Dear Andy Serkis,
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has reignited the debate about the role of the actor in "motion capture" performances. Your supporters are already pushing for an Oscar nomination (you do, after all, have top billing in Dawn), while others are less enthusiastic about your contributions. I'm sorry to say that I find myself in the latter camp. I don't want you take this personally, but I don't think you - or anyone, for that matter - should win an acting award for this type of "mo-cap" performance.
There is certainly no shortage of people telling you that you're the best at what you do. Since you started working with Peter Jackson, playing Gollum in Lord of the Rings films and later the mighty King Kong himself, you've carved out a niche as Hollywood's go-to mo-cap artist. It made perfect sense, then, for a man with your pedigree (and simian simulation experience) to play Caesar in 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes. And, by all accounts, you didn't disappoint. Rise was a surprise critical and financial success, paving way for your character's central role in the praise-worthy Dawn.
But here's my problem:
Even the most sophisticated audiences can't tell where your performance ends and the special effects begin. While we know that there's an actor involved - wearing one of those ping-pong ball bodysuits and guiding the physical movements and facial expressions - we can never be sure how much of your performance is there in the finished product. Maybe the effects team is simply aping your every single move. Or maybe, at some point, the filmmakers decide they want to create menace with a more dramatic eyebrow raise, or need more tears to amp up the emotion. Who's to stop them? If they want more growl, or need to more intensity, it's all just a few clicks of a mouse away. We don't know what they changed, added, or depended on. And we don't need to know. What we're really marveling at when we watch your performance is the technology on top of it. And the better the technology, the more we marvel.
Unfortunately, little of that has to do with you.
Let's take, for example, your role as Captain Haddock in Steven Spielberg's The Adventures of Tintin. The animation wasn't meant to be lifelike, and so few people focused on the performances. Sure, we saw a visual similarity between Daniel Craig and his character Red Rackham, but it's still his vocal performance that we connect back to him, not the lumbering physical presence he brings to, say, the most recent Bond films. Since most audiences don't already have a long history of staring at your naked face, Andy, it's much harder to connect you with someone like Caesar.
In other words, you play Caesar, but I don't think anyone can argue that you are Caesar; at least not in the way that Gregory Peck is Atticus Finch, or Tom Hanks is Forrest Gump.
Look at the countless biopics that always seem to win Best Actor awards: Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buys Club, Daniel Day Lewis in Lincoln, Colin Firth in The King's Speech, Sean Penn in Milk, Forrest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland, Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote, Jamie Foxx in Ray…they aren't being rewarded for disappearing into their character the way you do (you literally disappear). What we reward is the way an audience is able to magically marry the actor we know with the character they're portraying. Sometimes make-up effects or weight loss help make that connection easier, but it's always up to the audience to take that final step and say, "yes, we believe you." In the case of mo-cap, it's the animators that bridge that gap for us. Only once the special effects are photorealistic do we truly suspend our disbelief.
A film like Avatar highlights this distinction. Sam Worthington is one of the most generic actors of his generation. Which is probably why James Cameron decided that his face was the perfect canvas to cover in blue "digital paint". In the end, it didn't matter because the wild and fantastical effects were believable. That said, no director would minimize the contributions of an actor in a mo-cap performance, but they also wouldn't pretend like you did all the heavy lifting by yourself. Ideally, you make the animators' job easier. But your relationship is far too co-dependent to earn individual distinction.
You might argue that actors already have this kind of dependent relationship with the film's editor; their final performance is always at the mercy of the rhythm, timing, and even take selection that happens in the editing suite. But a great editor can't invent a great acting performance, they can only minimize our exposure to a bad one.
I keep reading about how you're infusing "humanity" into your performance as Caesar. Considering you are a human, this isn't all that impressive. Creating human empathy is not the benchmark of great acting, it's an entry level requirement. And again, it's the animators (for lack of a better term) who are enabling your natural humanity to shine through. Your other big contribution, apparently, is your decidedly ape-like physicality; you are able to move like an evolved primate. That's a talent, to be sure, but it's also nothing new to film acting. How many awards did 2001: A Space Odyssey or the original Planet of the Apes win for its monkey-acting? About as many as you should. Throw on a rubber suit instead of the helmet cam and see how much praise you get.
Which brings up the larger point: there's not a large enough sample size for us to accurately judge a good mo-cap performance from a bad one. I would argue that Seth MacFarlane's performance in Ted_ was far more essential to the film's success than yours is to _Dawn--and the only Oscar buzz he received was a nomination as worst host of all time. We could go further, too. What about Robin William's voice work in Aladdin? There's someone who truly contributed in immeasurable ways to the bringing an animated performance to life.
Which is why I'm sorry to say that Milli Vanilli will win another Grammy before you'll ever take home an Oscar for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
Doing my "human work",