Editorial: Andy Serkis and Digital Make-up

Andy Serkis as Gollum was ground-breaking, Avatar was revolutionary and now the new “Planet of the Apes” film is raising the bar even more – we are in the middle of a new way of movie making. Motion-capturing and facial performance capturing are here to stay and allow the actors to leave the boundaries of their physical bodies to operate digital characters that otherwise would have had to be animated by keyframing. At Serkis’ workshop in London they even work on a way to make a two legged human play quadrupeds in real-time. Additionally, with every new technology the Mo-Cap data needs less clean up and gets closer and closer to the actor’s performance. Is this a frightening development for animators and actors? And what about Andy Serkis down-playing the role of the animators in public appearances? Let’s have a closer look at this discussion that in my opinion overlooks some of the points that we should actually be talking about.

Something that constantly starts the debate over and over again is Andy Serkis calling facial mo-cap “just digital make-up”. One of the recent occurrences was at the FMX in Germany two weeks ago in a talk about “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” that I had the great luck to attend. There he showed some amazing exclusive footage of the actors operating incredibly realistic digital ape characters. They did body and face, live on set with all the actors at once, which is amazing new ground for this technology (you can take a glimpse of the end-result in the freshly released trailer below).


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I must say it took me a while to figure out what bothered me in his talk, especially because he generally comes across as a very sympathetic and fun guy. But in retrospect I realized that he answered all the questions about where and how much work was done by VFX-artists and animators in his digital ape performance very elusively. He stressed that he is the author of the digital character’s performance to 100% over and over again and claimed that there was no keyframing involved whatsoever.

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Even if that is true, the digital characters are still more than just digital makeup (and by the way I think even makeup probably does not deserve to be discredited as “it’s just makeup”… making good ape makeup is probably more complicated than an outsider would ever imagine). You need a team of programmers, riggers, technical directors and probably even biologists and anthropologists to create an ape rig that behaves absolutely realistic and believable and translates the mo-cap input accurately. If there is no animator to correct mistakes, the skinning must be flawless, the muscles must behave super realistically and whoever defines what the actor’s facial expression translates to on the digital model must deliver a spot on job with countless combinations in mind. Doesn’t all of this just shift the job of the animator from being a clean up artist to the one of a preparation artist? There is still someone required to make decisions about how a human smile looks on an ape puppet, but instead of doing that after having captured data, they have to prepare all possible cases beforehand. And to open this up even more: Doesn’t a screenwriter already imply a lot of acting decision in the script, so how could you ever be responsible for 100% of a performance unless you really do everything yourself.

In any case: Without a team behind the digital character, the actor would just be a silly guy with markers all over him. He might be the most important operator, but his performance can only be as good as what had been predefined by the digital artists and what can be captured by the technology. Contrary to that an actor can still deliver a great performance through bad live action makeup.

Honestly, I think Andy Serkis knows that. You must be an idiot to work with this technology for most of your career and not pick up how much effort other people have to put into it. So why does he make it sound like everybody else doesn’t influence the performance of his digital characters? A speaker I talked to at the FMX speculated that Mr. Serkis wants to be credited as a serious, real actor – fully responsible for the performance and not as “just an operator”. Currently, you cannot win any actor awards (like the Oscars) with a fully digital character.

I can understand his point: Would he have played Gollum with make-up on, he could have won the Oscar for best actor, but the same human being delivering the exact same performance behind a digital puppet cannot. For a long time mo-cap performers was seen that a job that can be done by anyone. Consequently the position was not neither paid well nor fully appreciated, a definite mistake. Mo-cap will not replace actors by mediocre stand-ins. On the contrary it benefits from good actors as Mr. Serkis has already proven. And yes, the studios, producers, actors, animators and the public need to recognize that mo-cap is a valuable tool that needs to be appreciated and explored under fair working-conditions.

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Photo by New Line Productions, serkis.com

The debate if we need animators in mo-cap and who is responsible for what part of the performance is not the defining issue. Keeping the animator out of the pipeline just to have a pure acting performance by definition is a lie because it only shifts effort into preparation and gives away post-production chances. If it enhances the performance if an animator cleans-up the mo-cap data a little, why not do it? And what if you have characters with such a different physicality from the actor’s real body that they need some corrections by hand (or by code – rig programming definitely has creative value here) to fit the new physicality. This is a huge part of the performance (even if it is more physical than emotional) and should be credited as such. If you ask me the full body shots in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”, still suffer from the usual motion-capturing floatiness, that a keyframe animator would not have accepted. And what about film styles that require exaggerations that cannot be done by a human body? This is also why motion capturing will never fully replace animators: It might one day be perfect for realistic motions, but if you want more than reality, you simply can’t get around an animator.

So, let’s all calm down: Dear Actor Guild, studios and fellow animators, motion capturing is not a threat, but just one of many tools that is here to stay. Technology will never replace the human touch of an actor or animator. Some films will always require 100% actors or animators, the mo-cap stuff is just an addition to the spectrum and certainly not right for every case. And if we choose to use it, we should all work together as partners. Think of the possibilities that we get if we have a good actor giving the best performance his physical body can, a team of TDs making the translation to the rig as perfect as possible and some creative artists defining the final motions and look (may it be in post or via very extensive preparations) all cooperating. Every single person in the chain can contribute so much and is co-author of the performance. Every single one should get appreciation and a fair contract.

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To Andy Serkis: You more than anyone should know all this. You are not to 100% the author of the performance, because how your performance translates to the rig has been defined by other creative people and their vision of how that should look. And that is perfectly okay. We still acknowledge that most of the performance is done by you! The best puppet cannot be operated well by a bad puppet master. And you are not a bad puppet master, you are one of the bests with almost no competition in your field. And you have the luck to get the best puppets. You are a millionaire, while many other good performers and animators are not. If that’s not enough for you, at least don’t be a part of the ignorance towards digital artists. The stuff that you do is still so new that it hasn’t been fully recognized, but you will be in the history books of acting and animation. Isn’t that better than winning an award that many people before you have already won? At the same time the names of many people that helped to bring Gollum to life will not be honored anywhere. Fight for fair conditions for everyone, not just for you! You definitely don’t reach that goal by being unfair to the people that you are depending on.

To the Oscars, other awards and everyone who likes to think in categories: We have already entered a new era of movie making. We will see more and more motion capturing performances so please honor the actors and artists behind this – both of them, to the same extend in a new category called “digital characters”. And it looks like “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” would win this year.

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I think the guy is a jack*** who has no idea what an animator’s job is.

BAM Animation

When a guy like Serkis talks, no one should listen.