All Hail Caesar and His Empire!

Something is changing at a grass-roots level, even if the Hollywood establishment don’t quite seem ready to accept it. On Sunday night at the 2015 Jameson Empire Awards, the film awards voted for entirely by the public, Andy Serkis was bestowed Best Actor for his masterful performance in DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES.

So, it’s another award for a hard-working actor, so why is this such a big deal? Well, it’s the first real acknowledgement of the motion-captured performances fronted by Serkis, among others for the last fifteen years or so, as a credible mode of acting. Mo-cap is big business to today’s film industry, playing a major part in many of the biggest blockbusters on the planet, from LORD OF THE RINGS to AVATAR and the upcoming AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON and STAR WARS: EPISODE VII. It is only through this technological breakthrough, through this harmonious relationship between actors and animators, that it has been possible to bring some of the most memorable screen characters of the last decade to life.

It’s still a hot debate amongst industry professionals how best to categorise motion capture. Is it merely an extension of an actor’s performance, “digital makeup” (as Serkis would argue) or is it just as much down to the army of technicians as the person in the leotard in front of the camera? You clearly can’t dismiss the months of work SFX artists put in, but at the same time a performer like Andy Serkis’ personality and facial expressions always come through, whether he’s playing ape, corrupted hobbit or cartoon alcoholic seaman. It’s a massive grey area in short, and this is used as an excuse for why Serkis, who mostly does this kind of acting, has been completely ignored at awards ceremonies so far.

It’s entirely appropriate that it was the readers of Empire Magazine who have made this happen. The real movie audiences have told the industry what really made an impact on them, which cinematic experiences actually matter. Even if we’re a few years away from a motion-captured performance even being nominated for, let alone winning, an Oscar, this might be the first sign of momentum in that direction. It’s widely believed that it was the Academy’s much-derided snubbing of THE DARK KNIGHT (for being, technically, a superhero film) that lead to the increased number of Best Picture nominees, so maybe Hollywood’s grand jury might take note again of what is happening in their industry. We should at least see a new category for this type of performance if those who get to decide this sort of thing still don’t see it as real acting (needless to say a hugely backward view to have).

You might argue this isn’t a major landmark. It was just the Empire Awards after all, broadcast not on TV but via YouTube and the Empire’s own blog. Empire magazine is just the biggest film-focussed publication in the UK, with a massive fan-base worldwide both within the industry and out. Audiences have spoken as one. Great waves start out as ripples after all, and the film industry has likely taken note of the current direction of the tide. SSP

About Sam Sewell-Peterson

I'm not paid to write about film - I do it because I love it. Favourites include Sam Mendes, Guillermo del Toro, Bong Joon-ho, Steven Spielberg, Danny Boyle, Spike Jonze, Rian Johnson and the Coen Brothers. All reviews and articles are original works owned by me. They represent one man's opinion, and I'm more than happy to engage in civilised debate if you disagree.
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