Empire: From Gollum To TinTin

Andy Serkis on living the history of performance capture, and the actor’s role in this revolutionary new art for The year 2000: the Lord Of The Rings…

The murky world of the warehouse, with a leaking tin roof and a handful of cameras, plus a few passionate, bleary-eyed technicians slaving away. The excitement of seeing rudimentary real-time playback of your performance before the computers crash and your character – in my case Gollum – completely wigs out and goes all Francis Bacon on you. Strange Spandex suits and large reflective balls. A sense that you’re on your own, straddling a bizarre netherworld of animation and theatre, partaking in a freakish activity that really isn’t considered ‘proper’ acting while the real shoot is happening elsewhere.

2009: Tintin… Super-techno virtual production, with the entire crew in a studio that looks like a NASA launch centre. Hundreds of people – some film crew, mostly computer geniuses – tracking multiple actors with head-mounted face cams. The director with a virtual camera depicting real-time lit and rendered environments and characters. Long takes with the expectancy that the technology will not fail to deliver.

Having acted and directed in the performance capture arena over the past decade, I’ve witnessed its development from a technological and social perspective. Times have changed, technology has developed and, at last, there’s a desire to understand what this ‘thing’ called performance capture really is.

Alot has been going on in the last ten years. But within our own industry there is still a woeful lack of knowledge about the art and craft of performance capture; many people still don’t consider it to be ‘real’ acting. Mystery (or misunderstanding) still surrounds the true nature of what, I think, will become the most significant change in the direction of actors’ performances, one which enables them to take a role and transform themselves beyond recognition, or even become entirely abstracted.

But performance capture still seems to inject fear and paranoia into the hearts and minds of many actors who are perhaps scared of being replaced (or worse, not being recognised); of animators who are anxious about losing their jobs; and of directors and producers who are unfamiliar with the difference between motion control, stop motion and motion capture!

Folks, we need to calm down…

There will still be animated movies, there will still be live-action movies, but there will also be movies (or characters in movies) that lend themselves to this emerging form of expression. We should take the lead from a new generation of content-hungry punters and gamers who outnumber the fearful and are far more open to new methods of storytelling.

Each new generation finds a form of storytelling or expression that meets the needs of its age. Just as the Ancient Greeks wore masks, or the Japanese performed kabuki, so Zoe Saldana dons a motion capture suit with markers. When all is said and done, we actors are mere interpreters and have to meet the demands of the visual language of the moment. That is our job. Always has been, always will be.

One of the questions I’ve been asked by nearly every journalist I’ve spoken to over the eight years since the release of The Two Towers is, ”Do you think there ought to be a separate awards category for an actor playing a digital character” ?

It’s interesting, because of course the question really is asking, ”Do you think an actor’s performance is really acting if it’s enhanced by other people’s artistic endeavor?” To which I’ve given a lot of thought over the years. My answer is that there isn’t a single screen performance, whether it be live action, animation or performance capture, that isn’t enhanced by other people’s artistic endeavor.

Filmmaking is an entirely collaborative effort. Costume, make-up, music, lighting, editing, direction and visual effects all radically enhance an actor’s performance and many of these choices are made without the actor’s input.

Is the ‘job’ of acting any different with performance capture? Well, you’re stripped of any of the usual stimuli, comforts and props of the process of building a character, but it’s essentially the same.

An actor in a live-action performance has to research the character, build a psychological profile, embody the character physically, work privately on a scene, rehearse with the director and actors, and shoot the scene. An actor in performance capture has to… Do the same thing. But it’s a remarkable feeling, to be challenged in this way – and mind-blowing to see the results.

Excellent acting, excellent directing, and above all an excellent script – that’s what it boils down to in the end. If the actor’s performance on the motion-capture stage fails to excite, engage, make you laugh or move you then, no matter how beautifully skinned, clothed and rendered the digital character appears on the screen, the audience won’t be moved. Performance capture is described as being in its infancy, which is true. It is ripe for exploration – if people will only recognise its potential…

Avatar has truly dramatically altered people’s perceptions and hopefully, now the dust is settling, we’ll be able to make the knowledge gained accessible and affordable to filmmakers, visual storytellers and game designers across the myriad of digital platforms. I believe it will inevitably form a central mode of expression for acting in the next generation of storytelling in films, games and the live performing arts, such as music and dance. And the tide of opinion is finally changing. There’s a real buzz out there.

Love it or hate it, we have to acknowledge that performance capture is not going away, and that it will undeniably be remembered as a valid and important component in the evolution of the ancient art, craft and tradition of acting.

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