By Nick Maylor
Performance-capture technology has made limitless, the characters, creatures, monsters and gods that an actor can portray via authentic physical performance. Andy Serkis has pioneered this technology and appears several times on this list. This should be a surprise to no one. Basically, performance-capture is like digital makeup, allowing actors to portray characters with vastly different physical dimensions and body plans. While some are yet to recognize these performances genuine enough for Academy Awards consideration, the results speak for themselves as some genuinely amazing characters have been portrayed via this technology.
Here is my list of the top ten performance-capture roles in movies.
10. James Spader in AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (2015)
In Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), filmmaker Joss Whedon was intent on having an actor do a real performance as the titular psychotic robot. Whedon’s only choice for the role was James Spader. His towering voice and sarcastic presence is evident in every frame we get of the highly emotive android and Whedon’s gut instinct proved insightful as the result clearly shows Spader was having a blast making the film.
9. Jim Carrey in A CHRISTMAS CAROL (2009)
Jim Carrey isn’t the quintessential Ebenezer Scrooge but his work on Robert Zemeckis’ adaptation of A Christmas Carol (2009) deserves recognition purely for the scope of Carrey’s work. Not only does he play the miserly protagonist (at several ages) he also plays each of the ghosts haunting Scrooge during his fateful night. The ghosts of Christmas past, present and future channel everything from childlike innocence, the jovial laugh of Santa Claus and the spectre of death in the grim reaper. Carrey committed fully to the process and delivers multiple impressive performances in the film.
8. Christian Bale in MOWGLI: LEGEND OF THE JUNGLE (2018)
In the lesser-known modern adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, Christian Bale portrays the gentle ferocity of the panther Bagheera. Speaking with a voice like honey, Bale’s Bagheera steals the show in this impressive feature directed by (and co-starring) Andy Serkis. Another example of an actor committing themselves fully to the process of mo-cap and delivering a remarkable performance in the result.
7. Taiki Waititi in THOR: RAGNAROK (2017)
With Thor: Ragnarok (2017), Taika Waititi gave us something special in the form of a great movie and a total reinvention of the Thor character and franchise. What we didn’t expect what for Waititi to steal the show with his portrayal of Korg, an alien made out of rock. Waititi is simply hilarious as the gentle monster and the Russo Brothers were wise to include more of him in Avengers: Endgame (2019)
6. Mark Ruffalo in AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019)
Ever since Mark Ruffalo was cast as Bruce Banner/The Hulk, he clearly wanted to give himself over to the mo-cap process. Andy Serkis was hired as a consultant (and given a supporting role) in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) coached Ruffalo on the process. Over several films, Ruffalo was able to dive deeper into the big green monster with minor speaking parts in Thor: Ragnarok (2017) as the brutish Hulk and finally, a fully emotive performance as “Smart Hulk” in Avengers: Endgame (2019). By 2019, mo-cap had become so good that even though we were looking at the Hulk, every inch of the character was clearly that of actor Mark Ruffalo
5. Josh Brolin in AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018)/AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019)
Having been teased since The Avengers (2012) the mad titan Thanos was first performed by Josh Brolin in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) in a cameo role. It wasn’t until Avengers: Infinity War (2018) that we got to fully explore Thanos. He turned out to be that film’s main character in a movie loaded with players. By the time Avengers: Endgame was released, Thanos had been elevated to worthy status as the most ambitious and formidable villain in comic-book movie history. Brolin fleshed out an empathetic genocidal maniac, no easy task
4. Benedict Cumberbatch in THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG (2013)
Benedict Cumberbatch got down on all fours and fully surrendered to this project when he provided performance-capture for Smaug, a massive dragon that encounters the titular hobbit in a masterful scene. Having the massive creature speak telepathically to Bilbo (Martin Freeman) was considered until Cumberbatch’s sublime delivery proved believable when Smaug’s moving lips suited the insidious villain’s character perfectly and the famous scene was born.
3. Andy Serkis in THE LORD OF THE RINGS (2001-2003)
The role that started everything in the world of performance-capture was originally set to be a 2-week voice-role for Andy Serkis. Instead, he spent years working on the character (complete with split-personalities) and gave us one of the most engaging and memorable creations in modern cinematic history. This was only the first of several times the Academy would ignore the actor’s worthy work as the remainder of our list will demonstrate.
2. Andy Serkis in KING KONG (2005)
Andy Serkis was already a trailblazer for this technology after his work on The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2011-2003) but he took it to an entirely new level with his work in King Kong (2005). Taking what had essentially been a mindless special effect and making it into a fully fleshed-out character was only made possible because of Serkis’ work. The scenes where Kong laughs and is playful with Ann (Naomi Watts) are the best examples of this effect. Acting like a spoiled child, Serkis’ Kong goes through a series of emotions and personality traits that were far beyond what any mere CGI would have produced. By the time Kong falls we are heartbroken because, like Ann, we have fallen in love with him.
1. Andy Serkis in PLANET OF THE APES (2011-2017)
Caesar is my favourite film character of the last decade. Portrayed by our champion mo-cap legend (and possibly the greatest working actor) Andy Serkis. In Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), Caesar is virtually silent, communicating predominantly through sign language and of course, Serkis’ brilliant performance of the chimp during his early years to the cusp of adulthood. In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), Caesar is a mature, political and social leader who finds himself on the brink of war between two worlds. Serkis should have been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for this role. He is (in my estimate) every bit as good as Daniel Day-Lewis was in Lincoln (2012). The two characters also share many characteristics. By the time of War for the Planet of the Apes (2017), Caesar is wise beyond his years and speaks confidently. The evolution of the character over his entire life time is the finest work of Andy Serkis’ cast and impressive career. It worthily tops my list of the greatest motion-capture performances in film history.
Nick is an actor/writer/comedian/musician from Hamilton, ON Canada. Having been a film nut since the early days of his life, Nick has had an obsession with cinema and popular entertainment. Nick has written for thecinemaholic.com and is the current Foote & Friends “expert” on all things geek/superhero/comic-book related. Nick is the host/producer of the official Foote & Friends On Film podcast. Nick met John when studying acting at the Toronto Film School, for which John H. Foote was director and Film History professor. The two have been arguing ever since.
Follow Nick on Twitter @NickMaylor