As we wait to see whether Andy Serkis will become the first actor to receive an acting Oscar nomination for a motion capture performance next week, this week’s release of “Haywire” raises some interesting questions about who really gives the performance. Serkis provided the movements and expressions for the ape Caesar in “Rise of Planet of the Apes” and is considered the most talented actor working in motion capture today. He also played Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” and Captain Haddock in “The Adventures of Tintin.” As the technology improves so that the slightest and subtlest expressions can be captured, it it is the actor, not the computer programmer or animator, who is primarily responsible for the performance. It is quite an advance over the then-state of the art masks used in the earlier “Apes” films.
The Hollywood Reporter story quotes “Haywire” star Gina Carano was asked about having her voice altered by director Steven Soderburgh.
“Steven Soderbergh wanted Mallory Kane to be a completely different entity than Gina Carano,” she explained. “So he definitely went in and I went in to AVR [electronic alteration] and he did some tweaking.” But Carano, who starred opposite Channing Tatum and Ewan McGregor, clarified that,”even though it may not sound exactly like me, there are still parts of me that are in there.”
Meryl Streep and Leonardo DiCaprio had their faces dramatically altered with make-up and prosthetics for their performances as Margaret Thatcher and J. Edgar Hoover. It does not take away from their skill as artists to say that this contributed to their performances, not only to our ability to see them disappear into the roles but their ability as actors to lose themselves in the characters. And movies have always employed tricks, including capturing real-life surprises that lead us to think we are seeing the character’s reaction when it is really the actor’s. For example, in a famous scene in “Roman Holiday,” Gregory Peck played a real-life joke on his co-star Audrey Hepburn. Their characters were putting their hands in the mouth of a fountain that was said to bite off the hands of liars. He pretended his hand had been bitten off and the look on her face is all Audrey, not the princess she was portraying. And she won an Oscar.
Our understanding of what it means to act and to perform must evolve as the technology blurs the line between the actor and the other elements that contribute to what we see and hear. When does the technology function to enhance the performance and when does it become the performance of the technician?