DID YOU READ

Serkis Circus: Performance capture and the Oscars

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

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The Oscar nominations are just one week away, and the studios are promoting their wares right down to the wire. One of the biggest online campaigns this week has come on behalf of Andy Serkis, the performance capture wizard who portrayed the hyper-intelligent ape Caesar in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” Fox is pushing Serkis as a Best Supporting Actor candidate with industry screenings and Q&As and promotional videos that compare Serkis’ live performance on set with the finished product. Serkis’ co-star (and last year’s Oscar co-host) James Franco even chimed in with a piece, originally published on Deadline, advocating on behalf of his co-star.

If any performance capture to date deserved an Oscar nomination, it’s Serkis’ in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” The character of Caesar is about as fully realized, visually and emotionally, as any digital movie creation has ever been. I don’t know anyone who would dispute that Serkis’ work as a performance capture artist — in films like “King Kong,” “The Adventures of Tintin,” and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy — is the best in the industry. To me the question isn’t so much “Does Serkis’ deserves an Oscar?” as “Does any motion captured performance deserve an Oscar?” Is that really and truly acting?

Franco claims that it is. In his piece on Deadline, Franco compares the art of performance capture to prosthetic makeup. Here’s what he says:

“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 ‘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.”

As an example, Franco cites the performance of John Hurt as the title character in “The Elephant Man,” which was nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award in 1981. In a public Q&A hosted by and reported on by HitFix‘s Gregory Ellwood, Serkis made a similar argument, asking “Is there any less acting than John Hurt’s performance as ‘The Elephant Man’ who was completely unrecognizable or any kind of performance captured role where the actor is altered?”

There might not be less acting, but there’s still a clear difference between Serkis’ Caesar and Hurt’s John Merrick. When I see Hurt as Merrick in “The Elephant Man,” I’m still looking at Hurt. He’s buried beneath a mountain of Christopher Tucker’s incredible makeup, but he’s still there. When I see Serkis as Caesar, I’m not really looking at Serkis. I’m looking at Serkis’ movements and expressions as recorded and interpolated by computers and then tweaked and refined by animators. Hurt’s performance on set was his performance. Serkis’ performance on set was just one ingredient — the key ingredient, but one ingredient nonetheless — of his performance.

The counter-argument here is that digital effects, most of which go completely undetected by our untrained eyes, are constantly used to enhance performances. Directors like David Fincher are such technical wizards they can splice together an actor’s best moments from different takes into one seamless shot, or make Brad Pitt look like a 100-year-old baby, or graft the performance from one actor’s face onto the performance of another actor’s body. These special effects look so good, we sometimes forget we’re seeing special effects at all (until, of course, someone makes a promo real highlighting their work around Oscar time). Is that great acting? Or is that great technical wizardry? The answer, I suspect, lies somewhere in the middle.

See what you think. Here is the video from HitFix’s report on the “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” screening. You’ll see the scene first with Serkis’ on-set performance as Caesar, followed by the finished scene with the digital Caesar in his place.

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Honestly, looking at that clip makes me think it’s Franco, Freida Pinto, and Brian Cox who deserve Oscar nominations, not Serkis. They’re the ones who had to act opposite a man dressed like a futuristic custodian while he grunted like the ape. Doing that without cracking a smile — that’s a real acting challenge.

But seriously: the video does show how integral Serkis was to Caesar’s performance and to his co-stars’ performances (just a few years ago, motion capture was done entirely on green screen stages). But I don’t know that it conclusively proves that Serkis is Caesar in the way that Hurt is Merrick. The layer I’d really like to see, the one that would probably shed even more light on who did what, would be an earlier pass of the effects that shows a Caesar drawn purely from Serkis’ performance captured data, without any of Weta’s post-production sweetening. That would give us a better sense of how far from the finished product Serkis’ contribution really is.

Without that, I’m still left feeling like Caesar is the work of many people rather than one (admittedly remarkable) performer. Recognizing Serkis’ acting by itself feels a bit like a slight on all the technicians who turned that wacky looking futuristic custodian into the leader of the ape revolution. Does Serkis deserve an Oscar nomination for “Rise of the Planet of the Apes?” As a member of the visual effects team, absolutely. As an actor, I’m still on the fence.

Do you think Andy Serkis deserves an Oscar nomination for “Rise of the Planet of the Apes?” Tell us your thoughts in the comments below or write to us on Facebook and Twitter.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.

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Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.

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Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.

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Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!

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Inter-not

Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.

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Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.

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If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.