By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood January 13, 2012 at 12:33PM
With Oscar-nomination ballots due Friday, there's a lot more riding on "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" than the tech awards for VFX and sound editing/mixing. There's also the matter of securing Andy Serkis a Best Supporting Actor nod for his extraordinary digital performance as Caesar. Whatever the outcome, there's still a lot of educating that needs to be done to sway the skeptical actors branch, which sometimes appears intimidated by computer technology.
That's why Serkis was in town this week and also the reason that co-star James Franco wrote such a passionate plea on his colleague's behalf:
"What is needed is recognition for him, now," Franco wrote. "Not later when this kind of acting is de riguer, but now, when he has elevated this fresh mode of acting into an art form. And it is time for actors to give credit to other actors… Caesar is not a character that is dependent on human forms of expression to deliver the emotion of the character: despite the lack of any human gestures, and maybe two or three words of human speech Caesar is a fully realized character, not human, and not quite ape; this is no Lassie and this is no Roger Rabbit, it is the creation of an actor doing something that I dare say no other actor could have done at this moment."
More importantly, Franco suggested that the interaction between the two on set enhanced his own performance: It was no different from any other live-action acting experience.
And that's what Serkis reiterated in a recent interview as well. "It's the first time a fellow actor has articulated so clearly what it's like to work with performance-capture and seeing it for what it is, which is really just another way of recording an actor's performance," he explained. "It's a 21st-century version of makeup and as the technology improves, it becomes more and more transparent and less invasive."
The debate is all about control -- whether the actor authors his or her performance. "In the talks that I do, I try to explain how actually the moment of authoring a performance using performance capture happens in exactly the same way as in live-action, i.e., on the set with the other actors and the director," Serkis continued. "You only move on from the scene when it's complete and the director feels he's got it emotionally -- and you've found it emotionally. So, at that point, you can say the performance is locked. And then the editing process begins -- way before visual effects are brought into the equation. So it's not a question of augmenting performance as such, or changing the intentions or the emotions of what's being created."
What’s changed as a result of Weta's new active-LED system used for "Apes" is that there are no longer any breaks in the capture sequences: "Every reaction, every emotion, every acting choice and beat happens there and then," Serkis emphasized.
Indeed, that's what happened when Serkis revisited Gollum after a 12-year absence for "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" (December 14). Shooting live on set provided a more dynamic sense of play in his scene with the young Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman). "The way we approached the scene was very much to treat it like a chamber-theater piece, where we could experiment and try different things out," Serkis explained. "Of course, the other significant change now is that we're using facial capture, so my facial muscles are driving the facial muscles of the digital puppet."
And what can we expect from the highly-anticipated sequel to "Rise of the Planet of the Apes"? "Obviously at the end of the last episode, humanity is in a very dangerous decline," he teased. "It'll be very interesting to see at what point during the ascension that we drop in. But the script's being written at the moment and it's all very fluid."
Besides Serkis’ impressive performance, "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" is also particularly Oscar-worthy for the movie’s sound editing and mixing, because Weta's CG simians required extra vocalization to communicate thought and emotion. To capture just the right tone, Fox recorded real chimpanzee vocals at the nonprofit Chimp Haven in Keithville, Louisiana.
"This is where chimpanzees retire after they're done with biomedical research, so it was a fitting place to go and record, since this movie is all about biomedical research," explained sound supervisor Chuck Michael, who handled the ape audio material, while John Larsen supervised the rest of the dialog and effects.
Michael also recorded Serkis’ vocals for several days like an ADR session, evolving Caesar’s vocalizations from infant stage to toddler, then adult and finally to a more intelligent adult. "At that point, we processed both the chimpanzee and human vocals to try and make them merge with each other," Michael added. "But the vocals take a transition from more animalistic to humanistic for Caesar. The biggest turning point is when he says, 'No.' So we lean heavily at that point toward the vocals that Andy did. We even decided to make his ape vocals a little more human-like as well."
Similar to the movie’s performance-capture technique, with the sound editing and mixing there's no disconnect at all between the actors.