It's Time

(Originally posted January 11th 2012)

“I find it crazy when actors come in self-prepared. And then they make this comment : “…MY character…” So I say “Look – it’s not ‘your’ character, ok? It’s ours.”


On January 8th, an article by James Franco appeared on Deadline Hollywood. In it, he makes a case for the need to acknowledge the performance capture work of Andy Serkis as ‘acting’. Moreover, Franco insists Serkis’ work is “innovative” and that “he has elevated this fresh mode of acting [performance capture] into an art form.” Franco’s article seems to be a branch of an ongoing campaign in the industry to ‘reward’ Serkis, in some way, during the upcoming awards season. The campaign has adopted the title “The Time is Now”, and recently placed an advertisement in TIME magazine.

The opposition to this kind of thinking is deafening:

“Actors will be rendered obsolete.”

“What about the animators? Surely they are the ones who actually make the performance on screen.”

“What does James Franco know about ‘art’, anyway? He doesn’t even know how to properly use a comma!”

“Performance Capture is simply a ‘technical’ process– and nothing more.”

But these arguments are haunted by something more specific : The idea that an actor could ever be responsible for artistic skill while working within a technical framework. And both polarities of this debate seem to to be struggling with this same haunting idea. Actors who fear their demise see that you can either be an actor or an avatar, and only one of those involves ‘real’ acting. The self-appointed animator lobby struggles with the same issue – how could a dumb actor ever be credited for hard work, when animators slaved over their screens for hours rendering frame-after-frame? In 2009 when Brad Pitt was nominated for an oscar for his role in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, I asked my (then) acting class if they could, in all good conscience walk onstage and accept the oscar if they were Pitt. Because three other live actors had played his part while shooting, not to mention the literally hundreds of digital animators, renderers and data engineers. This resistance to embracing actors partnering with digital animators & engineers (and vice versa) has a more worrying fear at its’ heart — the fear of having to share responsibility for a ‘performance’. The challenge to reward Andy Serkis may actually be about resistance to collaboration, which I see is the unstoppable and inevitable future for performance involving any kind of media. But not everyone is frightened of that.

When I have been in a performance capture studio, the animators and engineers have always expressed a preference for that process, rather than rendering from scratch. They value the collaboration with an actor, as well as the nuance and specificity an actor in a suit can bring. Even Motion Capture libraries have failed to provide the same unique and observable advantage that animators can glean from performance capture data. And ‘specificity’ is the key word here. Acting Method-Man Konstantin Stanislavsky famously stated that “generality is the enemy to all art”, and this is exactly why performance capture can be called an art form. Because it is data generated by the specific movements of one performer. Yes, at the end of the day, the animators only receive data from the (terrifyingly expensive) cameras in a performance capture studio. And that data can be manipulated into very different, equally specific movements. But that has been happening with performances on camera for years. An editor can alter a performance in post production, as can a composer. Color correction can change the entire mood of a performance. Animators have added subtle elements to a performer’s work (such as glistening eyes to suggest tears). Light rendering in post production has been placing performances in entirely different virtual locations for a while now.

Therefore, this debate surrounding performance capture, is actually relevant for all performances on camera-based media. The truth is that every performance is a collaboration, and not sole property of an actor or animator. George Lucas famously began his career in animation because he perceived it to be “pure directing”. As if animation was the product of one mind. But that is an illusion. Despite the fact that a Pixar film like “Toy Story 3” does not put Tom Hanks or Tim Allen in performance capture suits, I hope no animator on that film would claim that Hanks’ or Allen’s performances in the studio contributed nothing to the final cut of the film. Any project committed film needs so many people to make it work, that the suggestion that someone can claim responsibility for a single element is a delusional. Even in so-called ‘classic’ films, performances were being manufactured and altered. In“Bus Stop”, director Joshua Logan sat suspended above the frame, feeding Marilyn Monroe her lines. Does that mean Monroe is not responsible for the performance, or that the directoris responsible for it? Neither. It was a collaboration.

As technology permeates more and more of our lives, we might just have to accept that holding onto an idea that one person can credited for their work is dangerous. And in the entertainment industry, we must accept that art can be created through technical processes involving actors and animators. Awards are a just colosal abstraction from the reality of filmmaking. That’s why winners get an acceptance speech – it is the one acknowledgement by that the organizers that winners are merely perched on the shoulders of others. So the winners are granted the opportunity to identify that fact. However, the speeches are always kept to a strict time limit, otherwise viewers might get the awful notion that perhaps the ‘winner’ is in fact a slightly arbitrary member of a collaborative who just happened to be called to the stage. There is art and craft in the work of everyone involved in a performance. And though I agree that the process of making a film has strictly defined roles and tasks, by the time the film is assembled, you cannot separate the strands of the component parts to comprehensively state “this performance is the property of person x.”

So let’s give Andy Serkis his due. Especially as he is everything an actor’s actor would want to be leading the journey into the new territory of performance capture. Mr. Serkis is an extremely experienced and talented actor. His stage and television work is a testament to his skills in what some would want to call ‘pure’ acting (I guess that just means “acting without animators”). He is a fantastic  ambassador for this new art form. It’s about time we accept that, let alone reward it. And with accepting that Serkis has contributed to the ‘performances’ of his digital characters, let’s also accept that performance now may mean the result of a team, and not an individual.