Digital Break-Up

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.

5 Responses to “Digital Break-Up”

  1. Nice to see what the REAL Andy Serkis looks like. His wildly overpraised performance is entirely vocal in nature.

  2. And he redubbed it because the live version was thought too hard understand. Gollum is an award-winning character. If he wasn’t a special effect, the actor playing him might well be considered for an Oscar. And I think that’s what’s behind Serkis’ claims of “digital makeup” — the desire to win awards. Understandable, but he should go and do some live action work for a change.

  3. Randy Cook Says:

    We worked like hell getting the lip sync to accurately reflect his vocal performance. Very tight work, and the re-voiced version is a bit, um…looser. The do-over was at New Line’s insistence, after the animation was complete. I am told that deaf lip-readers can understand his performance quite well, and are the only ones who really know what he originally “sounded” like. That may be just a nice story, of course.

  4. It’s a VERY nice story!

  5. […] Cairns posted an interesting article by guest blogger Randall William Cook, which also deals with an issue of performance. Namely Motion […]

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