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Performing Animals: Synthespians, Primates and Cinematic Sympathy

Having let this blog become more link digests than anything else, I promised myself I’d write a bit more about my research activities, so with that in mind, I’m looking down a new research path and thought I’d share my very first thoughts.  As usual, it has taken a deadline to galvanise any writing, but the Call for Papers for the Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction sounded enticing so, below is the chapter abstract I submitted today.  (There’s no guarentee it’ll be accepted, of course, but this chapter will get written one way or another as it has definitely fired my imagination).  Feedback or thoughts are welcome, of course!

Performing Animals: Synthespians, Primates and Cinematic Sympathy

Chapter abstract.

Virtual actors, or synthespians (‘synthetic thespians’), simultaneously expand what ‘acting’ actually entails whilst also asking film viewers to sympathise with often non-human entities in contexts which strive for verisimilitude. Initial industry responses to synthespians centred on fears that unpaid virtual actors could replace human beings but Dan North argues that rather than making actors superfluous, synthespians actually illustrate ‘an interdependence between the human and the machine, the digital and the analogue, the real and the simulated’ (2008, p. 183). The performance capture technologies behind synthespians facilitate a complex symbiosis between the visceral, physical performance of actors and the informatic and computational artistry of cutting edge digital media. While scholarly attention has been paid to virtual actors portraying fictional creatures or aliens – such as Jar Jar Binks in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999), Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001, 2002, 2003) or the Na’vi in Avatar (2009) – this chapter instead examines synthespians who are performing (as) animals.

Focusing on Kong from Peter Jackson’s King Kong (2005) and Caesar from Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), both of whom are performed by actor Andy Serkis and the special effects team at WETA Digital, this chapter will argue that primate synthespians complicate and challenge the boundaries between people and animals, between natural and technological, and between the computational and ecological (amongst others). To provide historical and cultural context, I will draw on antecedents from the Kong and Planet of the Apes franchises as well as contemporary texts, such as the documentary Project Nim (2011) which details a 1970s experiment scrutinising the nature/nurture divide in which a chimpanzee was raised as a human child. The strong critical and commercial success of Rise of the Planet of the Apes suggests audiences can readily sympathise with a primate protagonist, while Barbara Creed has similarly argued that Jackson’s Kong is ‘a screen animal who holds our sympathies throughout the film’ (2009, p. 191). Indeed, recognising its role in promoting animal rights, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has actually given Rise of the Planet of the Apes their official approval. Ultimately, this chapter will explore the way these films generate sympathetic digital primates, the inherent contradictions in provoking sympathy by replacing animals with actors performing animals, and how these films and audience reactions may serve as a focal point for broader consideration of the relationships between people, primates, nature and technology.


Creed, B. (2009). Darwin’s Screens: Evolutionary Aesthetics, Time and Sexual Display in the Cinema. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.

North, D. (2008). Performing Illusions: Cinema, Special Effects and the Virtual Actor. London & New York: Wallflower Press.

[Image Source: The Hollywood Reporter]

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