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AwardsIdeas/Commentarymotion capture

This Award Season, Andy Serkis Has Found New Ways To Disrespect Animators

Wired published a video recently in which Andy Serkis managed to explain the development of motion capture without ever once mentioning the role of animators in the process.

This behavior is nothing new for Serkis, the actor who has performed animated characters such as Gollum, King Kong, and most recently Caesar in the Planet of the Apes franchise. He has been on a years-long public relations quest to convince the general public that he generates his animated performances entirely by himself. For anyone who even remotely understands the animation process, it is a blatant lie – one so preposterous that it has even been the subject of Youtube parodies.

At this point, the Serkis strategy is nakedly obvious: he believes that in order to be honored by acting peers, he must convince everyone that he is the sole author of animated performances. By extension, it means he must convince people that animators and digital artists play no creative role in the character creation process.

In the past, he has used false analogies, like comparing the work of animators to “digital makeup,” implying that animators only enhance/touch-up his performance in the manner of a traditional makeup artist, but don’t actually contribute to a character’s creation.

In the latest video, he goes one step further, completely eliminating animators from the film’s production process. Instead, he makes the bizarre new claim that animators are part of the post-production process, saying, “The task in post-production is always going to be that ability to take the actor’s performance and actually interpolate that performance, while also retaining it but also putting it onto the physiognomy of an ape.”

Both “digital makeup” and “post-production” are deliberate misrepresentations of what happens after Serkis pulls off his performance capture suit. Cartoon Brew, in fact, published an in-depth piece last summer that looked at Weta Digital’s production process for War for the Planet of the Apes.

What is made abundantly clear in that piece is that, although the essence of the performance may belong to Serkis, the final character and performance that appears onscreen represents the creative contributions of dozens of digital artists and animators. It is both a remarkable creative and technical achievement, for which many authors deserve credit.

While there is no way to compel Serkis to stop his self-mythologizing deception, there is one solution and that is for the artists themselves to hold Serkis accountable.

Each time Serkis has neglected to credit his creative collaborators, more and more of them have spoken out. In the past, Serkis’ sole authorship has been questioned by Randall William Cook, the animation supervisor on The Lord of the Rings trilogy, who called any suggestion that Serkis was entirely responsible for the performance of Gollum a “misrepresentation of the facts.”

The latest Wired video drew a rebuke from another unlikely source: Ahmed Best, the actor who performed Jar Jar Binks in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Best likely wouldn’t have become entangled in this debate except that in the video, Serkis not only attempted to distort the production process of his own films, but to rewrite the entire history of performance capture, erasing important people from the development of the technique.

Early on in the video, a visual timeline of the development of motion capture is displayed that jumps from motion capture in medical industry usage circa 1983 to The Lord of the Rings in 2001. Serkis’ accompanying narration suggests that nothing significant happened with the technique during that two-decade gap except for the advancement of mo-cap in videogames. That assertion, as so many other Serkis statements, is entirely false.

In a Twitter thread, Best corrected Serkis’ revisionist history, and in the process showed that it’s not that difficult to give credit to one’s creative collaborators:

  • You’re objecting to his using the term “post-production”? Refinement of motion-capture data literally happens after the video shoot (aka. in post-production). In an animation project, animators might consider themselves part of “production,” but in a live action project, “production” is considered to take place on set, and “post-production” is considered to take place after the shoot completes. Since most people would consider Planet to be a “live action” film, and animation occurred after the shoot, it follows that animation would be considered post-production. Even if some see it differently, you can hardly call it a mis-representation.

    While not in this video, Andy Serkis’s use of the term “digital make-up” could be interpreted in different ways. I think he used it as an analogy to inform people that his performance is still the center of the character’s onscreen performance (even though it’s covered/enhanced by “digital makeup”). It’s an analogy, so it’s inherently imperfect. You can always find some faults in an analogy. That doesn’t mean it’s a “lie.” If you consider that he used the analogy to simplify and explain a complex process to people unfamiliar with the process, I think it’s a reasonable analogy.

    • Marie

      Post production means anything that happens after the actual frames you are going to see on the screen are created. We don’t see Andy Serkis on screen. VFX animation is creating what you see on the screen so its a part of the production process. In this case of a VFX movie, post production would be rendering the frames, editing, and compositing.

      Either way, you’re missing the point, which is not to argue over semantics. The objection is to his INTENTION which is to take credit for the performance of a character that involves many people other than just himself.

      • KnickKnackMyWack

        VFX is just another word for post-production. There is nothing disrespectful, let alone offensive in Serkis using that terminology. Mountains out of molehills.

  • jawsnnn

    I totally get the criticism about not mentioning the animators as a key component of the creative process. But can someone educate me about what’s wrong with his statement about post production. It was my understanding that motion capture happens during shooting of the film and CG, sound design etc… is generally called post. Is that incorrect?
    I understand that it is kinda nonsensical to call it post these days when shooting wraps up pretty quickly and everything else takes months to complete… But I haven’t heard it called anything else.

    • jd vfx guy

      The problem is that the most important aspects of the Character result are models(sculpting artists),texturing(painting, digital grooming artists), animators(the motion capture data gets adjusted heavily by the animators after the shot, so much so, that the animator is also acting),lighting and compositing artists(digital photographers). You can replace the mocap actor and get the same results, but you can’t replace the fact that you need a team of artists to make the other parts of the character asset. This is going to be a bold statement but……. ANYONE can mo-cap act like a chimp, only few people can make a chimp in CG.

      With that said, I can understand the frustration of an industry constantly trying to downplay the ARTISTRY behind the VFX you see. It is always marketed as the Actors and the Computers….

      • skent

        I would dispute your assertion that “ANYONE” can do the mo-cap actors job, or that you can replace the actor and get the same results. It’s like any number of things that ‘anyone’ can do. Raw talent, education, skill and creativity make all the difference in the world.

        However they certainly don’t need expensive name actors doing this kind of work. They could put in their afternoon session in the recording studio and call it a day.

        • movieguylikesmovies

          It is true that you know when non-actors (or actors who don’t understand the outputs of mocap) are used for example in video game cut scenes – it doesn’t hold up or sell the emotion or scene – acting is acting.

  • Schadenfreude

    I always felt that a lot of mocap was done because live action filmmakers absolutely detest being associated with animation. Certainly, Mr. Serkis has managed to eek a living- hell, even land a directing job, purely because of this fact. Nothing I’ve seen on screen- from Jar Jar to the Navi and absolutely everything that Mr. Serkis has done, couldn’t have been done just as successfully (in some cases probably way better) completely by hand. This is a salve so a director can direct one (preferably famous) person rather than having to deal with 100’s of smelly animators. Not only do they get to hang out with someone famous (Mocap of Benedict Cumberwhatever was essential to the creation of Smaug was it? Was it really??), but Hollywood gets to sex it up to sell to audiences who, let’s face it, would much rather hear Brad Pitt talk about how he used the method to “become” a talking spoon or whatever, than watch some pasty animator drone on and on. I say audiences, I mean producers. I so wish that the studio responsible for the effects on Serkis’s upcoming jungle book cash grab would do as little as he suggests they do. Just render the raw Mocap you guys! Given how gamers reacted when Mass Effect Andromeda did that earlier this year, we’d be in for some epically funny gifs.

    • andydv

      Agreed…sadly it just comes down to marketing to the masses. Same reason they cast flavor-of-the-month celebs for animation voiceover work instead of professional voiceover artists. Same reason every talk show is dominated by well-coiffed actors describing the inner pain they endured for 2 weeks on set, instead of the chubby balding gremlins that worked on the picture for 2 years. Nevertheless, it’s one thing when it comes from the marketing dept. at Universal, and another when it comes from someone like Serkis who has been in the weeds with the animators and should know better.

    • Taco

      Mr Serkis should learn to be far more humble a thespian. I’ve said it before, but here it is again. Andy, remember that in every single frame of every famous movie you’ve ever worked on, that you were erased from the screen and replaced by a digital character that hundreds of artists created, labored on and edited to improve upon the raw data you provided. You are part of a bigger team my man, and within the context of that team… you are a glorified reference footage performer.

    • ToonBoom_Animator

      From what I understand, they used approximately 0% of Benedict Cumberbatch’s mocap for Smaug. It was all keyframe animation because the proportions are just so different there’s no way to match any of the data they recorded to the Smaug rig.

      So my question is, why spend all that money on mocap equipment and such if they’re just going to toss that data? It would have been just as effective for them to shoot video reference of Cumberbatch and give that to the animators for inspiration. The mocap bit seems like a waste of money but hey, they had a $200+ million budget to burn so… I guess they can afford it?

      I have nothing against live-action directors wanting to direct actors live on a stage or whatever for voiceover roles. It helps the voice actor get more into the role and they can all interact with each other naturally. And at the same time, it gives the live-action director something tactile to work with and the animators get some great video reference out of it. Live-actors get to act in a more natural environment and the animators get to animate without being bogged down with fixing crappy mocap data. It’s a win-win for everybody!

      They did something like that on Rango which I thought turned out great! I think Wes Anderson did something similar on Fantastic Mr. Fox too.

      Yet I didn’t see Gore Verbiniski or Wes Anderson trying to give the live-actors all the credit on those movies… they gave just as much credit to the animators which is a very rare thing now-a-days. I wish more directors would follow their example.

  • I can’t decide if I’m mad or not after reading the comments beneath mine.

  • Chicken McPhee

    Serkis has foot-in-mouth disease. He’s trying to legitimize his career as a serious actor, regardless who he has to step on to make that happen, simple as that. The animators are as much part of production as he is.

  • ToonBoom_Animator

    I always find it funny that Serkis’ most famous character, Gollum, had barely any mocap used at all. From what I heard most of the mocap they used was thrown out in favor of key frame animation. Or it was heavily augmented. Same with Kong.

    The most famous scene people talk about of Gollum, the one where he’s talking to himself by the pond, had ZERO mocap used. That was all animated by hand using video reference of Serkis. It’s even talked about on the Two Towers DVD set, yet everyone seems to think that scene was motion captured. Go figure.

    I also know for a fact that that scene in Rise of the Planet of the Apes where Caesar is banging on the glass was mostly key frame animated. The one that they show in the video lol. I believe the animator used mocap on the spine and then animated the rest. So the face, arms, little details that make that scene great was done by the animator. It’s no different then an animator using live action reference, it’s just a digital version of that. You take what’s useful and toss the rest if it doesn’t work.

  • Anonymous

    I’ve worked on 2 features that used mo-cap and every crew had animators fixing the capture after the capture process. The truth is it’s not perfect.

    • Mr Chatterbox

      It’s not even just reducing it to fixing Mocap. The whole point in doing it these characters digitally is so that you can constantly tweak the output until you are evoking the emotion you wish to create on screen. The magic (or your personal hell) of being able to fix it in post. The actor is the clay, from there all the blend shapes are made, the fur is then taken into account and the model adjusted to reflect this, the skin movement is then added with slide and bulge, then there’s tension maps to push blood colour in the SSS. These are just a few of the processes and they all have to work seamlessly as one for the final image to work. When the director asks you to remove those birds because they’re distracting, he’s just as likely to say, Serkis didn’t really hit what I wanted there or the mocap didn’t reflect what I want so can we add more intensity to the eyes, give him/her a larger grin or tone down (in serkis’s case) the reaction a bit so it fits around the actors on set in the edit. All these things need to be considered and none of these require Serkis once he’s taken off his suit. He’s belittling the process!

  • Jack Rabbit

    It’s a stretch for him to see himself in any of these creatures. They wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the animators work on his performance. Why does he think they are any less than what they are?

  • Gibabite

    Well…Serkins seems to know how to sell his job pretty well and to have a bit of an ego…good on him, but apart from that i think there is not such a big drama with all this…He speaks about the post-production process as a whole which is what most of the people whatching this video will care about. Would it be more correct if Serkins mentions animators but not modellers, texture artists, matchmovers, layout TDs, rigging TDs, groom dep, lighting artists, R&D, etc, etc?…probably not, Vfx are made by huge teams where no one is that important, not even animators

  • skent

    Kudos to Ahmed Best for giving credit where it’s due.

    Although as an unpopular character, one might have thought Jar Jar would be an ‘orphan’. (the old saying ‘success has a thousand fathers, …”)

  • Aidan Martin

    Here’s a bit of devils advocate for you.
    I’ve worked on projects where Andy Serkis was involved and I don’t credit him on my Reel so why should I expect him to credit me? He no longer actively denies and talks against our involvement. He has moved to omitting that we (Animators and Motion Editors) were ever there.
    Should I be offended? By all accounts he’s a friendly and personable guy in the flesh and he’s a couple steps closer to getting his name engraved on an Oscar than I ever will be.
    Personally I don’t feel entitled to be given credit by Andy Serkis nor do I think his acknowledgment is worth anything. What would be the outcome of him dropping a kind word our way? We’d think slightly more favorable thoughts about him. Does he want or need that?
    I don’t get the sense that anyone outside the industry has a clue what he’s talking about anyway. I still get asked how I ‘draw’ inside the computer.

  • Vision

    Mocap technology has been invented to allow the film director to improvise with actors on set and achieve the blocking “on the fly”, something which is hard to achieve in contemporary digital films where previs usually dictate the shot design. Animators are key and will always be in the years to come because the mocap alone can’t offer a complete performance, not yet. Stating that mocap substitutes the animator’s task is a lie as it is stating that mocap was invented because filmmakers detest being associated with animation. Filmmakers want their films done; they don’t care about what technique is used once their vision is brought on screen.

  • I realize that Cartoon Brew has well earned beef with Andy over the issue of credit to animators, but I feel like this article misrepresents what that Wired video is actually supposed to be. I don’t see either Wired or Andy claiming its a definitive history of motion capture or any direct slight or disrespect towards animators. It’s supposed to be a history of his work in the field and probably fishing for an Oscar nom for the latest Planet of the Apes, so of course they started with Gollum and focused on Andy!

    This is an all-too common problem in the business. It’s not specific to animators. For example, everybody has been raving about the look of the new Thor movie and much of the media credits it to the involvement of Taika Waititi. Almost none of those pieces mentioned Marvel’s top-notch in-house visual development team or the great Dan Hennah, all of whom no doubt did most of the heavy lifting in terms of designing its look (to Marvel’s credit, it recently promoted a piece about Dan’s work on its site and Kevin Feige frequently mentions the contributions of Marvel’s designers when he does interviews).

    I’ve personally worked in puppetry more than animation and I’ve noticed a predictable phenomenon where certain puppeteers achieve a level of success and then seem to become embarrassed by it. When they start getting media attention they protest that what they REALLY are is an actor, as if they don’t want to be sullied by what they perceive to be a “lesser” art form (and the thing that brought them to the dance in the first place!). I suspect a similar thing is going on here…it’s less to do it with disrespecting animators and more to do with media ignorance, a performer’s personal insecurities and the unfortunate mechanics of the business.

  • Trina Ewing

    When have animators ever gotten national recognition? I mean in the same respect as actors do anyway. This article seems to be nitpicking. Contrary to what some may think, only good actors can pull off an animated roll. The animators no doubt play a huge part but if the actor playing that animated roll sucks. Then it can completely takes away from the creative animation. I never thought in a million years an animated character could be a bad actor/actress. However, they really do exist. For example, Twilight Saga, there was nothing wrong with the wolf animation but bad actors made the wolves seem cheat and unnatural. I think that is why Serkis is making it a point to let people know it is his performance as an actor making these characters come to life.

  • Klyph14

    The solution to all of this has always been to make a featurette that shows EXACTLY what the animators get from the mo-cap data. Then show a side by side of what the raw mo-cap looks like and what the final animation looks like. I don’t know why an animator hasn’t made a ‘reel’ of this to defend their importance to the project. If you show those two things side by side anyone with eyes who doesn’t understand how any of this is made can see “This looks like this, and then I make it look like this”.