- Film Acting and Performance CaptureThe Index in Crisis
Since 2002, every time Academy Award nominating season rolls around, it is guaranteed that journalists will once again raise the question, “When Will a Motion Capture Actor Win an Oscar?” as Hugh Hart did on Wired.com (January 24, 2012). This discussion began when New Line Cinema, the company that released Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, made a concerted effort to garner a Best Supporting Actor award nomination for Andy Serkis, the British actor who played Gollum in the film, a nomination that was not forthcoming. Twentieth Century Fox would repeat the gesture in both 2012 and 2014, again on behalf of Serkis, this time for his performances as the ape Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Again, there were no nominations, even though critics and audiences alike praised Serkis’s performances as Gollum and Caesar, for which he won other awards.
Before proceeding any further, I want to address the fact that I just described Serkis, who has become the most famous actor to work extensively with performance capture as well as a staunch advocate for the practice, as having played Gollum and given a performance as Caesar. Hart quotes Serkis as saying, “Reviewers have a strange way of describing my performances. … They’ll say things like, ‘Serkis lent his voice to’ or ‘inspired the emotions’ or ‘lent his movements to’ or ‘emotionally retained the backbone of,’ as opposed to ‘performed the role.’” A screen actor myself, I choose to pay Serkis the respect of avoiding such circumlocutions and describing him simply as an actor who plays roles through performance capture even though the status of motion capture performance as acting is precisely the question at issue.
Derek Burrill calls the questions raised about performance capture and film acting and the seeming reluctance on the part of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and [End Page 7] Sciences to recognize what Serkis and others do as acting the “Gollum problem.” He summarizes the debate in a series of questions: “Was Serkis present enough in the performance? At what point is something too digitized? If something is partially digitized, what of its ontology, its presence? Can someone (or something) perform, in the traditional sense, in the digital?”1 These are clearly far-reaching questions that extend well beyond the realm of film acting to the general status of performance in the digital age. Here, I will restrict myself to examining the problematic status of performance capture in film acting primarily through Burrill’s first and third questions, those concerned with presence and ontology. My point of departure is yet another question: Why is it that the voting membership of the Academy, made up of film industry professionals of all types, is apparently unwilling to nominate actors who perform through performance capture?
It is important to note that there is nothing in the Academy’s rules governing the Oscars to prevent actors working in performance capture from being nominated for acting awards. In fact, when the Academy modified its definition of an animated film in 2010, it specifically included new language (taken here from the 2015 Academy publication The 87th Annual Awards of Merit) to the effect that “motion capture by itself is not an animation technique.” This clause can be interpreted legalistically as a way for the Academy to shift films using performance capture out of the animation category, thus paving the way for such performances to be considered in the acting categories.
It is the case, however, as the LA Times revealed in an article titled “Unmasking the Academy: Oscar Voters Overwhelmingly White, Male” (February 19, 2012), that the nearly six thousand voting members of the Academy
are markedly less diverse than the moviegoing public, and even more monolithic than many in the film industry may suspect. Oscar voters are nearly 94% Caucasian and 77% male, The Times found. Blacks are about 2% of the academy, and Latinos are less than 2%. Oscar voters have a median age of 62, the study showed. People younger than 50 constitute just 14...