BAFTA for Acting Innovator working with New Technology

Andy Serkis won a BAFTA this week recognising his revolutionary work combining acting and digital technology, widening “the parameters of what it means to be an actor in the 21st century”. What can innovations in acting teach us about digital disruption in planning?

I’m always on the hunt for examples of how technology is changing work in any and all careers. At this week’s BAFTAs Andy Serkis was recognised with the Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema Award on 2 February – see the BAFTA news release here. In his acceptance speech he talked about how performance capture technology is a great tool for acting in the 21st century and I was interested to find out more.

For those not familiar with him, Andy is the actor behind such iconic digital characters as Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings”, Caesar in “The Planet of the Apes” and Kong in the 2005 “King Kong”. These characters are brought to life via capturing data from sensors fitted to the actor as they perform. The data is then processed to create a digitised version of the performance and is then portrayed on film by a computer generated digital character.  It started with motion capture, focused on the overall movement of the actor however it has now evolved to be known as performance capture as it now better incorporates more nuance within the expressive hands and face of the actor.

Andy is recognised as a pioneer in this performance capture industry but also has had to work hard to get this performance recognised as “proper acting”. Actors were skeptical.  Separating a performance from the actor who created it and applying new appearances to the character before it is displayed to the audience, and doing so divorced from setting, is a fundamental disruption of what it is to be an actor.

This technology does have benefits for the actors. Previously taking on a non-human role such as a fantasy creature or animal was difficult – an actor had to be fitted with heavy prosthetics and make up which could take hours each day. Performance capture offers actors the ability to do away with these discomforts in the physical world and focus on the quality of their performance unhindered (once used to performing in a green body suit covered in sensors of course).

In researching for this post, I found out that Andy has a company making this technology available in other ways, not just for the big Hollywood blockbusters. His company worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company to bring a digital character to life on stage, interacting with the rest of the cast in real time – more on that here. In this production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest the performance capture actor is physically present with the rest of the cast, but the technology is producing the digital character from his performance and this is being projected on stage. Check out a scene from the performance here – it is truly amazing to think human movements are transmitted in real time to that digital character. While it was likely an expensive proof of concept exercise to do this particular performance capture in real time, it does show months of post production time are not necessary any longer.

This ‘real time’ innovation really interests me. In planning we are very far from being able to perform in real time. We make planning documents based on old data and take years to put these plans in place. Is this good enough in our fast paced world? If soon we will be able to create a Gollum or a Kong character to perform live, then surely we can get a little bit closer to real time in our work. Undoubtedly a live performance of motion capture takes a huge amount of preparation, it will never be showing up on the night. What do we have to do to prepare our profession to be able to work closer to real time?

Andy has been willing to blend his capabilities as an actor with new technology to take acting to brand new places. Old assumptions about acting have been challenged and new roads have been forged. This is a great lesson for us all. With all the professions set to be disrupted, taking an optimistic approach to partnering with new technology to deliver new innovations can be really powerful. And result in industry-changing and award-winning innovation.


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