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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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Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.

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Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:

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The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.

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They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!

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Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.

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Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.