Andy Serkis, Star in a Movie Medium That Doesn't Need Stars

The Dawn of the Planet of the Apes actor deserves acclaim, but motion-capture technology's great power lies in anonymity.

20th Century Fox

Andy Serkis doesn’t look like a movie star. Wide-eyed and round-faced, the actor somehow seems both boyish and worn. In Hollywood, guys like him become character actors, not leading men.

Yet Serkis’s face is everywhere this month. He’s Caesar in the box-office dominator Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the cover boy for Wired UK, the toast of the talk-show rounds (where we learned he’s the crush of a female gorilla), and the subject of many, many adulatory interviews and profiles. This is all typical for the lead of a major summer blockbuster, yes. But for an actor who is barely recognizable in his own movie thanks to performance-capture technology, the attention is unprecedented.

Performance-capture has a long history of being considered a second-tier kind of acting—or worse, a mere variety of animation. The Oscars have yet to award any actor in the medium, which is also called motion-capture (colloquially, "mocap"), and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers still doesn’t cover performance-capture actors under its master contract, allowing studios to treat their roles as what Variety terms “lower-paying background work.”

So it’s about time Hollywood caught on to the starmaking possibilities of performance-capture. The process, which involves recording live movement and then layering computer-generated animation on top, would seem attractive for awards-chasing actors. Prosthetics, facial hair, face paint, masks, black-and-white, cross-dressing, sunglasses, drastic weight gain or weight loss—changing how you look is a tried-and-true route to acclaim. John Hurt remained obscure to American audiences before he wore 15 separate facial prosthetics and took home an Oscar for The Elephant Man. And Charlize Theron was a virtual unknown before she put on 30 extra pounds and a set of prosthetic teeth for Monster, for which she won Best Actress.

Serkis, whose resume includes playing some of the least likely critical favorites of all time—Gollum, King Kong, and Godzilla—seems like an ideal spokesman for motion-capture if it wants high-brow cred. For his third outing as an ape Serkis is already being likened to Marlon Brando and primed for an Oscar run. “It’s all to do with performance,” he recently told The Telegraph, “Caesar and all the other computer generated characters I have ever played are driven by one thing and that is acting. Audiences want to be moved by acting, not by a visual effect.”

But it’s worth keeping in mind that performance-capture is bigger than Andy Serkis’s most exceptional role as an ape. The singular focus on him in some ways clashes with the collaborative, chameleonic spirit of motion-capture, a field that has a long and glorious tradition of eschewing thespian concerns entirely.

Wired UK’s profile proclaims that “No actor has performed as many leading roles in a performance-capture suit as Serkis.” That’s not quite right, if you look outside of the movie theater. For 20 years, largely unknown actors have played lead roles in video games—some of those actors racking up huge numbers of such roles over their careers. While the “cinematics,” or interstitial movie-like sequences between gameplay require actorly emotional chops, most of the work is in the in-game action, where gestures are broken down into GIF-like bytes.

This can lead to some absurd areas of expertise for performers. Reuben Langdon, an actor who first donned the mocap suit in 1996 (for Resident Evil: Code Veronica), specializes in death. A day of work for him can include pantomiming expiration about 200 times, dying by a variety of virtual weapons, for a variety of virtual camera angles, and as a variety of virtual characters. “I’ve done dramatic deaths, having them cough and choke, getting shot in the leg, the slow agony—I feel I’ve done every death possible,” he says. The trailer for the video-game cult hit The Last of Us stars one of his many deaths in its final sequence.

But there are more distinctive jobs for video-game motion-capture performers as well. Langdon’s most famous role, the cult anime demonslayer Dante (in Devil May Cry 3 and 4 and the franchise’s spinoff manga film), had him hanging in the air while shooting guns and slashing swords, flirting with hot animated chicks, and cracking well-timed jokes.

While video games now occasionally feature renowned actors, historically they’ve cast based on who could play a star, not be one. The gaming market often hires a few performance-capture actors to play multiple roles for the latest installment, reserving the rights to keep them in the dark about what those roles are, or what game they’re for.

Most movie stars cannot sustain the physical feats required by often-outlandish performance-capture roles, or the usual 10-hour workdays. Even stuntmen have a hard time: For the video game The Bourne Conspiracy, for instance, Langdon and actor Richard Dorton both played Jason Bourne’s body, while the face and voice were provided by two separate actors. This technique, called “Frankensteining,” is said to be a relic of old technology. But the actors I spoke with assured me the Frankenstein trick is very much alive today, though applied in secret when well-known actors leave set.

When celebrities do take on motion-capture roles, there can be drawbacks. Technicians speak with horror about “the uncanny valley,” the fright-inducing effect that occurs when the verisimilitude of performance-capture clashes with the viewer’s instinctive understanding of reality. The “dead eyes” Tom Hanks wore in The Polar Express (2004) is one of most famous examples. While technology has improved since then, recognizable celebrities can ground an otherworldly performance in not-so-welcome ways—viewers are too familiar with the star to fully buy the illusion.

And illusion, of course, is what performance-capture is all about. Richard Dorton, the self-proclaimed “Motion-Capture Man,” (he has logged nearly 100 motion-capture roles), played Shaggy in Scooby Doo Night of 100 Frights, as well as all the Frights. He also played Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, and Han Solo in Star Wars: Rogue Squadron 3. In fact, he has fought himself on more than one occasion. The entire trailer of Left 4 Dead is an extended sequence of Richard’s leading men fighting Richard’s zombies. “You didn’t know that I was mixed Asian-American,” Dorton said. “I could play black, white, green, purple, whatever.”

In addition to games, Langdon and Dorton have worked on film projects—Dorton did performance-capture for Jack and the Giant Slayer, Tron, and the original Spider-Man, while Langdon worked with Serkis on The Adventures of Tintin and played Jake Sully during particularly stunt-heavy sequences on Avatar. Serkis, conversely, has some gaming experience, working on 2007’s Heavenly Sword and 2010’s Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, in which he played both slave and slave owner. He calls video game performance “the ultimate transformational experience.”

That “transformational experience,” whether in a movie or in a video game, comes out of teamwork. Creatures rendered onscreen result from many, many stages of postproduction and animation. That fact is, of course, part of why Serkis needs to fight for respect. During Avatar’s 2010 Oscar run, actors competing against the film talked up the idea that performance-capture roles represented a threat to their profession. “Actors will kind of be a thing of the past," Jeff Bridges told The Los Angeles Times the day nominations were announced. "We'll be turned into combinations. A director will be able to say, 'I want 60% Clooney; give me 10% Bridges; and throw some Charles Bronson in there.' They'll come up with a new guy who will look like nobody who has ever lived and that person or thing will be huge.”

But the focus on Serkis may move public opinion too far in the other direction, making it seem as though what’s on screen is the result of one actor’s pure vision. Mocap animators have in recent years been dismissed as “digital makeup,” first by James Franco in a Deadline article urging the Academy to consider Serkis’s performance in 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes. This time around the actor himself has been accused of spreading the “digital makeup” line, upsetting some in the motion-capture community.

Serkis, the ultimate Method actor, who reportedly spends months observing apes in their natural habitat to play them, doesn’t deserve to be seen as a mere product of studio wizardry. But people should understand that his characters are in part the product of studio wizardry. “The guy’s a genius, he’s an amazing actor and he absolutely deserves the Academy Award,” Langdon, who worked with Serkis on Tintin, told me. “But the credit should also be given to the animators for what they’re doing.”

And as Serkis’s performance-capture company The Imaginarium expands into television, and works on adaptations of Animal Farm and The Jungle Book, it might be served to take a page from the unpretentious, non-individualistic video-game world. Creativity can be unleashed in serious roles—it can also be quashed when too much attention is paid to awards considerations and featuring the singular actors who have the chops to win them. Serkis’s remarkable turn in The Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the dawn of a new era, where talented actors who would have been relegated to stock or characters roles can literally play anyone, or anything. Oscar recognition might be nice, but then again, not being recognized is the whole point.