Andy Who?

Animator Tim Borelli wrote a great post on his blog called An Open Letter To Andy Serkis that has been making the rounds:

Dear Mr. Serkis,

If you deserve to be considered for an Academy Award nomination for Acting in regards to your performance motion capture, then every animator who has ever animated a character in any movie deserves consideration as well.

At first I said “Andy Who?” and remembered when I saw his photo as the guy who did the performance capture for Gollum, King Kong, and the recent lead chimp in Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

If you haven’t seen the film go see it. It’s probably the best film I’ve seen this year and is definately going to win the Oscar for best VFX. The work by the artists at Weta Digital is superb as always.

Back in April I was really encouraged by Fox’s marketing campaign for the film as Weta received top billing in the film’s trailer. Unfortunately that all changed recently. I stayed through the credits to see many of my friends in VFX get listed near the end of the credits.

Getting a credit isn’t necessarily a big deal to me but its a simple example of the relatively smaller respect those of us in the VFX industry get compared to others. Instead, we are seeing campaigns for Andy Serkis getting an Oscar nod.

Seriously? Would there even be a discussion if there were no vfx and Mr Serkis had to do his performance in ape makeup? Of course not, and if he tried to campaign for an Oscar under those circumstances he would be laughed out of East Hollywood.

As Mr. Borelli eloquently points out there are animators who painstakingly animate every detail to bring realism to the character Caeser. Furthermore, there are modellers who model every wrinkle and facial expression into morph targets. There are mocap artists who ensure the highest fidelity of the animation data and integrate the performance into something usable. Riggers who make the cg character moveable and animatable (was that Andy Serkis athletically swinging through those trees?). Don’t forget to mention the incredible work of the hair artists. That orangutan looked great! And lookdev artists who make that skin and those eyes look real… and so forth.

I suspect the reason actors like Mr. Serkis are jockeying for star position is because many of them see VFX eclipsing actors. How many times have we seen an animated or vfx heavy film beat a movie with a top star in it?

Actors have one thing going for them that allows them to demand top billing: solidarity. The acting community sticks up for each other as exemplified with the Hobbit fiasco. The main actors would not return to make the film anywhere in the world unless a better deal was made for New Zealand actors.

There was one moment during Rise of the Planet of the Apes that reminded me of this. The orangutan wonders why Caesar is helping the other apes to which he grabs a stick and breaks it:

Apes alone … weak.

Caesar then bundles a group of sticks and shows the orangutan how difficult it is to break:

Apes together strong.

We VFX artists can learn a thing or two from actors and apes. We need to stick together. We need solidarity.

Soldier On.

28 Responses to Andy Who?

  1. Jon says:

    Dont really agree.
    Sure the guys at weta are geniuses and deserve awards for their work, but they are not actors.
    They are “only” replicating what Andy does, translating his performance in to another body. That is not really acting. Even if it were, it is a team effort and you dont give out acting awards to teams.

    And the argument that animators should get considered is also a bad argument.
    A bad argumen til that day that one character is voiced and animated by the same guy/girl.

    • VFX Soldier says:

      Not saying Vfx artists should be considered for best actor, what I am saying is that it’s absurd that mr serkis believes he should be considered.

      • Jon says:

        Yes I understand that.

        But what weta has done to Andy is, to me no different than make up, they are not really creating as much as translating.

        Hypoteticly: If the process of turning Andy in to a monkey would have been automatic, would you stil think that he would not be allowed to be nominated for an award?

        Do you think that an actor should have to do stunts, costume, make up, prostetics all by themselves to be eligible for an award?

        Btw, English is not my primary language, so Im sorry if I express myself in a clumsy/bad way

      • VFX Soldier says:

        It’s a huge fallacy to say Vfx artists are just translating the performance. They may market it like that but there is a ton of creative decisions made by collaborating artists to make an effective performance.

        Mr serkis’s performance is reference for vfx artists no more than actual chimps he referenced his performance from.

  2. Curtis says:

    Animators are actors, they just act with their minds and apply that performance to a digital puppet.

    Even though the base of the performance was provided by Andy Serkis’ motion capture, there is a HEAVY makeover of keyframe animation to breath life into the character that we see in the final result. Animators/Motion Editors are the true heros of cinema these days and it’s outdated to only give merit to the actor.

  3. manama says:

    If Weta had built a rig that captured Mr. Serkis’ performance and fully rendered this in real time on the set with NO additional additional post ‘massaging’ then he may have a case. Otherwise any form of acting that requires post manipulation is not acting but just performance reference.

  4. Jon says:

    “It’s a huge fallacy to say Vfx artists are just translating the performance. They may market it like that but there is a ton of creative decisions made by collaborating artists to make an effective performance.

    Mr serkis’s performance is reference for vfx artists no more than actual chimps he referenced his performance from.”

    Yes, I understand that, but why is that different than using prostethics, stunt/body doubles etc?

    To me it just seems like a very biased opinion, that sort of dissregards how much of a team-effort it always take to bring a character on screen.

    I have not yet seen the movie or have any inside information on how much of an influence the animators had on the performance, so maybe you are right – The creative control of the animators was to great for it to be eligable for an oscar.
    My point is that I think Andys argument is correct, maybe not for this movie, maybe not for any movie thus far, but playing a cgi character shouldnt autmaticly dissqualify you from being considered for acting awards.

    • VFX Soldier says:

      “Yes, I understand that, but why is that different than using prostethics, stunt/body doubles etc?

      To me it just seems like a very biased opinion, that sort of dissregards how much of a team-effort it always take to bring a character on screen.”

      The difference between body doubles, stuntmen and the vfx work by Weta artists is that the work the vfx artists did is key and integral to the main performance.

      I’m not the one that is disregarding the team-effort, my argument is that Mr Serkis’s work is a part of a collaboration between vfx artists to create and overall convincing performance. It is Mr Serkis who believes he should be elevated to another level.

  5. El Gato Sin Botas says:

    Sadly, the orangutan replies… “Apes stupid.”

    Then Caesar went on to educate the apes.. Which is what many of us need. ;]

  6. dorkmanscott says:

    [i]Seriously? Would there even be a discussion if there were no vfx and Mr Serkis had to do his performance in ape makeup? Of course not, and if he tried to campaign for an Oscar under those circumstances he would be laughed out of East Hollywood.[/i]

    Pretend this isn’t a movie about apes at all. It’s about a GATTACA-esque future world where the mentally handicapped are treated like animals, used for science experiments, etc. Then one of them gets smart, and after briefly trying to assimilate in society he realizes that he doesn’t WANT to be part of this world, and rebels. It’s a mute role, for whatever reason. Serkis plays the role, and delivers the same performance that he did for Caesar (assuming that the character of Caesar significantly reflects Serkis’ contribution). No special makeup or VFX necessary. Does that role earn him an Oscar nomination?

    If it didn’t — which it might not, since the Oscars are still notoriously snobby about genre pictures — I think a lot of people would be crying out that he got robbed.

    What you’re doing is making exactly the error he’s complaining about, which is linking the quality of the underlying performance to an unrelated field — ape makeup in your hypothetical, a digital ape in the actual case. He isn’t saying that the VFX should not be recognized, just that his contribution as a performer should be recognized as a performance, just the same as it would be if no FX/makeup were involved. To dismiss him as just providing reference is as insulting as when VFX artists are dismissed because the computers do all the work.

    VFX artists need solidarity. But we also need to recognize that people like Andy Serkis can be our allies rather than our enemies. If we feel he’s being ignorant, how about we educate him and have an advocate instead of vilifying him and making one more battle we have to fight?

    • VFX Soldier says:

      In the gattaca-esque hypothetical you mentioned, I can see Andy Serkis being nominated if he can give a convincing performance.

      The key difference in VFX is that it’s the artists and TDs that make the performance convincing.

      I’m not sure if you have worked on motion capture films similar to ROPOTA but in the one’s I’ve been involved in, I can tell you about situations where actor performances looked good on stage but downright silly after being re-targeted.

      One example: I would work with modellers who painstakingly created hundreds of blendshapes to bring out a more convincing facial expression. Dailies would involve collaboration with supervisors as we addressed notes as to what performance to keep or exaggerate, and what to remove.

      It’s funny because sometimes directors will ask that we don’t touch the actors original performance because it’s their performance and to change it would take away it’s essence. The film makes it to the screen and it gets panned. Guess who gets the blame? The VFX artists! But, if it’s successful like Avatar or Apes, who gets the credit? The actors.

      Pertaining to your second point that my dismissal of Mr Serkis is as insulting as the notion that computers do all vfx work, not artists:

      VFX artists are not asking for Oscar nominations in acting for their work, but Mr Serkis is. I don’t at all accuse him of having as easy job or that he doesn’t do any work. He has an important role that is PART of a greater performance that is made convincing by VFX artists.

      All I’m asking for is to be treated fairly and on the same level as people like Mr. Serkis, Directors, Cinematographers, Editors, Stuntmen, and caterers.

    • VFX Soldier says:

      Oh and by the way, I actually found Caesar to be the least convincing ape. I found the gorilla, orangutan, and over-tested ape more realistic.

      • fizz says:

        So, in the final analysis, the VFX for Caesar weren’t that great anyway? Does that mean that Serkis had a proportionally greater or lesser contribution to Caesar than the other actors had to their respective apes, the “more realistic” apes? The audiences seem to like the Caesar character a lot so the convincing bit – the VFX bit – seems to be less important to them. Is the Caesar VFX team less or more deserving than the other ape teams for plaudits?

      • VFX Soldier says:

        I feel Caesar was less convincing because they had to match serkis’s performance while there was more liberty taken with the other apes.

  7. Ymir says:

    If it means that much to Serkis to be considered for an Oscar, he should stop taking motion/performance capture roles and take more live action roles, and then push for the same Oscar consideration. That would then remove any doubt/debate.
    If the pixels are just digital makeup as he implies, that means there is no manipulative assistance by animators. But since there are animators involved, his comparison would be more akin to someone off camera operating the lips and eyebrows through remote radio control, adding to his performance.

  8. JR says:

    I don’t think Andy has every claimed that he’s been responsible for the entire performance. In fact, he’s made every effort to show how this is a team effort. The reason people are pushing for an Oscar nod is to legitimise the motion capture process and not treat it like a poor cousin to animation. VFX will never replace acting – it’s just a tool to tell stories like everything else. Let’s try and win this argument and not scupper it.

    • VFX Soldier says:

      Check the 1 minute mark. He acknowledges Weta’s technology but implies it was his performance. “There was my perfomance, all the emotion all the eye movements the gestures all cloaked in this digital chimpanzee skin.”

      • rfk says:

        … you don’t win an Oscar by telling everybody how little you did.

      • JR says:

        Of course he’s saying it’s his performance. It *is* his performance. Shown through the medium of a digital skin. He doesn’t say it was all his work at all. Whether is keyframe animation or motion capture, someone is driving the performance. In this case, the origin of the emotional story is the actor. In the case of any Pixar film, it’s the lead animator. You could equally claim that John Hurt didn’t deserve his accolades for Elephant Man. Or that Ralph Fiennes is a fraud because someone digitally cut his nose of and he didn’t do it himself. If someone else had been in Andy’s shoes and hadn’t had his years of experience doing this kind of work, the performance would have been different and perhaps lesser (perhaps). It doesn’t mean that he think he exists above the artists who built his digital chimp double.

      • fizz says:

        Hang on a second – on the one hand you’re saying that Serkis shouldn’t take credit because he wasn’t the primary author of the performance but then on the other you’re saying that Caesar is worse than the rest of the apes because the VFX team used too much of his performance and didn’t take enough “liberty”. Which is it?

        “I feel Caesar was less convincing because they had to match serkis’s performance while there was more liberty taken with the other apes.”

      • VFX Soldier says:

        No I’m saying Serkis shouldn’t try to take all of the credit for the performance. He was a part of it.

  9. NateCow says:

    “Back in April I was really encouraged by Fox’s marketing campaign for the film as Weta received top billing in the film’s trailer. Unfortunately that all changed recently. I stayed through the credits to see many of my friends in VFX get listed near the end of the credits.”

    Actually I’m pretty sure they were up further than usual, before sound and music and even second unit. I remember my brother and I noting that at the time.

    As for the rest of the discussion, I’m on Serkis’ side. I don’t think we should take away from his contribution nor the work of the VFX artists. What’s being touted among many in the industry greatly takes away from everything Serkis did and gives every ounce of credit to the VFX. One extreme is being exchanged for the other. Where would a CG performance be without a living, breathing, thinking, emoting actor on set putting themselves in that character’s place? Just look at anything prior to Gollum to see.

  10. anon says:

    VFX Soldier said: “Would there even be a discussion if there were no vfx and Mr Serkis had to do his performance in ape makeup? Of course not, and if he tried to campaign for an Oscar under those circumstances he would be laughed out of East Hollywood.”

    I’m still confused by these two sentences. Soldier, could you clarify: if he were in an ape makeup, are you arguing that everybody would know he was entitled to an Oscar? Or are you arguing that he wouldn’t deserve an Oscar? (Why?)

    John Hurt was nominated for an acting Oscar in “The Elephant Man”, absolutely covered in makeup and prosthetics (not applied by himself, I am willing to wager). Holly Hunter won the Oscar for “The Piano” despite playing a mute. Gary Sinese was nominated for “Forest Gump”, playing an amputee, but a major part of selling the part was the VFX leg removal. So exactly what is the principle by which Andy Serkis campaigning for an Oscar should be laughed at? Unless somebody at Weta is saying that his performance was used as rough reference only and that he’s totally misrepresenting his role in bringing the character to life, I’m not sure why he shouldn’t even be considered for an acting award.

    I think this is completely independent of whether he may have (purposely, inadvertently, or out of ignorance) sinned by glossing over the contributions of the other people who were instrumental in his being able to act in this mode, or whether he should be using his bully pulpit to also campaign for better recognition of the VFX artists.

    • VFX Soldier says:

      Check my next post, the examples you site supplemented the actor. In andy’s case the Vfx enhanced his performance. Had Andy attempted the same role in an ape suit it would’ve looked ridiculous.

      • Anon says:

        [Citation Needed]

        Do you work at Weta? Did you work on Apes? How is Ceasar any different from Lt. Dan? If Gary Sinese had played a double amputee with his real legs, it would look no more ridiculous.

        Do you know what’s more annoying to me than Serkis’ supposed slight of the animators? The animators slight of every other person in the pipeline, as if a lifelike chimp is magically brought to the screen with good animation.

  11. […] the discussion from my last post on Andy Serkis, It turns out Tim Borrelli is a power lifter which caused me to think of… wait […]

  12. […] I found the whole debate silly as it was a diversion from the real issues effecting the VFX industry. What’s sad is that as Andy continued his campaign for an Oscar, he started doubling-down on his persistent ability to show how little he knows about the process. […]

  13. […] engage in similar acts of plagiarism? They would be correctly chastised. Last time it was animator Tim Borelli who corrected Mr. Serkis and now the Oscar-winning Animation Supervisor from Lord of the Rings who […]

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