in LOTR is the only motion capture performance that actually deserved a nomination on its own merit.

    I honestly can’t believe that people think Zoe Saldana was one of the five best actress performances of that year. Her over the top wailing was laughable and almost as bad as Sam Worthington’s constant blank expression. Not a single major critic singled out that performance for any special praise. It’s not just the Academy that ignored her; the GGs, SAGs, BAFTAs, and the hundreds of critics groups could’ve thrown some support behind her as some of them did for Andy Serkis but they DIDN’T. Sigourney Weaver was probably the best reviewed out of the cast.

    If any mo-cap performance deserved love that year, it was Gary Oldman.

  • 37 8-16-2011 at 1:51 am

    Jess said...

    And you can’t exactly blame the Academy entirely for skipping these performances. By the time nominations roll around, all the other award shows have pretty much chosen the nominees with an occasional surprise in one or two categories.

    All these other awards organizations, if they felt passionately about a performance, have enough power to give some momentum to an actor. Serkis did get a few critics nods here and there, but it wasn’t nearly enough to be considered safe for a nod. If he actually had the precursor support, that would be one thing but he didn’t. If you looked at that record for anyone else, you would not consider it a snub if they didn’t get a nomination.

  • 38 8-16-2011 at 4:51 am

    JJ1 said...

    Gotta agree with a lot that Jess said. In particular, as much as I enjoyed ‘Avatar’ (and I did) … Zoe Saldana getting nommed for that? Really? It was a good performance in motion capture; not anything remotely top 5 for me for that year.