Archive for Andy Serkis

Sudden Chimp Act

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , on July 28, 2014 by dcairns

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Fiona is to blame for dragging me to see DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES but to be fair I did enjoy the previous film in the series. It’s a thoughtful study of revolution (evolution being too slow for Hollywood), showing the painful necessity to throw off one’s oppressors and the violence that results. The climactic battle is both terrible and exhilarating.

Unfortunately, DOTPOTA is not as thoughtful as ROTPOTA, though it would like to be. The screenwriters of the first film pretty much set up this sequel in the first film — what else could it be about but a battle between more or less evenly matched human and ape forces — this makes it both closer to the J. Lee Thompson BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES than ROTPOTA was to any of the previous ape films, and means the moviemakers have a challenge to stave off predictability. Unfortunately, the original writers have been rewritten on this one, and the resulting scenario plays out as something much mucked-about-with. Major characters (the woman, the kid) have incomplete, trailing character arcs — they disappear from the action when no longer needed. There are lots of scenes with no dramatic content at all, which are supposed to be character-building but just consist of sedentary figures exchanging backstories. And in terms of body count, there are no casualities that mean anything, no losses that the audience can truly regret. This weakens the anti-war message — though not as badly as the ending, where the quest for a bad-ass one-liner for Caesar results in him making the kind of statement one associates with Nazism, denying that his enemy is a member of his species.

As in Tim Burton’s happy idiot version, the bad ape is the whole show: Toby Kebbell is far more ape-like “as” Koba than the anthropomorphized chimp-lite “played” by Andy Serkis. This is also somewhat problematic, since we have a film that wants to preach tolerance but the bad guy is convincingly “other” and the good guy is made to be more like us. It’s like making a civil rights drama with Michael Jackson as hero and, I dunno, Bill Duke as villain.

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Visually, the film does have pleasures — the animated apes look generally photographically real most of the time, a major advance on the previous movie (and they get more screen time and there are more of them) and director Matt Reeves pulls a couple of neat tricks — a long-take hand-held hide-and-seek in City Hall (though it’s not as impressive as a similar extended shot in True Detective) and a 360 from a rotating tank turret that almost made me wish I’d shelled out for 3D. But it’s actually a surprise when these tour-de-force moments appear late in the day, since the coverage has been rather conventional until these points.

Since the sequel to the prequel/reboot is more of an action movie, it helps that it has a more effective human lead than James Franco, whose character had to pretty much fail at everything he attempted, and couldn’t even fail valiantly. Here, Jason Clarke gets to put his life on the line for the sake of peace, early on: a striking, genuinely heroic and noble act which buys him quite a lot of credit in my book. Unfortunately, he doesn’t get a single memorable line or unusual, human reaction to the crazy situations he finds himself in, and his backstory is vague and uninvolving: bereaved, like all the humans, but not of anyone we can picture or care about. This wooliness about all the emotional ties that are supposed to matter to the characters stacks the shooty-gun side of the film way higher than the touchy-feely side. I didn’t feel ANYTHING, and actually the previous movie is very emotional — almost unbearable at times.

Here are Fiona’s thoughts, via her own word-writings –

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THE SCIENCE BIT!

Those were David’s word-writings, transposed from his very own brain, now here’s my chimpcentric (They take up most of the screen time. Sorry gorillas and orangs) opinion as the Shadowplayhouse’s resident armchair primatologist. And that may be the reason why my response to the film was not quite as ecstatic as I’d hoped. The writers have cherry-picked the facts they wanted and disregarded everything else. I don’t really blame the film-makers for this. In order to be scientifically accurate  the film would have to be an 18 and not a piece of science fiction. It’s already a pretty intense 12A, but some of the stuff they’ve omitted has nothing to do with the certification.

Let’s start with the almost complete absence of female characters. With the exceptions of the character I like to call ‘Mrs Caesar’ and Keri Russell’s ‘Ellie’, who makes up the numbers of the  thoroughly  anaemic human population of this film. ‘Mrs Caesar’ actually has a name, Cornelia, but we never hear it, nor does she communicate verbally, and I think I know the reason why she literally has no voice. Female chimps’ vocalisations are pretty much the same as male chimps’ vocalisations: Low and guttural. In the 1950’s an experiment was done to try to teach a very young female chimp, Viki, to speak a few simple words of English. This is what she sounded like.

I believe the film-makers were afraid this would provoke laughter so they decided to avoid it completely. There’s some evidence that Cornelia originally had a larger role in the film. A publicity still of her wearing a bizarre, twigs and berries headpiece (Actually, it’s not so bizarre. Just before the films release a story broke about a group of chimpanzees who’d started wearing twigs as ornamentation, just for ornamentation’s sake!) was circulating on the web and the fact they cast a well know voice actor in the part. I’m convinced there were many more scenes involving her that were cut to make room for more action. The females we are aware of are a group tending to Cornelia during her illness. We know they’re female because their vocalisations are higher pitched, like Monty Python’s Pepperpot Women.  This doesn’t bode well for the sequel. Are all the female characters to be denied a voice?

In the film itself they’re certainly denied a voice about what’s going on in their group. While female chimps do tend to be dominated by males, they are not completely powerless. In fact they have a hierarchy of their own and can influence who the Alpha Male is by siding with one particular male over another. Koba is patently an absolutely terrible leader and some females may have wanted to stay loyal to Caesar, or indeed, a completely different chimp. It’s all very convenient to send them off to the forests with the kids when the going gets tough and the tough get going.

Females  are actually a very important part of the group dynamic. Males are very attached to their mothers and even in adulthood will go back to her for comfort (sound familiar?) when distressed. In reality, Blue Eyes, Caesar’s son, would be more likely to be hanging around the sickbed, fretting about his old mum, rather than out and about being taught how to hunt deer. Although to give the film its due, chimpanzees in the wild do collectively hunt monkeys and even use sticks as spear-like implements. Another thing it gets right, is the inter-generational acquisition of sign language. Amazingly, this has already happened. Washoe, one of the first signing chimps, taught her adopted son, with no human assistance.

I think it’s shameful that we have to hark back to the 60’s original for a strong female character. Zira absolutely rocked: intelligent, feisty and funny, she was a major character in the ensemble. And speaking of ‘funny’. At no point do we see any of the apes having much fun before the combat starts. No playing, no chasing, no tickling ,no hugging, no grooming, no kissing, and most egregiously, no laughing (Koba does some mock laughing in order to deceive humans, but that doesn’t count). Yes, apes laugh, they have a sense of humour and love being playful. They also lie, so Koba’s statement that human’s “lie”, indicating an understanding of the concept, is entirely believable, as proved in the infamous sign language experiments started in the 60s. The film itself is strangely devoid of moments of humor that would really help lift it. Although I loved Keri Russell’s, “Try not to speak,” to the injured Caesar. A wonderfully self knowing bit of dialogue that NO-ONE in the cinema laughed at.

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To balance things out again, there’s a great moment where Jason Clarke (Malcolm) is forced onto his knees by the other apes, while in the presence of Caesar. This is textbook subordinate behaviour to a superior. But Malcolm keeps on getting up again! Foolish human. But they don’t cry. Oh, chimps have tear ducts to lubricate the eye but they are incapable of crying ‘emotional’ tears. That does not mean they do not feel sadness. “Human lies!” again. In fact we may be the only species on earth to weep in response to emotion. There’s anecdotal evidence that elephants cry for the same reasons we do but it hasn’t been properly established.

What has been established is that bonobos are not violent war-mongers. Luckily, at no point in the film, do we learn that Koba, the stand-out character who rides off with the film, on horseback with guns blazing, is meant to be one. He doesn’t look like one and he doesn’t behave like one. Bonobos are extremely rare and have NEVER been used in medical experimentation, thus making a nonsense of his primary motivation, hatred for all humans due to their mistreatment of him in the labs. In reality bonobos have a matriarchal society where conflict is resolved via sex.  Bonobos are too busy making love to make war. They do have a darker side, and aggressive skirmishes can break out, but not to the extent of chimpanzees and humans, who organize armies and are murderously territorial. And yet, I got a massive vicarious thrill from watching Koba seethe, scream and generally create chaos; firing two automatic weapons at the same time, ‘manning’ a tank machine gun turret and baring his huge, intimidating fangs at anyone and everything. Was he unleashing my inner ape? Or does it suggest that I have some all too human issues? Only my subconscious and possibly David hold the key to those questions.

Something else I observed was that the meaning of the palm-stroking gesture, asking for permission in the first film, has been amended to one of appeasement or acceptance. So someone out there was listening to what the experts had to say. But not enough in my opinion! To conclude, DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is a brave, but not entirely successful attempt to inject some intelligence into the summer blockbuster. It’s dark, emotional and tries to be about something important. The Apes series has always been about holding up a mirror to OUR society. Look at what’s happening in Gaza.  And hopefully, thanks to its quite astonishing melding of animation and performance, never again will we see them being used on film for the purpose of entertaining humans. If it helps achieve that, then it will have done much to alleviate the suffering of our closest genetic neighbours on this planet.  Because we are primates too.

Digital Break-Up

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on May 17, 2014 by dcairns

Animator Randall William Cook became a Shadowplayer some years back, we eventually met at the late, great Ray Harryhausen’s birthday celebrations, co-authored a screenplay together, and Randy and his lovely wife Dom put Fiona & I up (and put up with us) when we were in LA. Randy was also best man/photographer/driver at our celebrity wedding, at which we were the only non-celebrities. So I asked Randy if I could reprint this essay when it appeared on Facebook. In it, he attempts to clarify the whole motion capture controversy. A lot of people are unaware that there IS a controversy, they’ve just heard about this marvelous new technology that allows filmmakers to turn actors into animated characters without the aid of animators. As with most things, it’s a bit more complicated than that… The piece originally appeared at Cartoon Brew.

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Andy Serkis has been throwing the term “Digital Makeup” around again, and causing some pretty fervid reactions as a result. He has his detractors and defenders, among them animators and motion capture editors, people who have met Andy and found him a nice bloke, people who are interested in the art of animation or the in art of acting or in both. But so far I have seen nothing from anybody who was in the trenches and actually worked on Gollum, so I suppose it’s time I weighed in on the matter.

My name’s Randall William Cook, and I was the Director of Animation on the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy.

I worked very closely with Andy. We met on the Mt. Ruapehu location in 1999 and began theorizing about what Gollum was all about (while Gollum was described as “schizophrenic”, I viewed the character as a drug addict trying to re-connect with his supply, a tack which Andy endorsed). We hung out on and off set, rafted together through the Waitomo Glowworm Caves, worked together on set during the live action filming (occasionally with me directing scenes Peter Jackson and I had prepared together), all the while on the trail of the elusive Gollum.

The discussion on this page seems to be focusing upon several points. Is Andy a good actor? I think so. He’s certainly versatile (I had the pleasure of directing him, in his on-camera incarnation, when he played his death scene in Peter’s KING KONG remake). Is he a nice bloke? Well, we have been guests in each other’s homes, attended countless social functions together and generally enjoyed each other’s company and respected each other’s talent. I don’t like hearing him called names, though I can understand the high emotions which lead some to do so. But all that is irrelevant to the real issue. When Andy uses the term “Digital Makeup”, he asserts that the on-screen depiction of Gollum is a 100% faithful representation of an Andy Serkis acting performance. This is, frankly, a misrepresentation of the facts.

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As I have no personal experience of the “performance capture” particulars of any of Andy’s work post-RINGS, I cannot offer an opinion on what he has been up to since RETURN OF THE KING. But let me swear to you here that Gollum was not solely an Andy Serkis performance, with Andy’s every move, gesture and tic scrupulously reproduced in a new, digital character. Rather, Gollum was a synthesis, a collaborative performance delivered by both Andy and a team of highly-skilled animation artists.

Please permit me to cite a few examples, in defense of my heretical assertions.

THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING carried a single card credit, which declared “Andy Serkis as GOLLUM”. This was a bit of contractually-dictated press puffery which didn’t accurately reflect Andy’s participation in that first film. Fact is, Andy’s physical participation in the first film was nonexistent. The first shot, Gollum alone in his cave, was my idea: Peter needed a shot of Gollum to play under the narration, and several ideas were posited. I thought that we needed a book illustration image, something that captured Gollum in a simple image. I acted out Gollum, crouched on a rock in a subterranean lake, obsessing over his Precious, looking around in paranoia for enemies who weren’t there, and Peter bought that approach. I directed Weta Workshop’s Ben Hawker in a mocap session, then animated on top of that (our 12-animator team was pretty busy, so I actually animated a bit on that show, myself). The next shot was a roto-mation job of Gollum’s hands as he was being tortured; a nice makeup job, shot live action (Sasha Lees’ hands made up, I believe), was compromised by jiggly rubber fingers, so the animation department copied the actor’s movements. Mike Stevens animated the shot of Gollum following the Fellowship in Moria, then I animated the two close shots of Gollum, his fingers nervously twitching as he watches the Fellowship through a grate. One mo-cap shot, one roto-mation shot, and three keyframe shots. Andy’s only participation: muttering the word “precious” over one of the shots I’d already animated.

The first Gollum scene filmed, in fact, was made as “weather cover” (an interior shot on a stand-by set, kept ready for when the weather turns foul, forbidding exterior filming). Though the first shot up, it was for the third film: a mountain top was built inside a nearby hotel’s tennis court, and scenes were filmed with Frodo and Sam and Gollum. Gollum pulls Frodo up on a ledge, Gollum frames Sam with Lembas crumbs, Gollum and Sam fight. As Andy was not yet in New Zealand, I was elected to put on a leotard and stand in for Gollum. No photos exist of me in the getup, but let me assure you I looked a fine example of masculine grace and beauty. Really. A year or so later, Andy did a mo-cap session, basically reproducing my choreography. And Steven Hornby and others keyframed some of the shots from scratch as well.

TWO TOWERS saw much more involvement from Andy. Several examples from that film. Gollum, after he has been tamed and led along on a rope, is released and scampers up onto a rock, showing the hobbits where they must go. This was filmed with Andy squatting on a rock. Sam and Frodo come up to him, Sam and Gollum have a staring contest, and Sam backs down. It bothered me that Sam was turning his back on Gollum, which seemed out of character, so back in Wellington I directed animator Atsushi Sato to have Gollum break his look, and precede Sam out of the shot. This isn’t Digital Makeup, this isn’t a “technical” chore, this is an acting choice. And it wasn’t Andy’s idea, but mine. And it was Atsushi Sato who “played” that moment, not Andy. It was a decision within my purview as Animation Director and Peter signed off on it.

Gollum hears the name Smeagol for the first time in 500 years. We used Andy’s body mocap, but I didn’t care for what I thought was Andy’s too-busy facial performance, so I told Adam Valdez to ignore it and animate something subtler. He animated two shots and Linda Johnson animated the third, and they created a memorable acting moment which did not “honor” Andy’s performance in the slightest. There were many times where we honored Andy’s performance to the letter, but this wasn’t one of ‘em.

That film ends with a long mo-cap take of Gollum soliloquizing. Jason Schleifer, Adam Valdez and Mike Stevens had much to do with the acting of this scene, as the animation task was split among them. We also changed the choreography on that one, having Gollum advance emphatically toward the camera, having him wrap his hands around a branch and twist, as he throttles a hobbit in his imagination. Again, acting choices courtesy of the Weta Animation Department.

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We stuck closer to Andy’s performance in the third film, and as the mo-cap was refined a good deal it was used more. There was never what we know as performance capture, however, in any of the films. Ditto facial capture, for Gollum; it was all keyframed. And even when we did reproduce Andy’s expressions with perfect fidelity, Peter or Fran would direct the animators through two, three, twelve or more iterations, with the animators working directly for the director, refining a performance in Andy’s absence. Collaborating on that performance, in fact.

I was honored to work on those films. Our Animation team was first rate, and I was proud to be associated with them (as well as the ones I mentioned, Melanie Cordan and Mary Victoria and many others brought their fine talents to bear in making Gollum act, through a superb facial system devised by Bay Raitt). They are artists, they can act, and they did all “perform” as Gollum to a greater or lesser degree. I don’t see the difference between a performance delivered by a great actor or a great animator (I refer you to Brad Bird’s films, or to TANGLED, if you think that an animator needs to lean on or be supplanted by an actor to give a moving performance).

Let me state that Andy really should be considered the principal author of Gollum’s performance, but there’s a hell of a difference between principal author and sole author. The Animators who helped shape Gollum’s performance are actors of a very special type, working at a high level of achievement. They’re not like Marni Nixon singing for Natalie Wood in WEST SIDE STORY, doing only the things that Andy couldn’t do: they were doing the same things Andy did, in concert with him, and significantly contributing to the realization of a memorable performance.

I can’t speak to the recent performances in Andy’s “performance-capture” career, but the animators on THE LORD OF THE RINGS were most certainly not “digital makeup artists”, and nobody has any business saying that they were.

Short People

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 21, 2012 by dcairns

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

“Shit just got unreal” was my Facebook comment on THE HOBBIT Part The First, which is perhaps a little unfair. The merits and demerits of the movie, the franchise, Peter Jackson the filmmaker and the faster frame rate and the RED camera all deserve a slightly more nuanced discussion than those four words.

I liked it better than Fiona! In some ways it has the same flaws as the LORD OF THE RINGS films before it, only amplified. And the 3D and 48 fps may be problematic in the same way that the digital effects in the STAR WARS prequels were problematic — they make the film seem less of a piece with its predecessors. But THE HOBBIT isn’t as bad as THE PHANTOM MENACE, let’s get that straight…

(Maybe Jackson should have shot at 24 and projected at 48, thereby making the film half as long?)

I enjoyed some of the action and settings, and the HFR probably allowed me to follow the fights and chase more readily than I could otherwise — Jackson tended to film too close in LORD OF THE RINGS, making close-up skirmishes dissolve into blurry chaos. Either because he’s improved or the technology has helped solve the issue, that didn’t happen here. I didn’t enjoy the performances as much. LOTR uses “epic acting,” big, bombastic, cod-Shakespearean and borderline campy, but much of it was done with skill and a kind of good taste. Here, I felt the usually reliable Ian McKellen was huffing and chuntering to himself too much, and he didn’t seem to have any other characters to talk to. Among the dwarves, Ken Stott, James Nesbitt and Aidan Turner managed to get some human interaction going with Martin Freeman’s Bilbo (some reality but too much schtick), the rest were basically flatulent garden gnomes. Richard Armitage doesn’t manage to make anything convincing or interesting out of Thorin Oakenshield’s bluster and grouch.

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

I’m told that McKellen had to act his scene at the dinner table with a bunch of paper cut-out heads on sticks, with light bulbs that flashed on to signal when each character was speaking so he could look in the right direction. I would, on the whole, far rather see that version of the scene. Those character designs are not very appealing! Why does only one dwarf bear any resemblance to John Rhys-Davies in LOTR, who had a very detailed and specific and non-Disney look? Why does one dwarf have a bald head with what looks like a bar code on it? One looks like a waxwork of Finlay Currie, one Sean Penn, and several of them have shoelaces for hair. Not a good look.

But the reason I went, and was excited to go, was the 48 frames thing. I’d heard so much about how horrible it was, I couldn’t wait. I couldn’t picture a big expensive epic that moved like a cheap TV show, and I was fascinated to see what that would be like — it was sure to be interesting! I got a lot of intellectual pleasure trying to describe that awful Zemeckis mo-cap BEOWULF, so I just couldn’t wait.

It was indeed a very interesting thing to see. It may have had invisible benefits to action and movement which we’d only be aware of if comparing directly with a 24fps version, but it did some spectacular uglifying. Some people have compared it to cheap soap operas, to demo reels, but what I was reminded of was a making-of documentary. There you see the actors, fully costumed and made up, on set, delivering dialogue — and it’s not the same as the movie, because it’s filmed with the wrong camera, and you don’t feel part of the action the way you do in a film, you feel like an observer on the set. It’s very REAL, for sure, because the sense of cinema is stripped away, but this exposes every bit of artifice in the design and presentation and performance. Even Howard Shore’s music seemed weirdly wrong, as if it was being piped into the hobbit hole.

This applied mainly to the Bag End scene and other conversations. The only acting scene that really worked was the “Riddles in the Dark” confrontation with Gollum, which was great and I think one would have to be pretty curmudgeonly or else just averse to any kind of halfling-based performance piece to dislike. Oh, and Sylvester McCoy was good when he was on his own, acting with CGI hedgehogs.

The long shots looked mostly OK, I thought, and still scenes were fine. The action had a verité feel that made me think something like CLOVERFIELD might be good at 48fps. I wondered if the dragon attack would gain any of the feeling of real disaster footage, like 9:11 or the tsunami, but the swooping filming style didn’t allow for that. There was a very weird clash of feelings when Jackson intercut the big subterranean goblin chase with Bilbo’s one-one-one struggles with Gollum — Gollum’s last sequence had a particularly televisual quality, like a 70s Outside Broadcast Unit section from Dr Who — those plastic-looking caves. And then Gollum would crawl into shot and there’d be the thrill of the impossible — a modern CGI character who couldn’t be played by a man in a suit and who looks very convincing, appearing in the background of a fake cave that looks like part of actuality footage shot forty years ago with a tube camera. Not an effect that I think was intentional, or desirable, except that it was so damned odd it gave me a lot of pleasure.

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

What I’m saying is that although I did get somewhat used to the process over the nearly three hour running time, I was still blown out of the movie by it repeatedly, right up until the end. If the movie had seemed like a masterpiece, that would have been hugely frustrating, but as it was only a middling Middle Earth epic, I was actually entertained by my own on-again-off-again disengagement. I mildly enjoyed the big fight at the end, but not as much as I enjoyed the High Weirdness of megabudget + cheapness. I was a bit frustrated by the lack of wagon wheels, though: apparently at a higher frame rate they not longer seem to turn backwards, as they do at 24fps. Jackson cruelly robbed me of the chance to finally see correct spin.

Remembering the troubles people had with early sound and widescreen, we shouldn’t be too hard on any problems Jackson’s encountering — maybe our eyes will simply retrain our brains and the associations with crappy video will fall away and the merits of the new technology will become obvious. But for now, I say enjoy the weirdness — you won’t have had an experience like this before.

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