The Herald Bulletin

August 5, 2011

Bremer: Simian surrogates in ‘Apes’ may portend future of human actors

By Heather Bremer
The Herald Bulletin

ANDERSON, Ind. — PETA doesn’t like Hollywood much. The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals object to the use of the Earth’s many critters in films and television.

So it was a bit of a shock when the organization actually came out in support of a film this summer.

PETA has given its seal of approval to today’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” for its use of CGI simians rather than their living counterparts. It even has gone so far as to bestow director Rupert Wyatt with a Proggy Award, which is given to animal-friendly products, people and companies.

“Apes” was able to achieve this feat because of the wizardry of Peter Jackson’s WETA Digital. The special effects gurus used advanced performance-capture technology to turn Andy Serkis into Caesar, the ape responsible for the primates’ uprising. Similar technology was used to transform Serkis into Gollum for the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

Given these advancements and improvements in other forms of computer-generated imagery, it’s possible that the use of real animals in Hollywood is nearing its end. The cost of CGI versus using a living creature will be an obstacle, but as more companies create high-quality CGI work the price will come down. It seems inevitable that temperamental animal actors will go the way of the dodo bird.

But there’s a related question hanging in the hills above Hollywood that frankly terrifies its residents.

Will performance capture and CGI techonology usurp human actors?

We already seen animated characters completely replace human beings in several films. Serkis’ Gollum is just one example.

“Polar Express,” released to much acclaim in 2004, was among the first films to be fully animated using motion capture. “Beowulf” also used the technology, mostly famously turning Angelina Jolie into Grendel’s mother. James Cameron’s “Avatar” turned Zoe Saldana into a blue cat-like creature on a mystical planet. And “The Adventures of Tin Tin,” set for release in December, utilizes motion-capture to animate the performances of Daniel Craig, Simon Pegg, Jamie Bell and Serkis in the “Polar Express” style.

It doesn’t stop at motion-capture either. Directors have used CGI technology to alter actors’ performances in other ways. For example, George Lucas reportedly used CGI to tweak actors’ facial expressions he didn’t like in the “Star Wars” prequels.

So what does this mean for the flesh-and-blood actor?

Well, most certainly there isn’t a rush to motion-capture animate every film. And even for the movies utilizing the technology today, actors are still required to model for and voice the characters. This type of film may even provide more opportunities for voice actors who lack the look of a movie star but can give characters life through vocal performance.

But don’t doubt there aren’t directors out there who would just as soon do away with human actors and the limitations and hassles they bring. Animated versions can be anywhere doing anything without fear of injury of death, voiced by someone who will take a much smaller paycheck.

We the audience, with our fist full of dollar bills, ultimately will determine how outcome of this question. Given the $2.7 billion box-office haul of “Avatar,” we may have already answered.

Contact Heather Bremer: 640-4867 or heather.bremer@heraldbulletin.com