Dark Doctrine: “The Hollow Men”

The continued blurring of the line between what constitutes a performance be it in live-action or animation is about to hit a tipping point of sorts.

Just under a decade ago when Andy Serkis delivered a strong motion-capture performance as Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, the question was first raised as to where this kind of filmmaking sits – is it live action or animation? How much of the performance given is due to the actor or to the technicians and artists doing the visual effects?

While mo-cap work has generally been restricted to very specifically commercial fare with no real awards ambition, two years ago it really began to cross that line with “Avatar” – a film that was frankly half-animated but still managed an Oscar Best Picture nomination. At the time of release there was a lot of praise for Zoe Saldana’s entirely mo-cap performance, but not enough to put the issue under any real scrutiny.

This year however that may change. Andy Serkis’ performance as the ape Caesar in both the critically well-received and commercially successful “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is strong enough and has enough popularity behind it that a Supporting Actor nomination at some point during the upcoming awards season by a guild, an association, or more likely one of the critic’s groups, seems possible.

S.A.G., the H.F.P.A. and A.M.P.A.S. have been able to essentially ignore the question for a decade, now however the issue is being forced. Today, Deadline reports on a new wrinkle – the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’s animation branch had a major meeting this week in which the topic of motion capture came up.

Reportedly letters are being sent out to the filmmakers of “Mars Needs Moms,” “Happy Feet 2” and “The Adventures of Tintin” asking them “what their ‘intent’ was in the use of the mo-cap process”. The Academy’s formal rules presently don’t recognise the art, saying “motion capture by itself is not an animation technique” and they haven’t included a mo-cap film amongst their ‘Best Animated Feature’ nominees since 2006.

Unlike “Avatar” or ‘Apes’ which are live-action films with heavily animated elements, these three are 100% outright animated features and are helmed by three of the biggest directors in the business. Miller’s first “Happy Feet” won the Oscar for that category back in 2006 and it seems likely the sequel qualifying in the category is but a formality at this point.

As for its biggest rival? Insiders who’ve seen ‘Tintin’ swear that, despite the mo-cap use, it qualifies in every way and is frame-by-frame in terms of its animation. One source tells the site “Tintin’s approach, using a mix of performance capture and digital animation, is simply another angle of the art form. Our current animated films use voice actors whose performances are directed. Tintin is using actors who are providing performance through voice, motion and an ability to interact with one another, but what you’re looking at in its design and conception is nonetheless animated.”

With the disappointing “Cars 2” this year likely to break the hold that Pixar has had on the animation category, a lot will depend on what films make the final nomination cut. “Rango,” “Kung Fu Panda 2,” “Winnie the Pooh,” “Happy Feet 2,” “The Adventures of Tintin,” “Puss in Boots,” “Rio,” “Arthur Christmas” and “Cars 2” all have potential to be a part of the race this year for the 4-5 slots that will be on offer.

Of course the wider issue of where mo-cap fits isn’t going away and will only become more acute as the technique’s quality improves and its use expands into areas it hasn’t previously explored. Academies and Guilds who haven’t already done so are going to have to quickly start laying down ground rules for various categories to determine where the lines between performance, direction and design lie when it comes to this new frontier. The dilemma of this ‘Caesar’ can’t be solved by a few stab-happy bureaucrats.