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Here’s a little piece I had in today’s Conversation …
Oscars for animals? Andy Serkis should be beating his chest
By Tama Leaver, Curtin University
The notion that a chimpanzee could win an Academy Award for acting (or anything else) seems farcical at first glance but, of course, it’s not an actual chimpanzee being discussed in the case of the latest role by Andy Serkis.
Rather, it’s an incredibly sophisticated amalgam of the actor and the very latest computational visualisation techniques from Weta Digital.
Serkis’ performance as Caesar, the leader of the fledgling ape society in the recently-released Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) once again has Hollywood commentators pondering the possibility of an Oscar nod for a synthespian – a synthetic thespian or virtual actor – but this is far from the first time this question has been raised.
Andy Serkis has been behind some of the most memorable cinematic faces of the last decade, but it’s not quite his face. Rather, Serkis has held pioneering roles utilising performance capture technology.
Performance capture features the real-time recording and digitisation of an actor’s movements, which are then used to drive a complex digital model.
With the digital powerhouse of Weta Digital behind him, Serkis’ performances have driven Gollum from The Lord of the Rings (2001, 2002, 2003) (and now The Hobbit – 2012, 2013, 2014) films, the titular ape in Peter Jackson’s King Kong (2005), and the role of Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) and the new sequel, Dawn.
For many, the question of where the acting ends and the computer-generated imagery begins, undermines the authenticity of a performance captured role as a performance, but no performance exists in a vacuum. Every actor’s appearance is constructed through costume, make-up and lighting, their dialogue taken from a script, the eventual role on screen painstakingly led by a director, and carefully filtered and refined during the editing process.
Performance capture is similar in many ways, but with the additional digital processing to translate the motion and facial expressions of an actor onto an often non-human character.
In a brief promotional featurette, Serkis explains how the performance capture technology has developed, with scenes now able to be shot outdoors where once they had to be on a soundstage against a green screen.
Most significantly though, for Serkis, is the fidelity with which the performance capture cameras and software can directly map an actors’ face and performance onto the digital character they are playing.
And given that technology has always been part of acting, the authenticity of performance captured roles speaks to the symbiotic relationship between fleshy, embodied actors and the informatic machines that enhance and facilitate those performances.
Early industry fears that synthespians might replace “real” actors reveals an insecurity about the relationship between people and technology. If a character can simply be created by a computer, the millions of dollars spent on A-list stars might just seem a little unnecessary.
The reality of performance capture, though, shows the opposite to be true: its takes a huge team to bring a single performance capture character to screen, with the actor remaining integral, filmed in excruciating detail, but also then combining software engineers, digital artists, and a range of other digital effects personnel to keep the best of the performance and use it to drive a state-of-the-art digital model.
Yet every director and crew who have worked with Serkis since his days as Gollum, as well as Serkis himself, have spent over a decade arguing for the legitimacy of performance capture as “real” acting.
After the pivotal role of Serkis in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), New Line Cinema and director Peter Jackson led the first attempt to get a role driven by performance capture acknowledged at the Academy Awards.
In his first outing as Caesar, Serkis was widely applauded, with 20th Century Fox mounting a campaign for a best actor nomination. Co-star James Franco was particularly vocal in arguing that Serkis’ performance was integral to the character, worthy of critical attention and praise.
And with the success of Dawn, the director and co-stars are once again lining up to applaud Serkis’ performance.
In terms of literally performing animals, Serkis and the team playing the various apes in the film do a remarkable job in evoking empathy without sacrificing the specificities of chimpanzees and other apes.
It is noteworthy that Rise received a specific commendation from PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) about the way animals were portrayed and filmed. Having a human actor behind the animal performances not only guarantees no animals will be harmed on set, but at a deeper level also begs the question about the relationships between humans and animals.
Such questions are at the heart of Dawn, wherein the similarities between apes and humans drive the plot rather than intrinsic differences.
Andy Serkis’ role as Caesar is central to Dawn, and as numerous online features emphasise, this is his acting, and his performance. Whether this is the year that such a digital performance is captured by the Oscars or not remains to be seen.
Tama Leaver receives funding from the Australian Research Council (ARC).
Links of interest for October 24th 2008 through October 26th 2008:
- (SPOILER) What happened when the lights went out. [Whedonesque] – Joss Whedon talks straight to the fans about Dollhouse: “Sadly, this is not a naughty post. It’s just Joss nattering on again. I thought it was time to check in with you once again, gentle viewers. Or readers. Or pictures-looker-ats (that might be viewers). Also listeners, sniffers, haberdashers, Olympic hopefuls, the elderly, the youngerdly, and the mighty state of Oregon (go Oregon-based sports franchise!) Welcome all. Welcome… to me. What’s me up to? I’m glad me asked. Me’ve (I’m not doing that any more) been working on a little show called Dollhouse. Yes, perhaps you’ve read about how it’s blazing an untrammeled path to surefire success, with nary a hitch or a hiccup, just pure blazing blazery, comet-like and meteoresque. What’s that, you say? You’ve read other things? Dark, Yog-Sothothy rumors about shutdowns and delays? Poppycock! They’re true. But I never pass up a chance to say “poppycock”. “
- Flunking Spore – John Bohannon [Science, 322 (5901): 531b, October 2008] – Apparently Spore fails to live up to the expectations of scientists and the promotional material for Spore might have been a little disingenuous: “So over the past month, I’ve been playing Spore with a team of scientists, grading the game on each of its scientific themes. When it comes to biology, and particularly evolution, Spore failed miserably. According to the scientists, the problem isn’t just that Spore dumbs down the science or gets a few things wrong–it’s meant to be a game, after all–but rather, it gets most of biology badly, needlessly, and often bizarrely wrong. I also tracked down the scientists who appeared on television in what seemed like an endorsement of Spore’s scientific content on the National Geographic channel. They said they had been led to believe that the interviews were for a straight documentary about “developmental evolutionary” science rather than a video promoting a computer game “
- The Medium – The Hitler Meme [NYTimes] – The New York Times on that Hitler (Downfall) meme: “On YouTube, we’re in a bunker, and the enemies are always, always closing in. The ceilings are low. The air is stifling. A disheveled leader is delusional. This is the premise of more than 100 videos on the Web — the work of satirists who for years have been snatching video and audio from “Downfall,” the 2004 German movie of Hitler’s demise, and doctoring it to tell a range of stories about personal travails and world politics. By adding new English-language subtitles, they transform the movie’s climactic scene, in which Hitler (played by Bruno Ganz) rails against his enemies and reluctantly faces his defeat, into the generic story of a rabid blowhard brought low.”
- YouTube Enables Deep Linking Within Videos [TechCrunch] – “It’s not a big new feature but it’s certainly one that will come in handy: YouTube will now allow you to send users to a specific point in a video by appending a short tag to the end of a video’s URL. It’s pretty surprising that this functionality wasn’t available earlier, as Google Video introduced the same feature over two years ago. YouTube users have been forced to rely on third party services like Splicd to do the same thing. To specify a point, append a tag to the end of your video link with the following syntax: “#t=1m45s” (you can change the numbers before the ‘m’ and ’s’ to edit the minutes and seconds, respectively.”
- Woman in jail over virtual murder [BBC NEWS | Asia-Pacific] – “A woman has been arrested in Japan after she allegedly killed her virtual husband in a popular video game. The 43-year-old was reportedly furious at finding herself suddenly divorced in the online game Maplestory. Police say she illegally accessed log-in details of the man playing her husband, and killed off his character. The woman, a piano teacher, is in jail in Sapporo waiting to learn if she faces charges of illegally accessing a computer and manipulating data.”
- Fan fury at Nine [TV Tonight] – Australian “Fans of Fringe who were unaware the show had been pulled from Nine’s current schedule got a rude shock last night and vented their anger in online messageboards. They were universally vehement in their displeasure with Nine’s programming. This site alone now totals 95 posts in one thread alone. Over on Nine’s own messageboard there were more furious comments: Fringe Dweller: C’mon channel 9, have some balls and tell the people why Fringe has been pulled! Oh I’m sorry, you don’t care about what people like. Maybe we could lose one of the four hundred different versions of CSI. God Bless ‘Two and a Half man’ where would you be without them. Maybe you can rename yourselves to Channel Two and a Half Men CSI Malibu!!! Why I’m at it, you pulled Fringe and we still have to put up with that The Strip crap.”
Interesting links for July 3rd 2008:
- Virtual Worlds Research: Past, Present and Future (Vol 1, No 1) [Journal of Virtual Worlds Research] – The inaugural issue of the Journal of Virtual Worlds Research is out, showcasing some excellent research and situating virtual worlds in an ongoing and dynamic research context. It’s also an exemplar of open publishing: all content is online and under Creative Commons licenses.
- Uni cheats outsource to India [The Age] – “Computer Science students are farming out their coursework to cheap programmers in countries like India and university staff admit they are powerless to detect and prevent it….Various well-established sites already sell students essays and other written work.”
- Is YouTube Killing Video Originality? [NewTeeVee] – “…more people are creating …video than ever before… The issue becomes when people start creating for the playcounts. What?s the fastest way to rack up a million plays on YouTube, land an agent and get on Oprah? It?s not by making something new!”
- VioletBlue VioletBlue – An archive of all of the posts that Boing Boing deleted in relation to sex blogger Violet Blue. Looking through this archive, it’s hard to see how these deletions haven’t damaged Boing Boing’s historical presence.
- Firefox download record official [BBC NEWS | Technology] – Mozilla has officially made history with a new Guinness world record for the largest number of software downloads in a 24-hour period. The final record breaking 8,002,530 downloads for Firefox 3.0 took place in June with parties in over 25 countries.
You’ll forgive the title to this post, I’ve never been able to let a good pun go and I doubt I’ll ever be able to use that one again. It’s true, though: I was interviewed about a month ago by Cathrin Shaer, a New Zealand-based writer for Vogue Australia who was writing a piece on life online. She was trying to do an awful lot in one article (talking about MySpace, Flickr, YouTube, Second Life, etc.) but somehow my name came up and I ended up talking with her for almost an hour about the complexities of interaction in different online modes. Clearly the bit that stuck was about Second Life. Here is the snippet from that interview which appeared today in ‘A life less ordinary’ (Vogue Australia, May 2007):
Tama Leaver, a lecturer at The University of Western Australia whose research interests include exploring how humans interact with technology, has used Second Life for business meetings: “Most of the people working in my field are spread across the globe. I’ve participated in teleconferencing, but it’s better of have a conference in Second Life because you’re all in a room together, rather than just disembodied voices.” Apparently, even if you’re meeting with a bunch of serious academics, it doesn’t matter if you look like a cartoon character. “There’s a great parallel in animated films,” Leaver explains. “We understand what’s going on in an animated character’s face — most people understanding what Shrek was saying.”
Not exactly mind-blowing stuff on my part. Also, I suspect there are a few sentences Shaer could have left in since there was somewhat more space and substance between talking about academic discussion in Second Life and Shrek (for the record, I’ve never met anyone online or offline who looks like Shrek – while the facial features might be there, no one I’ve met was actually green). That said, it’s interesting to see interest in social software spreading as far as Vogue. (Although I was a little surprised that they didn’t use any Second Life screenshots for illustration – and what they did use seemed like a bad high school art collage – perhaps the Vogue graphics people didn’t actually make it in-world).
In conjunction with their purchase of a Second Life Island, the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) dedicated a full Four Corners programme to exploring the world of Second Life. It was actually quite a fair representation of SL (at least, as I understand it, only having spent a few hours in-world); it was also neatly structured to familiarise viewers who’ve never heard of virtual environments with SL as it began with Ticky Fullerton’s (the journalist’s) signing-up process, and showed both in-world and material-world footage as she developed her avatar, checked out Orientation Island and eventually explored the people, the markets and the inevitable red-light districts of SL.
Also of interest was the way in which the programme was presented – it wasn’t just a 45 minute slot, but also has a substantial online presence on the Four Corners website. The layout of the extra material is a little busy for my taste, but the wealth of material is excellent – there are longer versions of the interviews with Philip Rosedale (Second Life’s US creator), Ted Castranova (a well-respected academic voice on Virtual worlds and virtual economies) and Clay Shirky (SL’s most prominent critic). I particularly like these ‘raw’ interviews as you can hear all the questions asked, something that regularly gets lost in the tight editing which happens in putting a 45 minutes show together.
The ABC, like the BBC, is not hampered by trying of extract every last cent for their productions; rather, their mission statement is to disseminate their shows as accessible to Australians as is possible. It means these sort of extended versions are part of their core mission, and I’m quite impressed with the amount online (my only gripe is that it’s all flash video, so not so easy to download – a concern if I wanted to use a few minutes of one of the interviews in a lecture!).
For those who prefer to check out a lo-fi version before spending the time watching the videos, there is a full transcript of the ‘You Only Live Twice’.