Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Animation principles haven't tended to get a lot of play in CG blockbusters. There's an ever-present sense of restraint. Nobody wants their robots or their dinosaurs slipping into capering, so movement and expression are kept rather routine. There's an inbuilt critical backlash too. Any film that spends too much time with the effects tends to get labelled as a video game - the vulgar other that most people don't even consider a worthwhile artform. So what should cinema aspire to? Three people bickering in a small room? Why are dynamics so looked down upon? Surely as a visual medium there should be space in the canon for spiky things moving incredibly fast?

Despite his assertions to the contrary, Andy Serkis' motion capture acting has ended up being a vessel for smuggling sustained computer generated animation into mainstream films. As a credible human actor Serkis has become the poster boy for acceptable simulated excess. His loud boasting, coupled with the inherent critical safety his thesp credentials offer, has allowed a feature creep. Films like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes hinge on a lot of time being spent with textured 3D models. Press releases tell us they're just visual approximations of physical on set acting, but it's obvious there's a lot more to it than that. Scour any article in which Serkis evangelises about mo-cap and you'll find a string of animators in the comments section casually chatting about how much, or how little, of his performance they ended up using when constructing their passes.

Serkis has then allowed filmmaking and animation to intermingle at a conceptual level. Films no longer need to stop dead for special effects sequences, the entire film can be one. The apes in Dawn and Rise of the Planet of the Apes inspire a genuine sense of wonder. Higher primates are always fascinating but seeing them act with clear, dramatically delineated agendas is spellbinding. If either film has a fault it's that the human story never grabs the attention in the same way as Caesar's. How could it though? What actor could possibly be as interesting as a photorealistic Chimp that's monarchy personified one minute, extreme personal threat the next? Ralph Fiennes came close recently with a similar kind of performance in The Grand Budapest Hotel, but that film didn't spend actual minutes gazing lovingly at Fiennes while he drew his muscled body up to its maximum height.

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