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Uncharted territory

Should synthetic performers be allowed to compete with flesh-and-blood actors? The lines keep blurring.

January 30, 2008|Ron Magid | Special to The Times

They can move us to laughter, tears, joy and sorrow -- who cares if they don't have a pulse? If a performance rises to a sublime artistic and emotional level, shouldn't an artificially generated character be entitled to compete for an Oscar?

But if so, who gets to walk to the podium?

Because so many different media now exist, creating performers using cel animation ("The Simpsons Movie") or stop motion ("Corpse Bride") or hand-animated CG ("Ratatouille") or actor-driven, motion-capture digital characters ("Beowulf") is as natural a part of filmmaking as building sets. "Is there something in the academy rules that says a performance must be photographed using traditional motion-picture equipment?" wonders visual effects supervisor Jerome Chen, who supervised the creation of an entire cast of digital characters driven by movements captured from flesh-and-blood actors for "Beowulf."

"We're witnessing the birth of a new art form, so the lines are going to keep blurring," says outgoing chairman of the Visual Effects Society, Jeff Okun, who is currently supervising imagery for a remake of "The Day the Earth Stood Still."

"The VES is struggling to define whether motion capture is an animated character or a live-action character covered in CG gobbledygook," Okun says.

However you define them, synthetic performers demand skilled acting. The first test case was Gollum, the desiccated hobbit in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy voiced by and motion captured from actor Andy Serkis, who played opposite Sean Astin and Elijah Wood on set, then was replaced with a digital creation supervised by Weta LTD's master animator Randall William Cook.

The result was a character that, because of his shriveled appearance, couldn't physically be played by Serkis, yet possessed the actor's emotional skills to the point where it became difficult to tell where flesh ended and fantasy began.

"I feel like I played the part entirely and that it's me up there," Serkis says. "I think motion capture is a portal into a new [realm of acting]. . . . In terms of the dynamics of the acting in the scenes, there's no difference."

Serkis next portrayed King Kong, performing atop a ladder opposite his human co-stars Jack Black and Naomi Watts, which he found an even more intense experience than playing Gollum. "I'm more exposed" as Kong, he says. "Sometimes we would get up close beside the camera and Naomi could touch my face if she needed to. It's about the reciprocal energy that happens between them."

Tom Hanks was motion captured to play multiple characters opposite Nona Gaye and Michael Jeter in "The Polar Express," and Anthony Hopkins, John Malkovich and Angelina Jolie literally disappeared into "Beowulf's" characters.

In fact, sometimes so little of the actor's physicality is used that the casting of a part can be opened to actors who otherwise might not have fit the role. Ray Winstone at 50, for instance, portrayed the twentysomething Beowulf, bringing perhaps a greater depth to the performance. "Maybe I wasn't mature enough to play Beowulf when I was 20," Winstone says.

The experience left him a fan of the process. "I believe [motion capture] is the purest form of acting," he says. "It's so freeing, I'd recommend it to any actor."

But the actor is just the starting point, says animation master Phil Tippett, an Oscar winner for his contributions to "Jurassic Park's" digital dinosaurs who also created the monster bugs in "Starship Trooper," Pip the chipmunk in "Enchanted" and "Cloverfield's" behemoth. "There are 800 galley slaves pulling oars beneath the decks of that performance," Tippett says.

"It would be hard to award just the actor for the performance," agrees Dennis Muren, who has overseen the creation of synthetic characters for such films as "The Abyss," "Terminator 2" and "Casper."

AT one point, the Visual Effects Society awards included a category for best performance by an animated character -- a team effort nod akin to the Golden Globes' ensemble category -- which included the FX artists as well as the actor involved. But when others in the industry chafed at visual effects people judging an actor's work, the VES dropped the performance aspect of the category and called it the outstanding animated character award.

For his part, Tippett says he would have "given the award for Gollum to [writers] Fran Walsh, Phillippa Boyens and Peter Jackson for that first seminal scene where he's talking to himself. How much more of that character is Serkis and how much is Randy Cook and the 800 galley slaves?"

Serkis disagrees. "Peter Jackson was very firm that the animators had to literally look at the visual guide -- me," Serkis says. "They ran video cameras on the motion-capture stage and I did specific video performances for animators. Sometimes I'd look at their work and say 'That's not quite the beat I was playing.' "

Tippett isn't buying: "At that point, [the actor] is a piece of reference material."

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