Last December, New Line Cinema launched an extensive, though ultimately unsuccessful, campaign to have Andy Serkis nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his remarkable performance as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. In the end, the Gollum character was instead recognized with an Academy Award for Achievement in Visual Effects, suggesting Hollywood’s uncertainty about synthespians.
What, you ask, is a synthespian?
The word has been circulating in Hollywood circles for more than a decade to describe digitally-generated characters, ranging from Shrek, star of a computer animated movie, to Jar Jar Binks, cast alongside live action performers, to the huddled masses in Gangs of New York who were, in fact, digital extras.
In some cases, the synthespians are totally synthetic. In others, the initial character template is generated through motion capture and then enhanced in the lab. This ability to create the semblance of life through purely artificial means has become a new kind of Turing Test by which computer modelers and AI specialists hone and measure their skills. The technicians are working towards what they see as the inevitable moment when a synthetic character can appear alongside a human actor and leave people scratching their heads trying to decide which is which.
Of course, no real confusion is likely when consumers avidly seek behind-the-scenes information about special effects and producers are keen to crow about their latest technical breakthroughs. In the short term, synthespians are used more often to impress us with their creators’ virtuosity than to confuse us about the line between reality and fantasy. Simone, a recent fantasy film about the world’s first computer generated celebrity, reversed this process, showing that supermodels are almost indistinguishable from synthespians.
All of this bold talk within the special effects industry has led to some frankly silly speculation about digital actors ultimately displacing flesh and blood performers, a nightmare for actors who worry about mechanization at last entering the performing arts and taking away their jobs. Let’s have a reality check, folks: right now, synthespians are an extremely costly and laborious means of creating extremely wooden performances. If all you want is an automaton, wouldn’t it be easier just to hire William Shatner?
So far, characters like Jar Jar Binks or Scooby Doo look on screen like what they are-cartoon characters. Lucas’s inclusion of Jar Jar Binks in the Star Wars films was an aesthetic failure that went well beyond the limitations of the computer modeling work. Jar Jar didn’t belong in the same reality as the other characters.
Filmmakers can produce images that look almost photorealistic at this point. But once animated, those images do not yet convey the nuances of human expression. Paradoxically, the closer digital designers get to achieving photorealism, the more conscious we become of the limitations of computer modeling. For all of the focus on the hair texture and skin pores in the video game-based movie Final Fantasy, the characters still looked like marionettes-Pinocchio remained a few painful steps away from becoming a real boy. The problem is amplified by the tendency to mix pure computer modeling with motion capture footage, so that a character might have very expressive hand gestures for one shot and then seem totally stiff in the next-as if the hands of a drag queen had been grafted onto the body of a manikin.
By contrast, New York University’s Ken Perlin has achieved stunning results in expanding the expressive potential of computer generated characters by reducing them essentially to stick figures and then examining more systematically the basic building blocks of gesture and movement. No one would confuse the resulting characters for human beings but they do convey something of human personality.
The most compelling use of synthespians to date has been Andy Serkis’s Gollum. This has less to do with technical breakthroughs than with a re-conceptualization of how synthetic performances might be constructed. Serkis is a gifted Shakespearean actor. He knows how to use his voice to convey the different personalities of the characters Smeagol and Gollum with at least as much nuance as Nicholas Cage brought to the brothers Kaufman in Adaptation. He physically performed every scene on set alongside the other actors. Digital effects were layered over his body to alter his appearance. In this case, the digital effects expanded the real actor’s expressive potential, building on his actual mannerism and gestures. As the film’s director Peter Jackson explains, “There was one person, an experienced, skilled actor, making all of the decisions on behalf of Gollum. [Andy] would decide how Gollum would move, how he would act, what emotion he would have, what pauses he would put where, what weight he’d put into a particular scene-just as any actor would be doing for their characters.”
Here, the synthespian is less an android, an attempt to create a machine which mimics human movement and appearance, and more of a cyborg, that is, a complex hybrid of man and technology which can achieve something neither can do on its own.
And this hybrid form is ideally suited for the Gollum, a character who has been worn down and debased by his fixation on his “precious” ring into something less than human (or hobbit). Serkis’s eyes, gestures, and voice made us care deeply about the character and his inner struggles, whereas the digital manipulations enabled us to see him slither along the ground or lope from rock to rock in ways that it would be impossible for a purely human actor to duplicate. There is a compelling fit between the themes Gollum expresses in Tolkien’s narrative and the technical means by which Peter Jackson achieved this effect.
One might draw an analogy between Serkis’s digital transformation and Nicole Kidman’s fake nose in The Hours, or Salma Hayek’s unibrow in Frida-effects that allowed the actresses to shed their glamour and focus attention on the inner life of their characters. What is striking, however, is the disparity of awards: Kidman’s Virginia Wolf won best actress; Hayek’s Frida Kahlo won best makeup; and Serkis’s Gollum won best visual effects. While each emerged from collaborations between actors and technical artists, something more than impersonation was required. Altering their physical appearance allowed the audience to move past the first hurdle towards willing suspension of disbelief, but it was the emotive and expressive dimensions of the performance that made these characters compelling.
I am reminded of a truly moronic review of Saving Private Ryan, which proclaimed that “for once, here was a summer film which didn’t depend at all on special effects.” Clearly, the film was dependent on special effects in almost every frame to enhance our immersive experience of battling across the beaches at Normandy. Somehow, once the special effects fit seamlessly into the film’s aesthetic, the critic stopped seeing them as special effects. One wonders more generally why critics speak about an over-reliance on special effects in a way that they would not speak of an over-reliance on camerawork or acting.
Accomplishments in special effects are as worthy of respect as accomplishment in any other branch of motion picture arts. Special effects can be the dominant aspect of a film’s aesthetic or recede from view, but what matters is that they be organic to the look and feel the movie is trying to achieve.
The newness of special effects technology makes us hypersensitive to its use. Some filmmakers fall back on CGI as a substitute for the hard work of constructing compelling plots or presenting emotionally engaging characters. Lucas thought, for example, that extraordinary digital effects would make us forget that Hayden Christensen can’t act well enough to convey the complex emotional path that transforms Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader. It didn’t work.
To some degree, the fixation on creating a synthetic character that can pass as human falls into this same trap-technology for technology’s sake rather than technology in the service of artistic expression. The development of more characters like Gollum and more collaboration with actors like Andy Serkis will do more to promote the art of digital animation than a thousand Final Fantasy movies.