Pop-Ed: Motion Capture Performance as an Oscar Category?

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Motion Capture Performance is nothing new in Hollywood. It’s even considered commonplace in today’s blockbusters. Danny Woodburn even did motion capture for Splinter in the upcoming Ninja Turtles movie for crying out loud. Did you ever imagine that Mickey from Seinfeld would be Splinter in a Ninja Turtles movie? Let that sink in. Even with all the motion capture we’ve seen through out the years, there’s only one man who’s made a legitimate career out of it – Andy Serkis. From Gollum to King Kong to even Godzilla, Serkis has no doubt mastered the craft.

It wasn’t until 2011 when he played Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes did the talk go from “He’s great” to “This man needs an Oscar.” Many film-goers and pundits pushed hard for this guy to get an acting nomination. But as we all know, the Academy isn’t exactly willing to venture outside their comfort zone, so naturally this didn’t happen. With Dawn of the Planet of the Apes getting rave reviews, we have people once again clamoring for Serkis to get that nomination, and I suspect this talk will continue when Oscar season rolls around. Spoiler alert, it won’t happen. But the question I want to ask is should it happen? Should motion capture be considered for acting nominations? Should it have its own category? I’ve given this a lot of thought, but I’m going to have to side with the old Academy fogies and say nay. It’s not that I don’t admire what Serkis and other motion capture performers have done, but there’s something about giving it an award that just doesn’t feel right. I gave you my answer, but let’s delve into the reasons why I’m denying the ape his due.

Photo Credit: David James/Twentieth Century Fox
Photo Credit: David James/Twentieth Century Fox

It’s Visual Effects, Get Over It

As I said, I admire the hell out of what Serkis does with Caesar in the two Apes films. Those movies would not work without him. His performance transcends the character into something truly powerful, but it’s not all him. Yes, he may be giving the emotions, but there’s maybe a hundred visual effects artists enhancing that performance. At the end of the day, this is my biggest argument. I still see motion capture as more of a visual achievement. When you think of one of the most defining and electrifying characteristics of Caesar, it’s his eyes. Even the teaser trailer highlights this for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. That’s visual effects. That’s CG. While you could argue it’s easier for the visual effects team to create the CG when it’s layered over an actual performance, it still doesn’t change the fact that the actor is covered by mounds of special effects. Can we really give someone an acting Oscar when so much of their performance is dependent on animation?

Now some could make the argument that all acting is aided by other factors. Maybe Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance in The Wolf of Wall Street is great because of the editing. Maybe Heath Ledger’s Joker is only legendary in large part because of the make-up. This is all true. When you’re an actor in a movie, you always need other people working at the highest level to make your performance great, whether it’s the script, other actors, the cinematographer, and certainly the director. For me personally though, I think you cross a line when you get into the motion capture realm. When someone wears a lot of make-up, it’s still called acting. When there’s a lot of fancy editing or close up shots, it’s still called acting. But when you require a special team of visual effects artists, it’s called motion capture.

The Andy Serkis Monopoly

Let’s say you agree with my previous argument, and that you can’t give a motion capture performer an acting Oscar, but you still want to recognize it. How about its own category? Best Motion Capture Performance. Interesting premise, but here’s the problem – Andy Serkis is the only guy doing this at a high level. There’s not enough competition. This would be like putting The Denver Broncos in the Canadian Football League. Seriously, can you name one other guy who’s given a stellar motion capture performance on the level of Andy Serkis? Some are going to say Toby Kebbell as Koba in the same movie, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. He was good, but in my opinion, nothing transcendent like Serkis. So are we literally going to give Serkis the Oscar every year for this category? “Wow, Andy Serkis has six Oscars! Holy cow! Meryl Streep doesn’t even have that many!” To me, that cheapens the Oscars.

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I could maybe get on board with this category if you also combined it with voice-over work. In fact, Scarlett Johansson’s performance in Her almost convinced me to lobby for a category like this. But as fantastic as Johansson is as Samatha, and as great as Serkis is as Caesar, there’s not enough people doing it to warrant its own category. This would have to be years down the road when you have hundreds of performers doing this at a high level.

Sorry, Caesar. No Dice

While I understand people’s desires to give Serkis something to honor his amazing work, there just isn’t an avenue for it right now. When Andy Serkis’ career is over, I do think a lifetime achievement Oscar would be justified, as he is the pioneer of the great motion capture performance. Even though we see motion capture a lot in today’s cinematic landscape, it’s still too new, and we need more people doing it great on a consistent basis to justify an award. Call me an old fart, but that’s how I feel. But hey, if Three 6 Mafia can win an Oscar before Martin Scorsese, I suppose anything is possible.

Related Articles:

Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Jason Stives)

Review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Jason Stives)

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Daniel Cohen is the Film Editor for Pop-Break. Aside from reviews, Daniel does a weekly box office predictions column, and also contributes monthly Top Tens and Op-Ed’s on all things film. Daniel is a graduate of Bates College with a degree in English, and also studied Screenwriting at UCLA. He can also be read on www.movieshenanigans.com. His movie crush is Jessica Rabbit. Follow him on Twitter @dcohenwriter.

Daniel Cohen is the hard-boiled Film Editor for the Pop Break. Besides reviews, Daniel writes box office predictions, Gotham reviews and Oscar coverage. He can also be found on the Breakcast. If Daniel was sprayed by Scarecrow's fear toxin, it would be watching Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen on a non-stop loop.