Oscars’ Greatest Mistakes: Overlooking Performance Capture


The Academy Awards are not perfect and every year it seems that the decisions by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences in terms of their nominees and winners leave movie fans scratching their heads. As we head towards the Academy Awards ceremony this year, we are going to take a look at just some of the mistakes, oversights, snubs and outright blunders that litter Oscar history.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has always been slow to embrace new innovations. Nineteen thirty-nine, six years after the release of the groundbreaking King Kong, was the first year that the Academy offered an award for special effects. It was also the first year that they instituted separate awards in the Cinematography category to differentiate between color and black and white photography, even though films had been shot on native color film (and not hand-tinted black and white films) for almost three decades.

Three years ago, critics raved about Andy Serkis’s performance as the ape Caesar in Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes and there was much internet bandwidth burned in speculating that perhaps he could be nominated for an Academy Award for his work. It wasn’t the first time that a performance capture performance was mooted for Oscar consideration, and unsurprisingly, previously it was for Serkis’s work as Gollum in Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings films. Since that first time, performance capture has been utilized to provide photo-realistic aliens for James Cameron’s Avatar and a giant ape (Serkis again) for Jackson’s King Kong redo as well as more stylized screen characters for such films as Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures Of Tintin and Robert Zemeckis’s forays into CGI-animated films like The Polar Express and Beowulf.

This year, it’s Rise‘s sequel Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes that has had some critics talking about motion capture performances, specifically Toby Kebbell’s performance as the ape Koba. Prior to his intelligence enhancement, Koba had been severely mistreated by his human handlers, the implication being that he was sadistically experimented on. This point, Kebbell brings home in one of the most powerful scenes in Dawn, when he points to scars on his body and repeats the phrase “Human work.” It is a great moment in the film and one that allows Kebbell to generate sympathy for the character and give us a solid motivation and understanding for his ultimately villainous actions later on. Just with that, the character was made more “human” than most other antagonists seen in cinemas in 2014. And achievement only realized in full thanks to Kebbell’s skill as an actor.

Unfortunately, there seems to be the perception among some Academy members that a performance capture performance is more a product of technology than the human actor involved. And while it is true that computers are used to replace the appearance of the physical actor with the appearance of the character they are portraying, I would state that this is no more of a change in appearance than what a costume or makeup may due for an actor creating a character. Is the work that John Hurt did for The Elephant Man under face-obscuring makeup on a fundamental level that much different from the work Serkis did in Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes or Kebbell did in Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes? I would say no and yet Hurt has an Academy Award for his work while the likes of Serkis and Kebbell don’t appear to come under consideration for a nomination.

(Tangentially, When Hurt won his Oscar for The Elephant Man, there was no regular category for regular. The resultant outcry from Academy members over the fact that the work done on the film wouldn’t receive any recognition lead the Academy to instate the category the following year.)

On the Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes commentary track, director Matt Reeves spends an inordinate amount of time discussing the work of Serkis and the other ape character actors and how those performances are translated into what is seen on the screen. If Academy voting members don’t have the two hours to listen to someone in their profession educating them about the process, maybe than can spend just a few minutes watching a DVD featurette like this one –

Of course, if one considers the CG employed in a performance capture performance role on the same level as makeup and hair or costuming, this opens the door for a possible Award for the CG team that does this work, similar to those handed out for Makeup and Costuming. But with an Awards ceremony that currently runs at 24 categories and over three hours, I don’t see the Academy rushing to add more into what some already consider overly bloated.

The stumbling block for any of this changing, of course, is changing the mindset of the Academy members. Currently, the average age of an Academy member is something like 65, so if anything, this change will probably happen on a more generational level as younger filmmakers of today using the process become the older filmmakers of tomorrow running things at the Academy.

For films being released in this year alone, there have been rumors that the new Star Wars film The Force Awakens will feature motion capture performances, and we know that The Avengers: Age Of Ultron will. Undoubtedly there will be more and more films, growing in number each year, which will feature motion capture work. As this trend continues to grow, the Academy will be forced to seriously consider how it views performance capture and the artists who use to tell stories on the big screen. Perhaps not in next year’s Academy Awards or in the year after that, but at some point in the future we will see this new form of acting getting the recognition and consideration it deserves. And perhaps even some of its pioneers will get special awards commemorating the work they did to create the form.

Avatar für Rich Drees
About Rich Drees 6949 Articles
A film fan since he first saw that Rebel Blockade Runner fleeing the massive Imperial Star Destroyer at the tender age of 8 and a veteran freelance journalist with twenty years experience writing about film and pop culture. He is a member of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle.
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