4 Ways 'Planet of the Apes' Has Made Actors Obsolete
Four Cracked staffers recently went to see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. After drinking and talking about it for several hours, we came to one conclusion: We were going to need more drinks. Once we finished those, we came to another conclusion: Acting is no longer just an actor's craft. It's become a special effect.
This isn't necessarily a bad thing -- unless you're overly attached to the ancient craft of cinema as it's traditionally understood, like we are -- but it's pretty clear that Dawn's apes are doing to acting what Terminator 2's liquid metal robot did to practical effects like models, puppets, and guys blowing off mannequins' heads with shotguns. Don't believe us? Then how come ...
Actors Are Interchangeable Now (in Their Own Film)
Robert Evans: When I heard John Goodman was taking on a role in Transformers 4, I was excited, because every whisper of Goodman activity sends an almost (OK, entirely) sexual thrill down my spine. The actual performance was just ... bizarre, though. The tone of his voice almost never matched the actual tone of the scene, or the voices of other characters in the scene.
How do you even make a robot cigar?
It sounded like they'd just had Goodman record a few choice phrases and looped them into the movie at random. Sort of like how all the little units in StarCraft say stuff whenever you click them, or how fake John Madden announces video game football. Only it was a movie, and they're not allowed to pull that shit in a feature film, are they? Yup! Goodman joined the cast in May, a month before release.
But Transformers 4 was basically a bad cartoon. Planet of the Apes: This One has drawn praise from critics and fans alike. Oscars are going to happen because of this thing.
"Whatever. You guys once voted for Crash."
And it, too, treats actors like interchangeable blocks. For example: Judy Greer is technically in this movie.
She's an amazing voice actor, and at least a decent regular actor, so I was excited to see her in this movie, too. Only she wasn't in this movie, not really -- she doesn't say or do anything. But I guess they mapped her face for one of the ape ladies, and that was enough to slap her name on some marketing. We didn't even get one scene where Gary Oldman choked an ape-lady out, and I hope the Internet never forgives this movie for that.
Caesar (the ape faced by Andy Serkis) is actually the only familiar character from the first movie. And since his face is 98 percent digital makeup, it's only "familiar" in the broadest sense. No human actors carry over from the last Planet of the Apes movie. Weirdly enough, the summer's other blockbuster, Transformers 4, also purged every actor from the previous films in the series. This used to be the clearest sign of a disastrous sequel. But today it's cruise control for record profits.
Actors Don't Control Their Roles Anymore
Alex Schmidt: Serkis is one of the few actors returning for the new Apes movie. (This might be because he only ever plays apes.) And Serkis calls the results of performance capture "painting digital makeup onto actors' performances." He says ignore that binary blush, because "the authorship of performance -- everything you watch on screen that you feel and think about a character -- comes from the actor." He says his performance as Gollum was "fully acted," with mo-cap merely adding "an extra feel of reality." And he would know, because when it comes to techno-acting, it's not like Serkis is just some idiot.
"Oh yeah? Would an idiot wear THIS?"
It's also not like Serkis is correct. Because Randall William Cook, LOTR's director of animation, recently gave a blow-by-blow accounting of how Weta Workshop's 12-man team created parts of the Gollum performance themselves. What parts? Just minor stuff like performing all the original mo-cap for Serkis' Fellowship scenes for him (Serkis literally went through the motions about a year later). Also, the animators could completely change Gollum's blocking at any time. Or ignore Serkis' "too-busy facial performance" in key character scenes.
They did keep in the time he started masturbating on set.
That last choice was standard practice for the animators, because even by the third LOTR, their mo-cap tech wasn't advanced enough for facial capture. The team certainly tried to create visuals matching what they saw Serkis do on camera. But "even when we did reproduce Andy's expressions with perfect fidelity, Peter [Jackson] or Fran [Walsh] would direct the animators through two, three, 12, or more iterations, with the animators working directly for the director, refining a performance in Andy's absence."
"Did Andy come in today? Or did we key him out of reality again?"
And, remember, this is how animators handled a performance by the Daniel Day-Lewis of performance capture. What if you're an unknown mo-cappee becoming Wookie #7 or Navi #32 or Great Old One #[screaming], and the director doesn't quite love your everything? Yes, film editors have always impacted acting performances. Ideally they improve them while working hand-in-hand with the actor, and Weta's team clearly worked to do that with Serkis.
But in the past, if a performance choice wasn't there in the footage, the production team stuck with what the actor gave them or paid that actor a honey-wagon-load of cocaine and craft services bananas to do reshoots. Nowadays, if the new version of Kirk and Uhura sabotage a scene to defend racially harmonious smoochin', editors can turn that moment into a tepid hug without Chris or Zoe even knowing.
"Jesus between us, Lieutenant."
Genuinely Talented Performances Are Way Easier to Fake
David Christopher Bell: As we've tirelessly mapped out in the past, many of the tits-out acting jobs we've come to call classics were possible only through remarkable bullshitting, terrifying recklessness, or just plain laziness -- such as Marlon Brando's timeless portrayal in Apocalypse Now, which was completely rewritten on account of the "E" in Walter E. Kurtz standing for "elephantesque as fuck."
Compare that to Dawn, where when the director realized he botched a shot of Serkis at the end of the film, he just went ahead and Skyped him to redo it. Because, unlike a film that requires hours of makeup or location shooting, any given ape shot in this film could be reshot at the last minute with an iPad and some green dots.
"I just wear this 24/7 now."
Remember the tired cliche that anything in Hollywood can be "fixed in post"? This is actually that. And while there's no denying that Serkis is a great actor, imagine how many doors this opens for the Tara Reids and Hayden Christensens of the world.
Actor can't cry on command? Mo-cap someone who can and splice it in there. Can't remember their lines during a long take? Just do it in pieces and put it together in post. Next thing you know actors can have a Meryl Streep pedigree by splicing together multiple takes into one Frankenstein shot, swapping out bodies and expressions to create a perfectly natural human interaction. It's one thing for films like Tintin and Apes. It's another when we begin chopping up 2014 Nicolas Cage so much he turns into 1987 Nicolas Cage.
"Can you at least give me my hair back?"
Yup, We Prefer Digital Characters to Actors Now
J.F. Sargent: People are really good at finding ways to empathize with fake versions of real things: We started as cavemen, scrawling crude stick-figure versions of ourselves waving our junk at grizzly bears, and then a few centuries later we were creating cartoon characters that, while not exactly photo-realistic, were every bit as easy to empathize with as actual actors.
Unless, of course, you put those characters next to real people. That shatters the illusion: Your eye may not notice if Bugs Bunny's proportions don't really make sense or that a talking fish is acting like a complete dumbass unless you put them next to actual people and those tiny flaws become distractingly apparent. For a long time, mixing cartoon characters with real life was, at best, a cute novelty.
At worst, a fucking disaster.
Yet another movie that could have been improved by the English actor choking the character out.
But with Lord of the Rings and mo-cap technology taking off, the difference got a little muddier: Gollum was probably the first character with a big role that audiences would forget was actually digital. But even so, he wasn't the lead character, and if anyone was bothered by his vague air of unreality they could distract themselves with Elijah Wood's dreamy eyes, Viggo Mortensen's dreamy scruff, or Orlando Bloom's dreamy looking-kinda-like-me.
But now, with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the opposite is true: When critics review the movie, the No. 1 thing to praise is the acting performance of these apes -- even going so far as to say that the digital creatures are more emotive than the actual human actors on screen. Seriously, look at these quotes from four completely different reviews:
"Oldman nearly pops a hernia from hamming it up so hard, and Clarke's melancholy eyes are so perpetually moist in his admiration of the apes, you want to offer a tissue. The one truly great performance belongs to Serkis, whose Caesar is his most soulful motion-capture creation yet. [...] when it comes to who does the better acting, the apes carry the day."
"The fact that Malcolm has his wife and girlfriend hanging around could be absolutely irritating if the trio were given much more screen time [...] He [Caesar] gets across entire pages worth of monologue with just one look, a curl of the lip, a raising of an eyebrow."
"Serkis' digital character conveys more emotion than many of the human actors around him, and the overall use of CG for the apes won't have you pining for the days of physical costumes."
"Monkey see, monkey do better acting job than human."
When a digital character can appear next to a real human and we find the digital character more convincing, it's only a matter of time before all conversation about what actor is best for a role is moot. Instead of searching for the perfect actor to play James Bond, we'll just digitally re-create Sean Connery on a laptop and hire Serkis to do the mo-cap. Instead of casting Eliza Doolittle for a My Fair Lady remake, we just resurrect an Audrey Hepburn that doesn't look like a walking wetmare and hire Serkis to do the mo-cap.
And instead of terminators, Skynet just builds a more charismatic presidential candidate.
Then builds a flesh-puppet out of Serkis' corpse for the mo-cap.