Every year there are plenty of Oscar nomination surprises. In fact, that’s part of what makes covering the Oscars so much fun – thrashing the Academy for all the great movies or performances that were denied. (This year, I’m particularly appalled that Felicity Jones missed out on a Best Actress nod for Like Crazy, and that Take Shelter‘s Michael Shannon did not score a Best Actor spot.) But two of this year’s biggest exclusions point to larger questions that are now confronting the Academy: In an era of increasing motion capture use, what does it mean to animate a film? What counts as a motion capture “performance”?
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Long before the nominations were announced on Jan. 24, two major Oscar campaigns were already well underway – one in support of Steven Spielberg’s motion capture fantasy The Adventures of Tintin, which won the Golden Globe for best animated film, and one on behalf of Andy Serkis, the motion capture virtuoso who breathed life into the primate star of the critically-acclaimed Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Twentieth Century Fox went so far as to take out full-page ads in industry trade papers and to release behind-the-scenes footage of Serkis’ energetic and sophisticated performance on the set in a bid to convince Academy voters that his embodiment of the role was every bit as worthy of consideration as a traditional performance from the likes of Meryl Streep or Brad Pitt.
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But when the Oscars shunned both works it sparked speculation among some observers as to whether cutting-edge projects are now at a disadvantage when trying to woo traditional awards voters. Technically speaking, The Adventures of Tintin may have been eligible for the animated film Oscar, but I am not the only one to wonder whether some voters considered a motion capture project to be inferior to a standard animated production. In reality, of course, the intricacy of Tintin’s 3-D sequences – the attention to detail, the use of color and space, the manipulation of depth and point of view – rivals almost any animated endeavor that I’ve seen, and while motion capture may have aided with character movements, it was the intricacy of the setting and the imagination of the action that I found most impressive.
Still, when a motion capture project helmed by no less than Steven Spielberg is denied recognition, it leads one to ponder just what Oscar voters are looking for. Much was written a year ago, when the Academy tweaked the animation rules to address the motion capture issue – partly in a bid to clarify whether Avatar could register as an animated work. But now after the Tintin kerfuffle, the issue is sure to become even thornier.
The oversight with far broader implications might be Serkis. Almost anyone who sees “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” walks away in awe of what Serkis accomplishes here. Giving shape and heart to Caesar, the ape who leads the film’s primate insurrection, Serkis goes well beyond what he did as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings to create a body language and personality that carries the film. In the second half of the story, as James Franco all but disappears from the proceedings, Caesar steps forward as the film’s engaging and empathetic hero, and there are lengthy sequences where he alone steers the action.
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One corner of Hollywood clamored for Serkis (who also portrayed one of the central characters in Tintin) to get a nomination. There are those out there — including James Franco, who penned a supportive essay — who see Serkis’ motion capture technique as the future of Hollywood. Much as Zoe Saldana did when she brought Neytiri to life in Avatar, Serkis instills Caesar with the individual quirks and emotional complexities that are present in all great performances. And yet it’s obvious that many Academy voters just don’t see a motion capture performer like Serkis, who is later augmented by computer graphics and digital skin, as a conventional leading man.
It’s a shame, because I fail to see what’s inferior about Serkis’ approach. It’s true that, as Caesar, we are not seeing his real face or his actual body, but as we’ve seen so often with Oscar-nominated roles (The Iron Lady, Monster, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), makeup and prosthetics can go a long way towards manipulating an actor’s everyday appearance. Does Serkis speak in “Apes”? No, but his physical movements and emotional projections are every bit as nuanced and effective as what we see from Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo — both nominated for Oscars this year for their work in the silent film The Artist. I keep comparing Serkis’ Caesar to Samantha Morton’s Hattie in Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown. Playing a mute woman, Morton relies almost entirely on her physicality and facial expressions to create the full range of her character, and the Academy rewarded her with a Best Actress nomination. Apart from a layer of digital skin that was added later by computers, there is nothing different between Serkis’ commanding of the screen and Morton’s.
The two biggest Oscar disses of 2012 leads one to call the true values of the Academy into question. Is the priority here to acknowledge the performers and the films that are pushing the boundaries and advancing the art form? Or is all this pageantry more about protecting the status quo?
Steven James Snyder is a Senior Editor at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @thesnydes. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page, on Twitter at @TIME and on TIME’s Tumblr.