On Tuesday, the studio heads at Fox and actor Andy Serkis lost their campaign for an Oscar nomination in the category of Best Supporting Actor. Serkis played the chimp Caesar in the sci-fi prequel "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" (2011) and was probably Fox's best chance for a nomination in the category. Nonetheless, his performance is still distinguished in that, unlike those who were named nominees, Serkis did not appear in a single frame of film.
Serkis' performance was instead translated through motion capture technology and digitally animated, which captures an actor's movements on camera and uses them to animate a computer-generated model. This normally necessitates actors in body stockings covered in white, photosensitive dots, flailing about in front of green screens. Motion capture allows an actor to go beyond the limits of his physical appearance or even his own body and portray a character of a different age, race, gender, or even species.
Serkis is widely regarded as the master of motion-capture acting. He heralded motion capture into the mainstream with his portrayal of Gollum in the "Lord of the Rings" movie trilogy, and has since employed his talents in roles as the titular ape in Peter Jackson's re-imagining of "King Kong" (2005), and as Captain Haddock in the recent adaptation of "The Adventures of Tintin" (2011).
"Rise of the Planet of the Apes" offered Serkis his first opportunity for a leading motion-capture role. He plays Caesar, a medical test chimp exposed to intelligence enhancing drugs by pharmaceutical giant Gen-Sys. James Franco's Will Rodman works for the medical company and takes Caesar in as a pet after his latest experiment goes awry. Caesar soon grows too smart for his own good, and if you are halfway familiar with the franchise you can predict what happens next. Franco may take top billing, but the chimp is the film's true protagonist.
Fox lauded Serkis' performance as an artistic milestone, claiming that he depicted a chimpanzee with more realism than even a chimpanzee could have. They released footage of the finished film next to clips of Serkis in his motion suit acting out the same scene, pawing and hissing and drooling at costars Franco and Freida Pinto.
Fox had hoped to win the first nomination for a motion-captured character and set the precedent that these types of performances are just as artistically valid as live-action ones. Serkis was not nominated for any Oscars on Tuesday, but that has not silenced the debate. Fox, along with a vocal group of Serkis supporters, are calling for a motion capture acting category at the next Oscars.
Proponents of adding the category claim that the type of acting required for mocap is significantly different enough to warrant separate recognition. Perhaps mocapped pieces have been more expressive, but that's due purely to the demands of the story, not the technology itself. Jar Jar Binks and Gollum are highly expressive and physical characters whether they were filmed using motion-capture technology or not. The acting is the same, it's just the means of capture that have changed.
Mocap computers pick up a one-to-one signal of the actor's movement and translate that to the movement of the character onscreen. If Liam Neeson had played Oskar Schindler via mocap, I doubt his method would have changed all that drastically—although in CGI, "Schindler's List" probably would have been much more disturbing.
Furthermore, a motion capture performance is only partially created by the actor. Dozens of graphic design artists work for months animating the actor's movements into the computer-generated character model, adding and tweaking what will ultimately end up on screen. Mocap performance exists in the flux between voice acting in animated features and live acting, and there's no voice acting category either. If such a performance were to be awarded it would be nearly impossible to distinguish between the contributions of the actor and the animator.
The possibility of a motion capture Oscar is a relatively minor threat. The Academy hasn't introduced a new category that they ended up keeping since the 1963 addition of Best Sound Editing, so they are unlikely to take the creation of a new acting statue lightly. Motion capture is also not nearly widespread enough to warrant its own award. If I were to make a hypothetical list of five to nominate this year it would be Andy Serkis in "Apes," Andy Serkis in "Tintin," Jamie Bell in "Tintin," and then I'd have to start scraping from Robert Zemeckis' uncanny-valley nightmare, "Mars Needs Moms."
This is not to say that I'm against the use of motion capture. The technology has come a long way from the hollow-eyed nightmare that was "The Polar Express" (2004). If the craft has the chance to develop further, it could lead to some new and artistically interesting places. But, for the moment at least, the current acting and animation categories in place are more than enough to recognize exemplary acting, motion capture or otherwise.